How Wokingham Schools are building relationships that allow for challenge as well as support
We chat to Philip Theobald, Assistant Head at Emmbrook Junior School in Wokingham, on how their partnership of three schools is working toward embedding collaboration at all levels.
Back in March 2018, more than 450 schools signed up to be part of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) evaluation of the effectiveness of the Schools Partnership Programme (SPP). This trial is testing the SPP peer review model delivered at a large scale. The report will be published in Spring 2021.
For the EEF evaluation, large groups of schools from across local systems embark on training together. Some have collaborated for many years, while others are new to working together. This gives schools opportunities to share and reflect on their past experiences of partnership working, and move forward to challenge and support one another more systematically with a sharper focus on outcomes.
Now, these schools are moving into the second phase of the programme, where partnerships work toward embedding collaboration at all levels. Middle-leaders and teachers get more involved, increasing capacity to drive improvements across schools and in classroom practice.
We chat to Philip Theobald, Assistant Head at Emmbrook Junior School in Wokingham, on how their partnership of three schools (part of a local training group of 28) is doing just that.
What were your first impressions of the programme?
I immediately bought into the SPP peer review model. A very important part of my practice and philosophy in being a teacher and on a senior leadership level is about collaborative learning and support between colleagues.
We must look outward and share best practice in a supportive, non-judgemental way in order to continually refine our practice. Having others look objectively at something you are striving toward can only have a positive impact on the children in our school.
I’m a big believer in being honest and open with other people. This has helped develop my own practice by not taking advice or support as a criticism, but as a way to improve. I think this goes hand in hand with the aims of the Schools Partnership Programme.
I was pleasantly surprised how quickly a trusting and honest professional relationship was built with our partnership schools. This has led to wider opportunities for school development, including a vocabulary working party, support and mentorship, and attending other events together such as research conferences.
Were there any concerns or obstacles to overcome before you could get going?
Trusting relationships were built across the schools quickly, and this helped significantly. All three schools had bought into it, meaning that the time and energy required was put toward the process having a positive impact.
The peer review process improved as the year went on. We were creating tighter enquiry questions and understood the process better. The difference between the first and last school reviewed in the year was quite significant. We now have the relationships to be honest and open, knowing that it comes from a place of complete support. This has allowed us to challenge as well as support. The 90-day review (a follow-up activity that happens approximately 90 days after the end of the review to discuss progress and impact) was very important to this and that was something we did better as the reviews went on.
With more experience of the framework and carrying out the peer review process, what changes are you making now that you are moving into phase 2?
We are going into the process with confidence right from the start, as we know how it works and the significant impact it can have.
We are now able to try things and not get things 100% right, as we know we are working in a safe and supportive environment. This means that once again the three schools are ready to support and work together to help make improvements for the sake of all the children in our schools.
With school life being so busy, if we didn’t like it or see the value in it, we wouldn’t be giving it the time and thought that we have.
What other changes are you starting to see?
From a personal point of view, it buys into the ethos of ‘improve, not prove’ we are trying to establish in our school. We want people to be able to look at practice and use a model that allows them to discuss openly and honestly about the positives they saw and potential areas for development.
No one person is above the idea of improvement and that’s really positive. The notion of it being done with, not done to, is hugely important. I believe we are willing to be braver this year in the second phase, to trust in the process more and to think clearly and carefully about how things can be supported in the school improvement plan.
The importance of trust in this process is essential in order to be brave. I trust my colleagues at the other schools, so I am willing to be braver in what I want them to look at and support with this year. There is a greater willingness to talk openly about areas of concern and allowing others to help. This can have a huge impact on so many areas like mental health, as well as improved outcomes for children in our schools.
One of the most positive improvements and areas of impact we have seen across our partnership has been the development of Tier 2 Vocabulary. This was a focus of one of our school’s peer reviews. After a successful review day, workshop and 90-day review, we saw the positive impact it was having in the school and why the focus on vocabulary is of such importance for children at this age. From that review, we have a working party within the partnership set up to develop it across several schools. This shows the influence that the review has had and the importance of this collaborative work – if something has worked well in one school, then sharing and developing it across others is incredibly powerful and important.
How do you see things developing in the future?
I hope and believe that the schools will continue to be supportive of one another – from a review with a focus to a quick email to ask a question.
In my school, I want this process to help staff understand the importance of being open and honest about practice, how sharing good practice and supporting areas of development improves us as professionals and makes a positive impact for our children. Everyone should be involved and be able to look at what’s going on, not just on a senior leadership level, but across everyone working in classrooms to be able to support and challenge each other in a positive way.
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