From education to employment

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration?


At the recent London Region Post 14 Network Research and Policy Working Day at the Institute of Education we were given two examples of what collaborative working can look like. The first was from Lord Baker who was arguing the benefits of UTCs (University Technical Colleges) – which are colleges that teach 14-19 year olds, have a university sponsor, as well as working with an employer. He explained the roll out of UTCs and how it had the backing of the Government via extra funding. When asked (ok, by me) why he thought that the systemic failure of FE (his words) could be helped by the introduction of yet another institution, he replied that he needed to show that they could work in practice.

I think that was a fair answer, but, perhaps, the wrong answer in the context of ‘systemic failure.’ At my most charitable I would say it was overly pragmatic and piecemeal a solution. But I could be proved wrong.

The other example was given by Huw Evans (OBE), Chair of the 14-19 Qualifications Review for Wales who, when asked (I’m a little persistent.), what lessons could we learn in England from the coherent and comprehensive roll out of the Welsh Baccalaureate, the answer rather coyly, ran something like it takes time and needs great sensitivity when involving such a range of interests and institutions. This was a very fair answer to a horrible question.

Both exchanges are about collaboration, but the former assumes a voluntaristic model of collaborative development and, the latter, a planned model of collaboration. While from an English perspective the Welsh system is looking more and more exotic (and a place you’d like to visit), we have to ask is this going to provide the outcomes that the ecological model, developed by Ken Spours and Anne Hodgson from the IOE, suggests a well integrated collaborative model would?

It might. But then we have to draw a simple conclusion: collaboration is more difficult to do in a voluntaristic context, but it’s much easier to implement in a rationally planned context such as Wales. The political overtones of this debate are obviously now at fever pitch.

Any national educational system delivering qualifications and training has modes of success. Whether measured by OECD, PISA or GDP, all educational systems have an effect. What is hard to say is which system is best because we need to know ‘for what?’ The debates about US, European, Scandinavian or the UK variety pack, are just that debates that hang on what you want an education system to do and that is a political decision, not an outcome based measure. Education is not an outcome based sphere of social activity. As Aristotle put it, such a decision is one about ‘total justice’, not ‘distributive justice’, meaning that education, like culture, was not something that could be divided by law (like land or tax). Little did he know… But the idea of ‘total justice’ does bring us back to the deep political responsibility that government has in framing the educational system. So, any analysis of collaboration has to be quite politically specific.


A history of policy underpinned by collaboration

During the consultation around Tomlinson one of the big ideas was collaboration. The new 14-19 curriculum demanded a new relation between schools, colleges and others in devising a seamless framework that could enable learners to move upward, downward or sideways.

Following the political decision not to follow Tomlinson’s recommendations, the 14-19 phase was then configured around the diploma. The diploma was also premised on high levels of collaboration and, arguably, failed because of the lack of collaborative working and willingness to collaborate.

Now we are in a new landscape that is shaped by government giving new freedoms to colleges, enabling new institutions: studio schools, 16-18 academies, UTCs, SFA funding moving to employers, colleges being funded on outcomes, and LEPs becoming a key lynchpin for, yes, you got it, collaboration. But this is a much more fluid and dispersed notion of collaboration.

What Ken Spours and Anne Hodgson have done is enable us to monitor the wiring around the different institutional relationships over this time and, as the event showed on 27th February, what happens if you plan a system. Yes, you can. They also enable us to pose the questions: Collaboration: how and why?

But, if collaboration is to happen successfully, then we need to pay attention to more than ‘outcomes’ or, oddly enough, what Ken and Anne have called elsewhere a ‘high skills equilibrium,’ because there is no necessary relation between a well integrated system and such outcomes as any analysis of GDP and educational systems at a macro level would testify.

Furthermore, as the educational system is itself integrated into the economic system there is no necessary outcome of ‘high skills’ (or even their use as Ewart Keep keeps reminding us of).

And, then again, if we wanted to say that collaboration is better because it enables a more stable and more predictable model of change, then, yes, that would be a view. But it’s not one that the present government holds,

From ecology to ontology

I think the ecological model that Ken and Anne have developed can easily handle the sorts of policy and political issues I’ve raised, but there is one more dimension that we could add and it is an idea taken from David Beckett in Learning, Work and Practice, ed Paul Gibbs, Springer, 2013. Beckett develops Dewey’s notion of ‘give and take’ which is the process by which a teacher enables the learner to explore ‘purposive’ and meaningful judgements when confronted by rare or unknown circumstances in their learning. That is, how do you know something is meaningful when you don’t know its purpose or what it is for? Dewey’s answer is that through interaction such purpose emerges. This is the key to what follows.

In the same way a learner engages in a social process to find a purpose emerging, the relations between institutions (or between practitioner collaborations is Becket’s own example of complex phenomena) should produce something different to the sum of the parts. In other words, there should be emergent properties that can be derived from collaboration that did not exist before, could not exist before, and have emerged precisely because of collaboration. Moreover, drawing on Dewey’s notion of purpose, he says, such emergent properties would not be ones that were intentionally willed, predicted or spontaneously just happened, they would derive from the relations but be distinct from them ontologically. For example, a bus queue would find it hard to come up with a communication strategy whereas an advertising team would find that straightforward A ‘strategy’ is not something a bus queue has, nor will it emerge from their relations. (That’s what is so funny about flash mobs!) As Beckett says, ‘knowledge originates at and through work because ontologically distinctive learning emerges through the activities of practitioners collaborating over time on matters of shared concern. Projects are fine examples of this kind of relationality.’ (p 78 ed Gibbs)

Beckett makes this argument in relation to learning in a workplace and communities of practice. He says that such communities make a difference, and that they facilitate the conditions of further practices that would not have emerged previously. It also enables a political understanding of such communities because they are not merely passing on a tradition, but developing new ways of doing this. Creative, holistic and normative properties emerge that could not before.

‘Relational agency….is concerned with the ‘why’ of collaboration as much as the ‘how’… [therefore] more attention should be given to why people engage in collaboration and what are their ‘passionately held motives’.’ (Anne Edwards quoted in Gibbs p81)

This, rather neatly, sums up what I want to say, that not only do we need to unpack the political motives and interests of collaboration more fully, but also bring into sharper relief the practitioners on the ground who, ultimately, teach or train following the results of such collaboration. We also need to bear in mind that ‘relational agency’ is not the same as subjective agency ‘I collaborate because I’m the principal’ or even inter-subjective agency ‘we collaborate because of mutual interests.’ At the centre of collaboration is collaboration, if you will pardon the expression, but ‘how’ and ‘why,’ are questions that need further exploration.

By the way, there is a national dispute around the Welsh ‘comprehensive’ contract….So, yes, tough and sensitive is a fair answer!

Norman Crowther is the national official for post 16 education at Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the education union

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