Looking Inside a Local Learning System: the unique role of boundary spanners

Our research team is engaging with three different Local Learning Systems (LLS) to better understand continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) provision in England. Each case study locality represents a unique context. We are working within one shire, consisting of small villages, several small towns, and the surrounding rural areas. We are also working within one larger town and one densely populated urban district. To gain an understanding of each LLS, our team is interviewing a range of individuals involved in the delivery of primary maths CPDL, including system leaders, school leaders, subject leads, and classroom teachers in each of our three localities.

However, some individuals have proven difficult to slot into one of our four professional categories. We refer to these actors as ‘boundary spanners’, as they simultaneously operate within or liaise between several organisations (they span across the organisational boundaries that most activity and individuals operate within). They work in both formal and informal capacities and are involved in a range of activities. These individuals are keenly aware of what is happening across the LLS. They also appear to be involved in capacity building for professional learning and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of CPDL.

For these boundary spanners, their ability to lead seems to go beyond the authority afforded by their formal titles. Their knowledge of the system is deep and there is an innate authenticity to their influence, as they have built significant professional capital through decades of working and interacting with practitioners across their local context.

In one instance, a boundary spanner we interviewed simultaneously held four different positions during their work week. On Monday they serve as a deputy headteacher. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they are a devoted classroom teacher. On Thursday they assume the responsibilities of a Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) across their Multi-Academy Trust. On Fridays they work for their regional Maths Hub, coordinating working groups with other local teachers. Of course, we are sure the divisions are not this neat in practice! But the ability to juggle these multiple roles, while bringing coherence to the larger system was immediately noticeable to our team.

Another boundary spanner we encountered had decades of experience serving in a number of different roles in education across a locality. Their career history seemed to touch on every relevant formal title related to professional learning in primary maths. They had served as a classroom teacher, maths subject lead, and SLE. They had previously led a teacher training program at a university, were a former director of a teaching school alliance, and are now leading a new Teaching School Hub. They have also been involved in senior leadership roles with their regional Maths Hub.

The way these individuals operate as boundary spanners within an LLS appears to be quite different from most formalised system leaders, such as National Leaders of Education. For these boundary spanners, their ability to lead seems to go beyond the authority afforded by their formal titles. Their knowledge of the system is deep and there is an innate authenticity to their influence, as they have built significant professional capital through decades of working and interacting with practitioners across their local context.

On multiple occasions, these actors have self-identified as “wearing many hats” and recognise their professional roles are bespoke. Significantly, when we ask other interviewees to name influential individuals or organisations in primary maths CPDL provision, boundary spanners are listed early and often. This notoriety suggests their inter-organisational influence. It seems significant that these individuals tend to maintain significant professional contacts both within and outside their own individual schools or organisations. These individuals are key catalysts of knowledge exchange and collaborative partnerships, something which DfE prioritises as part of a larger vision for a ‘school-led’ education system.

Boundary spanners are of interest in many fields of research. Network researchers like Burt refer to these actors as filling structural holes between formal organizational boundaries. Boundary spanners can be the source of innovation if they take advantage of their positionality, synthesising information from many different sources that are otherwise disconnected. Public policy researchers such as Paul Williams and educational sociologists like Stephen Ball also discuss boundary spanners within the context of professional learning. A boundary spanner seems to be on the leading edge of information with current and grounded contextual knowledge of what is happening within their profession because they are interacting with many sources outside their own organisations.

In the coming months, our team is interested in learning more about these boundary spanners. How do individuals become boundary spanners? What happens if a boundary spanner leaves an LLS? How common are these type of multifaceted roles in the English education system?  How might an LLS build capacity for boundary spanners and manage succession? What does the existence of boundary spanners tell us about LLSs?

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