Next steps for education in Scotland: Regional Improvement Collaborative

Matt Davis

Having been a teacher, manager, researcher and trainer working in primary, secondary, further and higher education as well as a special school and pupil referral units, Matt Davis is now regional director for the UK at Education Development Trust.

I've just finished watching a fascinating statement from John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in Scotland. As part of a package of reforms to the way schools are led and governed (Education Governance: Next Steps – Empowering our teachers, parents and communities to deliver excellence and equity for our children), Education Scotland, local authorities and schools will work together to establish Regional Improvement Collaboratives. These partnerships will play a central role in driving Scotland's efforts to continue raising attainment and closing the achievement gap. More than just bringing together and focussing school improvement resources, this approach represents a bold, systemic investment in collaboration.

Scotland has taken an admirably international perspective on education reform. The government has invited close involvement from organisations such as the OECD and employs an International Counsel of Education Advisors to advise on policy priorities. Often, however, there is slightly less enthusiasm about some key aspects of the reforms made south of the border over the last decade or so. The introduction of academies, market competition and the nature of inspection are areas which are often viewed with a degree of caution.

One lesson to be learned?

I would humbly offer one particular lesson from England which is worth consideration as Scotland takes these important next steps. We have gone big on collaboration as a vehicle for sustainable school improvement here in England. Thanks to initiatives such as the London Challenge and the work of the National College, it’s part of the policy furniture. School leaders around the country share their expertise, advising, challenging and supporting other schools formally – for example as National Leaders of Education – or less formally. Most schools in England will have been involved in some form of peer review – some of it great, some of it a bit less so – and many will be involved in multiple partnerships with other schools locally and nationally.

Education Development Trust’s work with hundreds of schools and local systems on this issue has convinced us that collaboration can be the route to achieving the type of attainment and equity gains which the Scottish Government is targeting, but the conditions which make this more likely are crucial. 

Done right, models of collaborative school improvement can deliver real results, but as our own John Cronin and Maggie Farrar point out in the recent review of their work on the Schools Partnership Programme, the conditions are crucial. Partly this is about using a consistent process and building schools' skills and capacity in peer review and school-to-school support. Equally, getting the right mindset, leadership and culture will allow a technically sound approach to flourish and become sustainable.

This view is confirmed by the experiences of schools and educators globally. We have previously written about the factors which will enable system-wide collaboration to flourish, based on the research literature and discussions with other systems adopting these approaches – see our thinkpiece for Global Dialogue. As Scotland embarks on a national model of collaborative school improvement, it is timely to state again the features which are common to effective collaboratives:

  • Effective collaborative school improvement is resolutely outcomes focussed: all of the best school partnerships we see negotiate and sign up to shared outcome targets, which are then made public for all parties to measure themselves against.
  • Peer review focuses on improving, not proving: the transparency and openness which create the rich improvement conversations that typify excellent peer review are less likely where review acts as a mock inspection. The underpinning culture should be one of enquiry, learning and growth, but the focus should be on improvement rather than enquiry for its own sake.
  • Peer review, collaboration and school-to-school support are integrally linked: clusters which conduct peer review as part of an ongoing arrangement to support one another to improve are most likely to see benefit. A clear, 'contractual' partnership agreement which specifies the obligations and expectations around, for example, data sharing, confidentiality and dispute resolution procedures sets the scene for a collaborative culture.
  • Effective partnerships work on culture and strive for ever closer collaboration: we are increasingly sure that clusters which develop 'trust-based professional accountability' see most benefits from partnership working. We encourage clusters to plan a deliberate journey from a willingness and commitment to collaboration to co–responsibility to shared professional accountability.
  • The best partnerships deliberately address the operational reality of collaboration: High quality and impactful collaboration is time consuming. While effective collaboration does deliver clear returns on investment of time, leaders need to identify realistically what capacity is required to take part, and designate specific roles and portfolio leadership responsibilities.

By working in this way, we are now beginning to see consistent signs of impact on school quality, but there is much more to learn – we look forward to discovering much more about how schools, teachers and leaders can work together to give all young people in Scotland a fantastic education.