A self- improving school system? The value of challenge and support from peers in school improvement

This blog has come about following the response to a tweet on my Twitter account @Mishwood1 in which a colleague had suggested that the idea of schools inspecting each other would be a positive one. When I replied saying we already do this in our network but my preference would be to call it challenge and support, the ensuing questions led to me sending a very detailed email about our work, during which I wondered whether others might find information about what we have been doing useful.

This is therefore a very practical blog sharing information about two different networks I have been involved in including honesty about the challenges but the overwhelming positive impact in school and why I would advocate other schools to endeavour to establish cross-school evaluation links with like- minded colleagues.

The idea of school to school challenge and support is not a new one, indeed we have all I am sure been involved in aspects of it for many years in ad-hoc and informal ways. It has gathered momentum however for all sorts of reasons perhaps including the demise of school improvement elements of Local Authorities and the increasing recognition of the value and impact of working collaboratively across schools. I have heard Professor David Hargreaves speak a few times in a compelling way about self-improving school systems and the range of models of school-school challenge and support and only yesterday re-read his thinkpiece written for the NCSL in 2011 http://tinyurl.com/kyeembo

There are of course existing, well established systems of school-school challenge and support, one of the best known perhaps being Challenge Partners  http://www.challengepartners.org/ . I know of many schools who are a part of Challenge Partners and find it works really well for them and their schools. There is also the growth of Teaching Schools and their alliances which also can provide elements of challenge and support as part of an overall package responsive to the needs of the schools which are a part of it.

So – What networks, Who, When and most importantly Why?

Network  one- a special school and Manchester only network based on reciprocal school to school self-evaluation visits

This particular network which ran for 2 years was established on ‘opt in ’basis’ where we worked in ‘triads’ to visit each other’s schools. So, broadly speaking:
• 12 schools in the programme
• Each school received 1 visit per year visited by 3 colleague headteachers
• Each head teacher visited at least 2 other schools during the year
• The ‘receiving school’ decided the focus for the visit (e.g. I chose to a learning walk, some joint lesson observations and interviewing subject leaders of core subjects)
• The receiving school involved whoever they wanted from leadership team ( so joint observations were with me, my deputy and one of my AHTs for example and feedback discussion was whole leadership team)
• The feedback was a useful professional discussion for all involved – Honest and open dialogue in which we all felt we were able to reflect critically on our own practice and were able to support each other with ways of moving forward on areas of development.
• One of the visiting HTs was nominated to write a brief written summary of the visit in the form of WWW and EBI and included agreed good practice to share with wider special heads group. Sharing good practice with the wider group enabled everyone in the group to know where they could go to for developing a particular aspect of their school.

With this programme it needed one person to lead and manage it (it was me in my role as an LLE). When I stopped leading and managing it no-one else felt to take it on so whilst we continue to do some elements of this in an informal way – inviting colleagues to come into our schools, it is not done to the same degree. If there is a group of schools who are willing to engage in this way however it was a very powerful and positive way of working.

Network two – a mixed group of Manchester mainstream and special schools

We have just completed year 2 of this network and it is growing stronger all the time. It started with me and a colleague mainstream primary headteacher who discussed what opportunities a close network could provide for our schools and we invited two other like-minded headteachers to join us. (Three mainstream schools and us as a special school). It is still at that, four schools. We have talked about increasing it to six in the future but probably not more than that for we feel that the small numbers of schools but most importantly involving the wider school community, helps us to achieve the greatest impact.

We initially met as heads and deputies, a strategic group. Together, we decided to make it successful we wanted to engage a facilitator. This has been a significant factor which has meant we can all engage fully in the meetings without any one of us ‘chairing’ or taking any responsibilities. The facilitator does the minutes, reminds us of meetings etc – takes all the pressure off us! The facilitator is an educational consultant who is not involved in any of our schools so is able to be impartial and challenges our thinking during discussions.

We have called our group MC2SP – Manchester Challenge to Support Partnership

Our early meetings setting out were about setting out ground rules as trust is clearly of paramount importance. Also establishing what we wanted to achieve – a conversation we re-visit as the group develops and extends. We all pay money into an account with one school as banker school to cover costs.

We have a strategic meeting once each half -term at a local hotel, starting with buffet lunch then meeting all afternoon. These meetings are really important to set and maintain the direction of our work and evaluate the impact of other groups working across our network. These meetings also include elements of challenge and support e.g. we have presented and shared our SEFs – on what basis we are making judgements about aspects of our school.

As already mentioned and a very important elements of the network is that we were keen it wasn’t just a leadership team network so have linked up others across our schools, for example, the ICT subject leaders working on VLEs and new Computing curriculum, Maths and English subject leaders and teachers from EYFS have been engaging in some cross moderation as well as looking at the new curriculum, Senior TAs have visited each school on learning walks and have been working on evaluating impact of TAs on teaching and learning across the network. Again, most importantly, as the children are at the heart of our schools, the children too have been linking up. Last year the children joined for a ‘singing Square’ of the four school choirs. This year, a sports event.

We have also engaged in the school to school visit elements including joint observations at each other’s schools and looking at other aspects of leadership and management e.g. appraisal. Really valuable CPD for everyone involved.

MC2SP is growing. We are extending the collaboration work we do across our schools to Governance during this next year and have a meeting booked for headteachers and chairs of governors in September. We have also made contact with similar networks operating in our neighbouring authorities of Bury and Rochdale discussing the possibility of a shared conference.

Finally therefore

You will have sensed that I am an advocate of school to school challenge and support. There is a real validity of hearing constructive criticism from colleagues who are ‘doing the day job’ and whose judgement you trust. The integrity of open, honest feedback is key so for this reason trust is essential.Having an external view in this way has enabled us to validate and celebrate our good practice and reflect and act on our areas for development.

This is our way of doing things in a way that is right for us and our schools. Our model of a self –improving school system that works for us and is evolving all the time as the partnership grows and the needs change.

I hope it has been helpful for others to read.

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