Research studies on collaboration should switch their focus from staff development and support to pupil attainment

Collaboration between schools is now seen as an important way to improve educational performance. Yet little is known definitively about what impact this has for improving pupil attainment.

Despite the popular rhetoric, most studies are qualitative and focus on showing its importance for staff development and support rather than outcomes for pupils. There have been very few efforts to capture the effect for the education bottom line, with those that attempt to do so generally employing research methods that cannot yield needed answers. The lack of interest from the research community in quantifying the effects of collaboration for pupils has also meant that there’s been little engagement with the challenges associated with taking into account multiple simultaneous initiatives in schools.

Most importantly, the issue of whether it’s possible to distinguish the effects of collaboration from the underlying effects of school autonomy has been almost overlooked. Autonomy introduces a competitive dynamic to schools. The various forms of institutional collaboration and federation that now exist – whether they seek to ameliorate competition or rise to its challenges – are themselves an effect of it.

The best way to foster more effective school relations is to enhance their freedoms

Unsurprisingly, recent research on chain and federation effects, although unable to draw causal inferences, suggests that the differences between these institutional responses and less formal collaborative undertakings may make them more or less impactful. This research suggests that multi-academy trust schools that have “hard-federated” expressly to improve pupil attainment, and which have restructured and integrated their systems to deliver it, are likely to be most impactful. This is something different from collaboration. I call it “corporatisation”.

By contrast, due in part (I argue) to the influence of the theoretical frameworks and underlying value commitments shaping collaboration, the same research suggests that schools in local, small-scale, and less binding/formal arrangements, designed to preserve participating schools’ independence, are unlikely to spur improvements in pupil attainment. Recent inquiries have found, moreover, that because less binding arrangements are less likely to be subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis, they are prone to a lack of clarity around objectives, what resources are required to achieve them, and to problems with oversight and accountability. This makes them time-consuming and potentially costly for teachers and administrators – which may very well deplete the time, effort and resources available for staff to focus on their own school and students.

It should be stressed that such research is not definitive. The methods in these studies cannot control for what researchers term “unseen variables” – factors such as schools’ prior capacity for improvement or pupil motivation – so, though more convincing than those offered by studies of collaboration, the findings are only suggestive.

In my view, the overall evidence-base is inadequate for mandating particular structures – which should give pause to the government’s efforts to engineer the system via the Schools Commissioner’s Office. It also suggests that institutions mechanistically required to engage in collaborative effort may forego opportunities and gains from employing more focused strategies in their individual school, thus outweighing any potential gains arising from partnership.

For those intent on autonomous collaboration, the best research does underscore the importance of institutions maintaining a focus on their primary purpose – that is, pupils’ education, coming to a point in their performance at examination – and of getting serious about how any partnerships they choose to engage in are actually going to secure improvement on this bottom line.

What is clear from even a cursory examination of the research literature on school collaboration is that there is a pressing need for realignment to more explicitly outcome-oriented ends. The decision to collaborate, or federate, is predicated on schools having the autonomy to do so. The best way for the government to foster more effective school-to-school relations is therefore via extending and enhancing their freedoms, and ensuring the right competitive incentives are in place to sharpen the focus on attainment and ensure optimal operational efficiency.