Collaboration: It doesn’t happen by magic

18th July 2014

Why collaborate?
The obvious reason is to learn from each other’s strengths and expertise but what struck during our research on what happened in London, was the role networks and collaboration played in creating a ‘sense of possibility’

West argues that:

‘When schools seek to develop more collaborative ways of working, this can have an impact on how teachers perceive themselves and their work. Specifically, comparisons of practice can lead teachers to view underachieving students in a new light’ (West 2010; 106)

He goes on to argue that this change is ‘unlikely to occur without some exposure to what teaching actually looks like when it is being done differently.’  The importance of ‘seeing it happen’ was emphasised by many of the people we interviewed for “Lessons from London Schools” and this was helped by the ‘Families of School Data’. Interviewees recounted how teachers had changed their expectations as a result of exposure to contrasting practice:

‘One teacher had) been on the Improving Teacher programme, but she’d also had a coach from that school who came into her school, and she said the real thing was seeing this person teaching her class, because it’s so easy to say ‘oh well it works there but it wouldn’t work with my kids’. And seeing it work with her kids, and seeing that her six-year-olds could write at length and be excited about it, had made her excited about it, and so she was now excited about teaching

… which all sounds great, but it’s not necessarily easy to make collaboration happen.

How to build partnerships
The National Audit Office 2010 estimates that from 2007, around £812.6 million was spent on ‘school improvement programmes featuring ‘partnering methods’ and which aimed at improving attainment and behaviour among 11-14 year olds (NAO 2010: 10). Yet Lima points out that:

‘Despite their growing prevalence, networks have become popular mainly because of faith and fads, rather than solid evidence on their benefits or rigorous analyses of their characteristics, substance and form’(Lima, 2010: 2)

Indeed Kilduff and Tsai and West also argue that there is reason to be sceptical of networks as a panacea for schools’ ills:

Being a member of a network is not, by itself, a sufficient condition to generate changes in how a teacher or a school approaches and deals with teaching and learning: a network can often operate in an uncoordinated and incoherent fashion and its activity may be weakly related to the core of classroom life.’

So what makes for an effective partnership? Lima argues the most effective networks have four key features:

‘Network change is driven primarily by goal directedness. Network participants see themselves as part of a whole and are committed to clear and specific network-level goals. All relations between network members are structured in order to achieve these goals. Usually, an administrative entity (a steering committee, a coordinating council, a leadership team, or the like) is formed and endowed with the function of planning and coordinating the activities of the network as a whole’ (Lima, 2010: 10)

The networks that were built up through London Challenge absolutely fit with Lima’s four characteristics:

1. Part of a whole: Schools were ‘London schools’, with ‘London pupils’ and ‘London teachers’ taking on the ‘London Challenge’. Head Teacher Joan McVittie has described how at national conferences “you will very often get a reference to ‘that band of London heads”.’ She argues that this was not previously the case and has changed over the last decade.

2. A clear and specific goal: Schools were united around the clear goal of breaking the link between poverty and poor outcomes and making education in London the best in the world. These were goals that teachers and leaders could get behind because they tapped into the reasons why many joined the profession.

3. Relationships structured around goals: There was recognition that careful pairing of schools was important (Ainscow, 2012: 299). Pairings needed to take into account schools’ context, where they were on the school improvement journey and the personalities of the leaders involved (Poet and Kettlewell, 2011: 16). Skilled challenge advisors and Local Authority staff helped to do this and families of schools data helped ensure appropriate pairings.

4. Planned and co-ordinated activity: An exceptional leadership team drove the process and provided the logistical infrastructure to take the weight off individual schools. Hutchings describes the City Challenges’ central co-ordinating team as one of its ‘most effective elements’ (2013a: 5) and emphasises that schools tend to lack the capacity and bureaucratic infrastructure to manage networks. By providing this centrally the ‘cost’ of collaboration was reduced.

Networks and collaboration will not happen by magic. If collaboration in education is to become the norm it is worth learning lessons both from the academic literature and how the theory has played out in practice.


More London Blogs:

How London learned from its teacher shortage

Professional development and professionalism: The symbolic value of CPD

Show me the money: Was London’s success all about the extra money? 

More than the sum of its parts: How London’s boroughs helped drive success

London Schools: Now we have a full(er) picture


‘Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success’ is a Centre for London and CfBT report and we are grateful to both organisations for giving us the opportunity to carry out an in depth study of this crucial topic.


The views in this blog are my own and whilst my analysis is predominantly based on the CfL/CfBT reports, not all the data I have presented here is necessarily in the report.