I am a big fan of pictures and charts. They help to summarise your thinking and to tell a story. So here are three charts that are taken from one of eight reports that NCTL published on 24th February 2015 on the theme of developing and leading great pedagogy*. The reports summarise the learning that has been taking place over the last two years across a range of teaching school alliances (TSAs) as schools have worked together around different research projects that have all been designed to improve teaching and learning.
The first chart below shows in a conceptual form the challenge that one of the strands of the project was set up to address: how to link and lead improvement of teaching and learning across groups of schools. How can schools work together in a way that both addresses the specific needs of their individual institutions while stimulating new learning between schools and, crucially, generalising that learning within a teaching school alliance? If a school-led system is to really take root we have to ensure that progress is more than just a patchwork quilt of unconnected advances within individual institutions. Undertaking action research on a joint basis can potentially lead to co-constructing and spreading new knowledge more quickly. It can also help us to understand what is replicable irrespective of context and which factors need to be adjusted to reflect the particular needs and circumstances of a school. But organising and leading such projects is far from straightforward.
The second chart summarises the findings and identifies key leadership issues for three groups: those leading research orientated teaching and learning projects; the senior leadership team of a school where some of the staff are participating in action research; and the leaders of a teaching school alliance. The report explains the thinking behind each of the findings but if I had to draw out one issue from each of the three headings in the chart it would be as follows:
- Leadership of project – empower middle leaders. A number of the projects really started to fly when senior leaders let go and let faculty or subject leaders run with the initiative. As one senior described: “Initially by directing and leading the project personally and planning too much myself there was too little buy-in and understanding. As soon as I passed the planning design and review to the middle leaders delivering the sessions the project moved forward much more quickly and the shared ownership at middle leader level in schools created additional understanding of the objectives throughout schools. Essentially, directed work from senior leaders does not always work.”
- Leadership within school – focus on development rather than assessing performance. A key learning point for the many of the senior and middle leaders was recognising the importance of using a non-judgemental approach and prioritising development over judgements when working on projects that involve classroom observations and teacher-to-teacher development activity of pedagogical skills.
- Leadership of an alliance – work to clear strategic priorities. This may sound like an obvious point. However, some TSAs have a business plan or strategy that exists alongside streams of initiatives that do not always reflect the priorities the alliance has supposedly espoused. That may be because the alliance is not sufficiently listening or understanding the needs of its partner schools, or it may be because projects get underway without sufficient thought being given to whether and how they will deliver what the TSA is trying to focus on. Classroom-based learning projects between schools are much more likely to be successful if alliance leaders can see how the work will address key issues facing their schools. They are then in a position to commission, champion and support a project and hold project leaders to account for progress and impact. It’s all part of the programmes and activity of TSAs becoming more mainstream and less of an optional add-on to the development of their member schools.
The third chart summarises the skills that school leaders will need if they are to be effective in leading learning across TSAs. I first developed this chart for my 2008 book for ASCL on leading school partnerships ‘Achieving more together’. Simon Rea and I have now adapted the graphic in the light of the insights of leaders involved in the action research projects. The bullet points in the middle of the chart lists the range of skills that are integral to leadership in any context. The list on the left emphasises some of the particular skills needed in leading an individual school while the list on the right highlights those skills that are more likely to be the fore when leading learning across groups or partnerships of schools. The lists are not mutually exclusive but bring out the need for senior leaders involved in leading partnerships to demonstrate what might be termed a softer range of attributes if they are to make TSAs the engines of great pedagogy.
*See Research Report 443F (and accompanying case studies) RR 443G: Rea, S., Sandals, L., Parish, N., Hill, R., and Gu, Q.. (2015) Leadership of great pedagogy in teaching school alliances: NCTL final report,Teaching schools R&D network national themes project 2012-14, DfE. The reports can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-and-development-network-leadership-of-pedagogy-report