“Isolation is the enemy of improvement.” Michael Fullan
Patrick’s Primary School, Pyramid Hill; St. Mary’s Primary School, Cohuna; and St. Joseph’s Primary School, Kerang are three rural Catholic primary schools located in northern Victoria.
As in many rural settings, there is a strong history of our three rural schools working co-operatively. This is supported by geographical location, parish set up and being part of the broader Sandhurst Diocese.
As one of our staff members reflected:
‘Collaboration and sharing is beneficial to all – staff and students – teaching is not in isolation – the students are not specific to our classroom but to each of us and we all have the responsibility.’
In 2014, conversations between the principals of our three schools focussed more sharply on learning and teaching. From this dialogue emerged a key question:
“How can we build staff capacity to improve student learning across our three rural primary schools?”
Rather than focusing on challenges such as geographical location, school size and access to quality professional learning, our commitment was to find solutions. From the outset we were challenged to think outside the square. Although we had no firm concept of how collaboration could work, we recognised the need for this to be part of the solution.
The search for solutions lead us to engaging the services of Professor Helen Timperley, University of Auckland, to work with us in facilitating a professional learning program focussed on using an inquiry mindset for school improvement. Students were clearly placed at the centre, and improving their education is the purpose. The project represented an excellent opportunity for the leadership teams of each of our schools to build their capacity to be leaders of learning. Our involvement with Helen has taken us through to May this year – 2016.
Our three leadership teams came together to form a collective where learning, challenge and expectation are high. As a group we agreed to narrow the initial area of focus to reading, and with Helen’s expertise, were able to develop processes and strategies to build staff capacity across our schools. Informed by the knowledge that teacher practice is a key to improving student learning outcomes we focused in on effective, ongoing and child centred professional learning for ALL our staff.
It is worth noting that involvement in the project had a two-fold effect for our school leaders;
- the learning through the project developed our leadership capabilities and,
- as all leadership team members have teaching responsibilities, it honed our skills as teachers.
In the early stages of the project we brought teachers together to look closely at literacy data gathered at the start of the year. The purpose of this exercise was to scan the information to see what was going on for our children as readers. Pedagogical expertise was also provided through the Catholic Education Office, Bendigo to challenge and support “the hunches” we had developed.
Although we actively sought other opportunities for staff across our schools to work together through the 2015 school year, the collaboration between our schools was occurring most evidently with school leadership. A strong foundation was being set at this level where our education leaders were seeing and experiencing how collaboration across schools can have a real positive impact on children’s learning. This experience allowed us to innovate, take risks and celebrate the positive impact it was having on learning in our schools, students and staff.
The evidence towards the end of 2015 was clear – student outcomes in all three schools were improving.
In October of 2015 the three principals of the schools participated in the Rural Education Leaders Study tour facilitated by the Country Education Partnership and supported by Sandhurst Catholic Education. The two week tour to the UK had the theme of ‘Establishing a Culture of Improvement through Collaborative Practice’.
Through our exposure to educational leadership in a number of school alliances and academies our eyes were further opened to the possibilities for collaborative practice in our own setting, and the impact that such approaches have on student learning.
The successes of the year, along with the experiences of the UK study tour, offered us encouragement to take the collaboration further.
In December, 2015 staff of our three schools came together to reflect on and celebrate what had been achieved. Through this process it was clear that collaboration was being valued and our staff were keen for more opportunities to work together as they too were seeing how it was impacting on their practice and on their students. So we set about plans for growing the collaboration in 2016.
As one school leader reflected:
‘It has allowed us to utilise the expertise within the group, and access expertise from outside.’
This year staff from across our three schools are developing curriculum together. There is a real focus on planning, teaching and evaluating engaging curriculum.
Teachers are working in junior, middle and senior teams with designated collaborative planning times and technology being utilised as an added support structure. Staff are committed to, and supported to, travel between our schools for professional learning and planning. Expertise from within the groups is beginning to come to the fore as our educators are learning with and from one another.
Like all change there is some creative tension as staff establish effective teams. However this initiative could not be happening without the staff’s willingness and openness to collaborate.
‘I love learning from others and sharing ideas. So many possibilities to learn from each other – even beyond the walls of our own schools’ one classroom teacher reflected.
The evolution of our three schools working together to improve the education of our children’s learning experience is ongoing. The collaboration is experiencing success as we are committed, consistent, and remaining narrow and deep. We have adopted a true learning process for ourselves and all learners in our schools, child and adult. They are exciting times for our staff, students, and our communities and we look forward to seeing where the collaboration takes us next.