Since 2007 I have been the leader of the Cabot Learning Federation and leading collaboration has been the backdrop to everything I have tried to do since then. It is based in the core belief that by working together and sharing successes and overcoming challenges we can move forward more quickly than we can when we work as single schools. Collaborators give and receive ideas and they do not do this in equal measure. At times one of our Academies needs more help than it can give but recognises that within a few months this role will be reversed.
Collaboration is not easy. Ensuring that schools become centres of excellence in their own right whilst at the same time taking a collective share of the responsibility for the outcomes at another Academy in the federation needs a different type of leader to the one who “pulls up the drawbridge” and looks inwardly for collaboration. I have learned a number of lessons over the past 6 years of what has been a brilliant, challenging and powerful learning experience. Having used the word headteacher or principal in my title since 1997, I can confidently say I have learned more about leadership, and have needed to, in the past six years than I did in the previous nine. For the sake of brevity, I would summarise my learning around three main points below. To lead a collaboration, the leader needs to understand the following 3 principles:
1 To lead a collaboration you have to be prepared to step back and coach, monitor, challenge and praise in equal proportion. The moment the collaborative leader tries to take responsibility for the implementation of ideas in an academy where they are not the Principal, autonomy is threatened and quality reduced.
2. To lead a collaboration you have to hold fast to beliefs that are constant. For me, it is about building a culture of trust that is based on authentic feedback that moves adults and young people forward together. Teachers judged to be “good” in one Academy have to know that colleagues in another part of the CLF are judged the same way.
3. To lead a collaboration you have to be able to capture the germ of innovation that results in an idea or strategy being moved from its original school source to another part of the CLF. Very often it is not the outcomes that are shared but the processes of how that radical outcome was reached that makes the difference to learning and innovation. The collaborative leader knows when the time is right to move practice and when it is not.
I find it hard to conceive that we will not need more and more leaders who can work across more than one school in the future. It is a brilliant way to work. it does not need to diminish the role of the Principal in their school and it does not need to result in schools in a neighbourhood competing against each other. It does however depend on the leaders in the organisation recognising that even though their work is based in one building, their impact can be felt far wider. That is a great place to be!