How can partnerships prosper in a competitive system?

New research highlights how local collaborations can work for all students in spite of competition and fragmentation, explain Mel Ainscow and Paul Armstrong

New research highlights how local collaborations can work for all students in spite of competition and fragmentation, explain Mel Ainscow and Paul Armstrong

24 Apr 2023, 5:00

The English school system is producing more and more losers. Indeed, the number of children and young people excluded from schools or placed in segregated provision is increasing again after a pandemic lull. Within a policy context that places so much emphasis on competition, there is a sad inevitability about this situation: the creation of winners means that there will inevitably be those that lose out. Our school system, those that lead and teach within it, and the young people it serves, deserve better.

We have long argued that an approach based on the UNESCO mantra that ‘every learner matters and matters equally’ is necessary to address this challenge. This also builds on the OECD’s view that equity is the pathway to excellence.

Our research team at the University of Manchester has recently carried out a study on behalf of the Staff College that points to a possible way forward. This involves area partnerships that combine competition, collaboration and contextually-informed accountability.

The study analysed a series of well-established partnerships in different parts of the country. All of them involve headteachers – including senior staff from MATs – taking on system leadership roles. Local authority involvement in the partnerships varies across the sample, with some leading and orchestrating the partnership, others working as joint partners with schools and some having no role whatsoever.

In the most effective of the examples, it was evident that the partnerships were guided by a strong commitment to equity, underpinned by context-informed decision making at the local level. These developments build on earlier research which suggests that collaboration between schools has enormous potential for fostering the capacity of education systems to respond to learner diversity.

Moreover, such partnerships can help reduce the polarisation of schools within a local area, to the particular benefit of those pupils who are marginalised at the edges of the system and whose progress is a cause for concern.

The most effective partnerships were guided by a strong commitment to equity

The report offers reasons to be optimistic. Despite the competitive atmosphere that permeates our education system and the fragmentation that this has encouraged, there remains a strong appetite in the field to engage in collaboration. Indeed, several new area partnerships have emerged in recent months. It is significant, too, that many experienced school leaders – including CEOs of MATs – are motivated to take on leadership roles that take them beyond their duties within their own institutions.

That said, although the examples we have examined are fulfilling an important means of encouraging mutual support, there is less evidence that they are making direct contributions to changes in practice that address the barriers faced by many young people. Where we saw evidence of this beginning to happen, a common set of factors were in place.

Most important of these is the use of available statistical evidence to identify concerns such as poor attendance, increased level of exclusions, and dips in outcomes as determined by results in test and examinations. However, what made these data more powerful was when, as a result of the partnership structures, local practitioners were able to provide an informed interpretation to guide the actions that were taken.

The findings lead us to propose a system of evidence-based professional accountability, coordinated at the local area level. This implies a move away from a heavy reliance on external accountability towards an investment in the professional capital of teachers and school leaders. However, this has to be challenging and credible. In other words, it must not involve forms of collusion within which partners endorse one another in an acceptance of mediocrity.

The implication of these proposals is that the national system of inspection needs to be redesigned as a means of moderating local accountability procedures. At the same time, inspectors will be in a position to develop links between area partnerships so that they can learn from one another’s experiences.

There is no doubt that schools should be held accountable. Adopting an area-based approach would allow the process to be informed directly by those closest to practice.

Read Turning the tide: A study of place-based school partnerships in full here

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One comment

  1. Paul Luxmoore

    Shouldn’t this be the purpose of local MATs – providing compulsory collective responsibility for all children, using collaboration as the key tool to deliver this?