Connect and conquer: a guide to networks and the whole-school approach

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Have you made ongoing links with other schools or teachers to share pedagogical approaches? Or participated in an eTwinning project that has turned into a long-lasting partnership? Networks have been gaining traction of late: for one thing, education systems have become more complex, and require complex interactions among their actors; for another, teachers wish to stave off professional isolation. But when and how should one establish a network? This tutorial is targeted at heads of schools, policymakers, and teachers who aspire to more connectivity.

Networks in school education: can you identify them?

When we polled School Education Gateway users on the topic, 87% of the respondents claimed to be affiliated with at least one network. That makes sense when you consider how many different forms networks can take: according to the ET2020 Working Group for Schools, they may be horizontal or vertical, permanent or temporary, formal or informal, centrally managed or decentralised.

Furthermore, they may be policy or practice incubators, like Empowering Learners Through Improving Reading Literacy and Access to Knowledge in Slovenia; a tool for educational governance, like the networks of County Council leaders in Croatia; or a complementary forum, such as KlasCement in Belgium.

Still, there is a clear line running through networks in Europe, and we can deduce some courses of action that all of them must keep in mind.

Networks in Europe: can you join them?

After analysing a number of case studies in Europe, the Working Group extracted eight guiding principles that lead to a successful network. Originally these were designed for policymakers, but they are equally relevant to heads of schools, teachers, or other stakeholders.

  1. Goal-setting and shared goals: Make sure the network has a clear vision and shared goals, and that you constantly review and revise them.
  2. Autonomy, accountability and flexibility: Share accountability with other actors, and listen to their feedback. Moderate the government’s involvement (“too much intrusion demotivates people; too little permits drift, or worse,” says Fullan).
  3. Motivation and benefits: Balance different interests, resolve conflicts, and manage your time and resources.
  4. Roles of different actors: Give actors a clear understanding of their role, and room enough to practise it. Support and properly distribute leadership.
  5. Capacity-building of actors: Allow for horizontal and vertical collaboration (with mediators between the levels). Do targeted outreach to schools. In the meantime, take care not to overload the actors.
  6. Cross-sectoral working: Establish links among sectors and among stakeholders, sometimes with multiple layers. Use them to facilitate research.
  7. Network development: Ensure that the network is both flexible and well supported in terms of resources. Carefully consider its timeframe, which can vary greatly across networks, or across phases of a single network. Acknowledge the actors.
  8. Quality assurance and evidence: The best networks are self-critical; prepare mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation, and see that the resulting data is utilised at both local and national levels.

Working on a regional scale has proven to be a good stepping-stone to national system management and communication. Some countries have used it to mediate between national and local priorities.

Some networks operate purposefully to connect across Europe. Examples include EUROCLIO for History educators, Scientix for STEM teachers and policymakers, and ACEnet for Arts and Cultural Education professionals.

However, for a network to function properly, certain competences are also desirable on an individual level. The glue that holds a network together is connectivity, so empathy and self-reflection are of great significance, as is an openness to peer learning and critical feedback.

Networks writ small: can you engage the whole school?

Connectivity does not only need supporting on a grand scale across the region or country. A local version of a  network can be the whole-school approach, where, according to the ET2020 Working Group on Schools Policy, “the entire school community (school leaders, teaching and non-teaching staff, learners, parents and families) engages in a cohesive, collective and collaborative action, with strong cooperation with external stakeholders and the community at large”.

There are plenty of hands-on ways to familiarise yourself with the concept. For starters, you can use the self-assessment tool Scale of Reference for Participatory Citizenship Schools, which gauges how participatory a school is, based on its actors’ involvement in learning, governing, being part of a larger community, and inclusion:

You may also like the European Toolkit for Schools, which “collects evidence, documents and good practices of collaborative approaches in and around schools”, with an eye to improving inclusiveness and preventing early school leaving. It includes a questionnaire that you can fill in to procure a personalised report, with documents and case studies tailored to your interests.

In addition, the 2015 publication A practical guide for school leaders offers many helpful tips, on which we have based two practical examples:

Branch out and connect! It starts with you.

Further reading