Participation in Educational Partnerships: The role of individual relationships in cross-organisational collaborative work

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The role of partnerships in education is becoming increasingly prevalent worldwide, in order to meet social and educational needs. Educational establishments are joining forces with each other, with social care and health services, voluntary organizations, employers, and many others, to improve the provision of education and other services (eg Billet et al, 2007). The variety of contexts across Europe means that educational partnerships differ in content, but ways of conceptualising partnership work are still relevant across contexts and countries.

In England, policy reforms under the 1997-2010 New Labour Government placed an implicit requirement on schools, colleges and other organizations to join together in order to deliver more choice and flexibility in young people’s education (DCSF, 2008). The current Coalition government expects schools and colleges to work together according to need (BIS, 2010; DfE, 2010), and to develop creative and innovative ways of working together to meet the needs of children and young people (DfE, 2011). Educational partnerships, therefore, have significant contemporary relevance to policy and practice: to those in national and local government, in strategic and delivery positions across children’s services.

Partnerships have been conceptualised in terms of the ways in which they develop (Billet et al, 2007); structure (Hodgson and Spours, 2006); purpose (Higham and Yeomans, 2010); and process, particularly the degree to which EIs have integrated joint working into their planning and structures (Rose, 2011a). The ways in which these aspects of partnership can change over time, resulting in changes in goals, processes and membership, highlight the importance of relationships between individuals in developing and sustaining collaborative work (Billet et al, 2007; Higham and Yeomans, 2009; Rose, 2011a). Partnership work, however, is often considered at the level of the organisation, rather than the individual (Taket and White, 2000), although interaction within partnerships is carried out by individuals, and the interactions between individuals vary widely between organisations and between partnerships (Lumby and Morrison, 2006).

The nature and quality of relationships between individuals is responsible, at least in part, for the success or failure of educational reform (Daly, 2010). Ongoing and successful individual relationships are important in education partnerships (Kaehne and Bayer, 2009; Rose, 2011a), and imbalances in relationships, where one individual holds more power or influence than another, is a frequently occurring problem which can lead to problems in commitment and decision making (Cardini, 2006; Rose, 2011b). Success in partnership, therefore, is not only dependent on a sense of shared values, as commonly recognised in the literature (Rose, 2011b); the role played by key individuals can also be crucial (Lumby, 2009).

This research explores the processes involved in educational partnerships. It aims to understand the professional and social links between individuals working in partnerships, and consider how those relationships are related to partnerships at an organisational level. It asks: To what extent do the links between individuals in different organisations reflect more formal organisational partnerships?

Twenty-four individuals participated in this project, and were recruited using a snowballing technique. Five initial participants were teachers at a secondary school in a small town in South West England. Nineteen further individuals who worked with the teachers, but who were based outside of the school, were interviewed. These included school and college staff from other insititutions, local authority staff, local business employees, and social care and youth services workers.

A mixed method approach was used: a socio-metric survey mapped the relationships and knowledge exchanges between individuals; semi-structured interviews were used to validate these findings, and provide descriptions of the formal organisational partnerships that individuals and their organisations were involved in.

The structured socio-metric questionnaire asked participants:
• who they would contact in other organisations for specific, given purposes, and about the nature of that contact
• the nature of the links between the others in their networks – who they would expect these people to contact for specific given purposes, including: a strategic problem around influence in partnership work; a problem around differing expectations of what was needed for effective partnership work; a problem around inter-personal aspects of collaboration; and a problem around recruitment of appropriate organisations to a partnership.

The research uses social network analysis to investigate the nature of relationships and interactions between key participants in collaborative work in educational partnerships, and thematic content analysis of interviews to elaborate on the structural aspects of relationships. Preliminary analysis indicates that senior management in schools tend to participate in relatively connected networks of senior management staff from other schools, where most people know each other. Within those networks, there are cliques of individuals who interact a lot. Local authority staff, on the other hand, were more likely to operate across different groups, interacting with a range of different professionals and acting as a link between different networks of individuals. Teachers tended to operate in radial networks – they were less aware of links between other individuals with whom they themselves interacted.

Formal school partnerships, as described by participants, were reflected by the professional relationships which individuals describe having with others. This was particularly true for network or consortium coordinators, and admissions staff in schools and colleges. However, the closest relationships which were most valued professionally by participants were rarely associated with specific partnerships. Individuals, therefore, need opportunities to seek out and develop their own professional relationships to support work across organisations.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventEuropean Congress for Educational Research - Cadiz, Spain
Duration: 18 Sep 201221 Sep 2012


ConferenceEuropean Congress for Educational Research


  • Educational partnerships
  • collaboration
  • professional relationships
  • professional networks


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