Group work

Once upon a time there was an education system that everyone understood. All schools were run by their local authority who through a process of local democracy ensured that… No, wait, that wasn’t actually the case, was it? Let’s start again.

Once upon a time there was an education system that everybody understood. All schools, apart from independent schools, were run by their local authority who through a process of local democracy ensured that… No, wait, that wasn’t actually the case, was it? Let’s start again.

Actually let’s not. Because we could go on all day and still not quite get an accurate description. The school system has always been complicated, right from the 1944 get go. And best not even think about the ‘system’ as it was before that. In that time we’ve had grammars, secondary moderns, technical schools, faith schools, grant maintained schools, direct grant schools, voluntary aided schools, CTC’s, Studio Schools, Free Schools, Sponsored Academies, Converter Academies. I think that covers the main ones.

The reality is that we have never had a coherent system where “the Local Authority runs all the state schools” as some people would have you think. Even if you believe that a Local Education Authority represents the exertion of local democratic control over schools the sheer diversity of funding sources and the level of mandating from the centre means that such control was always illusory. And that’s before you recognise that complete day-to-day control over something as independent as a school causes its own issues. I spent most of my teaching time in a grant maintained school (which went GM because the LA intended to amalgamate it with another local school due to falling rolls). As you can imagine the LA had very little control over that school. At the other end of the scale I have worked with schools (or rather tried to work with them) where the LA insisted on having representatives in the room for a training session, after which they took me and my colleague to one side and told us not, under any circumstances to contact any of the teachers in the room without the written permission of the LA. I’d like to say that schools in that area were doing brilliantly, but that would be a lie. Of course, this was not necessarily due to the structure. As with most of these issues the quality of the people in a system tends to determine the quality of outcome.

I say all this so you can understand my biases. Instinctively I have little confidence that an LA is the answer to the problems a school may face. But you will also realise, if you have read many of the posts on this blog, that I am not an uncritical follower of current school reforms. Far from it.

But, we are where we are. And we need to move forward towards some greater stability. I’m a great believer in the power of change to drive improvement. However that change has to have some degree of stability to enable it to be shared and embedded across the system. At the moment there seem to be limited pathways for effected dissemination of best practice. So this is what I want to concentrate on, the development of effective models that enable schools to work together more easily. I’m not so interested in finding better ways to control them. That’s another discussion.

I want to suggest that there are four main factors affecting how effective schools will be in collaborating with each other. These are:

  • Proximity
  • Group Size
  • Commonality of context and goals
  • Capacity

Lets look at each of these in turn.

Firstly, Proximity.

Within 25 miles of my house there are 1,101 secondary and 3,124 primary schools. Compare this to my colleague. The same figures are 78 and 300 respectively. Now I’m not suggesting that where he is that schools would find it impossible to find others to collaborate with, but it is clear that schools in my area are much more likely find similar schools that share their context and goals, have the capacity and above all the desire to collaborate. This issue was brought into sharp relief by this picture posted on Twitter this week.

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 19.02.42

My experience is that where the door-to-door travel time between schools is more than 30 minutes collaboration is less likely. As remote collaboration capability improves this may change.

The recent Sutton Trust report into the effectiveness of academy chains, ‘Chain Effects’ covers this issue well, noting that most of the larger chains are looking to move to structure of regional clusters, the longer standing chains having for historical reasons added academies in a fairly geographically haphazard manner.

Attempts to understand the reasons for the London effect have also pointed towards proximity as a factor.

This blog suggested that the improved collaborative tools also had a hand with the London effect. There may well be some truth in this, especially when we consider the benefits, counter-intuitively perhaps, that proximity can have on internet based collaborative tools. This points to the need for at least some element of face-to-face time alongside the remote collaboration, which is facilitated by proximity.

Next, Group Size.

How many friends do you have? There is a thing called Dunbars Number, named for the anthropologist Robin Dunbar who suggested that humans could only usefully maintain around 150 relationships of any social meaning. He theorised that this was related to neo-cortex size relative to other primates. Dunbars idea has been extended to an number of other fields including politics. In this interesting extension of Dunbars work to look at online communities, Christopher Allan suggests that the optimum group size is 5-9. Whilst much of this is anecdotal as it tends to fit with my own experience I’m going to accept it as the gospel truth, until such time someone proves it to be wrong.

Consider a group of thirty schools trying to agree on a fundamental issue, for example how they are going to observe lessons. How much more likely would it be that a group of five would be able to come to an agreement without to many riders than a group of thirty?

It is interesting to see that several the larger academy chains are those that have had issues recently. The answer to this has been to reduce the size of these chains by transferring some of their schools to other chains. This method is also being used to address the geographic clustering issues.

Which brings us nicely onto commonality of goals and context. “Ah,” I hear you cry, “but all schools have a common goal”. Weeelll, yeeeesssss, but. School A gets 90% of student 5+ A*-C, has a thriving 6th form and 30% of its cohort go on to a Russell Group uni. The school down the road struggles to get above the floor level, has no sixth form and has a high teacher turn over, having had 3 headteachers in 5 years. The contexts of these two schools are very different and so are the goals. At the micro level they have similarities – each lesson designed to move each student forward. At the macro level one is looking at how to move a child from an A to an A*, the other is looking to find a supply teacher to fill the gap left by the teacher who has just left. This is not an unusual situation. You will find it in many towns and cities up and down the country. How easy would it be for those two schools to agree on the style of lesson observations, or lesson planning, or curriculum?

Clearly the closer schools are in terms of context and goals the easier it will be for them to work together. This is not to say that there are not benefits in dissimilar schools working to help each other. It’s just that it is harder to make it happen.

Finally, capacity. Whenever I have heard Andrew Adonis speak about the original academy programme the word I hear most often is capacity. Sometimes this is to mean capability, but more often to mean time and resources. A trite example. Young people (yes, I’ve reached the age where I refer to people that way) join together to rent/buy a property because together they can get a better deal. On their own they can maybe get a room. Together perhaps they can get a whole house. Same with schools. An individual school has a limited discretionary budget. Join 6 or 7 together and they have greater capacity to resource development and share costs. One school would find it difficult to develop its own AP unit. A group of schools together would be able to do so more easily. That’s just one example.

And when you put all four elements together it makes even more sense. Using the same example of an AP unit. The closer a group of schools are the easier it would be to use the unit. If the group was too small they couldn’t fund it, too large and the AP unit itself would be too large. A similarity of context and goals would make it more likely that the schools could agree on the format and style of the AP unit.

So what happens if the group gets much larger? Capacity increases, which is good. But all the other elements start to work against the group. Plans are harder to agree with larger groups (caused by a greater diversity of contexts and goals) so things either don’t happen, are watered down and become less effective (lowest common denominator) or more than one thing happens. If the latter then this sucks up resource.

With a bigger group, more things happen and these things need coordinating. So inevitably a layer of management is added in. This sucks up resource and usually brings inefficiencies into the system. In the worst cases whole bureaucracies are created that have no reason for existence other than to organise the organisation.

Considering all these elements I come down on the side of groups of 5 to 10 schools, locally based (ignoring LA boundaries). They don’t necessarily have to be the closest schools to each other as they also need to try matching context and goals. Inevitably many of these groups will be chains but they do not have to be formally linked I this way in order to be effective. There are many sixth-form (and teacher training) consortia operating without being in any legal association. This would be a good model to build on.

This is about collaboration, not control and monitoring. I would like to think, however, that these groups could develop supportive monitoring mechanisms to add to the collaboration. If that happens then we have the beginnings of a real self-improving system.


One thought on “Group work

  1. I absolutely concur with much of this. And the final picture you paint is reminiscent of aspects of the London Challenge, some clusters I visited elsewhere in the country, and David Carter’s description of what he believes Cabot’s approach to be. All highly successful development models that back up your opinions..

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