Moving knowledge around: a strategy for educational recovery: Mel Ainscow. October 2021


The pandemic has presented schools with unprecedented challenges. It follows that most of the expertise in addressing these difficulties lies within our schools. In moving forward with the recovery of the education system, use must be made of this largely untapped knowledge.



There are, however, challenges in making this happen. First of all, there is the problem of finding time. Teachers and support staff in schools are under enormous pressures in carrying out their duties on a daily basis. Then there are more subtle difficulties. Put simply, educational practitioners often find it hard to explain to others what they do and why.


This arises from way that teachers learn from one another through the informal conversations that occur during their day-to-day work. In this way, their professional knowledge and skills are mainly learned ‘on the job’ through informal interactions with colleagues. This leads them to use shorthand in describing what they do.


As part of my research, I watch many teachers at work. When I can, I talk with a teacher after the lesson, asking them to explain what I have just observed them do. Often, when I do this, teachers – particularly those with lots of experience – express surprise at my summary of their actions in the previous hour. It seems that so much that teachers do is intuitive. And, of course, much of their work is carried out alone, so they are not used to thinking aloud about their practices.


There is an added challenge in the English policy context. The accountability system can discourage practitioners from mentioning things that have not worked so well. This is particularly unfortunate in the sense that we tend to learn a great deal from our mistakes.


Promising developments

So, if we are to make greater use of the deep well of expertise that exists within our schools, these difficulties have to be overcome. In particular, the practice of teachers and school leaders has to become more articulate.


A series of developments in recent years point to possible ways forward. This started with the Families of Schools that were created as part of the London Challenge initiative. This idea was further developed within the Greater Manchester Challenge and, later, as part of Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales.


The idea is easy to describe but difficult to implement. It involves the creation of partnerships made up of schools from different local authorities. Within these contrived structures, we have seen how differences can stimulate conversations within which practitioners are encouraged to articulate detailed aspects of their work that are normally taken for granted. Having to explain to strangers requires explanations that are seen as being irrelevant amongst close colleagues


Pathways to Success

In the Greater Manchester city region over recent years, we have explored how this thinking can be used through a series of linked projects. The region involves a partnership of ten local authorities that are served by some 1,300 schools.


My colleagues and I from the University of Manchester have been privileged to contribute to these developments. This has led us to adopt what we see as a development and research stance, rather than the more usual research and development approach. Put simply, this involves us in working alongside practitioners in exploring how educational changes can be introduced, using forms of collaborative inquiry to learn from and to contribute to the strengthening of the initiatives that take place.


In response to the challenges presented by COVID-19, Greater Manchester has introduced an educational recovery strategy, Pathways to Success, to support schools across the city region. The aim is to ensure support for all children and young people, paying particular attention to those who are vulnerable to underachievement, marginalisation and exclusion. This has involved the creation of trios of schools that serve broadly similar communities from different local authorities and trusts, coming together to share experiences and ideas.


To date, over 100 Greater Manchester schools have participated in this process. Working in trios, practitioners in these schools have online meetings and then provide a summary of what has emerged from their discussions. This has led to a rich resource of information relating to how schools have responded to the current crisis and the ongoing challenges they face. At the same time, it has demonstrated the potential benefits of school-to school support.



Reflecting on their involvement in the trios set up as part of Pathway to Success, many senior colleagues in schools have talked about the benefits of sharing experiences with new colleagues. The discussions have also led to the sharing of specific strategies.


So, for example, some schools have shared ideas about how they have put in place a range of support structures for home learning, including training children on how to access online lessons via platforms. Equipment and resources have also been provided for pupils to enable them to access these resources. Participants have also explained how they set up regular contact between teachers, pupils and families to ensure and support engagement with online learning provision.


Support for families has been a key priority for many of the schools. Some have reported providing step-by-step guides on how to use online learning platforms. Telephone support has also been provided for parents/carers that are struggling with the technology and hardware, including laptops.


Looking to the future

These experiences in Greater Manchester illustrate the potential that exists in our schools to address the new challenges that have emerged as a result of the pandemic. They also point to the importance of locally coordinated partnerships of the sort that exists in Greater Manchester.


The current national policies, with their emphasis on market forces, are leading to winners and losers. Whilst this may be acceptable in the high streets, it is disastrous as far as many of our young people are concerned. What is needed are new forms of local coordination, based around partnerships and networks. In this way, knowledge can be moved around.


Mel Ainscow CBE is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Manchester, Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow, and Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology. He is a long-term consultant to UNESCO, working on international efforts to promote equity and inclusion globally. He has recently completed collaborative research projects with networks of schools in Australia, England, Portugal and Spain. Examples of his writing can be found in: ‘Struggles for equity in education: The selected works of Mel Ainscow’, published in the Routledge World Library of Educationalists series.


All  blogs represent the views solely of the named author, and not those of the Fabian Education Policy Group or the wider Fabian Society.


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