Outline of Project
Like all good research projects, this one builds upon work done before. In order to explore the leadership of great pedagogy, the first step is to ensure that a way has been devised to make sure that great pedagogy is taking place, and then to work out a way to make sure it can be spread through other classrooms and other schools.
The Woodroffe School had been using the simple ‘Trio’ Method for sharing ideas and delivering CPD for some time and decided that the patterns of interaction that had been developed would provide a useful model for the development of the Teaching School alliance. Trios were initially used for colleagues to share ideas in departments but this quickly grew to accommodate cross-curricular working. From there it was an easy step to introduce cross-phase Trios, using primary feeder schools.
First thoughts regarding the proposed structure of a Teaching School alliance suggested that most models were top down and not classroom based: groups of schools were joining together with the strongest interaction at Senior Leadership Level. The Jurassic Coast Teaching School Alliance, as it came to be called, was determined from the outset to ensure that it would have a different focus and that interaction would be bottom-up and not top-down. The obvious way to do this was to get teachers to share their classroom practice and to begin working across schools rather than simply within schools. And the best way of doing this would be via Trio working, which had already proved successful both at Woodroffe and in its relations with partner primaries.
A Trio has a significant advantage over other forms of collaborative working. A pair can by mutual agreement subvert the original plan; meetings can be postponed, short-cuts taken, and an easy relationship established to soften the process. In a group of four or five, it is easy for someone to take a back seat, or miss meetings, and then the sense of group engagement dwindles. A trio is different: each member feels a strong commitment to the other two and doesn’t want to let them down. If one stops working, the others feel let down and there is therefore a much greater sense of group responsibility. And yet, three participants is enough to ensure variety and challenge.
So, in order to allow the exploration and development of great pedagogy, what better way than to establish Trios across the alliance schools, at first in a limited, experimental manner, but later in a more structured and sustainable system. The ultimate aim was to ensure that the Trios became the glue than cemented the various alliance schools together. As it has turned out, this has proved to be a powerful tool, with schools in the JCTSA linked classroom to classroom rather than boardroom to boardroom.
The initial group of Trios proved to be very successful and quickly expanded so that we now have a fairly sophisticated network in operation, with fairly regular requests from participating schools to expand the network even further.
Of course, all this doesn’t just happen; the project needs to be led, and it is the leadership of this approach to developing great pedagogy that is the focus of this study. But how was this to be monitored and recorded?
The obvious solution was simply to record the process as it unfolded and reflect upon each step taken. This has been done via a blog which has sought to record both the process and the issues arising as the Trio network has developed:
Progress made so far
As described above, the JCTSA is now in its second year as a Teaching School alliance and its second year of cross-alliance Trio working. The initial relatively small number of Trios has expanded and we now have six cross-alliance Trios in operation this year from six different secondary schools; two primary cross-alliance Trios; and one Cultural Trio, focusing on our work as a Cultural Lead school and involving an arts practitioner rather than a third teacher.
We have also developed a system whereby new Trios are led by our SLEs, and this seems to be an excellent use of their time. The aim is that once colleagues have participated in a Trio they will be able to lead a Trio in future.
Of course, training was provided to ensure that the Trios were operating in similar ways and also to ensure that there was a real focus on achieving strong outcomes.
All of this has been recorded on the JCTSA website, either as part of the Leadership blog mentioned above or in the CPD section:
The successful operation of the Trio network has allowed the exploration of a range of leadership issues, including
- Creating a rationale
- Devising the system
- Creating and delivering a CPD programme
- Ensuring the ‘buy in’ from alliance schools
- Managing budgets and providing teacher release time
- Monitoring the operation of the network
- Building in opportunities for reflection and evaluation
- Sharing good practice
Evidence of impact
There are two issues here: evidence of impact in terms of the success of the Trios themselves, and evidence of impact on the leadership of the project.
Without a doubt, Trios have been very successful and much of this success is difficult to record as it is shown by the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff involved. However, we have been careful to build in opportunities to reflect on progress and some of these are included on the website. The strongest evidence, however, comes from the Trio presentation day. This was an event arranged at the end of our first year to allow Trio participants to present their work to their colleagues and to share ideas generally. Head teachers from all the alliance schools were invited, plus we had governors and an NCTL representative. It turned out to be an incredibly successful event and one that is certain to be repeated next year. The most remarkable feature was perhaps the intense focus on pedagogy, which was evident in all of the presentations. Another particularly pleasing aspect was the degree of camaraderie evident between teachers from different schools. In other words, there was a powerful and genuine sense of collaboration in the air.
Some of the presentations were written up and recorded and these are available on the JCTSA website:
The leadership issue is more complex. A great deal of reflection is recorded in the blog but it is also fair to say that much of the impact is evidenced by the success of the Trios themselves. If the leadership went well, this allowed the Trios to flourish.
The leadership of this kind of project is not without its challenges and it is true to say the leadership issues emerging here are not significantly different from those relating to leading a teaching school alliance full stop.
Many of the issues are covered in the blog – often in the form of frustrated animadversions on the difficulties inherent in the way Teaching School alliance are structured – but it is useful to pause and reflect occasionally on the aspects of the work that have been particularly challenging.
A list is perhaps the simplest way to set out some of the challenges:
- Communication can be a massive problem. Making sure all of the schools involved reply to emails, attend meetings, meet deadlines etc. takes a huge amount of managing
- Communicating with primary colleagues is particularly difficult, partly due to the fact that primary schools are often under-resourced and short staffed but partly, it has to be said, due to the prevailing culture of ‘busyness’. Primary colleagues are often keen to inform secondary colleagues that they have been too busy to reply to emails, as if secondary schools really have nothing to do all day.
- Organisation of the Trios can be challenging but this is a management issue not necessarily a leadership issue. There are undoubted complexities in trying to match up teachers from seven or eight different schools, particularly in terms or arranging times to meet and lessons to observe, but these things can be done with commitment and enthusiasm
- Ensuring the ‘buy-in’ of other headteachers can be very demanding. Often teachers are keen to participate but their SLT teams need persuading of the benefits, particularly when they are focused on league tables, students progress etc.
- Evaluating the results of the work is also a challenge. Often it is easy to be pleased simply that something has actually happened rather than being truly evaluative. Staff may have worked in Trios and really enjoyed it but have they really achieved anything and what has been the impact on the students they teach?
- Outcomes can be measured by teacher evaluations but is it really possible to measure outcomes by measuring student progress across alliance schools? A teacher could cetainly learn an enormous amount by working with colleagues but the impact of this in his or her own classroom is surely almost impossible to measure. You could compare results this year to results last year but it would not be possible to eliminate the other factors that may have led to an improvement. It may simply have been a brighter or harder working cohort of students. Evaluation therefore may have to depend upon soft data: teacher’s reactions, audience response and the willingness of those involved to repeat the experience.
- Finance is also a challenging. The project was funded but £7.5k over two years is not really a vast amount of money. If a genuine set of costs were to be worked out, including headteacher time, leadership team time, meeting time, travel costs (significant in a rural area), supply cover etc. I am sure that we would already have exceeded our budget. Of course, financial incentives to participating schools are important, and early on we took the decision to give the initial Trios a thousand pounds to cover costs, now reduced to £500, but this meant that other budgets had to be found.
The most striking learning point from all this is perhaps the difference between school leadership and system leadership – and a very particular kind of system leadership, one where the leader is given no power over the parties involved. A headteacher works largely by persuasion, convincing his or her staff that the next initiative is a good thing. Ultimately, however, he or she has the power to direct and things can therefore get done. This is true too of a leader of a federation or an academy chain.
Leadership of an alliance is altogether different because here the leader does not have the ability to direct and forward movement can only be brought about by negotiation, mutual agreement and mutual interest. Leading this kind of system can be very difficult indeed, depending as it does largely on the leader’s ability to engage the support of other leaders.
It should also be noted that the lead school has all the responsibility and accountability. Partner schools can enthusiastically join the alliance and participate when and to whatever extent it suits them. And who can blame them? A head of any school works for the best interests of his or her own school, and takes what he or she can when it is offered. Getting alliance partners to see themselves as partners in a joint enterprise is vital to the success of an alliance but in reality something that is very difficult to do. I wonder how many of the larger alliances have the genuine commitment of their partner schools, rather than a commitment based on lip service at Steering group or board meetings?
Despite the challenges, it is undoubtedly true to say that the Trios are working and indeed proving to be one of the most successful ways of providing CPD for staff ever introduced to the school. Moreover, thanks to grass roots collaboration there is a much stronger sense of an alliance than perhaps exists in many other Teaching Schools.
The next steps are therefore obvious:
- A second year of Trio working, with more Trios working across more schools
- A second presentation evening where staff get a chance to share what they have learned
- New kinds of Trios – for example, the Cultural Trio will involved two teachers working with someone from the cultural sector
- Continued work on the blog
- Further individual evaluations from the teachers involved in the Trios
- Final evaluations by the headteachers of the schools involved
- Final reflections on leadership and sustainability
Ultimately it is hoped that Trios will become a well-established system of cross-alliance working and a system which everyone feels we cannot do without.
As our work as a Teaching School has progressed, other schools have joined us. Recently we have had requests from three more secondary schools wishing to join us. A key question here is capacity. Do we have the leadership capacity to extend the network across other schools and how is this to be managed? Will the benefits of a wider pool of talent and a larger network outweigh the problems created by having to cajole, persuade and encourage another set of headteachers and reluctant emailers!