“The most valuable resource that teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” Robert John Meehan
This is one of my favourite educational quotes. I believe that teachers flourish by working collaboratively and that this collaboration is most powerful when not restricted to a single school. Achieving this isn’t always easy to sustain in a changing educational landscape. A few years ago I ran a conference workshop on partnership working. It was well-attended, but there was a wide range of experience within the group. There were leaders from schools in successful partnerships but in areas facing falling rolls and finding themselves competing for pupils with partner schools in the local area. Others were keen to work in partnership, but felt isolated either by geography, or because other local schools had their own priorities. Some were exploring how existing partnerships could work when member schools were now becoming members of different academy groups or sponsors. Perhaps it has always been true that when schools work together it is in a state of ‘coopertition’, but the concerns expressed in the workshop, by colleagues interested in partnership, seemed to underline new challenges.
I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years. This post is about some of the benefits from partnerships I have been involved in over the last couple of years.
OXFORD EAST PARTNERSHIP
The Oxford East Partnership (OEP) is made up of eight primary schools (some of which also have nursery provision) an all-through school and a secondary school serving the same area of Oxford City. Since it’s formation, several schools have become academies, a new free primary school has joined, and one secondary has become an all-through school. Sadly a local children’s centre closed last year as the result of cuts to local authority funding. Throughout these changes, the shared rationale for the partnership has remained constant. it is summarised in the OEP Vision statement:
All schools in the Partnership will work together to secure better outcomes for all members of our community in East Oxford and Cowley by:
- Raising achievement of all children to improve life chances
- Engaging families
- Promoting community engagement
- Celebrating and embracing cultural diversity
OEP aims to serve the children and families in the local area, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged wards in the county. It originally received funding from the local authority, but then became self-supporting. Administrative support is provided by one of the member schools. The Chair and Vice Chair are elected annually and rotate between schools, the vice chair from the previous academic year usually becoming Chair the next.
There are several areas of focus for the OEP:
Achievement of pupils. This has included several projects over the years, including adoption of the storytelling curriculum across all member schools based on training from Oxford Story Museum. This meant all schools took a similar approach to the development of writing, for a variety of purposes. There was also collaborative work on meeting the needs of more able students in mathematics (hosted at one of the secondary schools) and in English, particularly writing (hosted by the other secondary). The partnership is also a forum for addressing issues, such as school attendance, that affect the achievement of pupils.
Continuing Professional Development. The Partnership has promoted professional development in two main ways: sharing the costs of training at one school by opening CPD to other members, and organising joint CPD as a partnership which addresses common needs of the member schools. Notable successes here have been moderation of writing with the adoption of the new curriculum and assessment, and Partnership conferences, the most recent being last October. The conferences combined plenary sessions featuring keynote speakers with smaller workshops run by colleagues from member schools. In either case costs were much reduced through this collaborative approach, as opposed to sending staff out on CPD courses, and there was more scope for ongoing work between colleagues, building on these events.
Recruitment and retention of staff. This is an issue that is raised at almost every meeting! Oxford is well-served for ITT providers, but is an extremely expensive area to rent or buy in. It is therefore often difficult to recruit and especially retain teaching staff at all levels. OEP has adopted a joint approach to tackling this issue, producing a joint brochure pointing out the benefits of joining not just a new school, but a supportive partnership of schools. This is especially true for school leaders, many of whom say that the most valuable aspect of the partnership is as a forum to discuss issues that they face in school.
OXFORD CITY LEARNING
Oxford City Learning (OCL) is made up a group of seven schools in and around Oxford. The member schools were originally all secondaries, one has since become an all-through school, one now partners a primary school and another is sponsoring a free school due to open next year. Oxford Hospital School is also a member, as is an Alternative Provision College.
The work of the partnership has been wide ranging, but was founded on the premise that if Oxford had world-class Higher education, it should have world-class secondary education too. In its current form, the OCL structure consisted of three groups:
Strategy group. This is made up of the Headteachers and Principals of the member schools. As well as providing a regular discussion forum for these school leaders, it sets the strategic priorities for OCL and commissions and evaluates the work of the other groups. Principals may also coordinate joint responses to educational issues affecting the local area and emergency planning, such as the response to severe weather.
Curriculum and Standards Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for curriculum and assessment in each school. In recent years, the group has worked on the new curriculum, got to grips with the impact of the EBacc, life beyond levels, and new assessments at GCSE and A level.
Professional Leadership Development Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for CPD at the member schools, and is the group I have been involved in. This covers each career stage, from initial teacher training through to the growth of school leaders. For several years the PLDG has organised an annual ‘Hot Topics’ event where school leaders meet to address an issue the strategy group has agreed affects all members schools. Recent topics have included ensuring that vulnerable pupils make good progress, the best use of the Pupil Premium Grant, and mental health issues in schools. The group also runs an Annual OCL cohort of the Oxford Teaching Schools Alliance courses for Middle Leadership. It also works with the Oxford Education Deanery on action research projects by teachers and academic research projects run in school.
As well as these groups, the OCL schools also form an IYFAP Strategy Group to improve the work of the City In-Year Fair Access Panel. This meets before the panel meeting and focuses on improving the way that member schools can work together to improve outcomes for pupils and reduce exclusions. This work includes improving transition between schools (including transition of vulnerable pupils from primary school) and evaluating the effectiveness of managed moves between schools.
I hope these examples illustrate just a few of the ways in which schools, teachers, and students benefit from collaborative partnership in the local area. I would enjoy reading about other examples of successful partnership working. I believe that the key to the success of both OEP and OCL has been twofold: A commitment to a shared purpose, coupled with flexibility to see opportunity in a time of challenge. This has enabled both partnerships to continue to be effective in the midst of the break-neck pace of change we have seen in education. Adhering to a clear vision of what the partnership seeks to achieve enables it to weather this change: individuals may come and go, different types of school may emerge, and new policies and procedures may be enacted from on high, but the aims of the partnership do not. In holding on to the most valuable resource we have – each other – we can grow together, becoming more effective in meeting the needs of the families we serve.