Many multi academy trusts (MATs) have strong existing relationships with their Local Authority (LAs). They work effectively together to deliver a high quality education to all students in their area. But the relationship between MATs and LAs perhaps isn’t always fully utilised and opportunities to collaborate may sometimes be missed.
There has historically been an ideological tension between MATs and schools within the maintained sector with some school governing bodies and leaders reluctant to become academies, whilst others have strategically chosen to change their status believing in the benefits to be gained from being part of a formal collaboration. The current climate has offered us a chance to review this. Many trusts have supported maintained schools across the country during the lockdown phase in a way that has not been seen for some time. Now is the time to start exploring the potential for further collaboration as working closely together will be key to tackling the challenges ahead.
The role of collaboration in closing the attainment gap
School leaders across the country face a challenging few months as they manage the return to school of more staff and children. Educational communities will work together to take responsibility for every child, irrespective of the type of school that they attend, in order to close the performance gap between dis-advantaged children and there peers. Coming together as a community will be critical to building capacity, creating ideas and enabling the simple truths about what works to be communicated across the educational community.
A key part of this mission will be re-culturing our schools for September. We know that for some children, often the most vulnerable, the traditional six week summer holiday is challenging. By September it will be almost six months since many children last set foot in their school buildings. The same is true of staff, and schools will be thinking and planning ahead to meet the needs of their workforce as they return to work.
Schools will work together and support one another to build a narrative of the experiences of children and their families during lockdown. There will be patterns and trends of experience across the community that will give a clear indication of how life has been since March 2020. By sharing and understanding this information, the whole community can work towards understanding the best way to lead the induction programme in schools that supports students and staff alike.
The learning gap is a massive system-wide challenge but we have to remember that a gap already existed on March 20, the last school day for many children. The challenge is to assess the degree to which the gap has widened and then to find a way to set new baselines and work from there. Working together to understand this is important. Children will not be restarting where they left off. For many, there will have been a decline. We need to understand how in primary schools core language and numeracy skills, and in secondary schools the knowledge of exam syllabi that was taught earlier last year, will need reinforcing, and this may be a good place to start.
The role of edtech in collaboration
Education technology will have a crucial role to play in the way our sector recovers moving forwards. To date, our education system hasn’t been set up for full digital learning because it didn’t need to be. The last few months have uncovered some real barriers to online learning. The lack of sufficient hardware for every child, the connectivity of WiFi and the pedagogical challenges of teaching lessons on a digital platform are just a few of the issues that are making leaders think hard about the immediate future.
The technology available has already played a fundamental role in the design of a ‘recovery curriculum’ that goes some way to meeting the needs of every child. EdTech organisations such as Renaissance Learning, who produce programmes such as Accelerated Reader and myON, have enabled thousands of schools across the country to seamlessly access lessons and assessments online. Renaissance offered myON Reader to all schools and pupils for free during the lockdown, providing access to more than 6,000 enhanced digital books to keep the nation reading. Similarly the curriculum, assemblies and enrichment activities available from Oak National Academy have helped schools to set up online learning quickly so they don’t have to ‘invent the wheel’ themselves.
Collaboration in the digital space will need to focus on schools, where leaders accept that they do not own the monopoly on great learning for their children. If they have something better than what has been developed elsewhere then great – use it and share it. If however the opposite is true, then we need to accept that others have been ahead of us and that we should welcome and embrace their work and collaborate with them. This cultural change and willingness to embrace innovation from new sources could be the game changer for the way that we consider system wide collaboration in the future.
Challenges to be aware of
Effective and meaningful collaboration does not come without its challenges. From my experience, it is not unusual to find that many school leaders and governing bodies believe that autonomy from any form of external influence or direction is sacrosanct, and as a result they can become disinterested observers and passive participants in collaboration.
This is a tendency we must overcome if we are to succeed together. We must not be limited to our own perceptions of what makes ‘effective practice’. We have to be magpies and steal the best ideas that work, whilst being mindful that what works in one school may not work automatically as well in another. That said, in my experience the action of filtering the practice through the lens of transmission between schools often enhances the original strategy.
When collaboration is clear and purposeful and the goals are shared and understood it has the potential to benefit the whole community. The final pitfall to avoid in the leadership of collaboration is a lack of prioritisation. This may happen if the latest shared idea simply gets stockpiled on top of many other initiatives. Deciding which part of the wider strategy is going to be slowed down or delayed in order to give the new initiative a chance of being effective is vital if people are not going to run out of steam and motivation.
Why moving towards further collaboration will be key for the future
Undoubtedly working together in a new way will be a major factor in a reimagined education sector. Collaboration has to be clear about its intended outcomes, have pace and momentum and be a serious contributor to change. When this happens and when we see traditional habits and behaviours start to change, collaboration becomes a powerful lever for improvement as we enter a new era in education.
To hear more from Sir David Carter and other education leaders visit: http://www.renlearn.co.uk/mat-forum/