In whose interests do we collaborate?
Peterborough is on the cusp of doing something really exciting in education, with a whole host of people getting involved in the learning of young people. I ran an event there a couple of weeks ago which sought to surface, celebrate and build upon a range of partnerships in the education sector in Peterborough, including our own Peterborough Curriculum. There was enormous enthusiasm for more partnership working, more collaboration, and multiple organisations working together. What’s needed now is a vision for young people that makes all the fantastic work and collaboration going on really more than the sum of its parts.
Collaboration in education can mean a variety of things and these tend to be fudged a little when we talk up the general Good Thing that is working together with others. There are collaborations between schools and other schools; between different phases of education; between education institutions and other formal sectors (e.g. businesses, public services); between schools and parents or communities; between teachers within schools…
But an important challenge was put to a seminar on leadership for collaboration last week: do we have any evidence to show that ‘collaboration’ has any impact on young people’s outcomes? I confess I was stumped as to the answer. Yet much of current government policy relies on notions of collaboration for the improvement of the system.
In Peterborough there are a number of collaboration types from the above list in existence: the Peterborough Learning Partnership, which is primarily a network of primary and secondary schools, but is now branching out to include other phases and sectors; the Peterborough Skills Service which brokers links between employers and schools; and the Peterborough Curriculum (run with the RSA) which supports a small number of schools to form curriculum development partnerships with non-educational partners from the local area. There are others too, both individual partnerships between schools and local organisations, and high level strategic links between sector leaders city wide.
The question now is, can these be made more than the sum of their parts to provide a powerful ‘coalition of the willing’ that will ensure the best for Peterborough’s young people, rather than a dissipation of effort despite the undoubted benefits being won by each? In this Peterborough is not atypical of the rest of the country: where Local Authorities are drawing back on the educational front, other collaborations and networks are beginning to take up the slack – and often driving new approaches to drawing in other stakeholders as well. All this collaboration and effort, however, needs to have vision and purpose if young people are to remain front and centre.
That is not to say that children always remain front and centre when the business of education is left only to the education sector. We know too well the sometimes distorting effect of accountability, the resources devoted to children on the C/D boundary, the teaching to the test that goes on in Year 6. The school’s best interests are not always the same as the best interests of every child within that school. If the school’s agenda alone is not always the best proxy for a child’s best interests, then perhaps collaboration is the answer. It’s tired and overused, but does the proverbial ‘village’ have a role in formal education not only because of the additional resources it can bring in austere times, but because it prevents institutional agendas, targets and numbers, including those of the education system itself, sidelining the young people?
While upward institutional and funding issues will necessarily make the willingness and enthusiasm for working together complex, I have real faith that we can link Peterborough’s existing successful collaborations together to the benefit of Peterborough’s young people. We should welcome the willingness of the wider city to get involved, and of schools to work together.
But I think that to be really transformative we need to add these things up into an inclusive vision that allows the different collaborations which have their own upwards targets to work with one another towards a common end, but also for the participation of more than just the formal partnerships and institutions. For perhaps it is by continually looking outwards, juggling and reconciling different and sometimes conflicting agendas, rather than simple upwards hierarchies, that we are forced to think about what we are doing, for whom, and why. Perhaps this is how what we do becomes truly accountable to the young people and their families, rather than the schools, businesses or politicians, in whose interests we collaborate.