Are educational networks the new panacea for system reform? Here’s how to ensure a more thoughtful approach

 

Melanie Ehren. 

In the last decade many countries have introduced policies to mandate or incentivise school networks. Examples are teaching school alliances and Multi-Academy Trusts in England, regional improvement consortia in Wales, area-learning communities in Northern Ireland, and networks for inclusive education in the Netherlands.

Network governance and school-to-school collaboration seems to be the new panacea for educational improvement. Even the OECD is advocating network governance as an effective strategy for school improvement and to tackle complex educational challenges in child development.

The introduction of networks has not been without problems, but most of these can be attributed to policies that failed to ensure that the conditions for effective collaboration between schools or between schools and other service providers were in place.

In an attempt to quickly establish school networks, schools were mandated or incentivised to collaborate in uncomfortable partnerships. For example, top down regulation forced some schools into partnership with those they had been in competition with with or didn’t trust because of past disputes or conflicting views.

In England, the initial set up of Multi-Academy Trusts saw large entities with many schools across the country that were often far apart. Many of the large, national MATs introduced additional layers of decision-making and control to manage a large portfolio of schools, introducing costs for communication and meetings which don’t always benefit student outcomes.

In the Netherlands, networks for inclusive education were set up by the national Ministry of Education without sufficient consideration of how schools and their school boards had, or had not, collaborated in the past. Local competition or divergence of philosophies of how to educate children caused high levels of anxiety as well as power struggles between school boards that were now required to collaborate to provide a joint offer for children in their region. As a result, services for children were still organized predominantly along past institutional boundaries, where the benefits of being part of network have not (yet) come to fruition.

These examples highlight the need for a more purposeful approach to ensuring that  educational networks perform as a strategy for reform. Our principles are informed by an understanding of network effectiveness as ‘positive outcomes that could not normally be achieved by individual organisational participants acting independently(p.230). In the Multi Academy Trusts in England, those outcomes can include maximising the use of resources across the partners in the network. In the Netherlands it’s about ensuring inclusive education for all children in a region where those with learning or behavioural difficulties can stay in mainstream education and get support in their own school as much as possible from other learning providers in the area.

These outcomes will vary across regions, as will which partners are best placed to ensure those outcomes. Hence, the formation of these networks cannot be regulated from the top down. However, this is probably not a politically viable conclusion for policy-makers tasked with improving education in a relatively short period of time.

I’d like to suggest an alternative strategy: to regulate the process by which schools and other providers join a partnership, following these design principles:

  1. Start with a needs analysis of local problems that require a network approach: what goals or purposes do networks need to work towards?
  2. Who are the actors that need to join the network to address these problems and meet these purposes?
  3. What is their history of collaboration or competition? If there is high trust and existing collaboration between the partners, they will likely be able to organize themselves towards this set of goals (assuming they support these goals). If there is no trust or previous collaboration, one of the partners will need to coordinate the partnership work – and the partner with the highest legitimacy in the eyes of other members is best placed to take on this role.
  4. Implement evaluation mechanisms (both internal and external) to measure the quality of the collaboration and whether the network is meeting its purpose. Feedback from those measures needs to inform decisions on potential restructuring of the network to ensure goal achievement.

And finally, networks are essentially temporary institutions which evolve or dissolve when purposes have been met or where the internal structure changes over time to better address local needs. Legislation and policy need to allow for such fluidity, otherwise we can just as well regulate school quality through traditional top down policies.

Photo: Emiliano Ricci via Flickr Creative Commons 

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Posted in accountability and inspection, Leadership and management
One comment on “Are educational networks the new panacea for system reform? Here’s how to ensure a more thoughtful approach
  1. John Mountford says:

    If we are to understand the growth of education networks in England it is useful to be clear why this development took place. It has been fuelled by two factors. First, the emasculation of Local Authorities following the demise of the former LEAs. The second factor is the ridiculous notion that meaningful reform of education can be accomplished over a short time-frame. This resulted in policy-makers scrambling to introduce system-wide improvements to education in a relatively short period of time through the creation of new, untested structural reforms. Allowing insufficient time for open discussion about how such collaborative networks might work in the longer term has resulted in previously autonomous entities locking themselves in to complex management arrangements that are difficult/impossible to leave if their situation changes.

    Whereas the four design principles might reduce, or even remove the most limiting aspects of networking among schools seeking to collaborate in the future, it is too late for those already in the system. Likewise, the principles will do nothing to address questions of value for money in the establishment of elaborate management structures.

    Looking to the future, principle three poses some very interesting questions of its own. There are likely to be situations where there is no trust or previous collaboration. As you point out, if there is no clear mechanism that determines who leads the proposed collaboration one of the partners will need to coordinate the partnership work. The suggestion that the partner with the highest legitimacy in the eyes of other members is best placed to take on this role begs the question – What matrix or set of values/ideals will be selected to establish that legitimacy?

    If indeed, “networks are essentially temporary institutions which evolve or dissolve when purposes have been met or where the internal structure changes over time to better address local needs.” we cannot ignore the fact that existing networks were never explicitly constructed to fulfil this objective. What is to happen to them? Certainly in future, “Legislation and policy need to allow for such fluidity, otherwise we can just as well regulate school quality through traditional top down policies.” Could this be good reason to reintroduce professional local oversight of schools? Maybe we could even call such institutions LEAs!!

    There are those who believe that funding levels for the return of LEAs would not exceed that presently allocated through the current undemocratic, largely unaccountable system in operation. If nothing else, it would produce an audit trail the public could have confidence in. At best it would cut out a whole tier of managers of whom it is a real problem to say directly or otherwise add value to pupils’ education outcomes.

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