The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Inter-School Collaboration

John O'Neill
Massey University, New Zealand


Restructuring or self management is a comparatively recent and novel experience for most high schools. This article presents evidence from a small scale exploratory study in England that looks at how two groups of schools have begun to cope with the effects of restructuring by networking. the two groups are each a mixture of elementary, junior and senior high schools. The article examines how the schools have chosen to establish a 'learning network' and collaborate rather than compete with each other. Two key purposes of collaboration are identified:enhancing the quality of teaching and learning and supporting administration and maintenance. The author suggests that the model offers a cost effective, education-driven way in which high schools might organise for learning in the future.

Collaboration for the purposes of improving teaching and learning is potentially a very threatening, time consuming, and energy sapping form of self development. Teachers collaborate successfully only occasionally. There are even fewer documented instances of institutions doing so in a purposeful and productive manner. In this paper I want to examine one largely unanticipated by-product of recent school restructuring in England and argue that collaboration will help high schools shape their future in a turbulent world.

During the 1980s and 1990s, successive Conservative administrations have engineered a move towards a "managed market" system of autonomous schools and colleges. At the same time, they have severely circumscribed the powers and influence of the locally elected education authorities (LEAs) that had hitherto organized and supported the development of educational provision for schools in a given area. Despite the pressures now placed upon schools to compete with one another for students in order to survive, there is increasing evidence of schools going in the opposite direction and developing local networks to fill some of the vacuum created by the demise of their LEA. This paper outlines some of the early moves made by two such networks (each of about 20 schools) in one LEA (of several hundred schools) in England. It should be noted, however, that since I have begun to talk with colleagues and document the development of such networks, many variations on the theme have been brought to my attention: variations of size and organization, of focus and degree of formality.

The most captivating facets of this development for me lie in the notion that it is driven by the schools and colleges themselves; focused on issues to do with the quality of teaching and learning; and organized according to the needs and priorities of the participants.

The approach merits widespread dissemination for these reasons alone. However, with the world-wide 'megatrend' (Caldwell and Spinks, 1992) towards school autonomy, the issues appear highly relevant to the high schools of the future in the US. The prospect of developing true learning networks (Goddard and Clinton, 1994) that transcend institutional boundaries and help overcome the short-termism of many national educational policy initiatives, to my mind constitutes a clear signpost for high school principals as they either tip-toe hesitantly or stride out confidently to greet the millennium.

Background to School Autonomy

Since 1988 the educational map in the UK has changed beyond recognition. Successive rafts of legislation from central government have consigned schools and colleges to a roller-coaster ride type existence, at the same time both exhilarating and stomach churning. Ultimately, though, the journey may prove a fairly pointless exercise, for although there are plenty of white-knuckle thrills for the willing passengers, those of a weaker disposition will feel incapable of doing anything but hanging on and hoping that the ride will soon end. We might be able to justify such results when a minute's fairground ride is on offer; it's rather more difficult to accept when we are talking about children's learning.

In the real world the roller coaster returns to the point of departure and passengers disembark, some elated others not, and go on their way. In education, that is no longer an option; the ride goes on and on and schools and colleges need to find ways to cope with the ambiguous and turbulent environment in which they exist.

The current situation in England and Wales is well captured in Carlson's (1975) distinction between domestic and wild organizations. Schools and colleges have moved from the domestic comfort of having their needs decided and resources provided for them by the LEA to a wild situation in which they must attract students in order to secure resources. Equally, while the government has provided a compulsory curriculum framework overloaded with content, schools and colleges are free to decide how they wish to interpret and deliver the formal curriculum. Prior to 1988, schools and colleges enjoyed ready access to a range of curriculum and management support services provided centrally by each LEA. Since 1988 legislation has required LEAs to move their support services onto a trading agency basis and to hawk their wares to institutions who are now free to purchase, if they can afford it, such services as payroll, equipment, personnel, maintenance, legal advice, curriculum support, in-service training, administration systems support, etc., where they wish. Early evidence suggests that elementary schools have tended to opt rather more cautiously for sliding-scale service agreements with their LEAs whereas high schools are more adventurous. Because of their larger budgets, they are more able and willing to negotiate flexible and advantageous contracts for the delivery of most items of expenditure, from capital building projects to a discounted price for their electric power.

The discussion below shows how the schools and colleges in the study have begun to work together and their perceptions of the advantages that may accompany closer working arrangements. Two main areas of activity are identified : support for teaching and learning, and support for administration and maintenance.

Two Variants on School Collaboration

The term used to describe their local network by the two respondents in their interviews was Development Group (DG). This is a throwback to the time several years earlier when the LEA was divided for development work purposes, on a geographical basis, into more than 20 groups of up to 25 schools each. Each DG was provided with an LEA-appointed advisory teacher to support curriculum initiatives within the schools. Each DG was also given a pot of money to support in-service work generally and some to allow school principals time for meeting each other.

In this study, DG1 comprises 17 schools: two senior high schools, several junior highs and the remainder elementary schools. DG1 is a recent amalgamation of two LEA-structured development groups and is located in two adjoining coal mining communities in a mixed urban/rural LEA. The DG has a growing influence on the work of the schools within it.

DG2 is made up of 19 schools in one self contained town of 50,000 people in the same LEA. Traditionally, the town has been regarded as a self-contained and self-sufficient community with a strong sense of family. In the DG, there is one large senior high school (1,500 students), a small number of junior high schools, and the remainder elementary institutions. DG2 has evolved rapidly and reflects the united, family identity of the town as a whole.

Collaboration for Teaching and Learning

The respondent in DG1 cited the original LEA aims for the group: to promote collaborative INSET work and curriculum development across a range of subjects in all ages (i.e. pre-school to tertiary education). She also identified the objective of providing school principals with the encouragement to collaborate rather than to compete with each other.

The DG2 respondent echoed those sentiments. Being a recently appointed principal, she admitted she was at first not completely attuned to the rhetoric of DG2's mission statement, but commented favorably on the fact that money was now going into curriculum support groups: "not just self-help blind leading the blind after school sessions; they're actually doing something now."

The DG2 respondent focused in on this teaching and learning element and suggested that previously there had been some complaints within the group that money was being spent on administration of the DG with little to show for it. In the last year this had changed considerably: "for example the physical education (PE) group decided that they wouldn't buy things, they'd actually buy expertise, so they bought in the PE adviser who gave them a whole day on writing and preparing PE policies and discussing schemes of work, and those teachers came back thinking that really was very good."

In DG1 and DG2 both respondents talked about the importance of making it something teachers felt in charge of which hadn't happened in the past.

In both DG1 and DG2 there was a rolling program of curriculum development priorities. These were serviced by standing curriculum groups that would produce skeletal guidelines for consideration by all teachers within the group. In many cases the curriculum groups comprised teachers from all phases (i.e., K-12). This was felt to be important, as the buzzwords that characterized both respondents' perspectives were "progression" and "continuity" in learning: the need to ensure common approaches wherever possible and the advoidance of duplication or omissions in curriculum coverage.

Equally, in both groups there was a management or steering group made up largely of principals from the schools. With regard to teaching and learning issues, they tended to take a macro-perspective, concerned that issues such as record-keeping and assessment should be addressed, and they were also concerned that all this activity should demonstrate value for money and a pay-off in the classroom. As the DG1 respondent observed:

    Because development groups are I think fairly new, there's no monitoring and evaluation of what happens when say the science group have done a report: if they've done their work, we've paid for it; then that is supposed to come back to schools, cascade and be used. What we don't have is a system for checking how efficiently, if at all, it is cascading or it's being used or of what value these things are.

This last point illustrates one substantive difference between DG1 and DG2: in the former, the talk was of evaluation of work done by groups; in the latter the emphasis was much more on opportunities for talk and problem-sharing by teachers, rather than accountability for what they did.

The difference is evident also in the way in which staff were chosen to support the work of the curriculum groups. In DG1 the group decided to retain the services of their former LEA-appointed advisory teacher, because she was felt to have expertise across the curriculum and, more importantly, credibility with classroom teachers. Her brief was to work solely on teaching and learning issues. In the future, it was envisaged that her role would develop to include classroom-based observation and evaluation.

In contrast, DG2 had appointed a network manager to liaise with and service all the functioning groups to make sure they were operating effectively, but, unlike DG1, not to lead or support action-research by teachers. In addition, DG2 had an information technology (IT) specialist who serviced the information technology needs of all the schools within the group.

To summarize this aspect of activity in both groups, the respondents saw great benefit in enabling teachers to come together within the group, to share problems and concerns, and to develop and experiment with common approaches across schools and age groups. This took place on a rolling basis in all aspects of the curriculum. In one group, however, there was a much stronger emphasis on tangible evidence of changes in classroom practice as a result of the activities undertaken.

Support for Administration and Maintenance

The other major strand of activity in both groups concerned the managerial or administrative process. Both respondents emphasized the benefits provided by economy of scale. Small organizations operating in isolation were unlikely to be able to greatly influence external providers or suppliers of services. Large organizations could share expertise on issues as diverse as grounds maintenance, pay policy, and insurance issues and could lever better terms and conditions from prospective providers. The DG1 respondent suggested the main activity of the principals' group in the medium term was going to be at service agreements: "Things like buying in special-needs teaching which could be quite useful because it would be across a group of schools, which would mean then continuity when they go to their next school."

This was echoed by the respondent in DG2. She, however, emphasized the fact that the LEA was more likely to be concerned by, and pay attention to, a voice from a larger coalition: "We're a big enough group to demand that people from County Hall do what we want and come up with the level of service that we want."

On the same issue, she acknowledged that the strength of the group lay in its collective expertise. As an individual principal, she was unlikely to have a detailed grasp of all the issues which she was required to manage, but there was every chance that someone else within the group would have and would be prepared to share that expertise.

Finally, both respondents acknowledged and were grateful for the amount of direct influence exerted by individual schools on the direction taken by the DG as a whole. In contrast with the old LEA arrangements, the development plan for the group was now drawn up and driven by the schools themselves:

    As (principals), they're there because of the need to achieve consensus. I don't think it would be fair to say, well I actually don't agree with this bit, when you're going in on all the others. But we would be committed to trying to come to some agreement.

In short, the advantages of being the group were the strengths brought about by size, the commonality of purpose, and the access to a forum where issues could be talked through and resolved collaboratively. That is not to say that there were no difficulties or tensions within both groups. These did exist. Nevertheless, both respondents emphasized the benefit of belonging to an active forum in which common concerns and priorities were dealt with by the participants themselves.

Conclusion: Why Collaborate?

As an outsider, I got the strong sense that these groups felt they were pulling the strings and setting their own agenda rather than being jerked around according to the whim of someone else. By working collaboratively, they could decide on common priorities and pool resources in terms of time, energy, and expertise, for the benefit of all group members: teachers and administrators alike. In the last resort, the test of the value of groups such as these is their effect on teaching and learning quality. Throughout these interviews, there was an emphasis on developing best practice for the benefit of students:

    It seems to me that it's almost like the net under the trapeze that we're actually working towards so that if a child were transferred say between schools there would be a commonality of approach. The structure would be there for them, it wouldn't be too idiosyncratic. (DG2)

The lesson for high school principals of the future may well be simply that collaboration between and amongst institutions mitigates some of the worst effects of your being on the educational roller-coaster. For all the anxiety and discomfort, at least you know that you and your colleagues have devised some sort of practicable safety net-just in case.


Caldwell, B. and Spinks, J. (1992). Leading the self-managing school. Lewes (GB): Falmer Press.

Carlson, R. O. (1975). Environmental constraints and organizational consequences: The public school and its clients. In J. V. Baldridge and T. V. Deal (Eds.) Managing change in education (pp. 187-200). Berkeley: McCutchan.

Goddard, D. and Clinton, B. (1994). Learning networks. In S. Ranson and J. Tomlinson (Eds.) School co-operation: New forms of local governance (pp. 55-65). Harlow: Longman.

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