I saw some tweets the other day where people were talking about 'false' and 'pretend' collaboration. This set me thinking, as I don't know any form of collaboration other than a 'true' or 'real' type. I suppose that is not strictly true, because I have seen quite a few examples of schools who said they were collaborative but who,when you looked closely at them, or spoke to staff, were anything but. I had a visitor to the schools I lead recently and I enjoyed showing her around, and getting her to meet the children and staff. She spent some time talking to my DHT and myself about the work we had been involved in over recent years to develop and improve. "What I am seeing and hearing" she said "is a truly collaborative culture and ethos in operation." We were pleased to hear this as this is what we have always strived for in the way we work.
I abhor hierarchies and see them as particularly inefficient for the organisation and running of schools. Trouble is, schools have traditionally been very hierarchical in their organisation and structures, and it is taking quite a time and effort to change this. In the traditional structure, the Headteacher is at the top of such a hierarchy, then DHTs, PTs, teachers, support staff, and so on down the chain of command. Such structure promoted top-down edicts on direction of travel and presumed development. The Headteacher was the most important person and would make key decisions that everyone below him or her would then be required to support and implement. This could work, to some extent, if you had someone at the top who was steeped in learning and teaching, new exactly where the school was, and could identify changes that would bring about improvement. Trouble was, such people were few and far between. Also, no matter how good the person at the top was, if they were making all the decisions then, no matter how good these were, their impact was diminished by the fact that no one else was involved in their determination. This could often lead to lesser mortals not understanding what they were being asked to do, or why. Therefore, a lot of good intentions would smash against the walls of indifference or tokenism. People would do things when the boss was around, but nothing really changed in any sort of deep or sustainable way. What also often happened was that a culture developed that was anti-innovation, where mistakes were frowned upon and in which people spent more time trying to protect their backs and keeping their heads down, rather than seeking to improve and develop. Such schools still exist, I am sad to say.
I have always agreed with Ken Blanchard who stated "None of us is as bright as all of us." It doesn't matter how able one person is they will never be able to achieve as much on their own as they will through collaboration with others. The power of the team over the individual. I have been a school leader for well over 15 years and I don't have, or ever will have, all the answers. But I am a great believer that within the colleagues I work and collaborate with I will find most of the answers I need to keep developing them, myself and the schools I lead. I really do believe in the power of the team, and that everyone on that team is equally valuable and important if we are to truly develop them as individuals and the schools as establishments. One cannot happen without the other. Schools are only as good as the people who make them work. All of those staff, including Headteacher and other managers, need common understandings and need to be moving in the same direction of travel. If people are pulling in different directions, or feel disenfranchised from the decision making process, then the impact of any improvement or development becomes diluted and diminished, to the detriment of all.
Collaboration should be internal and external. We need a culture founded upon meaningful collaboration within our schools, but we should also seek to collaborate with colleagues and others from outside of our immediate school staffing. We seek to work with colleagues within our cluster, including across sectors, and also within our learning community, which include two secondary schools and nine primaries. We work collaboratively and strategically to support our learners and our teachers, and each other. Headteachers support and work with each other, as do all colleagues. We have got everyone out of their 'silos' that Fullan and others have talked about, to share their development and their practice. All of this collaboration has meant that dialogue around learning and teaching is rich and well informed. Such collaboration extends to other colleagues from support agencies who can best support us in our desire to deal holistically with pupils and families. As chair of our learning community, I work collaboratively with others across the local authority and help shape strategic direction within the authority.
We have been working with colleagues from Edinburgh University, GTCS and Education Scotland to better develop our practice and understanding. All of these relationships are built on true collaboration, with a two-way sharing of thinking, practice and understanding. It is never a case of inviting people into the schools and accepting uncritically what they are offering. We will work with and listen to them, and we expect them to extend the same courtesy to ourselves. That way we can help everyone develop their understanding and their thinking, to the betterment of all. Our basic standpoint is that we are open and willing to work with each other, and anyone else, in order to improve what we do. We recognise none of us can do this in isolation, learning is best as a social activity, as is school and professional development.
'Key features of effective professional learning include engaging in collaborative enquiry, peer review and observation...' One of the conclusions of the BERA/RSA interim report on 'The Role Of Research In Teacher Education: 2014
Can I therefore suggest that if you are not promoting and developing collaborative practices yet in your establishments, you get your heads together and work out how you are going to be able to do this in the future!