One of the products of greater school autonomy has been the proliferation of collaboration between schools and the creation of networks led by teachers to fill, and alter, the space left by the shrinking influence of local educational authorities. Schools are now in the process of forming new relationships with each other in order to access the benefits of federation.
These new relationships pose many questions that need to be considered by school leaders; what can be lost through federation? What stakeholders should be included? Who should hold final decision making power? Who should hold the partnerships accountable?
Underlying this push by schools to drive their own improvement and have a guiding hand in their own future is the question of the extent of influence teachers should carry in shaping the education system.
I’m currently involved in three separate attempts to foster teacher led networks that promote best practice, resource pooling and collaborative accountability. One is a partnership between local schools to provide support on school wide standards, primarily offering peer observations, adding an external gaze to accountability proceedings. Another offers training opportunities to newly qualified teachers and the growing ranks of their acronym laden colleagues. While the third, as far as I’m aware, is a short term professional development programme with seemingly no connection to the locality.
In principle I am a firm supporter of all of these initiatives individually as well the fundamental endeavour behind them. Since I first sat down to plan a lesson on the causes of World War One, from scratch, in my second week of teaching, I’ve been convinced that teachers and schools don’t collaborate enough. Yet the nature of the schemes concerns me. They seem to have no clear relationship with each other, at least not at the level of delivery, and it is not obvious what the overall strategy that ties the schemes together is.
This uncertainty is reflected at a national level. Teachers, schools and third parties have established an astonishing number of attempts at bringing schools together and placing teachers at the heart of educational change. On a macro scale The Head Teacher Round Table are lobbying on reforms to qualifications. Organisations like the RSA are leading work on teacher led research and curriculum development. Teachers are involved in teach meets and on-going internet discussions about best practice and schools reform on top of school based activities. Teachers have grasped the opportunity of teacher autonomy.
But it all feels somewhat chaotic. There is no clear model for how teachers should take responsibility for the direction of their schools and education as a whole. More broadly it isn’t clear how schools should engage third parties and the responsibilities those organisations should take on. There is a wide reaching desire to contribute and shape our education system which isn’t being harnesses effectively due to a lack of direction.
The acknowledgement of the impact of teacher and school autonomy on improving standards in education has reached a level of consensus bordering on truistic. Yet, the role teachers should play, what teachers should do with their new autonomy, is less well defined than the fact it should exist in the first place. Seen as a rallying call for leadership and innovation or the route to confusion, waste and destructive competition, the role of teachers, within a less prescribed system, has the capacity to include and empower teachers as well as divide them.
Without a clearer strategy of how school autonomy should be fostered by teachers in local circumstances, I fear the current energy driving school based and teacher led innovation will be lost and the potential benefits of autonomy squandered.
Joe Lane is Editor of the latest Anatomy, Our Responsibility Towards Education and lead of the teaching profession focus.