How effective are MATs as a model of school-to-school support?

  • What is your opinion/experience of the MAT model for improving the quality of teaching and learning and outcomes for pupils?
  • How would you ensure an effective model of school-to-school support across a number of schools?

The evidence for direct impact of inter-school collaboration on student outcomes is limited.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/467855/DFE-RR466_-_School_improvement_effective_school_partnerships.pdf

There is great complexity and variety in the models of contemporary schools’ organisation. This has meant that a comprehensive, coherent picture is difficult to identify. Yet, despite the challenge to clarity, the most effective models of school-to-school (S2S) support ease collaboration, promote professional engagement & are founded on mutual respect & shared purpose.

It is entirely plausible that a MAT model can be effective for S2S support. Experienced leaders, a shared vision for pupil outcomes, a large (potentially) community of professional educators. Leveraging this system would most certainly foment exceptional opportunites to innovate, offer peer support (& challenge) at all levels, enable moderation & provide the platform to solve problems that occur at a local level.

The MAT in which I am one of three Principals currently employs a Peer Review process.  It enables scrutiny & reflection on school-derived lines of enquiry, assessment of progress against development plan projects and coaching & advice on challenges we face.  It is a professional dialogue that is built on mutual understanding & a desire for each of us to be successful in our own, differing, contexts.

In addition, we hold termly moderation meetings for key stages, meetings for SENCos and subject leads and open up offers of attending CPD opportunities hosted by schools.  Furthermore, admin teams & business managers are in regular contact for support & advice in anything from using the MIS to admissions & attendance.

This is a model that I feel would be of great benefit when deployed  across a number of schools.  It doesn’t assume a superiority of one school over the others or ignore contextual differences.  The CEO doesn’t, as yet, dictate pedagogy or become involved in recruitment or teacher performance management.  Instead, they are largely focused on Trust strategy, facilitation of support for Principals & how to centralise services in an optimal fashion while leaving schools with an autonomy that builds strength through independence.

This model is enhanced in my school, I feel, through close working relationships with local schools.  Through the groups of local Heads, attendance at moderations & use of the local Teaching School for instance, we have an improved ability to understand our own context, gain support from schools running successful initiatives in our area &  enabled the whole school community (especially the staff) to feel part of the local education landscape – where by and large they all live anyway.

Therefore, for a successful model of S2S support across a number of schools it is essential to focus on three elements:

  • Building support networks and professional trust through the MAT itself
  • Engaging staff teams in the local support networks that already exis
  • Training & developing leaders in a MAT to build collaborative & supportive partnerships

The last of these is essential & will therefore inform the Trustees of the MAT in the recruitment of any executive leader.  Whether a CEO or Executive Head, the success of S2S support is predicated on the vision & competencies of a leader to understand how the school system can be improved by motivated & sustainable collaboration; that staff in schools want to feel a sense of belonging & purpose in their own communities.

Supporting Curriculum Innovation

Curriculum Innovation began with our Values as a school community. As a Free School, still growing, we wanted to establish our identity and purpose which are themselves inexorably linked to the context of the school. The first task, then, was to consult with the entire school community and establish which Values not only define us but which will also give us purpose and establish the “why” of the Jupiter Curriculum.

The Six Core Values (Resilience, Perseverence, Aspiration, Pride, Respect, Curiosity) are now embeded in our Teaching and Learning Policy and underpin our thinking about curriulum development and innovation (core curriulum & the wider curriculum). The Values give us language to support discussion (empassioned as well as reasoned!) as well as enabling us to retain focus on our core purpose.

Innovation & development has continued with the process of mapping our curriculum across subjects and year groups. The resulting, rather large, A0 document gives an overview of everything a child will learn from their Autumn Term in Reception to their Summer Term in Y6. This also provides a backdrop to further thinking about curriculum design, ensuring a logic to the flow of planning, coverage and opportunity to revisit prior learning.

One example of the impact of innovation is in the introduction of whole class music, especially brass instruments in Y3, along with individual and group lessons in KS2. Placing music and performance as a key element of the non-core curriulum, and bringing in specialists from the Herts Music Service to deliver learning opportunities, has created a greater sense of pride and aspiration in our pupils. In an area of some deprivation such as ours, high quality Arts Education in essential in providing a platfrom for children who do not achieve well in the core curriculum. Developing their well-being is about making the experience of school varied and exciting (as well as challenging, as it’s not easy to play a cornet!). Furthermore, 20% of children have now taken up music lessons at the Music Service’s Saturday morning school, thereby extending their learning and value of music.

Another example of innovation driving impact is in promoting a passionate HLTA to a role in coordinating Art. They have been able to develop an Arts Week as a focal point in the school year as well as work with other similarly passionate colleagues to develop effective lesson planning along with support, linked to subjecrt or topic themes. In addition they have been running a very popular weekly Art Club. As a result, this high-quality provision creates a strong sense of purpose and significance for Art, like Music, in the life of the school. Children recognise this and, especially for the more vulnerable – in particular white British girls – an opportunity to develop and express skills and interests is made available.

Across a group of schools innovation can be driven by collective, shared purpose. Although innovation may be expressed differently, as individual schools apply vision and values to their own context, the collective efficacy of a professional team of educators is very powerful. Coming together with collegeagues from different settings allows reflection and the introduction of new ideas and ways of thinking. As long as Trust teams are well led and empowered to reflect the identity of their own settings, the facilitation of innovation will be more stable and not the preserve of one particular school or indeed squashed by a drive to homogonise.

This homoginisation is, therefore, a significant constraint on innovation. With a top-down, directive approach, a group of schools could be compromised in being able to innovate effectively. The opportunity for freedom of thought, collaborative working, contextualised provision and even plan-do-review cycles immediate enough to be flexible, are all reduced or removed.

By starting with shared, community-derived purpose, establishing a map of a child’s learning journey through the school and connecting teaching with learning through shared values, we have taken advantage of our freedoms to think about why we do what we do. But this is not sufficient. What comes next is what will ensure that content and delivery meets the needs of all of our pupils.

What comes next, then, is a persistent, relentless empahsis on why we deliver our content. We reinforce our aspirations and focus on developing this in our parents as well, which can require some resilience in the face of uncertainty and reluctance. We take pride, and enourage the community to take pride, in the progress of the children which we describe very carefully. And finally, we respect views that are different or are negative. However, collectively we know what is right because we remain curious about what is best for the children at Jupiter.

Metacognition through the law of unintended consequences

Teaching & Learning approaches that have the highest impact for lowest cost are Feedback & Metacognition & Self-Regulation. The Education Endowment Fund’s research strands indicate that focus on communication between adult & learner along with thinking about learning have the highest possibility to good outcomes for pupils.

At Jupiter we have embraced a low-marking policy. Teachers & TAs, instead of collecting children’s books to mark at the end of a lesson, will “helicopter” around the room spending time with children talking about their learning, indicating areas to improve or corrections to be made & feeding back to children about the progress they are making. In turn, after feedback, the children will show how they have improved or corrected & will be able to explain what they need to do to progress as well as what they have achieved.

Governors (especially the teacher ones) and local authority consultants have since verified what we have observed after we had established the assessment & feedback guidelines: children are more able to think about their learning and articulate their understanding.

Therefore, what we have been able to achieve by focusing on feedback through our guidelines, is an approach to metacognition. This side door route is more subtle, less pedagogically confrontational but equally effective (it also means a far lighter workload for teachers & greater recognition for the work of TAs). In particular our interest as a teaching team has been piqued by the impact it is having on our vulnerable children, certainly at Wave 1 and also at Wave 2.

Some of our more vulnerable children are white British girls. As we plan the strategy for their support moving into next year, we will continue to emphsise the subtle impact of low-marking and high quality feedback. Our girls need a quiet, indirect and less obvious approach to intervention, building resilience and independence more creatively. The opportunity to engage a child in discussion about their learning, giving guidance on improving & enabling them to talk back about their progress will be a powerful tool in our staff toolkit.

By promoting good communication & the opportunity for reflection, we have, through the law of unintended consequnces, given children AND staff the opportunity to grow, develop & have IMPACT! And also, staff can get home earlier!

Harmony v Autonomy

How does an Executive Leader balance harmony and autonomy across a MAT or group of schools?

As part of my NPQEL course work is an assignment to discuss how much harmony or autonomy Executive Leaders should seek to promote with regard to accountability systems, teaching and learning. From evidence collected by Ambition School Leadership in their report “Building Trusts”, it is clear that no one coherent model exists. However, the common threads are all about coherence within a MAT.

Executive leaders and Trust boards set vision and mission for their schools, along with strategies for growth and school improvement. Taken at face value, schools could therefore be required to “harmonise” around curriculum, pedagogy as well as accountability, and be tightly controlled from the centre, as this would reduce the chances of failure – as long as the harmonisation was effective. But of course, we are not making tins of beans; we are influencing the lives of individual children and working with committed professional adults.

In groups of schools, aligned in a MAT structure, there is a great opportunity to build a self-improving network. A self-improving network is one that encourages and promotes collaboration, feedback from those within the system and flexibility in employing active learning models to drive research, development and school improvement.

Executive leadership requires information about the health and performance of the system. The Autonomy that schools in MATs should have to design and implement a curriculum and opportunities that fit and benefit their specific communities, is balanced by the Harmony that collaboration requires. This Harmony, for example in my own MAT, is built on a Peer-review process between Principals, termly subject-focused moderation meetings for teachers and shared CPD opportunities. This is bolstered by a common termly reporting format, generated by the Principals and shared with SLT, CEO, school governors and Trustees.

An executive leader should have both the hard skills to manage data and the soft skills to lead people. By combining and balancing these effectively, an Executive Leader can use the accountability systems to reflect on progress and feedback to, and challenge, leaders and others throughout the MAT system. The common language and common goals shared through the MAT vision and strategy ensures all involved understand core purpose and can align (harmonise) around the things that really matter: the best possible outcomes for the children in our schools.

In conclusion, in balancing Harmony and Autonomy through developing a Self-Improving System, as reported by DfE (2015), Executive Leaders need to focus on three things:

  • Leadership – development of leaders within schools so that they can more immediately reflect and respond to pupil needs
  • Pedagogy – the challenge and support of schools in the MAT to be passionate about WHY we teach as well as what and how
  • Professional Development – support and championing communities of learners to develop knowldge skills and competencies

On Visioning…NPQEL #8

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I have had the great good fortune to go through the “visioning” process at 5 different schools and one professional body.  This process, helping to “recallibrate” a school community and culture in the transition from one Head to another or in the development of a wider initiative, is about giving purpose and providing a shared language.  

In identifying the basis of my own vision for collaboration, I can offer a statement that I wrote for the Independent Association of Prep Schools: 

A School is one that has at its heart the promotion of well-being, the rights, responsibilities, knowledge, skills and opportunities that will enable the young people in our care to be valuable and productive members of society.

In a right-thinking, just and fair society, I hope that well-being, rights, responsibilities, knowledge, skills and opportunities are elements that we would wish for all of our children to experience and develop.  And as such can be shared, unpacked and reframed by any school.

To overcome obstacles in implementing a vision across more than one school, it is important to make a distinction between values (cultural or community sandards) and virtues (human moral behaviour).  The foundation for any school’s values and vision is the expression of the underlying virtues that we all share.  Once these virtues and their relationship to value systems (bypassing Classical Greek phiolosphy!) are understood and shared, whether by one school community or several (the WHY), then HOW these are expressed by the school or schools within a group is less important.  

For me it is the simplicity of Sinek’s WHY that is the most compelling.  We can be caught up in the tangle of words that we have at our disposal in the attempt to express the most fundamental ideas.  We can encounter individuals who think they are the ones who matter most and would wish their ideas to be the ones to be followed.   However, it is the children who are the most important.  That is why we have schools.  And so, the overcoming of obstacles and the clarity is essential for their sake.  Complex ideas about virtues, values and vision can be distilled into a few simple concepts.  English is a powerful language.

As summed up in assembly on Friday on “relationships”, this half term’s theme of our PSHE curriulum.   When I asked what is important in relationships I got these 4 replies:

  • Friendship
  • Teamwork 
  • Kindness
  • Patience

Now that is a vision right there.  I’m very glad the whole staff team were on hand to experience it too!

Nudging the System: NPQEL #7

This post is part of my journey to NPQEL. It is a reflection on a piece by John West Burnham on the nature of Executive Leadership in the educational landscape.

I am the Principal of a Free School.  We are Reception to Y4 in a very socio-economically mixed part of Hemel Hempstead; predominantly white British families.  As a Free School, and a new one to boot, we have the opportunities to explore how to develop a school system that can have the optimum impact on outcomes for pupils while adapting to the changes, adopting innovations, that are outlined by JWB.

We are witnessing the impact of children’s SEMH – and that of their families – in the classroom.  Along with our acute focus on SEND, and with the background of many of our more vulnerable children and their families, this places greater strain on the well-being of the staff team themsleves.  They, in turn, are more acutley aware of the pressures that they face and more capable of articulting the impacts. 

Therefore, as a new school, willing to recognise the challenges of SEMH/SEND for all members of the community, we have moved to adopt models that enable us adapt to the educational landscape.

For example, through collaboration, all TAs have developed professional skills in theraputic interventions with some moving to more specific training such as “drawing and talking”.  Furthermore, there has been capacity to grow and develop talent in younger teachers early in their careers. 

These young leaders work closely with more experienced collegues to form the collaborative teams that drive consistency (carrying the message from SLT), culture (through modelling positive relationships) and change (anticipating the need to focus on interventions that will lead to more secure KS2 outcomes for our first Y6).

In this way, utilising an understanding of executive leadership, we can develop a school model where skills and competencies are nurtured and well-being cared for. This, in turn, will lead to more empowered and engaged – and frankly happy – colleagues who will have greater impact on the outcomes for the pupils.

Capital Culture. Week 2, NPQEL #6

As I wrote last week, leadership is about drawing out threads and joining the dots. As a leader, you need the ability to seek out patterns, draw on past experience and knowledge and simplify the complex.

At school, we are currently working through the complexities of two frameworks that will drive school development in the overarching areas of wellbeing and mental health (WMH). From workload to mindful classrooms, positive physchology to CBT in understanding pupil behaviour, our aim is to improve outcomes for pupils and staff through a focus on our collective WMH.

The reason for putting these two frameworks together is to explore how the opportunities presented in one have measurable outcomes in the other. The first framework is the Hertfordshire Schools Wellbeing Quality Mark (WQM), an opportunity to engage the whole community in collectively addressing WMH. The second is Artsmark, again designed to drive community-wide engagement this time in developing arts-based activity and cultural engagement across the school.

Artsmark is the ideal vehicle to plan for high interest, engaging activity, but it also serves to generate debate and discussion about the Arts and its place in the lives of our children and their families. It involves the children in the development of experiences that engage them in a wide variety of art-forms so that “the arts” are not “done to” the children, but they can gain experience, explore interests and pursue burgeoning talents. And, as the new OfSTED inspection framework places “cultural capital” squarely in the frame, we are able to explore how the arts impact on the wellbeing, aspirations and intellectual development of our children.

For us at Jupiter, and indeed the fellow Heads working in our NQPEL peer group, some of our most vulnerable children are those that, because of family socio-economic factors, are less likely to engage in culturally enriching, arts-focused experiences. As a result, the children’s aspiration, creativity and fundamental sense of self and others in shared human experience is greatly diminished. Therefore the arts leads to greater opportunity to experience and explore this sense of self and one’s place in the world. In turn this leads to improved wellbeing as well as intellectual and spiritual growth.

The WQM framework for Emotional and Mental Health and Wellbeing asks schools to address the following:

The teaching of the arts is used to support the mental and social needs of CYP. They have opportunities to explore a range of arts (1-1 tuition, visits, performances etc.) to enable them to explore talents and interests

Hfl wellbeing quality mark

The question emerging therefore is: To what extent does engagement in the arts, enhancing wellbeing, lead to improved outcomes for our most vulnerable children? We intend, as we engage in the journey towards Artsmark, that we will fulfil many of the requirements of the Wellbeing quality mark. As a result our vulnerable children will be more fulfilled and happy at school, with improved progress and attainment in English and Maths.

More will be written on this, but most certainly we will remain very mindful of just what the arts will mean to our children and this will play an important part…


The Story Behind the Numbers: Week 1, NPQEL #5

It’s a family thing

When asked the question “what are you doing one week on from #BrewEdHerts19?” the replies were naturally a mixture of the thoughtful and the literal!

“Let’s do it again”

“Inspired”

“Still makes me smile”

“Just chilling”

“At a wedding”

And we’re a week into (officially, I guess) the work of our NPQEL cohort and I wonder how we are all getting on…

For me, I was helping my cousin cook curry and cater at his daughter’s fundraiser for her next trip to Kenya with Mission Direct.

As an accountant, my cousin is a treasure trove of advice about financial planning and business development. However, he is starting to realise that his clients, and indeed future clients, are and will be in greater need of support that is less to do with the numbers in their business plans and far more to do with personal and professional development through coaching and mentoring. Imagine that, an accountancy service more interested in you than your figures!

Having a background as a Head in Independent Education, I am all too familiar with the need to see the school in business terms. To survive and thrive, independent schools require prudent financial management alongside the maintenance of core purpose, namely to educate children and young people. Moving to the maintained sector, I am not certain that this balance is effectively established or sustained. Consider the current parlous state of the English schools’ financial landscape.

So, borrowing from the NPQEL course materials, I dived into generating a set of KPIs that would more than satisfy the requirements of the Integrated Curriculum Financial Planning process.

Pupil numbers, attendance, adult:pupil ratios, percentage of staff salary over income, contact time, costs per pupil, etc. As a committed educator, reducing my school to numbers like this makes my skin crawl. It is not right, surely, when we have the lives of vulnerable children in our hands, to be fiddling around with performance indicators and numbers. Schools are places of humanity and empathy. Aren’t I contradicting everything I have discussed in these blog posts?

Well, no. And here are the reasons why:

“Data is only as good as the questions it provokes.”

My mantra is the caveat to any meeting that I have which involves numbers. From pupil progress and attainment to monthly profit and loss reports I’m not going to believe the numbers, I want to understand the story that lies beneath them. And this story is about the wellbeing of the children in our care, the support that staff are giving (the children) and receiving (from leaders). Other threads feed into this: staff feedback, professional development reviews, pupil attitude to school surveys, parent questionnaires. Themes and issues, even dilemmas and tough choices, can be drawn together by a proper scrutiny of both the data and the narrative that led to the outcomes.

Data is to be shared.

It is not the preserve of governors and trust boards or leadership teams sequestered away in an office or meeting room. Any information that we produce is shared as widely as possible. Admittedly, the majority of my team don’t care a fig about numbers – and that’s as it should be. However, the act of sharing and telling the story behind the data, is part of the trust-building and relationship management that keeps teams buoyant and purposeful.

Data is a work of non-fiction

And this story is the truth. We teach our children to be truthful, so why not extend this to how we describe the state of play within our schools? It is this that is the subtle art of school leadership: to be able to draw the threads together and connect the dots. The amount that staff cost is linked directly to pupil progress. If you are investing in teaching and classroom support, if you are paying a hefty top slice to an academy trust, if your costs per pupil are going up and not down, then this all has to have a positive impact on the outcomes for children, vulnerable, stable, able and everything in between. It’s not? Then you are not provoking the right questions.

Leadership should present no barriers to others, but connect them with the bigger picture, the system, in which they work. Michael Fullan’s (oft quoted by me) Six Secrets of Change #2 is “Connect Peers With Purpose.” So if the ultimate purpose of our work in schools is impacting the progress and improving outcomes for children, then through the information we generate about this purpose, sharing it, telling its story, is part of this act of connection.

Love IS Power. NPQEL #4

After 2 days of residential to start the NPQEL, there followed a very special Saturday event in a small corner of Hertfordshire that summarised EVERYTHING the landscape of schools and education could be. It chimed perfectly with the aims of NPQEL that leadership, at all levels, is not simply about knowing things, it is about expressing the behaviours, vision and guidance that will have lasting impact on the children in our care.

BrewEdHerts19 is the latest iteration of the stunningly successful BrewEd movement in the UK. Put simply, a BrewEd event is this:

…a grassroots movement for people from all phases, sectors, and areas of education.  BrewEd events provide a space for educators to come together, enjoy each other’s company and have some robust, open and challenging debate around thought-provoking ideas and issues. They should also provide a platform for local educators to have their voices heard within their community.

Daryn Egan-Simon, http://brewed.pbworks.com

I am fortunate to have freinds with reach through the avenues and alleyways of education and, with fellow organisers Adrian Bethune and Dr Emma Kell, we brought together a fantastic range of people with significant voices. Moreover, it was the opportunity to interlace these voices with others less well known but no less powerful, that created an enegry and synergy that resonated incredibly well with everyone present, in the room and online.

However, the relevance and connection with NPQEL, and the reason for connecting both experiences is contained in the above Tweet from Laura: “No one stood on a stage and said ‘Yes I did this great thing and it was pretty easy, actually.’ “

I wrote a blog post back in 2014 when exploring the notion of “service” in leadership, of giving rather than taking as outlined by Adam Grant in Give and Take. In the post I explored the idea that real power comes through a personal charisma which egages people, that makes them feel good being around you and which, in turn, makes them feel more powerful and empowered.

As leaders we have an obligation to enable others to do their job well. We hold others to account and challenge them to develop and improve where it is required. But we also empthise and support, counsel them when they’re down, coach wherever possible and mentor when necessary.

As an executive leader we have to have the skill to see the widest, broadest picture; to see our organisations as systems. We must be able to understand the KPIs and appraise the accompanying narratives. However, this must be coupled with the ability to identify the point from which change will occur when focus is applied.

Then when that focus (whether one or many) has been identified, it is how we behave that is crucial to the sustainability of the change that follows. Change can be simple, like agreeing a format for reporting to Trustees, or more complex, like raising attainment for boys across a number of schools. The success of this change lies in the ability to sustain it with care and thought, maintaining positive working relationships.

Whether it is called charisma, love or compassion, the behaviour of leaders sets the tone and expectations within and around an organisation and its communities. To do this well, embracing diverse voices and opinion, we can and should express vulnerability and be open about the challenge, wary of hubris and over-blown confidence and self-importance. People see through this very quickly.

Working in and around schools is not easy but it can be, should be, rewarding. Supported and empowered teams do amazing things for the children in their care. The honesty of the speakers at BrewEd Herts clearly expressed this. And it is this that I will take from the past 3 days: Leaders can create real change if they are brave and take risks, yet all the time confident in the vision and core purpose of an organisation built upon creating better outcomes for children and young people.

NPQEL #3: Day 1 & The Tensions in Executive Leadership

Day 1 is complete (apart from dinner & drinks & the social thing). We have a slightly clearer understanding of the tasks ahead. We have introduced ourselves and found eachother to be a fascinating and diverse set of students. And we have recognised that Executive Leadership itself is fascinating, diverse and, to a certain extent, somewhat still uncharted.

The word that seemed to emerge from the day was “bravery”. Brave to participate. Brave to consider the move to Executive Leadership (EL). Or brave to already be in the role of CEO or Executive Head. Leading beyond the entity of a single school is a role that is challenging to prepare for and ultimately seems to be a delicious collection of tensions, opposites and extremes.

Soft & Hard

To understand relationships and bring cohesion to communities of staff and parents needs a sensibility and skill in communication and listening. To read a profit and loss spreadsheet, to set a budget and make tough choices, requires resilience and perseverance. The challenge in EL is to combine these attributes into a seemless whole that instills confidence in both the Tustees’ Finance and Audit Committee and the Senior Leaders concerned about their staff teams’ wellbeing.

Calendar & Schedule

It is no longer an 8-6 job. It no longer has carefully defined school calendar boundaries: length of school day, length of school holidays. EL necessitates some careful personal organisation, management of the diary and time for personal space. However, EL also enables you to be present in the life a school, to celebrate its achievements alongside the Head and school community. While the connection with school communities is more distant, an EL can still retain some of the buzz that we get as Heads from seeing children thrive.

Hearts & Minds

EL requires an incumbent to be at once a Visionary; leading a disperate collection of professionals, enthusiastic amateurs, parents and young people. Yet this can be at odds with the logic, reason and sound business sense required to steer this particular fleet through uncharted oceans, rapids and rocky shoals to the clear blue waters that will benefit all of the children and young people fortunate enough to be guided by your wise and benevolent hand.

And so bravery is the word of the day. Bravery to let go. Bravery to hold tight. Bravery to trust. Bravery to hold and be held to account. Its a delicious prospect and working with a collection of other school leaders will give each of us a much clearer insight into how we can engage with opportunities that might come our way. If we are brave.

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