The pandemic has required every aspect of our working lives to adapt to more challenging circumstances and regional improvement collaboratives set up to support education and children’s services teams across Scotland are no exception.
The Northern Alliance – striving to improve outcomes through collaboration across Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Eilean Siar (Western Isles), Highland, Moray, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands – was in itself a test of change as the first regional improvement collaborative, before these were fully established across the country in 2017, and is now in the second year of its Phase 3 Regional Improvement Plan. Its workstream priorities remain aligned to the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and have been developed collaboratively with local authority practitioners and national partners. But the way Northern Alliance officers carry out improvement activity has had to change significantly during the last 14 months.
Similar to many other organisations grappling with face-to-face versus online engagement of colleagues prior to the pandemic, the move to solely remote professional learning opportunities and online collaboration has led to what many practitioners consider to be a more level playing field for all, whether you’re based in South Uist or Stonehaven. The fast-moving circumstances schools and other settings have found themselves in has also led to a change of focus for the collaborative, who are committed to ensuring their professional learning events and networking opportunities are needs-based.
Quality Improvement Manager Kathleen Johnston who is based in Argyll and Bute explained: “The entire education system has evolved and adapted at pace since the onset of the pandemic. We’re all connected by our common purpose and a sense of pride in providing for children and young people, and a big part of what we’re doing at the moment is giving colleagues the breathing space to consider shared aims, how best to achieve those aims but also focus on their wellbeing.
“There is still much to be done in terms of connecting and collaborating with practitioners and we’re shifting our focus to working with colleagues to create the right conditions for improvement to happen. This journey begins by working alongside local authority colleagues to build and grow networks which focus on areas of priority relevant to practitioners within the Northern Alliance.”
The actions the small group of officers seconded to the Northern Alliance from its eight local authorities are working on are outlined in an Overview of Activity for 2021. This month, they are hosting an ‘Include Me’ Week, to encourage best practice around engaging children and young people in the planning and decisions that directly affect them. They also continue to work hard to streamline the extensive volume of information and guidance made available to practitioners by a variety of leading professional organisations and charities – via Northern Alliance Connects platform.
Responding to the ‘Alternative Certification Model’ within the secondary senior phase (S4-S6), colleagues across the Northern Alliance came together quickly and collaborated to provide vital support for assessment at all examinable levels in mathematics. In addition, a Quality Assurance Network was created with representation from local authorities across the Northern Alliance. This network has enabled colleagues to share practice and create connections for the purpose of senior phase quality assurance. This has been particularly useful to smaller schools, ‘niche’ subject areas and single teacher departments.
The Curriculum workstream has also delivered a number of successful maths and numeracy conferences aimed at both primary and secondary practitioners. Lead officers are also working to support transitions at all levels, using research to inform practice, and working alongside schools in developing their curriculum rationale and interdisciplinary learning.
In terms of raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap, officers have been working in collaboration with Education Scotland on a number of projects, including offering professional learning sessions and helping practitioners develop their own improvement projects. Professional learning sessions have included senior leaders, managers, teaching and support staff, including multi-agency front line practitioners from community learning and development, education health and social care along with the voluntary and community sector. The Promoting Equity Improvement Programme seeks to support teams who are working collaboratively to improve equity for learners and will be delivered through a blend of virtual training and quality improvement coaching that will help teams to achieve a deeper knowledge of improvement methods over session 2021-22.
Another exciting development has been through engaging with the Data for Children Collaborative (with Unicef). The key focus of this collaborative of national and international experts has been to work together with Northern Alliance practitioners to identify the data sources and techniques that best reflect the challenges of child poverty and then to identify how we capture, consider and share our data in order to improve outcomes and close the poverty related attainment gap. More information about this exciting piece of work can be found online at: https://www.dataforchildrencollaborative.com/poverty/northern-alliance
Class teachers across the Northern Alliance continue to engage with development officers to ensure the 1+2 languages policy is delivered as effectively as possible. As part of this, online language resources have been developed and these accessible, bite-sized resources aim to upskill practitioners who are implementing additional language learning within the classroom.
The Northern Alliance Early Years Connect to Collaborate Network now has almost 500 practitioners sharing their journey and learning together as we move to full implementation of 1140 hours of high quality Early Learning and Childcare. This workstream’s role in Emerging Literacy continues to grow and develop, linking to the National Practice Guidance for the Early Level – ‘Realising the Ambition’.
In addition, the initial cohort of Early Years practitioners has now completed the Scottish Improvement Foundation Skills (SIFS) qualification. The workstream lead is currently facilitating two further cohorts of SIFS across the Northern Alliance. There has been a particular focus on supporting Excellence and Equity lead practitioners to use Data for Improvement to measure the impact of their work on closing the poverty related attainment gap and to improve outcomes for our youngest children across the Northern Alliance.
Working with individual authorities and facilitating discussion between them, training has been provided to enable teams to deliver more accurate assessments of the learning estate and ensure the best quality learning environments are available for children and young people.
The Northern Alliance’s e-learning school, e-Sgoil has played a leading role in the development and delivery of the National e-Learning Offer – building on lessons learned since its inception with the help of a number of new dedicated Digital Depute Head Teacher posts now assigned to each Northern Alliance local authority and funded by the improvement collaborative. Aside from that, e-Sgoil’s Interrupted Learners programme 'i-Sgoil' continues to grow, showing huge success in re-engaging learners in learning where this has not been possible in a regular school environment. This programme provides an innovative, online, interactive and supportive learning community where pupils feel in control. The i-Sgoil model is being further developed with extensive input from a range of multidisciplinary professionals and partner agencies.
In terms of developing school leaders across the eight authorities, an increased range of professional learning programmes and activities has been developed for leaders at all levels. These programmes enable participants to work collaboratively with colleagues to enhance and extend their own leadership skills and consider how they apply them in their own context. A depute head teacher leadership network brings together more than 170 colleagues and more than 200 practitioners have completed professional learning on coaching, growing a network of coaches across the Northern Alliance.
Northern Alliance lead officer Helen Budge who is also Director of Children’s Services for Shetland Islands Council added: “We’re a very small team working across a ginormous part of Scotland and I’m very proud of the impact we are making. In the last year we’ve increased the number of collaborative engagements we’re offering practitioners, increased the number of colleagues taking part, we’ve more than doubled the number of visits to our websites and continue to strive to collaborate with colleagues to improve outcomes across eight local authority areas.
“There is still much to be done in terms of connecting and collaborating with practitioners, but we have a shared support strategy and a shared understanding of how the collaborative should move forward. We will continue to embed more agile and innovative ways of working, strengthen trust, connections and reduce silos, and work together with colleagues to explore new and emerging practices in learning and teaching.”
Argyll and Bute Council’s Policy Lead for Education, Councillor Yvonne McNeilly, said: “There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge for education services across Scotland, and we have had to adapt quickly to ensure we meet the needs of our learners.
“There has been a unprecedented increase in digital learning which has given practitioners in Argyll and Bute the chance to engage in a variety of online learning opportunities, regardless of their location.
“Because of this, our teachers and education staff have undertaken a wide range of courses that might not otherwise have been available, including invaluable health and wellbeing coaching led by psychologist Sarah Philp. Foundation apprenticeships and student placements have also been made available in a number of our Early Learning and Childcare settings as a result of these remote learning platforms.
“The last 12 months have not been easy but there is no doubt that we have gained a great deal of knowledge as a result. Moving forward, remote learning will be a growing feature in our education service and we will continue to work closely with our partners in Regional Improvement Collaborative to develop these opportunities for all.”
For more information about the work of the Northern Alliance, including a raft of new professional learning opportunities, visit: https://northernalliance.scot/