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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

In England / Living Networks

Schools and districts can band together to assist one another with restructuring, school-based management, curriculum changes, staff development, and record-keeping.

Networks are more than technologies. Networks mean a culture of dialogue, ease of use, common rules and common purposes. In other words, networking means cooperation and solidarity (Tedesco 1995).
In the age of the Information Superhighway, most people think of networks as electronic connections. As J-C. Tedesco, the director of the International Bureau of Education in Geneva, Switzerland, observed, however, networks have more to do with culture than with computers.
In my work with principals and teachers in a graduate program at the University of Leicester, England, in 1994, I discovered that networks of schools were successfully coping with the national educational restructuring in Great Britain, which began in the mid-1980s. Paradoxically, the cooperation of networking has helped schools survive in the new educational marketplace in which schools compete with one another for students. In this system, more students equals more discretionary funding for the school. But in networks, the cooperating schools pool some of their funds to create more effective teaching and learning activities, better communications, common record-keeping systems, and smoother transitions from elementary to secondary levels of instruction.
At Leicester, teachers and principals recounted stories of several networks that enabled district schools to share expertise and resources and to find a more efficient way of managing their new curricular, financial, personnel, and buildings maintenance responsibilities. I was fortunate enough to be invited to document developments in three of these local networks. The participants were keen to give voice to their experiences so that other schools might benefit from their energy, enthusiasm, and success.

A Diversity of Networks

Although all networks were committed to dialogue, cooperation, and solidarity, the three groups varied in size and scope. Each network clearly expressed a desire to improve the quality of learning experiences offered to students, and each recognized the need to support teachers in the complex task of interpreting and breathing life into the statutory curriculum documents. In practice, the networks focused on two areas: instruction and administration (see box).

Making School Networks Work


  • Identify those areas of school activity where you can gain the most by working together.

  • Stay small enough to allow everyone a meaningful voice.

  • Work with schools that share common concerns and aspirations.

  • Focus on teaching and learning.

  • Provide time and money to support the network's activities.


The first network included five urban elementary schools that fed one local high school. The principals of these schools began the network as a support group. As a result of the national restructuring and curriculum requirements, the group felt a need to focus more closely on issues having to do with curriculum and the transfer of students to high school.
The second network included 19 of 20 schools in a provincial town with a population of 50,000 (one school did not join because of funding shortages). This complex network had a steering group (the principals and the school trustees). The network also employed a network manager and a specialist. The manager facilitated network meetings, coordinated inservice training, and edited the network newsletter. The network's specialist serviced the online communication network, developed administration and instructional software for use within the network, and supported classroom teachers in the use of instructional technology.
A third network of 17 schools, also in a provincial town, had developed from two smaller groups of elementary and junior high schools, each feeding one senior high school. They decided to amalgamate to develop a greater economy of scale and to promote common approaches to instructional delivery, assessment, and record-keeping for all students. The network employed an advisory teacher, who acted as a support person for teachers in all schools. She administered meetings of teacher leaders, observed practice in classrooms, and evaluated progress.

Enhancing Curriculum

Participants in the Leicester graduate program said that network activities in instruction were critical to the schools' efforts to make sense of central policy initiatives for a new national curriculum covering the equivalent of kindergarten through high school graduation. Being part of a network gave schools the necessary time and confidence to develop new curriculum areas at their own pace. Networking helped schools realize that they could find a great deal of expertise among their own members, rather than relying on the district to provide consultants and training.

More Effective Administration

With unaccustomed levels of control over most of their budget, principals were feeling their way in the early years of site-based management. Having to draw up contracts for grounds and buildings maintenance or curriculum support was a new and threatening responsibility for these principals. In the network, however, some principals had more technical expertise than others and could advise their colleagues. More significant, particularly for smaller elementary schools, was the discovery that they could join forces with other schools in the network in negotiating terms for contracts. One principal said:Because we're spending, [vendors] will come to a group whereas they might not come to an individual school.
The benefits of a group approach also extended to teaching and learning issues. For example, one network identified special needs teaching as an area where they could contract for services for all their schools and thus ensure continuity as students transferred between schools. Another network developed a shared list of good substitute teachers and guaranteed them regular employment within the group.

Working Together

Although they were engaged in many joint ventures, all three networks began their collaboration with two fairly routine activities: holding regular support-group meetings for the principals and sharing inservice workshop speakers for classroom teachers. As the groups gained experience, they developed coherent overall policies and procedures for teacher appraisals, pay policies, student admissions, charges for school activities, and financial management. Other areas were less clear cut; in these instances, involvement often depended on the individual commitment of principals. For instance, some principals did not attend meetings of curriculum groups—yet still requested documentation of the meetings.
All three networks emphasized the need for flexibility. Members needed to know that, on occasion, they could choose to do things differently—particularly with curriculum. The networks recognized that each school had to elaborate basic network policy in harmony with its individual school culture. As one network member stated:I think if you can devise a skeleton of a system and schools can take it and flesh it out, rather than being too prescriptive ... sometimes schools need to interpret things in their own way.
Solidarity and companionship were also major benefits of network membership, for principals in particular.At the moment, we're all feeling battered and somewhat threatened by the media and government. I think it's important that we stand together.
Another recurrent theme was the opportunity simply to talk to and reflect with colleagues from other schools.It makes me feel good that we're members of the group and we've got people to talk to and we share things.

Staying Small

All three networks saw themselves essentially as family groups. This engendered a feeling of belonging and enhanced their desire to work together:We are a natural group. Some aren't. I do know schools within the district that just don't meet, and they don't work in this way at all.
None of the networks wanted to become any larger or "more unwieldy," as one principal put it. However, the largest of the partnerships did allow neighboring schools to buy into network services and resources. For example, it had developed its own computerized student assessment and record-keeping package and sold it on a commercial basis to outsiders. In another network, two schools successfully applied to join the original group after they saw the considerable benefits associated with membership.

Common Concerns

As networks worked together on record-keeping, contracts, and curriculum issues, they saw that they could set their own agendas and establish their own priorities, within the national requirements. At the time of the Leicester graduate course, all three networks had reached the stage where they accepted the need for a more formal approach to identifying priorities for action.
Since 1990, schools in England have been required to produce their own school development plans, updated annually. Each of these networks had gone further and was creating a joint Network Development Plan. The most sophisticated of these detailed a rolling program of development priorities over several years. This network identified resources, described criteria for success, and specified a person or group responsible for each objective. Clearly, this level of planning required a great deal of dialogue and willing cooperation throughout the group. As one principal explained:We try to write the school development plan according to the rolling programme. So the schools should have the same priorities as the network. Groups ask for extra time or resources to follow it through.

Focus on Teaching and Learning

The two larger networks mentioned the need to work toward "progression, continuity, and consistency" of learning for all students, ages 4 through 19. By working together, schools could eliminate many barriers to effective student transition from one phase of schooling to the next; and teachers at all levels could gain useful insights concerning various approaches to teaching and learning. Moreover, they could avoid duplication of programs of study at the various school levels. One educator stated:It's quite important for the development of the high school ... to agree what the high school will do. [For example,] for history and geography, to agree what we will cover.
The two larger networks clearly focused priorities and resources on issues directly related to teaching and learning. A recently appointed principal within one group commented how this had not always been the case. Now, however, she noticed that the network was targeting its resources more positively toward teachers' needs:We're actually getting what teachers and other grassroots people are saying they need, and I think that's going from strength to strength.

Funding the Network

At the time of my work with these educators, the smallest network had no formal process for raising funds; but the members were aware that their "family" needed to do fund-raising as their joint activities became more complex.The family needs to get to the point where important decisions, such as the allocation of funds, can be taken. Principals need to plan how to use funds to ensure that certain [district level] services will be maintained.
The other two networks raised subscriptions, based on student enrollment, from all member schools. In one case, the large senior high school in the group provided most of the funding. Even though the high school was not particularly active in the network, its staff saw clear benefits in subsidizing the work of the group. Consistency of approaches to teaching and learning across all schools meant that students would come to high school better prepared.
The two larger networks allocated time and money for groups of teachers to work together—increasingly during the school day itself. In addition, these working groups received their own funds to spend on training and resources. In return, the networks expected that their investment in curriculum development would have a tangible effect on teaching and learning. As one network member stated, evaluation is an ongoing concern:Because networks are fairly new, there's no monitoring and evaluation of what, say, happens when the members of a science group have done a report. If they've done their work, we've paid for it; then that is supposed to come back to schools, cascade and be used. What we don't have is a system for checking how efficiently ... it is used or of what value these things are.

Looking to the Future

Will these living networks survive and grow? In my group of Leicester University graduate students, the excitement was contagious. Without exception, those not involved in one of the three networks wanted to know more. Their interest was sparked by two factors.
First, network members enthusiastically discussed their collaborative ventures. The quality of curriculum and administrative development in these networks was remarkable. Why? Simply because the expertise and energies of the group were being harnessed for the benefit of individual schools.
Second, it was clear that collaboration allowed schools within the network to work at their own pace. Educators working in isolated, non-network schools felt as if they were having to respond immediately to any official request or demand. Educators in network schools felt confident enough to make up their own agendas and keep the pace of change manageable.
This growing sense of self-confidence encouraged network schools to take on major new management challenges. For example, one school was intending to bid for the right to deliver preservice education for teachers within the network (Note: In the United Kingdom, initial teacher education is now largely school-based); another school made a commitment to allow its advisory teacher to audit the quality of classroom teaching and learning in all network schools. In short, these living network schools had enough self-confidence to invent new challenges for themselves in pursuit of their vision of high-quality teaching and learning.

Tedesco, J-C. (December 1995). "New Challenges in Linking Research, Information and Decision-Making." Educational Innovation and Information 85: 1.

John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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