In one of the most significant periods of upheaval in education, debate around collaboration centres too much on structure and too little on the substance and purpose of education. Instead, says Marie-Claire Bretherton, it should revolve around the quality and purpose of school partnerships

Earlier this year, our Lincolnshire teaching school alliance submitted evidence to the education select committee on the purpose and quality of education.

Amazingly, given the importance of the question, we were among just a handful of schools and school groups to respond to the committee’s call for evidence – a response in sharp contrast to the recent high-profile debate around multi-academy trusts (MATs).

For me this underlined the problem with our current educational debates.

We face the most significant period of reconfiguration, upheaval and potential distraction in the history of our education system, yet in our discussions and debate around collaboration, partnerships, MATs, teaching schools and other groupings we talk too much about structure and too little about the substance and purpose of education.

This obsession risks taking us away from understanding and pursuing education systems, local and national, that truly make a difference for all children.

It’s not just the government’s fault. The tone of conversation entered into by some sections of the media and, indeed some in the profession – reactive, fearful and mechanistic – shares the blame. Some of this is understandable, but it is not going to help us to create a better system.

This lack of focus on the “why” – the purpose of our education system and the outcomes we all want to achieve for children – can really undermine the partnerships that we all now need to create. The debate should really be revolving around the quality and purpose of our school partnerships.

School collaborations have been tried in the past but often have been inadequate. Many lacked long-term impact because one or more of the fundamentals of true partnership, such as a shared sense of purpose, self-generated accountability and challenge, bespoke support, permanence and sustainability, were missing.

The alternative is coalition. This is about shared vision and values, shared accountability and leadership, strong governance and a genuine commitment to partnership, with lots of constructive challenge and support between schools. And they are less likely to be a flash in the pan.

One way to do this is to hold a development day where discussions around structures and processes are avoided. Instead, heads are encouraged to talk about the values and vision for education and what they want to achieve for children and young people.

Coalitions are less likely to be a flash in the pan

When we did this, many heads described it as the most profound discussion around education and leadership they had had in their careers.

We realised that we faced many of the same challenges, had many common ambitions, and that we wanted to make an even bigger difference – together.

That discussion gave us a strong platform to thrash out our commitments and promises to one another around “how” we were going to achieve the “why”.

Passion and participation is vital but it is not enough by itself; partnerships need to make a practical difference. As leaders within a partnership we need to challenge each other and ask ourselves what the impact of our work has been, and hold each other to account.

Measures can include the impact of school-to-school support, particularly for schools in difficult circumstances; the quality of staff professional development and “reach” in terms of isolated schools and schools in challenging circumstances.

The most crucial thing about these commitments is that we make them public and report against those targets.

As leaders, modelling our ambition, purpose and our willingness to being held to account is crucial if we are to create partnerships of education professionals that have real impact on children’s lives.

We need to move beyond collaborations and towards coalition. And if we make sure that they are founded on shared vision and values we can steer the education system firmly back on track.

The Kyra Teaching School Alliance is a group of 51 nursery, infant, junior and primary schools across Lincolnshire