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Collaborative overreach: why collaboration probably isn't key to the next phase of school reform

Collaboration between schools has come to be regarded as an important way in which they may find the means to improve their educational performance. Yet little is known definitively about what impact this has for improving pupil attainment. This literature review, by CMRE Executive Director James Croft, finds that despite the popular rhetoric about the importance of collaboration, the majority of analysis is qualitative and focuses on staff development and support, rather than pupils’ outcomes. In terms of quantifiable impacts for students, the report argues, ‘we in fact know very little’.

Download a copy of the report here.

Download an Executive Summary here.

Order print copies, here.

The paper goes on to highlight the important difference between collaboration and chain and federation effects. Whilst the language of collaboration is often used around Multi-Academy Trusts, formal school groups are structurally merged and integrated.

Recent research in this area, although unable to draw causal inferences, has opened up positive lines of enquiry. This research suggests that those types of federation most expressly purposed to improving pupil attainment, and which have organised themselves to deliver, are likely to be most impactful. However, where chains appear to be making a difference to pupil outcomes, ‘the effect may be attributable to the influence of corporatisation, rather than any collaboration effect’, with scale freeing resources for investment in quality control.

By contrast, the influence of the theoretical frameworks and underlying value commitments shaping practice in the area of collaboration influence school leaders toward local, small-scale, and less binding/formal arrangements, designed to preserve participating schools’ independence. The evidence suggests that these arrangements do not spur improvements in pupil attainment. Moreover, they are less likely to be subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis – making them prone to a lack of clarity around objectives, what resources are likely to be required to achieve them, and to problems with oversight and accountability. This makes them time-consuming and potentially costly undertakings for teachers and administrators alike – which may very well in turn deplete the time, effort and resources available for staff to focus on their own school and students.

Commenting on the research, Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development for Cambridge Assessment said:

‘All too frequently, policy elements which should form part of a complex, interconnected set of actions and objectives take on a life of their own. They become ends in themselves – something to be achieved at all cost. ‘School “collaboration” has all the hallmarks of entering a phase of mutation into an “end in itself”. ‘This sophisticated review is a vital corrective to “collaboration” as a sloganistic pre-occupation divorced from the moral and technical aims which should lie at the heart of modern improvement strategy.’

James Croft, the report author and Executive Director of CMRE, added:

'In a complex sector with multiple initiatives and structures at play, it is clear that we as a research community have much more work to do to assess the relative influence of interventions.

‘This paper shows that we don’t yet know enough about the efficacy of school collaboration, to distinguish it from the underlying effects of school autonomy and competition.

‘And we may never know. This is because school autonomy in and of itself introduces competitive incentives between and among schools. This being the case, policy should avoid any further mandating of particular structures or relations on the sector and concentrate on increasing autonomy and sharpening those incentives. Under such conditions, one would expect, alongside of Academies and other consolidated organisational frameworks, more effective, efficient and sustainable partnerships to emerge also.’

Download a copy of the report here.

Download an Executive Summary here.

Order print copies, here.

Media coverage

'Challenging collaboration', SecEd (20th January)

James Croft argues that further investment in autonomy, and in creating the market conditions under which successful collaborations are likely to arise, rather than collaboration per se, is the way forward for school improvement policy. 

‘Is collaboration for school improvement all it’s cracked up to be?’Education Investor (December 2015)

'No evidence' school collaboration boosts attainment, research claims’, TES (23rd October)

'Does school collaboration really mean higher standards?', Conservative Home (28th November)

James Croft comments on his research into the evidence of its impact on pupil outcomes and considers the implications for school improvement.

See also ‘Has collaboration over-reached itself?’, Schools Week (13th November 2015), and, with comment from Tim Oates, Academy Today (4th November).