May 2021 edition: The Case for Collaboration

The Case for Collaboration

The Secretary of State for Education set out the Government’s ambition for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy Trust at CST’s annual conference. This shifts the narrative from encouraging every school that wants to, to convert to academy status – towards every school being part of a family of schools in a Trust.

For CST, the Government's ambition is not about ideology or dogma, it’s about giving children a better future. I thought it may be helpful to set out why we think this is important.

  • Trusts exist in order to advance education for public benefit.

  • While structures are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, the School Trust is a knowledge-building structure which allows for deep collaboration and the potentiality for improving the quality of education.

  • Trust Leaders don’t only act within the system, they act upon it.

  • School Trusts can serve an important civic function, helping to situate children, their families and education at the heart of a coherent public services offer.

As the Education Select Committee said in a report in 2015 on academies and free schools: ‘Primary heads told us that, whilst becoming an academy had improved their practice and their school, this was primarily because of the advantages generated by the collaborative framework of a multi-academy trust.’

School Trusts create the conditions for deep collaborations among teachers and leaders to improve the quality of education. They are a new civic structure created with the sole purpose of advancing education for public benefit.

A group of schools working together in a single entity is an enabling collaborative structure. Teachers work and learn together to improve the way they teach and schools can share practices that make a difference to the quality of teaching. Teachers and leaders can work together on the things that matter – like curriculum and assessment.

In addition, schools where the quality of education is not yet good enough can be supported to improve. In the collaborative structure of a School Trust, it is more possible for teachers and leaders to move to another school to help improve the quality of education where that school is struggling – and these moves are more likely to be to schools with more disadvantaged pupils.

An important principle here is that the State cannot and should not allow schools to fail with no solution to support improvement. The School Trust is the vehicle for improvement. The Secretary of State’s announcement is therefore welcome because of what it means for children: more children benefitting from the power of the group.

There is an important difference between the structure of the Trust and other forms of collaboration. The Trust is a legal entity. Collaboration is therefore hardwired. It is not optional. One cannot walk away if conversations about what needs to improve become difficult. Trusts create the conditions for a group of schools to work in deep and purposeful collaboration through what David Hargreaves all those years ago in the 2000s called structural integration.

School Trusts create the conditions for deep collaborations among teachers and leaders to improve the quality of education. They are a new civic structure created with the sole purpose of advancing education for public benefit.

Leora Cruddas and Steve Rollett

We’ve seen further tangible evidence of that power during the pandemic. In fact, in my conference speech, I was pleased to announce compelling new research from a project run in collaboration between CST and Nottingham University.

Researchers found that the collegiality of schools within Trusts was a key benefit during the coronavirus pandemic, with CEOs of Trusts reporting that they were able to ease the burden on schools by centralising and redistributing tasks to allow schools to focus on teaching and welfare.

The study found that Trust schools broadened traditional definitions of ‘disadvantaged’ students, recognising that there could be two groups of those that are deemed vulnerable children during the pandemic. For example, there are those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and there are those who could be disadvantaged by both parents working full-time and so could be experiencing emotional neglect. The schools in the study worked successfully to reduce disengagement in these groups.

While it might be tempting to dismiss talk about structures as a distraction from the real business of education, we are seeing growing evidence that the structure facilitates vital capacity; the capacity to educate, to improve schools, and to weather external shocks. These things matter for children – and so they matter for us.