March 2021 edition: Together we're Stronger

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Together we're Stronger

The Compass Partnership is a group of seven schools; six primaries and one all-through special school. As a group, we have existed since 2011 and have developed a deep culture of collaboration and a deep commitment to the highest quality of teaching and curriculum. We have known for some time that the group has a powerful internal dynamic that supports improvement and empowers schools and individuals to constantly evolve, that knowledge mobilisation is swift and impactful, and that great practice is quickly spread through the professional networks that we have built across our schools. We have known too that great practitioners thrive on the ideas of others and feed off of the professional dialogue and the very tangible evidence that comes with sharing great practice.

COVID-19 has also shown us the real impact of collective efficacy and the power that informed research-centred professionals have when the evidence-informed conditions are created to work together. As a Trust, we have focused on creating these conditions, curating the very best of what we know about our curriculum and the pedagogical choices we make in ensuring children build knowledge.

"When teachers believe that together they and their colleagues can impact on student achievement, they share a sense of collective teacher efficacy. Collective efficacy is high when teachers believe that the staff is capable of helping students master complex content, fostering students’ creativity, and getting students to believe they can do well in school." 
Jenny Donohoo, 2017, Collective Efficacy (Corwin).

When you are part of a group, agreed principles and values are a necessary foundation for collective working – they ensure the point at which we meet and collaborate is even. In fact, for collaboration across a group of schools to work effectively, it is essential that there is a ‘common’ language around pedagogy and curriculum. This is how we collectively frame the standards and expectations we have for the quality of curriculum and teaching. This is not to say that there won’t be a constant pull between localised and group demands. When the parameters are agreed and understood, this pull becomes a very natural iterative process of evolution in practices where practitioners have agency over the intellectual capital that is generated – the ‘schemata’ of the organisation is enriched and embedded.

Donohoo (2017) identified six enabling conditions for Collective Teacher Efficacy:

  • Advanced teacher influence

  • Goal consensus

  • Teachers’ knowledge about one another’s work

  • Cohesive staff

  • Responsiveness of leadership

  • Effective systems of intervention

Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant disruption to face-to-face teaching has been characterised by these six conditions. Our strategy was firmly premised on teacher agency and centred on teachers developing and evaluating their own approaches while developing a deep understanding of each other’s work. Vivienne Robinson also identifies the need for leaders to "co-construct and develop shared theories of action and change" (Robinson, 2017). Leaders across the Trust ensured this.

During the first phase of the pandemic, Compass was already in a strong position as a result of our digital strategy. Teaching was able to move online with speed and teachers quickly grasped the demands of online platforms and the various methods of engaging pupils in learning remotely. One or two modelled new technologies, videoed these and quickly mobilised these across the Trust to support all practitioners. The combination of a clear need, coupled with dedicated, driven teachers exemplified the very essence of collective efficacy. Teachers grasped the challenge and drove the change; and it did not require leaders directing it. Leaders framed the context and provided the institutional framework of needs (time, resources and connections) – teachers drove it.

When you are part of a group, agreed principles and values are a necessary foundation for collective working – they ensure the point at which we meet and collaborate is even.

John Camp

It also became clear that some teachers had greater capacity to manage the online offer. Some had young families at home with them and a partner out at work and the challenge of providing online learning in this context was significant. We did not want teachers to be stressed by context and we did not want a child’s provision to be dependent on their teacher’s context either. We had framed an offer so that every child across Compass schools received the same weekly entitlement and every teacher was supported in delivering this.

We had the same knowledge-rich curriculum that provided a detailed, sequenced structure for curriculum content and a common language for exchange. Our Trust-wide platform (Office 365 and SharePoint) meant we already had the virtual structure to facilitate this and ensured we had the mechanism for working remotely. This also meant that teachers could share the planning of lessons and the recording of videoed sessions. Feedback from our parent forum was hugely supportive of this – they valued the work that teachers had put into ensuring children had a good provision.

This model of collaboration had served us well in our curriculum development work and Trust-wide accountability teamwork. In knowing ‘you can make a difference’, teachers are empowered to co-construct the strategies and pedagogical models that lead to the difference being achieved. These strategies and models can be drawn from research and connection to system thinkers, as well as from the day to day experience of the marginal changes made to practice in the classroom. This core organisational strategy is complemented by various cross-school teams that work in harmony within a value system that clearly says to practitioners ‘you have the answers or can find the answers’ and importantly, ‘you can make a difference’.

Staff have embraced the challenge and found the solutions. The COVID-19 period has been incredibly challenging for people, but this has not stopped them focusing on the needs of children. It has also brought schools even closer to their communities and has shown that technology is a great enabler for this. The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology and realised its potential for connecting, energising, enabling and mobilising. The COVID-19 context has developed greater leadership agility and greater connectedness.

Having time to reflect on developments has also been key, as this underpins an approach to intervention and ensures we evaluate impact. COVID-19 has shown us that school Trusts can be highly effective organisational structures for levering professional collaboration and co-construction that enhances teacher agency and engagement; not the often touted view of Trusts as centralised, bureaucratic commercial chains that seek to crush autonomy and thinking.