The power of positive collaboration

In July we designed a new KS3 curriculum that saw our year 7 pupils move into mixed ability groupings. The decision was made, in fact, after speaking to many people on Twitter about how beneficial mixed ability teaching was.  I have to admit, I haven’t always been a fan.  In my first school when I took over the shared running of the faculty, KS3 was unsatisfactory and the outcomes for the National Curriculum Tests were low.  We taught in mixed ability groupings.  As the person in charge of KS3, I decided to re-organise and set the groups for the period of preparation leading up to the NCTs.  The outcomes soared to 80% for L5+ and for the first time, in the six years I had been at the school, we hit our L6 target.  Since then my brain has firmly planted this idea in my head that setting is good and mixed ability is bad- for outcomes, at least.  In addition, I wasn’t sure if the staff could cope with the level of differentiation that would be needed in order to cater for students of all abilities.  However, one thing I am learning as a leader is that you need to take risks and be open to experimentation so mixed ability it was.

And then within the first week of term, the Head did a learning walk with our Head of SEN and the feedback was less than positive. There had been no evidence of differentiation in any of the classes he had visited.  Not teaching year 7 myself, I felt we had a mini crisis on our hands.  The start of term had been a little bumpy and the faculty were working flat out – how was I to share the news that what they were doing wasn’t good enough and we needed more to ensure all students could access the curriculum?

It was suggested to me that, perhaps, we should buy in schemes of work.  Emotively, my first response was sadness – we had spent so long prior to the summer coming up with a creative and more individualised curriculum which, for a number of reasons it turned out, we weren’t quite ready for.  However, as I sat toying with the idea of ‘buying in schemes of work’ it made me feel more and more uncomfortable.  How were the staff going to develop, if what they needed to develop was to be given to them? No, buying in schemes of work was not the answer.

Instead I opted for introducing collaborative planning and a weekly – voluntary – year 7 collaboration meeting.  I emailed all year 7 staff and told them that once a week on a Monday after school I would dedicate my time to planning for year 7 with a focus on the next scheme of learning on writing to inform.  I made it clear that there was no obligation to attend but if they fancied it then they were welcome to join me and we could, perhaps, pool ideas together.  A third of staff responded positively and we met the following Monday to begin the unit.

That first hour, as every hour has been since, was so utterly inspiring for me.  As a team we were talking, sharing and discussing our ideas.  We were exploring different approaches and inventing a range of different activities to use within the unit.  People were engaging with each other and, as is so often the case now, talking properly because a dedicated amount of time had been given to it.  There was also lots of laughter, lots and lots of laughter.

But for me as a leader, I was also seeing the added layer of development I needed.  Not only was I able, as I am every week now, to model the make-up of a good scheme of learning but I was also able to push the teachers to think about how to differentiate for the range of needs within their class, more carefully.  The immediacy of being able to challenge staff in terms of their thinking meant that they intrinsically became more aware about catering for those needs in any one lesson. At the start of this collaborative planning, my questioning would be more along the lines of ‘So we could try this with our level 4s and this with our level 5s’ which meant that my questions were more rhetorical but over the weeks this has now moved to ‘How could we challenge here?  How could we support there?’ and staff are now much more equipped to provide me with a response.

And then there is the growth of this group.  On the first week we met, one of the team had made it clear that they wouldn’t be coming because they didn’t have time.  I was saddened by this and couldn’t help thinking that whilst they would benefit from the planning what would their contribution be?  In addition, I felt sad knowing they would miss out on working with others in the department in a positive forum.  Yet, after the first week – seeing the laughter, the discussion and dialogue and a product come to life on week 2, that same member of staff had made the decision to attend.  Collaboration is infectious.  It spreads joy and when people see that joy being spread and a tangible product at the end, the buy in becomes greater and greater and greater.  So much so that the member of staff has now asked if we can collaborate on our year 8 unit J

So four weeks later and we actually have the first three weeks of the unit written.  It is written, fully resourced and differentiated.  We have been successful in planning a new unit and I have tackled the area of differentiation so that if the Head and Head of SEN were to pop in again, I am confident that they would see the differentiation required.  And all of this has been achieved on one hour per week.

The cherry on the cake came at our Friday morning briefing.  When I asked the team to share one positive from their term at our Friday briefing 2/3 of them fed back that the collaborative planning had been their highlight.  It seems that one little decision has managed to make a lot of people very happy J

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