Why schools share, partner and collaborate

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.

Sir Ken Robinson

There are too many moments in this role when a “typical day” is impossible to describe. We returned from the Easter break this week and came back to some of the warmest days in April on record. Probably the earliest moment of the summer term on record as well of the request being made for students, by students, to wear shorts in the heat. Instead of enjoying the very relaxed atmosphere around the Wyedean campus, relaxed and Study Leave for Year 11s and 13s is just weeks away, I found myself at Cardiff Metropolitan University in the sweltering sunshine trying to load heavy chairs, desks and notice boards onto the school minibuses.  I am fairly sure the average day of a school principal, or his vice principal business and finance for that matter, doesn’t normally consist of doubling up as a removal team but in the age we live in nothing surprises me in education.  Cardiff Met had very kindly and very generously offered the school a whole host of free furniture for school, which they no longer needed, and in the educational financial climate we are in it was very gratefully welcomed when there simply isn’t spare money for additional chairs, bookcases and display cases. I know a number of colleagues feel that this is a scenario that would never have been envisaged when it wasn’t too long ago a Prime Minister promised “education, education, education”. However, there is no luxury of reflection when it comes to being resourceful and doing what we can as school leaders to ensure the quality of the education in our schools doesn’t falter.  We are the lightning conductors for our school communities always. The offer from Cardiff Met University illustrated for me less a charitable hand-out to a school but a wonderful example of what can be achieved when we collaborate in education.

I did reflect and realise on Monday that if I did want to work in Suffolk a four-hour tortuous commute from Bristol was probably not a wise idea. I managed to arrive at the impressive new campus of West Suffolk College with plenty of time to spare, to speak at the International Festival of Learning (IFL).  Over 1000 teachers and educators attended this great event in the spring sunshine and I managed to catch the first panel discussion with Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of OfSTED, and Geoff Barton, general secretary of the school leaders union, ASCL. Amanda Spielman certainly comes across as a much more compassionate chief inspector of OfSTED, and her comments last year about the focus being on the curriculum echoes very much with the strategy and ethos of Wyedean School’s approach.  She made the point in the room on Monday that the curriculum in many schools has just “fizzled out”. I wish she was wrong but I have lost count of the number of school leaders I have spoken to who make the astonished look of surprise when I tell them about Wyedean’s rich and deep curriculum and educational experience that sees the arts, sport, music, languages, design etc at the heart of our school alongside other subjects. Geoff Barton lamented how many schools are now essentially reducing the curriculum and becoming qualification focussed from Year 8 onwards.  He said Key Stage 3 is a learning stage in its own right and no research shows options after less than two years in secondary school does anything but reduce curriculum exposure to a broad range of subjects and learning experiences.  Linking this to wellbeing, how much pressure is on young people at the ages of 12-13 to make such decisions when we want them to be engaged, challenged and enjoying school?

One of the highlights about Monday’s IFL is the sheer number of schools, educators and related organisations and agencies that were able to get together in the same place and discuss education. I drove back home after I had given my talk to the conference and I thought about a quote I had read recently from a superintendent of schools in Washington State, Judith Billings:

“Children are the priority. Change is the reality. Collaboration is the strategy”.  

The key emphasis in my talk to the audience in Bury St Edmunds focussed on the school improvement strategy at Wyedean over the last few years, based on a very simple but determined strategy. Wyedean could not exist in an introverted isolation at the southern end of the Forest of Dean, pushed up against a hard Welsh education border where collaboration or even willingness to collaborate is non-existent. The game-changer for Wyedean, looking out to the confluence of the Wye and Severn, ‘blessed is the eye between the Severn and the Wye”, and the wider sea; along the M4 corridor to Bristol, the south west and towards London, was to engage with networks, partnerships and anyone who could offer an external perspective and challenge to Wyedean School. If we hadn’t engaged on a twin strategy of a positive school culture focused on compelling education and wider collaborative engagement the last few years that have been so significant in how the school has improved would have been very different. Moreover, it is not just OfSTED who  see this significant improvement but Challenge Partners, the British Council, the IB, local universities, the CLF, the RSC, local primary schools and a whole host of parents and children who want to come to Wyedean for their education.

To return to the crux of Superintendent Billing’s quote, one school and one school leader does not have all the answers especially in the very complex and fluid educational picture we inhabit in 2018. Through collaboration we can be challenged in our approaches and thinking that pulls down the walls of our own self-constructed echo chambers. I always find it fascinating that the central tenet of a student’s “education” is not so much about skills and knowledge acquisition, very important to learn but against each other, a false dichotomy… a blog for another day, but being challenged, and open to question and to be intellectually curious. In all of this to be prepared to change opinion and views held through this process. As the IB learner profile challenges oneself, “How do we know we know?” Collaboration and meaningful partnerships achieves this for a school in education. I have lost count on the times I have been asked if either Wyedean is going to start a MAT or join a MAT. There are a huge number of MATs such as the CLF in Bristol, where that organisation based on collaboration, has made a significant difference in school improvement. There are also many examples like the now defunct WCAT in Yorkshire where that model did not work. What has worked for Wyedean School is the ethos of wanting our school to be immersed in World Class education and for our school to exude a positive school culture that allows our education to be a transformative force for good in the lives of our young people and the community we serve. The MAT model of collaboration and partnership for school improvement for Wyedean School is not one that would allow us to have achieved what we have over the last few years. Partnerships like Challenge Partners and now becoming an IB World School candidate are the collaboration networks that aligns with our school ethos of global learning and C21st World Class education that run through our school values and ethos like a stick of Blackpool rock. A key part of our school ethos is our commitment to work with any school and to collaborate to develop education and meaningful experience that continues to enhance the education at Wyedean and those we have the privilege to work with. We also know that we do not have all the answers as a school community. We often do not even know the questions. However, we know where to find them in our networks, both formal and informal.

In that spirit I am really pleased that the director of Teaching and Learning, my colleague Julie Smith, has been invited to speak at a major global learning conference in Europe in early May, about our innovative approach to learning in a positive school culture that empowers the teacher and therefore the learning rather than unnecessarily overburdening colleagues with fads and a punitive workload. I am looking forward to speaking at my former school, Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, at their “Empowering Young People” conference next week and meeting up again with my former colleague, the brilliant Dr Nicola Wetherall who has done so much important work in schools around Holocaust and Genocide awareness education. Nic has done so much to bring together leading academics, schools and public figures to develop further intellectual curiosity and understanding of key historical events, historic like the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Nazi Holocaust to more recent times in Rwanda and Bosnia. The impact of such educational experience as we develop wider understanding and link it to the climate and events of our own World in places such as Syria is immeasurable but we know as educators that introverted isolation for our schools, our communities, our colleagues and our students is not the way forward when we think about meaningful education in 2018. The meeting of Commonwealth leaders in London this week is representative of 53 nations, a third of the global population, looking to work further together and the education aspect of the global Commonwealth community is a powerful force of good around the globe. To participate in education and belong to a formal and informal school community is in itself an act of sharing and collaboration and can only be a force of positive good as we go forward.

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