January 2011


  • A return to austerity?
    The ultimate impact on the education system of the Coalition’s reforms won’t be clear for some years, but there are some immediate financial implications which schools and colleges need to grasp, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Golden opportunities
    One of the UK’s Olympic greats is ensuring the 2012 legacy for young people will consist of more than stadia and facilities in London. David Hemery talks to John Holt about his challenge to capture young hearts and minds by providing the ultimate ‘win-learn situation’. More
  • Collective communication
    The death of a student amid sectarian violence brought headteachers in Ballymena together in 2006. They have gone on to create a formal learning community arrangement across the curriculum as well as the community, says Frank Cassidy. More
  • Make a meal of it
    They were initially reluctant but now parents are flocking to The Ridgeway School’s cooking workshops to spend quality time with their children. For the school, meanwhile, it is one step on the road to narrowing the inequalities gap, explains Rosemary Cairns. More
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The death of a student amid sectarian violence brought headteachers in Ballymena together in 2006. They have gone on to create a formal learning community arrangement across the curriculum as well as the community, says Frank Cassidy.

Collective communication

It is a great pity that Northern Ireland is better known for the division and strife it has endured over the last 30 years rather than for the quality education.

Schools have provided oases of calm and order for children in the midst of turmoil and have always aimed to be a force for good in very difficult circumstances. As our fledgling democracy emerges from its violent past, schools are leading change and even moving ahead of politicians who are still cautious about how our new shared future will work.

With these thoughts in mind it is interesting to look at how school leaders on the ground in Northern Ireland are moving schools out of their comfort zones, both in terms of cross-community contact and cross-phase collaboration. “The Troubles”, as we like to call our recent history, prevented social and educational change, as well as political development.

The challenge now is to improve access to wider opportunities and to give all the young people in our schools the means to achieve the highest possible outcomes. This is the story of one town and the journey on which its schools have embarked.

Cooperative relationship

A group of principals for the nine post-primary schools in Ballymena, County Antrim had been meeting since 2004. In September 2006, they became a formal steering group with elected officers and a coordinator. Known as Ballymena Learning Together (BLT), they established clear aims and related outcomes and drew up a remit, setting out the roles and responsibilities of the coordinator.

From the outset the group envisaged a co-operative and collaborative relationship between the schools that would embrace both cross-community and curricular issues. In the four years since, sub-groups in charge of curriculum, cross-community projects, careers coordination and literacy have extended ownership of the partnership’s work to staff in all of the schools.

A report by Robert Hill for ASCL exploring the leadership styles required to begin a partnership found that educational collaborations are usually formed on a geographical basis and it is likely that the headteachers are already in a loose partnership, even if this is one of acquaintance rather than action.

In the case of Ballymena, the fact that the principals had come together formally in 2006 in the wake of the death of a schoolboy in the town through sectarian violence was the catalyst which energised the learning community.

The initial focus was on developing reconciliation workshops and joint classroom activities to address the sectarian problems among young people in the area. Later these links developed into, for example, more curriculum collaboration. But the initial development of close relationships between the principals was the critical factor in the enterprise’s success.

Layers of leadership

Layers of leadership have had to be created below headship level to manage the work of collaboration. Sustainability clearly hinges now on the development of leadership on a much broader base than the original core of nine principals.

One of the key cross-phase groups is looking at raising literacy levels across all the schools. A recent area inspection had identified the low literacy level among some pupils and in response to this worrying finding, the steering group decided to prioritise literacy as a joint initiative for the nine schools.

Using good practice and shared expertise, a working party has been set up and development of a coordinated programme is underway. Literacy coordinators from the nine schools meet regularly to plan and direct the initiative. Baseline computer-aided testing has been used to define the scope of the problem and materials and strategies have been jointly agreed and developed.

Perhaps the biggest innovation is that the coordinators return to their own school to inform staff and put in place some common practice in all classrooms across the curriculum. It has created a form of shared leadership among literacy coordinators and staff in all the schools and provided a dynamic new cross-phase experience for the teachers involved.

Similar working parties are also tackling citizenship and careers coordination.

Succession planning is considered crucial to sustaining the learning community in the future. We hope that the continuing shift from a narrow definition of leader to a broader involvement in leadership by staff at all levels in the schools will fulfil this objective.

Competing demands

There are several factors which may shape the success or otherwise of a learning partnership. One is school inspections which can create a number of challenges. It is clear that in England currently there is a focus on the inspection of compliance and the same seems to be happening in Northern Ireland. Inspections are concentrating on monitoring school development planning and self-evaluation processes. There are no incentives for school leaders to take risks or be innovative with new collaborative enterprises.

In our learning community we have also found a tension between the demands of a headteacher’s home school role and that of the learning partnership. While headteachers may be committed to collaboration and partnership ideals, they still remain anxious that their success is judged not by the outcomes of the partnership but by the results and outcomes of their own school.

It therefore follows that the collaborative decisions that headteachers make cannot compromise their individual school success. Indeed, time invested in collaboration may be at the expense of a tighter focus in the home school.

Another risk with partnerships between schools is that a leadership vacuum can develop in the absence of a hierarchical decision-making mechanism with no strong hand to make critical judgement calls.

In BLT, efforts have been made to deal with the problem by using an annually rotating chairmanship. Successive chairs have become the drivers of initiatives, preside at meetings and direct the work of the coordinator. We have also concluded that learning communities need an effective executive coordinator to manage the administrative affairs of the partnership, reduce the time management tensions for the school principals and provide an objective perspective during decision making.

A further issue that partnerships such as ours face is the potential clash of priorities for heads between school collaboration and school competition – whether that is competition for pupil numbers or in league tables.

Robert Hill makes clear that, for heads to develop successful and long lasting collaborations, they must move beyond competition. Yet with the failure of the Northern Ireland Executive to agree a change to the current academic selection transfer process, the BLT schools are still in competition with each other for pupil numbers.

In Ballymena these uncertainties about the future arise mainly from external factors over which BLT has little control. The hope is that appropriate local delegation of financial and curriculum planning will preserve the current level commitment to a shared future for the school communities in Ballymena and that the politicians will match the courage and appetite for change which our teachers already display.

  • Frank Cassidy is principal of St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena and immediate past president ASCL Northern Ireland.

Collective Communication