The power of collaboration: what schools can achieve through effective school-to-school partnership working

By Robert Smith

Friday 6 May 2016

In a recent blog post I described what emerged from NFER’s evaluation of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner Pathfinder Project in Wales. I looked particularly at the characteristics of effective collaboration between schools. In this post I’ll describe the activities that resulted from this collaboration, and their perceived contribution to school improvement.

How did the Pathfinder work?

During the Pathfinder Project, Lead Practitioner Schools worked with Emerging Practitioner Schools over a period of 18 months, sharing, disseminating and implementing good practice. Funding was made available to support partnership activities: £90,000 for secondary schools and £30,000 for primary schools.

The most successful partnerships spent time discussing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The work which they then developed focused on an agreed set of objectives aimed at addressing those issues. School leaders reported that they had benefited from conversations with their peers because they offered opportunities to discuss matters in an open and unthreatening environment.

Following these discussions, the partners developed a programme of bespoke activities, mainly in the following areas: teaching and learning; leadership; and use of data and assessment. Most schools engaged in activities that covered all three categories but with teaching and learning the main focus.

Teaching and learning activities

  • These almost always focused on the core subjects and included a combination of lesson observation, joint moderation and planning, development of resources, and practitioner training.
  • Much of the work focused on literacy and numeracy (including the use of targeted intervention programmes where appropriate). At the same time, practitioners explored such things as how to improve lesson planning, questioning techniques employed, resources used, and how to respond to the needs of learners.

Leadership activities

  • These typically included promoting distributed leadership among all staff (where the task of leading a particular aspect is undertaken by a range of members of staff across a school’s workforce), developing middle leaders, and holding strategic-level discussions to diagnose issues and plan improvements.
  • In certain cases schools reorganised or expanded their senior leadership teams having discussed options for change with their partners. This element of the work also involved considering how to achieve whole-school consistency of practice, where appropriate.
  • Middle leaders were also encouraged to think about issues like their role in monitoring standards, how their work contributed to greater consistency in the way whole-school systems were implemented, how learners’ targets could be made more appropriate or ambitious, and how they could line manage their colleagues more effectively.

Use of data and assessment

  • Partnership activities involved strengthening existing data management systems or processes, or implementing new ones.
  • Schools examined matters such as how assessment data could be used to align teaching and learning activities to support learning, how it might help to develop personalised learning, and how data could help practitioners to reflect on their practice.
  • This often coincided with reform of schools’ assessment processes, including a renewed focus on tracking pupil outcomes over time to better identify the trajectory of pupils’ progress.

These activities were linked to more general work to encourage reflective practice in identifying learners’ needs and in establishing the most appropriate and effective ways of enabling each one to fulfil his or her potential.

The number and range of activities adopted by the different partnerships depended on the issues they felt were most important to address. However, common to the experience of all was the importance of leadership at all levels and issues related to pedagogy. These two themes are essential elements of the work to improve the performance of Wales’ education system, and the evidence we found suggested that the work that had been undertaken had enabled those schools to put crucial scaffolding in place that would enable them to ‘raise their game’ in future.

Additional resources

If you are a school that is currently engaging in school-to-school partnership working or school improvement work more generally, you might find the following resources useful.

  • NFER Self-Evaluation Toolkit: This tool was developed by NFER to help schools evaluate the work they had been doing as part of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner Schools Pathfinder Project. It was designed to helps schools reflect on the impacts of their school improvement work and the types of evidence that could be collected to demonstrate these impacts. It can be used by anyone who wishes to track and evaluate the progress of their school improvement work.
  • School improvement case studies: Case studies of schools involved in Tranche 1 of the Pathfinder that showed signs of developing and sharing good practice. The case studies describe how selected partnerships were able to improve.