New school ties: networks for success
New School Ties: Networks for Success is a report on recent research into school networking. The research, carried out from 2007 to 2008, examines collaborations in support of better outcomes for students, among schools or between schools and other agencies. In particular the research examines collaborations intended to help students who are underperforming in literacy and numeracy, at risk of leaving school early, or less likely to enter university or to succeed in further or vocational education. The report was published by Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
As well as conducting a search of the local and international literature, the project collected qualitative data through four forums and a number of interviews with policymakers, researchers, and representatives of leading business, philanthropic, community and education-sector organisations.
The research and consultation identified a number of factors that make greater collaboration across Victorian schools and between schools and other agencies both increasingly necessary and increasingly possible. They include:
The research identified an international policy trend toward formal networks that have the capability to bring additional resources into schools, including schools serving disadvantaged areas and young people most in need of such support. In response to this finding, the project focuses primarily on networks for deep reform that address some of the systemic and structural barriers to success for children and young people facing disadvantage.
The key finding of this research and consultation is that Victoria is already the focus of numerous collaborations operated by, with or for schools.
At the post-compulsory end of schooling (Years 11 and 12) the Local Learning and Employment Networks have had notable success in bringing together education providers, industry, community organisations, government organisations and individuals to improve outcomes for young people in communities across the State, although they still face barriers to cooperation and cross-sector operation (Robinson & Keating 2005).
The report focuses primarily on networks for the compulsory years of schooling (Prep to Year 10). The Schools for Innovation and Excellence clusters have been the most prevalent formal school networks for these years. They involve all Victorian primary and secondary government schools in cooperative efforts to enhance teaching and learning, bring about school reform and create partnerships with their local communities. The clusters have shown improved student engagement and better teacher ability to provide learning opportunities for students (Department of Education & Training 2005a).
The Leading Schools Fund, a key initiative of the Blueprint for Government Schools (Department of Education & Training 2003), has been another important vehicle for groups of proximate government schools. It provides funding for approved secondary schools to develop innovative solutions to improve student learning outcomes. Participating schools are expected to think beyond traditional practices and structures, share effective practice and develop partnerships with other schools in their geographic area.
Other important Victorian initiatives include the 64 school leadership networks and the regional principal reference groups that act as vehicles for collaboration and shared action between local schools. These networks operate across Victoria, managing student services and technical support for schools in all areas of the State. The networks are recognised consultative bodies for the Office of Government School Education and undertake a range of initiatives at the discretion of the local membership. Particular areas of focus for the networks include joint strategies to improve student learning, transitions, engagement and wellbeing, as well as teacher practice and strategies to share existing or engage additional resources. These may include community or local government partnerships. Network membership is generally made up of school leaders (including assistant principals) with standing invitations extended to the relevant Regional Director and Senior Education Officers.
The Blueprint for Education and Early Childhood Development (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2008) provides the framework for the creation of a more integrated learning and development system. Under a new network strategic plan, networks will collectively support all schools to improve and achieve better outcomes for the students in a network.
The education network movement is part of a wider movement toward cross-government and cross-sectoral collaboration. In Victoria, the integration of early childhood services and schools is a cornerstone of the Blueprint, opening up new opportunities for collaboration.
For example, the recently opened Pakenham Springs Primary School is co-located with a kindergarten, a maternal and child health centre and an occasional childcare centre. The co-location is the result of collaboration between the school, local government and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
Co-locations of this kind go a long way to implementing the call for schools to be reconfigured as ‘focal points of community development’ (Feeney et al 2002), but there are also more integrated models such as that represented by the United Kingdom’s full-service Extended Schools program.
At a national level the Australian Government’s appointment of the first Minister for Social Inclusion can be expected to strengthen this joined-up approach.
Support for this approach has also come from local government, which has a potentially central role in improving educational provision and outcomes in disadvantaged communities. The Victorian Government now recognises that ‘local councils have a major role in community development and can become key partners with schools’ (Department of Education & Training 2005b).
An even more ambitious model would see schools forming a central part of a networked learning system guided by a shared mandate to provide interlinked educational and other services for the entire community and for every stage of life. Bentley (2006) provides one map of what this provision could look like.
Alongside formal, structured networks there is a need for flexible and informal networks that are able to respond to changing needs and circumstances. One UK study mounted an argument for ‘weak school ties’ in the development and transfer of effective practice between schools. It suggested that:
[Weak school ties] can happen over a much wider geographical area than would be possible for a strong tie relationship. Weak tie relationships allow schools to select partnerships on the basis of potential benefit rather than geographical convenience. They can therefore help schools break out of the potentially inward-looking agenda of a local area (Lawrence 2007).
It is important to note that collaboration can actually be held back by formal structures and accountabilities ‘that encourage schools to think of themselves as autonomous, stand alone units’ (Leadbeater 2005, in Mulford 2007).
Networks are not in themselves a panacea and there is a need to recognise the challenges that come with collaborative practice. The demands of participation in a network can overwhelm teachers and other professionals who are already juggling immense demands on their time and energy.
For some schools operating in challenging circumstances, the task of engaging in a simple partnership with another school or with a local organisation – let alone a more complex network with multiple partners – requires skills and resources that may be in short supply as the school struggles to meet the more immediate needs of its students.
Schools need to be supported in the development of the complex skills that are required to work collaboratively.
Intermediary organisations can work with schools to build their capacity to create and maintain meaningful partnerships and networks. There are a growing number of these intermediary organisations operating in Victoria. There may also be scope for new intermediary roles such as partnership brokers or network coaches.
For example, the Tasmanian Government (Department of Education 2006) has introduced school–community partnership officers who work with school leaders, businesses and parent and community organisations to develop partnerships that improve student outcomes.
Further frameworks could be developed within which school education networks might flourish and receive the support they require. Some of the preconditions for the successful operation of networks include adequate resources, effective leadership, a focus on student outcomes, and the ability to combine responsiveness to local circumstances with high standards and accountabilities.
This report is also featured in Beyond the Classroom: Building New School Networks, a broader national report recently launched by the Australian Council for Educational Research.
Bentley, T 2006, Futures for Learning, Proceedings of the OECD/Mexico International Conference,
Department of Education 2006, The Student at the Centre: Supporting Improving Schools Plan 2006–2007: A Summary, Department of Education, Hobart.
Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2008, Blueprint for Early Childhood
Department of Education & Training 2003, Blueprint for Government Schools, Communications
Department of Education & Training 2005a, Closing the Loop: Curriculum, Pedagogy, Assessment &
Department of Education & Training 2005b, Schools as Community Facilities: Policy Framework and
Feeney, A, Feeney, D, Norton, M, Simons, R, Wyatt, D & Zappala, G 2002, Bridging the Gap between
Lawrence, P 2007, The Strength of Weak School Ties: The Importance of ‘Weak’ Relationships in Sharing Good Practice between Schools, National College for School Leadership, Nottingham. Available at: http://www.ncsl.org.uk/publications-index.htm
Mulford, B 2007, ‘Building social capital in professional learning communities: importance, challenges
Robinson, L & Keating, J 2005, ‘Regional education and training networks: lessons from Victoria’s