How can we secure the spirit of Covid collaboration for the future?

A Manchester initiative is showing how school-to-school collaborations are best placed to create the conditions for improvement, write Mel Ainscow and Paul Armstrong

A Manchester initiative is showing how school-to-school collaborations are best placed to create the conditions for improvement, write Mel Ainscow and Paul Armstrong

25 Oct 2021, 5:00

It’s now a truism to say that the experience of the pandemic has revealed the extent of injustice across our school system. Those students who were most vulnerable were also those more likely to experience the greatest deficit in relation to their engagement in school and progress in learning.

Many are from low-income and minority backgrounds, or have special educational needs – the very same students who were already particularly vulnerable to marginalisation, underachievement and exclusion prior to the pandemic. Recovery cannot therefore be a simple matter of catch-up to the previous status quo, but must tackle these injustices at their root.

But the experience of the pandemic has also shed light on a previously untapped potential across our school system – that of local collaborations. Much has been written in these pages and elsewhere about their benefits and about the need to sustain them post-Covid. But there is little evidence of anyone doing the structural work to ensure that, nor of any change in policymaking at the DfE.

Greater Manchester’s educational recovery strategy, Pathways To Success, stands in contrast to this return to an unsatisfactory normal, and lessons from this initiative are worthy of wider attention. Its aim is to support schools across the ten local authorities that make up the Greater Manchester area, and it offers a clear path to making grassroots collaboration a key feature of school and system improvement.

The preliminary work in the development of this strategy showed the remarkable agility schools have demonstrated since March 2020. The logical implication was that much of the best expertise regarding educational recovery now lies among practitioners themselves.

That’s why Pathways To Successis school-led. The work of local authority representatives and university researchers through the steering group is in support of the challenges and solutions identified by school leaders.

Pathways To Success is built on a series of design features that emerged from some of our earlier research into achieving sustainable improvement for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In particular, it is:

  • Driven by a common agenda that is agreed by and binds all stakeholders
  • Practitioner-led, with senior school staff taking responsibility for system-level improvement
  • Experience-led, so that their knowledge identifies the barriers to progress and shapes the right responses to address them
  • Partnership-based, to prevent marginalisation and learners “falling between the cracks”
  • Coordinated by an inclusive and representative local steering group, made up of representatives from all the stakeholder groups

To date, approximately 150 schools have participated in the strategy. Working in trios, each made up of schools from different local authorities, practitioners have held online meetings and then provided a summary of what has emerged from their discussions. This has led to a rich resource of information relating to how schools are responding to the ongoing challenges they face. Summaries of these ideas have been shared with all Greater Manchester schools.

Our analysis suggests that the sorts of discussions facilitated by the school trios have created new opportunities within which such knowledge can be shared. They have provided practitioners with the space and conditions to think aloud about their work in a supportive and non-judgmental context.

And in that context, opportunities to meet with new colleagues is proving to be particularly powerful. Through these discussions, individuals have shared knowledge and engaged in joint reflection, leading to new understandings of familiar situations and issues.

The Pathways To Success approach is radically different to the current emphasis on top-down policies. It’s too early to point to measurable outcomes for disadvantaged learners, but the strategy is already in itself a tangible development.

Our international research shows the importance of national policymakers knowing the limits of their reach. The details of policy implementation are often not amenable to central regulation and better dealt with by those who are close to local contexts. Co-ordinated school-to-school collaboration is therefore essential in order to move existing knowledge around the wider system.

Pathways ToSuccess not only shows that keeping the pandemic spirit of collaboration alive is possible, it offers a framework to do so for the benefit of our most vulnerable young people.

This article was written with the support of Dr Stephen Rayner, director of teaching and learning (operations), Manchester Institute of Education

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