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When a collaborative is not collaborating

In a recent paper, 'Seven reasons why Scottish education is under-performing', Walter Humes an honorary professor at Stirling University, identified key reasons why he thought the education system in Scotland was facing a period of uncertainty and challenge to its identity and effectiveness. The reasons he identified were quite damming and seemed to cause quite a bit of angst amongst many in the system, some of whom were quick to attack Humes' disparaging of the system, and the reasons he identified for this. The seven factors he thought were contributing to the struggles of the system were; Failure to learn from the past, Poor political leadership, A complacent and self-regarding policy community, Lack of up- to-date independent data, defensive and protectionist professional attitudes, Boastful and sentimental language, and A deep vein of anti-intellectualism.

There is no wonder hackles were raised following the publication and explanation of his list of failings. Some rushed to defend themselves, and others, whilst others did as Hume asked and began to think carefully about the reasons that might lie behind the apparent deterioration of the system's performance. Given that he published his article on the Sceptical Scot online platform, which seeks to stimulate debate about Scotland its culture and politics, you would expect getting people to think and debate what he was saying, was at least the basic aim of his paper. As he acknowledged in his introduction 'If we are to make real progress we need to be frank about these, however uncomfortable they may be.' I agree entirely with him in that respect. The first step to improvement and development is a recognition of what the issues are and where we might do better. Burying our heads in in the metaphorical sands of complacency and self-congratulatory mindsets, does ourselves and our learners little good. There is much that we do in Scotland that is excellent and we should never lose sight of that, but we also have to admit and recognise the areas where we can do better. My own stance has always been that we should start from, and build on, the things we do well to help us develop those areas we know we could do better. What works for schools, also works for systems.

Adding further explanation to his identification of their being 'a complacent and self-regarding policy community' he describes a 'cosy' culture that often exists, where 'outsiders' who dare to criticise or question policy can be quickly marginalised, or ignored. Such a culture promotes conformity with members on the inside reassuring themselves that they are doing a good job, whilst protecting their existing territories. Elsewhere, he notes that 'Too many ministers have mistaken spectacle for substance.' Ouch!

Move forward a few weeks and we find an article in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland (TESS) by Henry Hepburn that perhaps illustrates some of the problems identified by Humes. In 'Northern what? Alliance proves to be anonymous' Henry writes about the Northern Alliance, a collaboration of eight councils around education in the north of Scotland. He reports that the Education and Skills Committee had left Holyrood and had visited one of the council areas to look at some of what was being achieved by this much lauded amalgamation councils and their focus on education. John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education in the Scottish Government, has used this Northern Alliance as an example of collaborative working that he wishes all local authorities to engage with, and it was the blueprint for new Regional Improvement Collaborative (RICs) he has rolled out across the country. Indeed, the former head of the Northern Alliance, Gayle Gorman, has recently been appointed the new CEO of Education Scotland, and Chief inspector of Schools, charged with delivering the government's vision.

However, what the Education and Skills committee members found was a picture that didn't exactly match a lot of the rhetoric that had come from the Minister and his representatives. In the area they visited, Aberdeenshire, they found teachers and other education staff who had not heard of the Northern Alliance, despite it being in existence since 2015. A focus group of headteachers stated they were 'unclear' as to the impact of the Alliance, and some suggested there was little 'buy in' to the work of the Alliance. The leader for education in the authority admitted that it was 'true' that teachers knew little of the work of the Alliance, and that school leaders still identified with their local authority rather than the Alliance, and this was what was to be expected. Others, also at Director level, rushed to defend the work of the Alliance, indicating that this was just a case of 'lack of awareness' on behalf of staff, but that they were sure it was having an impact in schools and for learners. It is presumed this is their own evaluation, rather than the result of any external validation.

I know there has been lots of work going on across the Northern Alliance, and I live in the very south of Scotland. I know this from Twitter feeds, Blogs and conversations with colleagues. But, the trouble is, so many teachers and school leaders still have no presence on social media platforms like this. Therefore, no matter what work the Alliance is engaged in, its impact will only be as wide as its ability to involve and communicate this with all its members, and this will be a major issue for all RICs. 'Cascade' models of sharing professional development insights have many limitations and are far from ideal. 

There is no doubt that this was just a snapshot of one council area, out of eight in the Alliance, and that the results might differ in other areas. They probably will now, as I am sure the word has gone out in the other areas to make sure everyone knows they are part of the Northern Alliance. I also suspect one of the first steps the other RICs will take is to make sure all teachers and eduation staff know which one they are now a part of. But, it does illustrate some of the points Walter Humes was trying to make in his article. We can be very quick to attribute success to political policy, on the flimsiest of evidence, and within very short time scales. Dissenting voices, or those who just want to question the 'evidence' can be quickly and too easily dismissed in the push for conformity and compliance. All of which leads to the perpetuation of poor decision making, lack of reliable data and more derision of any intellectual engagement or challenge from with the system. Such models can also perpetuate the 'handing down' of policy decisions from above with schools and teachers still viewed as the deliverers.

None of this is healthy, and Walter is right to challenge what he sees happening, in the hope that we may all stop and think, instead of rushing headlong into more mistakes and busyness, which may have little positive impact for the system as a whole, or for individual learners. There is no doubt that focused collaboration is key to system development. For this to have impact takes time, so that all key stakeholders are part of the collaboration, and are not sitting oblivious to collaboration taking place. Such collaboration has to be focused on learning and teaching, as well as supporting teachers to enquire into their practice and their impact on learning, not the creation of more structures or policy. If teachers and education staff are not aware they are part of an educational collaborative, then it can hardly be described as collaborative. Of course, all those same colleagues will be collaborating meaningfully each day in their roles, it will be part of what they do. RICs are designed to provide a structure to ensure collaboration on a wider level, when really its a culture that is more important than any imposed structure. If we ignore culture, and working collectively at meaningful collaboration, that includes all stakeholders, the new collaboratives are doomed to failure. It is to be hoped that those who sit on these new bodies, understand this and are clear about how they can go about supporting school leaders, teachers and others to be the best they can be.

As a former school leader, I also recognise that many of the issues identified by Walter can equally apply to the leadership of schools. My last post on this Blog was about the 'bubbles' we can all exist comfortably in, and it is easy for schools and their leaders to convince themselves that every thing they do is wonderful in their establishments. We need to challenge that as well. The problems we can identify in any system can be micro as well as macro in nature. When we look at the issues around the Northern Alliance, how many of these might be mirrored in individual schools? I still hear anecdotally about schools where the staff and parents have had no involvement in the production of improvement plans, before they are presented to them by the headteacher or school leadership. Equally, the issues identified are not just confined to Scotland and the Scottish system, and I am sure colleagues in other countries and systems will find much that is similar to their own experiences.

First step to any improvement, at any level, is to identify the issues, then we can collaborate to identify solutions and share insights. 

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