Is Competition the Enemy of Collaboration?

The following is an excerpt from my dissertation: ‘Collaborative Competition: the Influence of School Autonomy on Inter-School Collaboration’. In this section I discuss Michael Fullan’s concept of Collective Capacity and argue that the increased use of market incentives to drive reform in UK education runs counter to achieving this. Competition doesn’t have to be the enemy of collaboration, but someone (the state or other mediating body) must proactively ensure that it happens. As one successful head teacher told me in my research: ‘Tesco don’t tell Sainsbury’s their secrets, so why should I tell the school down the road what I am doing.’ The full paper (which is also available in the library of the Institute of Education) can be downloaded here

Mundus Subterraneus (1664), Athanasius Kircher

Mundus Subterraneus (1664), Athanasius Kircher

If interconnectedness and school collaboration are important drivers of systemic capacity, what are the implications for system leaders of fostering competition between schools? 

Fullan (2010), Hopkins (2006) and Bottery (2004) all argue that as a result of the reconfiguration of the state’s role from one of government to strategic governance (Ball, 2009), a new understanding of education system leadership is required in which school leaders have a crucial role to play in system reform. Hopkins (2006) sees school-leaders directing the education reform agenda, stating that successful systemic reform necessitates a “redesign of the landscape of schooling with independence and innovation, and networking and lateral responsibility its central characteristics.” On top of this he argues for an “approach to leadership that recognises the necessity to shoulder wider roles that work for the success of other schools as well as one’s own.” This trend is reflected in the education whitepaper (DfE, 2010) which seeks to grant “greater autonomy” to “head teachers” and to remove “structures of bureaucratic compliance,” following Hanushek & Woessmann’s (2011) assertion that “school autonomy leads to better outcomes,” as long as “external exams hold schools accountable for student achievement.”

In ‘All Systems Go: the Change Imperative for Whole System Reform’, Fullan (2010) critiques this reading of decentralisation as automatically resulting in increased systemic capacity. He cites Hansen (2009), whose explanation captures the transformation from ‘bureaucratic compliance’ to ‘school autonomy’ as laid out in the whitepaper:

“You delegate responsibilities for operations, products… and geographies to a group of managers. The clearer the lines of responsibility, the better. You then develop objectives and metrics for each manager so that he or she knows what to achieve each quarter and year. To improve the chances of success, you give the managers considerable freedom – they run their own unit. Then you hold them accountable for their results and put in place incentives to motivate them to reach the objectives. You sit back and marvel at the beauty of the system.”

Fullan points out that structuring the system this way risks “each manager becom[ing] increasingly independent and tr[ying] to maximise his or her unit… with little interest in helping others,” which over time “risks turning a company into a loose collection of units, which become fiefdoms or silos,” in competition with one another. The expression in the whitepaper of an intention to facilitate “professional collaboration,” create ‘families’ of schools, and the inclusion in the application for both academies and free schools a section on how the school intends to collaborate at the community level to support improvement across the local family of schools, suggests that the government also recognise this tension.

In this way, Ball (2009), Fullan (2010) and Hopkins (2006) all highlight the tensions between public goals and organisational self-interest that are increasingly structured into the education system. As Ball (2009) says, “within the processes of modernisation and transformation of the public sector the boundaries and spatial horizons and flows of influence and engagement around education are being stretched and reconfigured in a whole variety of ways” resulting in a need to re-appraise the role of the state, the school and the school leader. In this context, Hopkins (2006) feels that the point “is not at all to argue against school autonomy, but to caution that it should be done within inclusive and collaborative settings,” while Ball (2007) cites Newman (1995) and the theory that networks in this context can be “self-organising,” as long as they have common private interests, “made up of organizations which need to exchange resources (money, information, expertise) to achieve their objectives.” Fullan (2010) however, takes the more strident view that this configuration of modern management through self-interest and accountability is the “enemy of [effective] collaboration”. Although he allows that it could permit situations “such as when a school collaborates internally or collaborates within a cluster of schools,” he warns against assuming that market forces will fulfil requirements of systemic reform and reduced inequality.

Fullan argues that collective capacity is the ultimate end of any systemic reform, and the most productive – and most equal – form of organisation: “collective capacity is when groups get better – school cultures, district cultures and government cultures. The big collective capacity and the one that ultimately counts is when they get better conjointly – collective, collaborative capacity, if you like.” Echoes of this sentiment are present in the whitepaper in the form policy recommendations, and Muijs et al. (2011) give further weight to the argument for prioritizing collaboration in conjunction with autonomy and accountability. A chapter in their book tracking an English local authority over a ten year period entitled “how can systems continue to raise overall levels of achievement whilst reducing the gap between higher and lower performing groups of learners?” finds that a possible way to ensure this is to ensure “processes of networking between schools.” However, the study also recognizes “how the implementation of such collaborative approaches presents difficulties, particularly within a policy context that emphasises competition between schools as the main driver for reform.”


The role of autonomous school leaders

The “potential of networking and collaboration as a way of improving schools, not just in terms of standards but in terms of equity as well,” (Muijs et al. 2011) is broadly recognized then, but where is the support or impulse for collaboration expected to come from in the current context? The logic of the policy agenda points us in the direction of schools and school leaders.  Muijs et al. (2011) find that “the role of the head teacher is a key one in networks” and that “successful networks either originate from the initiative of one or more charismatic head teachers, or else are steered through the always difficult set up phase by individual leaders.” In this sense the role of the LEA as the academies programme expands may logically be reduced, and it seems feasible that we can rely on school leaders to instigate and lead collaborative partnerships. That being said, the prospect of ‘managerialism’ hampering network formation (as identified by Gorard (2009) and Ball (2009)) is also a salient issue, and in order to understand better the impact of school autonomy on leadership and networking, it is instructive to consult the existing literature around academies, with their already independent leaders.

The evidence does not make a compelling case for collaboration led by academy leaders (particularly those of early academies). For example, Glatter (2009) argues that academies are perceived as individual entities at all levels (a view reinforced by traditional research paradigms), while the DfE (2010) find that there is “scope for more cooperation between established academies and neighbouring schools.” A report for the Sutton Trust by Curtis et al. (2008) further enumerates a number of areas in which academies can make progress:

  • “If Academies are to remain an important part of the educational landscape for the foreseeable future, their role in the overall system needs to be clarified…
  • Academies are likely to have more influence if they co-operate with neighbouring schools in terms of admissions, exclusions and sharing their resources [and though]
  • Some Academies have used their autonomy to innovate in terms of school leadership… their role in sharing good practice could be enhanced by following the model of Professional Development Schools.”

The general impression is that currently, academies are underperforming with regards collaboration, systemic capacity building and especially in supporting the improvement of other local schools – despite this being one of the measures by which the programme is officially monitored.

By way of explanation, the DfE (2010) suggests that “in their early years, academies need to focus primarily on the major challenges inherent in establishing a new school that must tackle long-standing underperformance, before seeking to support improvement in nearby schools,” while Curtis et al. (2008) cite a PWC report arguing that “academy principals should be discouraged from taking on extended and system leadership roles which take them outside their own academy until such time as their academy is in a steady state and showing consistent improvement.” Thus, the lack of a positive evidence base around the efficacy of academy collaboration lead by school leaders is explained in part by the fact that the academy programme as originally conceived targeted schools in challenging circumstances, which necessitated a kind of leadership and central accountability perceived as at odds with more collaborative practice.

However, this understanding does not offset the fact that little exists in the way of clear guidance around how collaborations between local, autonomous schools may be configured in the future. In essence, this “policy by trial and error” (that Ball (2009) sees as symptomatic of the polycentric system of governance of the education system) seems to permit the potential emergence of successful models of school collaboration, whilst lacking structural mechanisms to implement that good practice across the system. Thus, just as Muijs et al. (2011) warn that “networks of teachers, where there is little senior management team involvement, are unlikely to result in systemic changes… and peter out,” so perhaps the underwhelming evidence of academy collaboration points to a dearth suitable academy leaders with the right skills and sense of moral purpose to operate at the system level.

In light of this, it is of potential significance that the academies programme has now been extended to allow the fast tracking of outstanding schools to academy status (DfE, 2010), with the consequent creation of a cohort of high quality autonomous school leaders to add possible leadership capacity, and commitment to collaboration, across the system. Muijs et al. (2011) argue that the “quality of head teachers’ leadership is not only important in terms of the effectiveness of individual schools, but also for the development of effective collaborations between schools” and that collaborations “benefit from strong and clear management structures.” The inclusion in the application for conversion to academy status (DfE, 2011b) of a section asking “what arrangements do you have in place to support another school?” points to the understanding of this potential at the level of strategic governance.

Ultimately, the contemporaneity of this policy means that its implications may not be fully understood for some time. Theoretically, outstanding schools are in a position to begin supporting other schools immediately (to challenge the views of Curtis et al., 2008 or the DfE, 2010), but a number of factors may militate against this happening, such as a lack of clear incentives and monitoring, the absence of an intermediary brokering body with relevant accountability, and the variable sense of purpose of the school leaders involved. Muijs et al. (2011) write that the most successfully collaborative head teachers tend “to display characteristics of ‘system leaders’ (Fullan, 2004)… where they… see the benefit of collaboration for both individual organisations and the wider system,” and no evidence exists to suggest whether sufficient school leaders will display these characteristics in the new context – a point which this research hopes to shed some light on.

The purpose of this research then is to follow Glatter’s (2009) assertion that “we need a more systemic, holistic approach based on local areas which examines the impact that an Academy has on the local offer as a whole.” While the potential for academies and academy leaders to positively influence systemic reform and increased equity has been established to a certain extent, it is not yet clear how this might occur – or how it is already taking place – in small communities of schools.This research aims to illustrate at the local level the complex interplay of school autonomy, school leader agency and systemic improvement through localised collaboration, pre-supposing that collective capacity-building is the end of systemic reform aimed at ensuring both sustained excellence and increased equity (Fullan, 2010; Barber et al. 2010; Hopkins, 2006; Muijs et al., 2011).


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