At the heart of education lies collaboration…

There was a time when all thirty children in a class were able to attend school at once. Together. There was a time when we were naive to what standing two metres apart truly meant and face masks were only worn by some to filter out pollution or to keep their faces warm. There was a time when children played side by side in the playground, hugged each other and huddled together to excitedly take turns in games. There was a time when classrooms were full of children engaged in learning and the buzz of positivity permeated through every fibre of the school building. There was a time when we were innocent to how quickly education and the country as a whole could become decimated by a single virus. Looking back, it is easy to truly appreciate what we had because we’ve now experienced losing it.

Every single one of us who stepped into education did so to make a difference and the majority of us were proud of what we’d achieved before the virus struck but we have to acknowledge one simple premise: education was not perfect before coronavirus. In fact, in many ways, it was disjointed and had a fault line coursing through it. Schools up and down the country looked after their children and did a great job but they looked after THEIR children and not OUR children (the country’s children as a collective whole). MATs looked after children attending schools within THEIR MAT but they did not look after OUR children. LAs looked after children attending schools within THEIR authority but they did not look after OUR children. You see, the problem is simple. In an effort to improve educational outcomes and perform well in a system that rewards climbing to the top, we spent the vast majority of our time looking after our own backyards and the children within our own schools. That is not to say that many of us didn’t share ideas, network or pass on best practice. We did but often at a time that suited us and not education as a whole. It is not to say that education did not talk to itself or build systems to support – it did but sometimes these systems were surface level and did not run deep. When the system promotes climbing to the top, it is almost inevitable that schools and institutions will seek to gain advantages and often hold their improvements and innovations tightly, at least for a while. So when we look back on education before the virus we should do so with our eyes open because we were operating in a flawed system that was inherently doing its best but with the wrong drivers and principles as the foundations on which it was built.

The 23rd of March 2020 is a date that will forever be etched into our history. It was the date that the UK officially went into lockdown. It was the start of an enforced period of self reflection and questioning for us all. It was a time when we all began to wake up and open our eyes to some important questions. What had we become? Where were we heading? How could we use this as an opportunity to evolve and grow into something better than we were before? This internal reflection on a personal and professional level up and down the country began to create a growing acceptance that before the virus, society (and therefore education as well) had lost its core values – we had put our individual selves and organisations above the needs of wider society. In short, we had become unconsciously selfish. This growing realisation amongst many of us did not sit easily and as a consequence it began to create a groundswell in education and the formation of what is beginning to become a grassroots movement across the country. Something fundamental began to change. At the darkest of times a ray of light began to emerge – true and pure altruism. Schools, staff, teachers and leaders up and down the country began to share in a way like never before and with one core principle at the heart of the sharing: helping others. It sounds like a small and obvious thing – sharing to help others but, if we think about it carefully and indeed honestly, it is quite a change. You see, in the past, (and this is a generalisation) sharing often occurred for a variety of reasons including: to support a school because we had been asked to by the DFE or an LA, to get something back in return, to look good and build a reputation but to name a few. This is not to say that there aren’t instances of sharing in education for the express purpose of helping others, there are but these are sporadic and not systematic. Coronavirus has changed this. It has changed how we see things. It has changed how we feel. It has changed what we hold dear and true and so, out of one of our country’s and indeed the world’s darkest hours, has come something pure and beautiful – true altruism.

Education for many of us has always been about two key principles: are we doing the best for the children and can we look ourselves in the mirror? We have now woken up to what is possible and indeed what is needed from us all and these two principles now ring truer than ever before. We are beginning to take the clear step from operating by these principles to living by them and there is a clear difference. It is no longer enough to help the children and families within our own schools. That is a basic expectation. A given. Education needs more from us. The emphasis now is on helping all children – those within our own schools and those across the country and this is beginning to happen in swathes during lockdown. We have seen amazing examples from schools, LAs and MATs up and down the country from Star Academies’ national helpline for children, families and staff to Greenshaw Trust sharing amazing teaching resources to Parklands Primary sharing their strategy for helping vulnerable children. There have been so many cases where schools and organisations have shared resources for one simple reason: helping others. Education has taken the first step and now we need to take the next one and ensure that we are not held back by the limits we place upon ourselves.

There are often barriers that schools, teachers and leaders put in their own way which prevents them from sharing key learning and what they have built or created. This essentially comes down to the fact that most educationalists are humble and do not want to be viewed as having an ego or putting themselves on a pedestal only to be knocked off. This view and nervousness in education pre-coronavirus meant that amazing and innovative concepts and resources often sat with a school internally because there was a genuine fear that putting them out into the wider world would do one of two things:

  1. It might bring a spotlight on the school and often the majority of schools prefer to stay out of the limelight. 
  2. It may create an anxiety in the school that what has been shared isn’t worthy of going out into the wider world and might even lead to others criticising what has been shared as not good enough.

These two elements have often proven to be the barrier to the systematic sharing of ideas. Education needs to get past this chip on its shoulder. If you share something, it doesn’t mean you think you’re better than everyone else. Not at all. The art of sharing post-coronavirus is to do one thing: help others. Sharing thinking, sharing concepts, sharing resources is about saying to the educational community that you’ve done some work and thinking on a key concept and you are happy to put it out there for others to build on. A foundation. A starting point.  What we share isn’t and shouldn’t be perfect – in fact, you can argue that things shared should be in their raw form so that others can see how they have been devised and the thought processes that have gone into them.

Corornavirus has seen the beginning of a sea change in education. If we take this next step and continue to head in the right direction we will see the death of competition amongst schools, LAs and MATs in its most negative sense and the true birth of collaboration. At the heart of education lies collaboration and so our next meaningful step is to make sure that we build on the true altruism shown through this period and take on the baton to push things further. Let’s move past random sharing of great thinking and resources to systematic sharing of resources and thinking across the educational community. Let’s all work by the premise that anything shared is one person’s or organisation’s thinking at a point in time and is there to be built upon. If we operate by the mantra that we seek to build on each other’s work and take it as a given that we expect others to refine and improve what we have done then education will enter a new frontier where schools who have so much to offer but have been nervous in the past begin to value what they have done and put it out there for others to see. It will also see LAs and MATs build collaboratively across the country new and innovative ways of working. Finally, education is evolving to become something it should always have been – a true, unified community that operates nationwide. You, me, we all have a part to play in this so let’s not stop what has started. Let’s accelerate the progress and push harder and faster in the right direction. If we all do this, and put the whole of education ahead of our part of education, then we will all be able to look ourselves in the mirror and know we made a genuine difference at a time of real need. That is what living is all about – making a positive impact.

By Steve Taylor

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