Challenges may be unprecedented, but our leadership values, principles & collegiality are familiar
Maggie Farrar is a Lead Associate for the Schools Partnership Programme, having previously worked with the National College for School Leadership for over 10 years, including a period as Interim Chief Executive. She 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.
Many years ago, a newly appointed Headteacher said to me, "We worked on 25 scenarios in NPQH and on day one of this new job, scenario no. 26 walked through the door." This is our global scenario 26. This is how it feels to be living through a period in history where we are called upon to respond to challenges we have never faced before.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of this quote from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo has just received the ring and with it comes significant responsibility and he is not sure he wants it.
He speaks to Gandalf and says:
"I wish the ring had never come to me".
"So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with this time that is given to you."
Throughout this period, I have been in regular contact with leaders in England, and also further afield in Australia. One clear theme is present in all our conversations; the challenges may be unprecedented, the work we are asked to do in remodeling the education landscape to address this and any future shock and disruption may have no ‘blue print’ to follow, but our leadership values, principles, solidarity and collegiality are familiar and formidable.
I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review recently, entitled 'The Discomfort You Are Feeling Is Grief.' The article observes that living with Covid-19 has led to a collective and universal loss of our sense of safety. One of the ways we rediscover that sense of safety is by finding shared meaning in this experience and by recreating our communities as places of solace and sanctuary. Our schools, of course, have always been such places.
David Whyte, in his poem ‘Everything Is Waiting For You,’ begins with the words, ‘Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone.’ As we rapidly closed our schools in March, developed new connected ways of learning during this period and now look ahead to how we bring more children into our schools over the next few months, we certainly have not been alone. The collective and collegial nature of our system has shown itself to be not only essential but powerful.
How can we harness this spirit of ‘togetherness’ to not only manage during this period but to thrive and flourish in it? It seems to me that we need both ‘roots’ and ‘wings’. Roots to stabilise ourselves, essential after any shock to the system and to recreate our sense of collective safety, and ‘wings’ to reimagine, and build a spirit of optimism for an even better future for ourselves, our staff, our children and their families.
From the work we have done with many partnerships up and down the country through the Schools Partnership Programme and through working more recently with the NAHT, there are some particular characteristics of really effective partnerships that are focused on collaborative school improvement through peer review that seem to me to be cultivating such ‘roots’ and ‘wings.’
Wendy Stone in Thanet has found that spending time as a partnership establishing a core common purpose, an agreement and a process to facilitate the sharing of data, whilst cultivating a willingness to ask for help has built the trust needed to improve together.1
When conversations are based around common areas of concern with an agreement to share and analyse evidence to come up with collective solutions, solidarity is strengthened. When schools do this together with a clear understanding of what is right for their community, staff and our students, this solidarity is strengthened.
Liz Robinson has shared the power of peer conversations that legitimise the sort of probing, questioning, challenging and deep thinking that generates solidarity:
"Peer review legitimises a different set of conversations. It provides leaders with the space and the capabilities for a challenging professional exchange. It’s empowering." 2
When we feel powerless in the face of complexity and change, feelings of overwhelming anxiety can be exacerbated. Partnerships that deliberately cultivate teacher agency empower their entire workforce to engage in the change. The role of the Improvement Champion in the SPP peer review process is one way in which agency can be cultivated.
Dawn Simpson from the Pathfinder Schools Partnership explains:
"The peer review process has helped me by building ownership of solutions among staff themselves. It has helped avoid staff groups feeling “done to”. Now, staff are leading the change themselves."2
We also know that the more skilled we are, the more agency we are able to demonstrate. The skills developed in the Schools Partnership Programme include strengthening the ability to engage in evidence-based decision making, enquiry-focused questioning, giving and receiving feedback, and coaching.
Bravery – do the right thing
Partnership-based peer review provides the opportunity to challenge our assumptions, go beyond the usual response we might have to addressing an issue and, importantly, to have the bravery to focus on the most intractable of issues. Alan Eathorne of Learning Academies Trust says:
"We are prepared to push schools to focus on issues that will help them improve most. If schools are suggesting areas of enquiry simply to confirm solutions they have already identified then reviewers are prepared to challenge"3
Innovate, enhance and enrich learning
Peer review can be the catalyst for the sharing of resources, leading to the development of shared learning experiences for staff and children, and shared know-how. Sarah Walke at Learning Academies Trusts facilitates such a platform of shared resources and support, saying:
"Even if they cannot easily pool budgets, all school partnerships, whatever their form, are able to pool a more significant resource: the knowledge and insights gained from multiple peer reviews"3
As we look at ways of using our spaces, our resources and our human and technological capital creatively within individual schools and across partnerships, we can collectively work together, not only to support the recovery of learning, but the enrichment of learning for those children and families we serve.
Helen Barker of the Kyra TSA community of schools sums up the ways in which we can use the skills and the culture we have developed through peer review to grow even deeper roots and stimulate collective growth and development when she says:
"The only way to survive and thrive is to collaborate effectively."1
Part of a movement
A couple of years ago, school leaders involved in the SPP peer review programme met with Pasi Sahlberg to talk about the power and potential of peer review. He encouraged us to develop peer review not only as a practice but as a movement; a movement where transparency, trust and a shared desire to help improve all schools across a locality, with the systems and structures to make that happen, was the norm.
We have always believed that peer review, if it is to be of any value at all, must be a vehicle to help school leaders and teachers collectively address the biggest challenges they face. That time has come.
We are exploring how the practice of peer review can help partnerships of schools to ‘act this drama together.’ We know that around 40% of schools are engaging with some form of peer review4 and over 1,500 schools are engaged in our Schools Partnership Programme model.
Skills developed through peer review and the strong collegiate culture you're cultivating will serve you well as you skilfully navigate the next few months. Some of you may want to re-engage with the practice of peer review quite quickly; others will want to wait until we can move between schools more easily. In the spirit of support and solidarity, we are planning to offer a range of opportunities to help you connect with your partnership, deepen the core skills that underpin peer review while working on what matters most to you at this current time, and work collaboratively to ‘survive and thrive.’
 Collaborative practice insight one - Culture.  Collaborative practice insight three - People & Skills.  Collaborative practice insight four - Evidence at the heart.  Sustainable improvement in multi-school groups, Toby Greany, 2008.
"Relationships definitely strengthened as a result."
SPP Associate Pam Butterfield interviews Pip Utting, Head Teacher at Burlington Junior School, New Malden.
Pip discusses how the collaborative approaches and the trust her partnership have developed through the Schools Partnership Programme has helped them to work through challenges together, and made them more comfortable with being open and discussing situations in their own schools with each other.
Listen to discussion
WEBINAR: A collaborative approach to recovery
Recorded Thursday 9th July
We believe in the power of collaboration. That's why we’re developing training and guidance for school partnerships to enable peer review and collaborative approaches to continue to be sustainable and impactful in an age of social distancing - and support Covid-19 recovery.