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School-University partnership exemplified: Dear Michael….

Dear Michael,


It has been many years since we last spoke, but I found myself talking about you recently. I had been asked to give a lecture at the Kazakh National Women’s Pedagogical University in Almaty. The title of my talk was Co-operation, Collaboration and Partnership between Schools and Universities. I cast my mind back to 1990 when I first visited Angley School, in Kent. I was there to ensure that everything was in place for the PGCE students who were due to start their teaching practice (practicum) the following term. You were the headteacher (school principal) and I wanted to make a courtesy call and let you know that I was on site. Much to my surprise, you invited me into your office and gave me coffee. Even more surprising, you gave me a broad smile and said something like: “Tell me about yourself; what you are interested in.”  I told you about my own experience as a teacher and my transition to the university. I gave you a quick outline of the teacher leadership work I had started at Southlands School. I talked about empowering teachers, enabling them to lead change. I probably also talked about action research, which I had not yet jettisoned in favour of ‘teacher-led development work’. You recognised the subject matter but also the way I was talking - all fired up about the possibilities for teacher-led change. After you listened for a few minutes, you said: “Do you know John Elliott by any chance?”.  I was impressed. I was studying for my PhD and Elliott was my supervisor. You told me that you had previously been involved with the Humanities Curriculum Project which Elliott had been connected with. I had learned about this project when I had studied to become a teacher and was very taken with the idea of ‘procedural neutrality’ in the role of the teacher.


That first conversation established, within a very short time, some common ground. We discovered a range of shared values and interests, ones that anyone with connections to the Centre for Applied Research in Education at the University of Norwich would be familiar with. Its director was Lawrence Stenhouse who I have quoted many times as saying:

In order to offer support for schools, the 'educationist' needs to assume a

consultancy role in the fullest sense. He needs to see himself as notionally employed

by the teacher, and as accountable to him (Stenhouse, 1975: 192).

This is a rather idiosyncratic way of expressing the moral imperative for university staff to work with schools, but it resonated with me. Later on, I heard echoes of this when Michael Apple urged academics at a conference in the USA to act as ‘story tellers and secretaries’ for teachers who inhabit a highly-pressured and immensely time-consuming professional world.


Following our conversation, Michael, I proceeded to meet Russell, your Deputy Headteacher (Vice-principal) to enquire about the arrangement for the student teachers’ practicum. You came along and suggested that we also discuss the teacher leadership work I had initiated at Southlands School. By the time my visit ended, we had agreed that, in the following September, we would launch a school-based support group for experienced teachers in the school. The teachers would lead development projects and their portfolios of evidence would be submitted as part of a masters degree. Russell and I would be co-facilitators.


Russell and I worked well together, complementing each other’s knowledge and experience. He too was committed to empowering his colleagues and immediately recognised, in the TLDW approach, a methodology that would enable us to do that. In this setting, we were increasingly confident and clear about the steps in the process. First, we had the workshop which enabled the teachers to reflect on their values and situations in order to clarify an important professional concern. The discussion in the support group would help each one to think this through and prepare to consult a range of colleagues about their concerns. Action planning would follow and, after further consultation, each teacher would lead and manage a development project, collaborating with a few colleagues to build new strategies to address their concerns. Russell and I were an important combination in that I could bring fresh perspectives to the workshops whereas Russell brought his deep knowledge of the operation of school as an organisation.


Some colleagues at the university were sceptical about the possibility of a senior leader in a school being able to also act as a facilitator within that school. I recall an incident in one of our workshops which illuminated questions associated with facilitation from within. We were discussing a change in the provision of support for special educational needs and people seemed rather reticent. At that moment, a secretary interrupted us to say that there was an urgent phone call for Russell. As soon as he left the room, the discussion exploded. Apparently, a decision had been taken which led to the special education needs teacher feeling aggrieved. Colleagues were angry on her behalf and found it hard to talk about it because Russell had been responsible for the decision. I offered to raise the issue. When Russell came back into the room, there was a discernible atmosphere of awkwardness. I took the plunge and said something like: “When you were out, there was heated discussion about the school’s policy regarding SEN. Colleagues are distressed about it and don’t understand why it had to change. Can you talk to us about it?”. Thankfully, Russell handled it with aplomb. He explained the background to the change and the reasons that led to the senior team making the decision. Colleagues thanked him for the explanation which made sense to them. Russell apologised because he had not realised that colleagues had been distressed about the change.


Not only was Russell a sensitive facilitator, but he also demonstrated considerable creativity. Do you remember when he came up with a really clever proposal? One of his responsibilities was to organise a series of seminars at the school for the student teachers for their teaching practice (practicum). He suggested that we could combine the teacher leadership workshops with the seminars for student teachers. There was an obvious cost-saving but also a number of other benefits: the discussion would be enriched by new ideas and the naïve questions posed by these young student teachers. They would benefit from hearing about the development projects being led by experienced teachers. Some of the time, the two constituent groups would meet separately to discuss matters specific to the different academic programmes they were registered on. It was a pragmatic solution which had a brilliant effect.


So much flowed from what I describe above. We wrote about some of it in the book we co-authored: ‘Teacher-Led School Improvement’.  Having lost touch with you, I am not sure if you are still in the land of the living and I don’t have any contact details so I hope you might receive this letter through the medium of my blog. I just want to say a profound thank you, Michael, because you were pivotal in the development of the teacher leadership work with which I have been associated over the years. Your open-hearted and open-minded approach to a visitor from the university enabled us to build a genuine partnership which enabled us to achieve so much together.


With all best wishes



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