As someone who has spent the last decade working with school leaders, including working closely with Local Authorities, Multi Academy Trusts, and the more recently invented partnerships for school improvement, the inaugural Association of Education Parterships (AEPA) event was like a weird edu-geek version of ‘who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ It seemed that practically everyone who was anyone in the ‘collaborative working’ landscape was there. The general ambiance of the morning as people arrived, was of bristling collective excitement, curiosity, and an urge to get stuck in to share and learn together – so different from the tangible edge of competition and rivalry often experienced at other events where groups such as LAs, TSAs and MATs will come together.
The glue that is essential to place-centred thinking
The day consisted of a good balance of presentations with time to discuss in smaller groups, share and suggest. To kick off, former education secretary Estelle Morris, whose inimitable combination of passion and commitment has kept her at the centre of all things education, reminded us of the importance of place when thinking about how the education sector should be organised. She likened education partnerships to “the glue that helps schools serve collectively the needs of the children in their area rather than just compete on market principles”. That glue is often stretched to its limits with the introduction of MATs and TSAs, which can still be isolated, or can be operating across so wide an area as to not have much understanding of the localities in which they operate. Baroness Morris didn’t compromise her challenge to us in the room, when she insisted that although we have a collective responsibility to every child in our locality no matter the structures within which we work, our education system apparently doesn’t allow for this to happen effectively. Her impassioned voice spoke to a captivated room, “locality matters, geography matters. Yet we are building a school system that has no recognition of locality”.
Next up was Christine Gilbert, who also has decades-long sector experience ranging from headteacher to head of Ofsted, and more recently has been using her expertise and the obvious fire in her belly to help numerous local area partnerships get off the ground. Building on the theme of place, she commented that “education is the single best regeneration strategy for any locality or community”. Ask any estate agent, and I am sure they will agree. If you want to buy a cheap property anywhere in the country, start by finding out where the schools in Special Measures are.
Going beyond the land of nice
The core work for education partnerships, according to Gilbert is to make connections, gather intelligence, and to provide support and challenge, successfully “going beyond the land of nice”. Most importantly, their role should be to provide brokerage using local practitioners as well as setting in motion mechanisms to monitor, evaluate and evidence progress. We have many ways in which schools are scrutinised and monitored as individual institutions (and these are increasing with Ofsted, MAT inspections and Regional Schools’ Commissioner scrutiny), but any form of follow-on brokerage of support is often non-existent or weak at best. Also worth noting is that we don’t yet have a mechanism for measuring the effectiveness and impact of education partnerships like the ones that have been springing up across the country since the coalition government introduced a barrage of reforms from Early Years to HE, creating the most fragmented system we have ever had – and with this, the concept of a school-led system with no blueprint.
Christine Gilbert’s extensive experience and unfaltering belief in the power of moral purpose tells her that partnerships should be able to make an impact without distraction. They need collective moral purpose, a vision for the locality and need to shift the accountability mindset so that it is no longer top down, but instead comprised of lateral partnerships which can be recognised and evaluated. She took us through four models of school improvement partnerships, noting how the world has changed since she was a teacher in the days pre-Ofsted and league tables.
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
One of the consistent themes for the day, was that each partnership and locality needs to find the model that works for them. In doing this, they also need to ensure that they focus on solvable problems. So it was useful to see some models set out clearly in brief later in the session. There does need to be a balance between working it out as you go along, the danger of re-inventing the wheel and being able to learn from each other. Allowing time for the process is vital when designing local partnership working. But the double-edged sword for these organisations can also be the temptation to waste valuable time getting their ducks in a row. Worse still, there might be a tendency to get bogged down by deciding on structures before really considering what the problem is that they are trying to solve and understanding where there might be examples of practice and success that could be adapted and drawn upon. In terms of the lifetime of a child in the school system, just considering the time it takes to go from concept to a mature school-led partnership which is delivering measurable impact, already makes my hair stand on end.
There was certainly a huge appetite arising from discussion during the day for a mechanism to share what works in a coherent yet rapid way. There have been reports from ADCS and the Isos Partnership outlining what works in terms of local partnerships, but many people expressed a desire to get beyond models of partnership that are thrust upon us, or that involve the often quoted feeling that “partnership working is the temporary suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding”.
Part of this desire for sharing might involve an intelligent way to explore and capture impact. Our education system relies heavily on highly problematic snapshot-in-time data such as exam results or Ofsted inspection reports, which can have a sinister side-effect of driving behaviours to get results. There have been stark realisations about the indicators we use to judge a school, such as schools which are doing well in terms of results, but that are not financially viable as institutions, and suddenly finding themselves in dire straits.
Creating a sense of membership
From my perhaps unique perspective as someone involved in creating a sense of membership for organisations I have worked with, one thing that many partnership organisations fail at are the more commercial and therefore assumed “not us” aspects of successful partnership working. By this I mean creating a business model that recognises the organisation as financially sustainable i.e. charging its members means thereby being transparent on how it intends to be accountable to its members. This also includes ensuring that your key central team members aren’t only ex-headteachers and educationalists, but also people who have proven expertise in marketing, creating a sense of membership, communicating complex messages simply and so on. Even after you have been through a forensic process of setting up your organisational structures, identifying your stakeholders and articulating what the problems are that you seek to solve, if you can’t get your message across in a timely and concise manner, none of this will matter. I would even go so far as to suggest that a successful partnership team would include those that understand enough organisational psychology to help you gauge who your early adopters, next wave joiners and eternal island-dwellers will be so you don’t lose valuable energy in brow-beating resentment wondering why you can’t get everyone on board with your brilliant new partnership idea. If you get all of this right, you will create a partnership which is based on mutual moral purpose, is not based on the usual deficit model of scrutiny and finger-pointing, and that will encourage self-referrals from schools looking to actively seek valuable support.
Dreaming big, but true to my own Virgo nature and thinking practically, it seemed that people in the room were looking for two tangible developments from AEPA. One would be a repository of resources to help partnerships in their various stages from conception to delivery, ranging from case studies of what works to examples of partner organisations or suites of services that might be valuable to schools. Another was the idea of a peer-review between partnerships that is formally structured and potentially even managed logistically by AEPA – and which could help colleagues to learn from, challenge and support each other in their endeavours. Having been at The Key from its journey from start up to grown up and seeing such a valuable resource change the way schools learn and grow from each other, makes me believe that this is not only a good idea, but also entirely possible to create. Secondly, my more recent experience at Challenge Partners tells me that robust peer review, that is equal measure challenge and support, and that is done with and not done to, is an essential ingredient to a genuinely school-led system. If there’s a way to make these two practical tools get going sooner, rather than later, the AEPA could quickly jettison itself from a place to get together periodically, to a game-changer in the business of local partnership working.
For more information and to get involved, go to https://www.aepa.org.uk/