Please note that this case study has been anonymised.
Visits took place between October and December 2007.
This collaborative of schools is located in a rural area, which is made up of commuter belt exuburbs of a large city and a number of small rural villages. The intake of the schools is generally quite affluent and mono-cultural. The collaborative was set up to address a number of issues common to rural schools, seen by one deputy head as greater in this rural area, as the size and diversity of the schools makes it hard for them to offer sufficient experiences to pupils on their own. Another new head from an urban area also commented on the need for federating, as informal contacts were less likely in rural areas due to geographical distance.
The collaborative was set up under the influence of the head of one of the larger primary schools, who was very much the driving force, though clearly responding to a widely felt need in the area “it is essentially personality driven” (secondary headteacher). A small collection of people with a vision have driven the process. New appointments from outside the area to headship in a number of schools was seen as having helped in terms of getting a group of people together who were very keen on providing mutual support.
The collaborative is well supported by the local authority, and has been in operation for several years now.
The collaborative operates through a system of working parties. A number of working parties focus on different areas, such as assessment, where different approaches are trialed in one school and shared with others, and curriculum development that is working at developing programmes for this age group across schools. While working groups typically consist of senior and middle managers, increasingly, teachers and support staff have been getting together as well.
The local authority plays an active facilitating role in this collaborative (which is therefore in no way set up as a counterweight to it), and an LA consultant is active in facilitating the work and meetings of the collaborative. This local authority facilitation had been key in helping the collaborative to get off the ground.
Working collaboratively has required specific leadership skills, which were keenly felt by the leading head in the collaboration. In particular, brokerage and facilitation were seen as key, in a situation where no one person was in a hierarchical relationship to others, and there was always a possibility of mistrust of one another’s motives. Continuous and open communication were therefore seen as very important skills for leaders working collaboratively: “you’ve got to build up that trust, it doesn’t just arrive, and people are different in how much they will trust you. You really need always to be open about what you’re doing and make clear that it is for the good of the whole, but also what’s in it for your own school. Put your cards on the table”.
Personality was seen to matter as well, in particular the dynamism and enthusiasm of the leading head, which was seen as having “galvanised us into action”.
The collaborative appears to have had a positive impact on the area. While no direct relationship with achievement can be established (most schools were already high achieving, and achievement fluctuations tend to result from cohort differences in these small schools), impacts are evident in other areas.
There has been significant progress in joint leadership development, where connections have been made to HE institutions and joint programmes run with the LA, curriculum development, where collaborative work on a more flexible curriculum is proceeding, and the provision of experiences to pupils, where relationships have been established with schools in the city nearby, allowing students to experience different contexts, environments and beliefs.
There was also a feeling that the collaboration had allowed staff to develop leadership skills, as they collaborated on specific projects within the collaboration. This was not an initially planned impact, but has been one of the most important ones.
The head who led the collaboration is leaving the school and area, and will be sorely missed. However, structures have been built up and strong external support, from the LA and HE links, mean that the collaboration is expected to be sustained.
There is a more general issue with staff changes in the collaborativon with quite a high turnover of heads and senior leaders in the past few years. This can lead to a lack of understanding of the collaboration and its goals among some leaders.
Another issue is demonstrating impact. While, as mentioned above, some impacts have appeared, there is no noticeable impact on the ‘achievement bottom-line’, which can lead to some questioning the usefulness of the collaboration.