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A New Era - Can we systematise collaborative school improvement?

A new era:

Can we systematise collaborative school improvement?

A Bluewave Education white paper

January 2016






The discussion

Conclusions and next steps




We would like to express our thanks to the following round table participants for their time and their valuable contributions. They were:

Dr Martin Airey Headteacher, Darrick Wood School, Kent

Nigel Ashley Headteacher, Meadowside Community Primary School, North Yorkshire

Helen Barker Head of Kyra Teaching School Alliance, Lincolnshire

Debbie Barkes Headteacher, St Faith’s Infants School and CPD lead, KYRA Teaching School Alliance, Lincolnshire

Robert Carpenter Headteacher, Woodhill and Foxfield Primary Schools, London

Martin Cooper Deputy Principal, The Manor Academy, Nottinghamshire

Philippa Cordingley Chief Executive, CUREE

Phil Crompton Executive Headteacher, Trent Academies Group, Nottingham

Leora Cruddas Policy Director, ASCL

Professor Peter Earley Professor of Education Leadership and Management, Institute of Education

Kathryn James Deputy General Secretary, NAHT

Carol Jones Specialist for Leadership and Teacher Professionalism, ASCL

Dame Reena Keeble Consultant and formerly Headteacher of Cannon Lane Primary School, Middlesex



This white paper captures the discussions prompted by a key question, “Is a collaborative school improvement system, founded on trust, possible and how would it provide a valid and robust alternative to the current system?” at the third annual Bluewave Education school improvement round table, held at the UCL Institute of Education in London on 6 November 2015.

We enjoyed a thought provoking and wide ranging discussion as we explored this question. A range of key issues were considered, including a debate about the rigour of such an approach, the role of key principles and learning from existing examples of collaboration, and the feasibility of this collaborative approach becoming a reality on a national scale.

The discussions are leading to practical approaches – we are now exploring a pilot of the approaches discussed with a number of schools, including a large teaching school alliance, and we will report on this trial at a later date.

Keith Wright

Managing Director

Bluewave Education



Many school leaders would agree that the days of schools being judged by an authoritarian and distant inspection regime should be numbered.

Yet despite concerns about the high stakes nature of inspections and their impact on genuine school improvement and innovation, the current arrangements continue with little sign of real change.

There is however a growing consensus in the sector that judgement needs to be replaced with a collaborative system founded on trust and that the government should at last convert the rhetoric of the self-improving school-led system into hard reality, by giving schools a real opportunity to collaborate for school improvement and develop forms of accountability that are both robust and formative.

A recent survey by Bluewave Education appeared to back this up. We canvassed nearly 60 school leaders over the summer about their approaches to school improvement planning. We asked them to choose a single model for school improvement and 63 per cent said that a nationwide school to school support network not limited by geography or Ofsted grading was their favourite. A return to the local authority model was chosen by 12 per cent of respondents and 10 per cent opted for the teaching schools model.

The appetite may well be there amongst many school leaders but there are some key aspects of this approach that need to be discussed and debated. We invited key players – primary and secondary leaders, teaching school directors, academics, policy experts and senior representatives from headteacher unions to join us for this round table to give us their perspectives on this important question. Here’s what they had to say.


The discussion: Is a collaborative school improvement system, founded on trust, possible and how would it provide a valid and robust alternative to the current system?

The issue of trust

“We’re right about importance of trust,” said Professor Peter Earley. “The big question is: who should we trust? There is a difference between individual stakeholders in education, such as Ofsted and regional schools commissioners, and the degrees to which we are according trust to these stakeholders. If we are talking about trust between schools, a collaborative, collegiate, developmental culture is more likely if there is trust within the school first. Trust is essential but are all stakeholders equally trustworthy?”

Leora Cruddas emphasised the need for a collaborative school improvement system to have safeguards. “One question is what are the safeguards so that we do not create a self interested system,” she said. “We strongly endorse peer review and collaborative school improvement. But we believe that an independent inspectorate in the form of a regulatory agency, does have a place as a guard against self-interest.”

Kathryn James highlighted NAHT’s peer review system[i] which is built around a collaborative approach. She said that the profession needed to trust itself if collaboration was to work. “One of the things that has pleased me most is where we have got teachers asking colleagues to come in and watch a particular lesson because they have an issue and want support. For me that is key in seeing school improvement work.”

Philippa Cordingley said that trust couldn’t be mandated and had to emerge organically. “It’s useful to understand trust’s role in the developmental and accountability process,” she said. “We are doing peer review training. We have taken evidence of what works for school and professional improvement. This includes a degree of external challenge. Teachers and schools need this so that orthodoxies are challenged.”

Dame Reena Keeble said she had issues with the peer review approach. “It can become very cosy and back patting. The challenge and rigour is not there.”

It was important to learn from existing examples of collaborative improvement, said Carol Jones. “We need to identify what is effective and what to learn from Challenge Partnership[ii], which was formed out of London Challenge, is a good example. We should use this as potential evidence for working up a set of principles and criteria that would be useful across the system.”

Nigel Ashley said that quality assurance was a vital part of any collaborative improvement approach. “For the past 10 to 15 years we have had a dictatorial system. Now someone has taken the lid off the box we are not as confident as we first thought. Quality assurance is vital at this time,” he said.

“You need confidence in the people doing those reviews and then some kind of mechanism to provide that support to make those improvements.”

“A lot of leaders feel under pressure and feel that they are not good enough,” Debbie Barkes added. “You need to have that confidence that you have value to add to each other’s schools. Supporting each other is a good way forward. The next steps are where do we go for the support for what we have identified in peer review? You need confidence in the people doing those reviews and then some kind of mechanism to provide that support to make those improvements.”

Keith Wright picked up on Carol Jones’ point about learning from existing examples. “One of the dangers is that with these new freedoms to create new partnerships and models, how do you guard against self-interest but accept that for many organisations ‘doing it their own way’ that this might be driven by self-interest?” he asked. “Can we build a nationwide, collaborative system in such a way that it caters for any type of provider?”

“We talk about self interest as if something bad. You can’t stop that because it is human nature,” said Reena Keeble. “You talk about a fragmented system but I think it was already fragmented. It is too big and it’s now more about looking at the fragments that we have already got and accepting them. I do not think we should worry to talk about self interest.”

“We have to think about how we rebuild meaningful collectives.”

Philippa Cordingley pointed out that in London Challenge there was a point where all headteachers in the Tower Hamlets authority were prepared to take responsibility for children across the borough. “This was a rich reservoir of relationships but you can only have these in a community which recognises itself as such,” she said. “We have to think about how we rebuild meaningful collectives. Is peer review a necessary stepping-stone for moving towards a community? Peer review is great but let’s not see it as an end in itself.”

Rob Carpenter said there was an element of self preservation for almost every school: “In my experience of working in Greenwich we are starting to connect the ‘why’ of our collaborative partnership with the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’. The why is building leadership principles, improving our CPD offer for example. When we put these ‘whys’ at the front of everything it clarifies what we do.”

“Knowing that I made a difference to a pupil is self interest but there needs to be a process to understand why and how I made a difference.”

Helen Barker added: “Knowing that I made a difference to a pupil is self interest but there needs to be a process to understand why and how I made a difference. How do we ensure that it is not a cosy chat? I was involved in a peer-to-peer review programme and we gave one another permission to present that challenge and put teeth in that relationship. But we need to have trust in the first place so you can prepare to be vulnerable. But we need to reach a point where we understand the repercussions of that.”

Peter Earley stressed the importance of creating systems to underpin collaborative school improvement. “We do not have the system at the moment. There is a need for us to systematise and get better understanding of what is going on around the country. What can we learn from others? Knowledge transfer about best practices is important.”

“Knowledge transfer about best practice is important.”

He added: “We need to have a peer review system within a performance framework and we have got to drive towards a system where more effective schools are going to do more in this area. We need something akin to a system but I do not think we know enough about what is going on around the country.”

Leora Cruddas added: “Onora O’Neill[iii] talked about what it means to be held to account. She linked trust to accountability and she talked about the need to pay more attention to good governance. With peer review surely the first principle of collaborative school improvement must be that it is rigorous, valid and reliable.”

Nigel Ashley suggested that for the best school leaders that accountability would still be to their children. “If the leader does not protect staff then staff are going to say they are firstly accountable to Ofsted,” he said.

The Challenge Partners report contained some strong examples of best practice in collaborative school improvement and this could provide strong principles for a wider approach, Leora Cruddas added. “I think it is very important to start talking about behaviours of leadership as well as the practice of self-evaluation. We need to be able to nail confident leadership so that we can describe what it is.”

“I am arguing for a system that would provide scaffolding for all schools …if we have a system that would allow all schools to engage in self improvement that would be better.”

Reena Keeble suggested that there needed to be a national system to enable collaborative school improvement. “I am arguing for a system that would provide scaffolding for all schools,” she said. “There are some schools that might feel geographically isolated. They are ones that need that support through partnerships but there is nothing there for them. If we have a system that would allow all schools to engage in self improvement that would be better.”

Phil Crompton said he was not convinced that Ofsted was in its dying days. “I think it is wrong to suggest that Ofsted are not thinking about children. They are human beings and have the interests of children at heart.

“We do need a philosophy for working together more closely but we need practical stuff before we get to that position. If it takes Ofsted then that’s probably needed. I still think that we need an Ofsted-like body to make Trusts trusted, for example.”

Phil pointed out that the Regional Schools Commissioner for his area had been urging his Academy Trust to look at eventually expanding to between 5-10 schools – what he considered a practical limit.

Keith Wright thought it a shame that logistics had to limit the size of the group of schools. “What if key ingredients for success cannot be found in that local group but could be found in another set of schools somewhere else in the country?” he asked. “What if the support a school needs is somewhere else? Should we always assume the answer is within a group or do we need national structures that will allow schools to call upon a huge level of support from across the country? Can trust and accountability be achieved in a cluster scale and is it realistic that we can trust each other nationally?”

Nigel Ashley said the key question was whether the system had the capacity. “It’s about headteachers feeling that they can use this system to improve standards. I am finding in our area that if a leader is successful the pressure being put on them is increasing. Now I am seeing certain leaders trying to withdraw into their ivory towers.

“But these successful leaders have got to train up the ones who are struggling. If we are going to be allowed to develop these people it’s going to take time. I am hopeful that we will be given that time to do that. If we’re not given that time it will crumble. People will realise that they can maintain things by withdrawing.”

“I agree with Nigel but I feel that the blame thing is a terrible danger,” said Philippa Cordingley. “What enabled them to work with each other so impressively in Tower Hamlets was not blame but trust and a shared feeling of urgency about meeting the needs of the local community. We know from CPD and learning research that shared vulnerability and goals help speed up trust building.”

Leora Cruddas picked up on Nigel Ashley’s point about capacity. “Michael Fullan talks about extreme pressure leading to dysfunctional behaviour[iv]. If we do not have capacity building in a high stakes system we will have problems with leadership supply. How do we build capacity? This needs to include models of joint accountability, great use of data, research and practice development and collaborative approaches to leadership and succession planning.”

Kathryn James believed that trust based collaboration could work on a scale larger than five to 10 schools and could even be done on a national level. “I think we can but I would say that it needs to be built around professionalism,” she said. “You need to be able to say to professionals ‘forget about people on the outside asking why you have not done this or that and think about why as a profession you do what you do. You can then work with other schools and develop that trust.”

Collaboration on a larger scale might be easier if schools could rally around a common cause, said Peter Earley. “This may be parenting, or not realising children’s potential. If we could rally around areas like this that could take us forward.”

He suggested that the system should be looking for common behaviours and qualities in leaders of the future that would make collaboration possible, such as peer review and a commitment to developing skills so that they can be system leaders in their locale, region and ultimately their country.

“I am really worried about those who do not want to be collaborative…It’s a real barrier and there is great practice going on.”

Governors should be looking for these behaviours, said Debbie Barkes. “I am really worried about those who do not want to be collaborative. Whether this is a fear or that they do not feel they need to. It’s a real barrier and there is great practice going on. We need to work out how we are going to reach leaders who are doing this. It needs to be part of leadership training and recruitment and governors need to be looking for those behaviours.”

Martin Cooper suggested that if schools had to entrust the development of their current staff with other schools through a secondment structure that this might be a way of promoting a sense of shared self-interest across the education system. “If you were required to do your professional development not in own school but in another school this might provide those links that we are talking about. It could even form the basis of a structure for collaboration in the future.”

Collaborative improvement systems – can technology provide the solution?

Keith Wright asked what systems would be needed to make a national collaborative school improvement system work. “There is lots happening with social media but is it the right approach?” he asked.

“Twitter has an increasingly important role in the sharing of resources and practice,” said Carol Jones. “We would be missing a trick if we didn’t pay attention to the role social media is playing in developing policy. Whenever you start talking about systems and structure. I think you need to enhance possibilities that social media gives our teachers. Research Ed and Teacher toolkit for example.”

“Social media has reinvigorated us as leaders…We need to map this into systems.”

Rob Carpenter agreed: “Social media has reinvigorated us as leaders. If we can harness it that would be fascinating. We need to map this into systems.”

Philippa Cordingley: “Twitter is a form of communication but it’s not CPD. It’s a vehicle for teachers to see themselves as a community. As a source of identity it is important. A place to experience professional support. It’s dangerous to think about the system without bringing in governance. Part of what is missing is quality assurance and critical evaluation of the evidence.”

What does the mechanism for sharing best practice content and collaborating on improvement look like if social media is not the vehicle, asked Keith Wright. “In this free for all scenario we have difficulty seeing which is which. Twitter is a starting point because there is a medium where people show a willingness to engage. I do not suggest it should be Twitter. There will be plenty of schools which will not tap into it.”

“Because of Twitter we have this free for all…We need to arrive at some priorities – things that we can focus on instead of all this multitude of choices.”

Phil Crompton saw Twitter as problematic because there was no quality assurance on what was shared. “I find it scary that people talk of Twitter as if it is the first port of call. We are not quality assuring what is shared. Because of Twitter we have this free for all. There are too many ideas. We need to arrive at some priorities – things that we can focus on instead of all this multitude of choices.”

“(If you) create a platform that crystallises that leadership and examples of it that would be very powerful.”

Rob Carpenter said that Twitter could provide a narrow view of school improvement but thought it was positive because it made thinking about learning and leadership more visible. He added: “How do we systematise best practice so that people can see it and trust it? With child performance tracking you can see the evidence. If you use that in a leadership context to make leadership visible and tangible and create a platform that crystallises that leadership and examples of it that would be very powerful.”

Nigel Ashley suggested that the most useful system gave schools a guarantee that sharing would be reciprocated. “What we want of a community is that if we put your thing out there you get it back better,” he said. “The danger of Twitter is that you sometimes do not get anything back. It should be about how you get it out there and harness what it can do. Get it out to lots of people but get it back to you as well.”

Martin Airey added: “We are involved in a vast number of collaborative projects as a teaching school. For me as headteacher it is about ensuring I coordinate these effectively to attain maximum improvements for my school and others we work with.

“We are in Challenge Partners. All this is valuable. It helps us maintain and improve standards. But one or other of these models needs to be a vehicle at a national level. If there is a national framework and someone makes that decision at government level I will go with it. I just want to do the best for my school and children in my area. If a TSA is a vehicle to do that then I am all for it.”

Leora Cruddas suggested that the embryonic Foundation of Leadership in Education[v] could provide that structure. “The Leadership Foundation aspires to set leadership standards, framework, QA leadership development…and identify gaps as system diversifies,” she said. “If we are to take that step into truly being a profession we need a professional body.”

Peter Earley saw the Leadership Foundation as an exciting development that did have the potential to provide a structure for school improvement and leadership development. “But individuals can join but not necessarily sign up,” he said. “It’s more about winning hearts and minds. As we get a new cohort of leaders coming in I am optimistic. The new generation of school leaders are of calibre and the type we are looking for.”


Conclusions and next steps

There was general agreement that there needed to be efforts to ‘systematise’ collaborative school improvement.

Several school leader delegates agreed to join Bluewave Education to develop and field test an online platform that will support collaborative school improvement between schools enabling sharing, collaboration, peer-to-peer support and review and external accountability.

The delegates also raised a number of questions and concerns about the current state of collaborative school improvement, raising the following points:

  • A system of collaborative school improvement based on trust is possible: there are many examples already running of peer-to-peer review and collaborative improvement. It would be instructive to draw on learning points from these examples as part of any work around developing a pilot system.

  • There is a question of where trust lies – delegates agreed that although collaborative school improvement on a wider basis was desirable there needed to be an external system of accountability, perhaps based on Ofsted but focused on regulation rather than judgement, allied to a new professional body focused on creating standards and enabling an environment where schools could find their own improvement solutions.

  • There were concerns that schools seeking collaborative improvement with others do not have the structures or means to find this beyond their own, currently small, formal and informal collaborative structures. Delegates agreed that schools needed to be able to find this support from a larger pool – this may be through using existing structures such as other MATs and TSAs.

  • Developing self confidence is key for schools, delegates agreed. This is best done through establishing firm principles for school leadership and improvement focused around objectives with a strong moral purpose, such as improving attainment for children from less well off backgrounds.

  • There needs to be more work around establishing meaningful communities of schools so that schools can collaborate on a deeper level and at a larger scale.

  • Collaboration needs to be ingrained in the system – Ofsted’s new framework, requiring collaboration with other schools as one of the conditions determining an outstanding judgement, is a good development but it should also be embedded in the professional development and training of future leaders, part of the job description for headteacher roles, and a key demand of school governance.

  • Social media such as Twitter do provide some encouraging indicators of the system’s desire to collaborate and share best practice but it lacks quality assurance and is too much of a ‘free for all’. There needs to be work to systematise the sharing of best practice across the system that sees schools reciprocated for what they share.


[1] NAHT Instead programme – details at

[1] Evaluation of Challenge Partners peer review programme at

[1] Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lecture available at

[1] Quality Leadership Quality Learning, available at

[1] See ASCL’ s announcement at

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