Accountability and improvement in multi-academy trusts: Time to press the reset button
As we continue to move through the pandemic and adapt to new ways of working and living, multi-academy trust (MAT) leaders are finding space to reflect and think about how we build back better, using the power of peer review as a tool for improvement.
When push came to shove, school leaders stepped up. The school system demonstrated remarkable flexibility and resilience in the face of national catastrophe. In a matter of weeks, schools re-oriented themselves toward remote delivery of learning, developed new systems to support and protect the most vulnerable pupils, and adopted flexible working models for staff to suit the demands of the time.
And here is the thing: none of that was mandated by Ofsted requirements or driven by other forms of external regulation. Left largely to find their own solutions, Trusts and school leaders did just that.
Indeed, many external accountability measures have been rendered largely redundant by the pandemic. Most obviously, external assessment of pupils is currently paused – as were Ofsted visits – and many other routine indicators, such as pupil attendance, serve only to chart the scale of disruption.
In response, Chief Executives of MATs and school leaders are re-shaping performance frameworks to keep their organisations on course. They’re adopting alternative strategies to demonstrate accountability – ones that inspire future improvement, not just record past progress. To ensure rigour, increasingly Trusts are looking to each other for external scrutiny through robust processes of peer review.
One such MAT Chief Executive is Helen Rowland of Focus-Trust. She and her team have worked with two other MATs on structured peer reviews.
– Helen Rowland, CEO Focus-Trust
Peer review is not an easy option. Done properly, it requires an agreed set of principles, collective commitment, expertise, designed processes and strong partnership working to deliver robust challenge. Done effectively, it enables organisations to improve.
Education Development Trust has been at the forefront of the development of peer review between schools through its Schools Partnership Programme (SPP). SPP is the largest peer review programme in the country and has been used by almost 2,000 schools to engage in productive peer review locally.
MAT leaders using SPP in their schools were seeking a robust model for improvement to allow them to model and exemplify a collaborative culture at trust level. Consequently, led by Jane Creasy, Education Development Trust’s team has built on their extensive experience and expertise with SPP to create a structured, faciltated process of peer review for MAT leadership teams, the MAT Partnership Programme (MPP). The programme has been co-developed, piloted and continues to be refined by serving MAT leaders to ensure relevance and is informed by research evidence to ensure rigour.
This approach to peer review is informed by the work of international thinkers Viviane Robinson, Pasi Sahlberg and Michael Fullan, among others. Expressing his excitement at working with Education Development Trust, Michael Fullan is clear:
“Leveraging peer knowledge and expertise is the hidden gem in the transformation of education."
The MAT Partnership Programme is designed to lever out such knowledge and expertise and help embed sustainable, collaborative ways of working.
Once carefully paired with another MAT and matched with an MPP Associate to guide them through the process, each organisation begins with a critical self-review, using an evidence-based framework, organised around five key themes and common agreed processes. Next, the teams from each MAT come together with an MPP Associate to share and explore their self-reviews, probing their robustness and identifying the key priorities that might unlock further improvement.
Each MAT then identifies a specific priority to examine in greater detail in a peer review, where the review team will gather evidence and share their findings with the host MAT. The host MAT will reflect on the findings and use the results to shape their own action plans for improvement as part of a structured debrief with an MPP Associate.
The role of the MPP Associate
The strength of the MAT Partnership Programme lies in its facilitation. Peer review teams are guided through the process by a skilled MPP Associate, keeping the process on track and creating an environment in which candid and honest exchange takes place within a spirit of collaboration.
“It’s easy within an organisation to develop blind spots where we think things are okay when they’re not, or equally we think things are not very good when actually perhaps they’re better than they are. That external view is extremely helpful.”
- Andy Yarrow, CEO Anthem Trust
MPP Associates enable MAT teams to live the principles of effective peer review: to engage in enquiry-focused, non-judgemental collaboration; to display openness, honesty and kindness; and to demonstrate a shared commitment to improving outcomes for the children and young people within their schools.
Peer review benefits at MAT level
The programme has been strengthened further by working with Forum Strategy, a membership organisation for MAT CEOs and COOs that supports MATs with organisational development and strategic planning.
Forum Strategy, too, has piloted MAT peer review. Paul Stone, one of the MAT CEOs who took part said:
“The MAT peer review process (with Forum Strategy) worked well for our Trust in helping us take a closer look at our own practice and that of another Trust of a similar scale…[It] helped us have a very honest team reflection of where our Trust was succeeding and where we should place more scrutiny.”
Until now, says Forum Strategy CEO Michael Pain, the most common challenge facing MATs has been to develop sustainable growth strategies and embed models for school improvement at scale. Peer review has been useful to help MAT teams discover ways of addressing these questions.
In a post-pandemic world, the agenda has widened. The supporting strategies that underpin effective teaching and learning in MATs are centre stage. IT capacity and capability has been tested (and in some cases, found wanting) in the overnight drive to remote learning. Workforce strategies, too, must adapt to new priorities in online learning and to accommodate flexible working. Some MATs may require new financial strategies to absorb the impact of the pandemic and secure their long-term stability in expectation of potential tightened public spending.
As during the pandemic, the solutions to these challenges may already lie within the MAT community itself, ready to be unlocked by collaborative peer review. More than ever, collaborative MAT-to-MAT working could help us innovate our way through future challenges. The much-heralded ‘self-improving school system’ may finally have arrived.
Our MPP Associates
Jane Creasy and Maggie Farrar serve as our MPP Associates.
Both are experienced in working with MAT leadership teams and governance, and have been key in developing the Schools Partnership Programme principles and practices of peer review.
Formerly a Director at the UK National College for School Leadership and successful headteacher, Jane has experience of educational and public sector leadership at local and national level.
She is currently working with a group of multi-academy trust CEOs as they grapple with current complexities, and with leaders of four municipalities in Norway as they seek to implement a new national curriculum that focuses on 21st century skills.
Having previously worked with the National College for School Leadership for over 10 years, including a period as Interim Chief Executive, Maggie has been working on cluster-based school improvement and the development of peer review in England and internationally for a number of years and is a passionate advocate for the power and potential of great teachers and great leaders to work together to transform a whole system.