REPORT: How peer review can be an asset in uncertain times
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 has led the design and facilitation of conferences, strategic events and leadership programmes for educational leaders and teams. She regularly facilitates large conferences, including the national ‘Inspiring Leadership’ conference in Birmingham. Jane has also worked with several countries on reform, innovation and leadership challenges. 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.
Read how SPP schools and partnerships are responding, learning and thinking about the future during the ‘Covid-19 Summer.’ This is a summary of findings from interviews with SPP partnership leads during June and July 2020.
This short report brings together learning from interviews with 50 partnership leads involved in Education Development Trust’s School Partnership Programme (SPP). They represent approximately 300 schools currently engaged in either the Education Endowment Foundation’s evaluation of SPP or the national programme. They represent schools from all around the country from Tyne & Wear to Cornwall, working together, grouped by Local Authority area, Multi-Academy Trust or Teaching School Alliance and committed to building a sustainable, self-improving, school-led system where schools are jointly responsible for the improvement of themselves and others.
Interviews were conducted by telephone by SPP Associates during the latter part of the Summer term, 2020.
"Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other."
Marshall McLuhan, 1967
As we approach a new term after six months of extraordinary challenges for teachers, schools, children and parents, we all recognise that we will be working differently for an extended period. Our ability to adapt and even reinvent will matter. So, there is a compelling reason to build on our collective capacities to learn new ways of being. We, at Education Development Trust, have been thinking about how the core principles of the Schools Partnership Programme – a non-judgmental, enquiry-based approach to collaborative school improvement grounded in the importance of school and teacher agency – might help in that process and how SPP practices can be adapted.
In order to ground our thinking in real evidence and be of immediate use to the sector, we spoke to 50 of our partnership leads in the latter part of the Summer term to hear from them about the impacts of the Covid-19 disruption on schools and partnerships; how they have been able to draw on partnership strengths during this time and what they think might be useful next steps in finding new ways of working and learning together.
Mutual support and practical help
When schools closed their doors on 20 March 2020, they were thrown into a period of fevered activity, short-term decision-making, and practical solutions to immediate problems. People had to change how they worked, at speed. While some schools might have ‘done their own thing’ initially, the majority of partnership leads report that partnership working has been invaluable during the crisis.
Initially this took the form of mutual support, as one partnership lead commented. “The strength of the network has helped, especially for information sharing and supporting each other.” Others talked about shared resources, “human and other, and the importance of support, trust and strong relationships to help with problem solving.” One lead told us, “We have always worked together very closely. This has continued – it has been a tight partnership of support.”
For Paul Quinton, headteacher from Milton Keynes, the partnership has been incredibly supportive during Covid-19. “I’m not sure how we’d have got through it without the collaboration.” They are in touch almost daily and have been able to bounce ideas off each other.
In addition to support, it’s been possible to address practical challenges. Elena Print from Barnet cited collaboration between two schools in the partnership that are at two ends of the same road has enabled them to develop consistent plans during the crisis, which has helped with parental expectations and understanding. Other examples include shared key worker school provision and planning, and support for newly appointed heads, deputy heads and business managers. One example was of SPP cluster colleagues working together to unpick guidance and legislation from the centre.
Much more than practical help: the benefits of a peer review partnership
While moral support and practical assistance have been important to partnership leads, particularly in the early days of school closures, there is a widespread view that the deep knowledge of one another’s schools, which comes from SPP, has been helpful in a more strategic way.
Brandon Mills, from the Berkshire Alliance of Special Schools, said:
"The 4 schools out of the BASS partnership that have been involved in SPP have had a much more honest and open approach to discussing risk assessment, sharing documents and making decisions during this time and this is down to the culture developed through SPP."
One school was able to work out how it might reopen through these discussions.
Jenny Aylen, from the Barnet Junior School Alliance, said that "the core skills of the training, such as strategic thinking and evaluating evidence, have been particularly useful for leaders during COVID-19." This was relevant when leaders were looking at and evaluating research into curriculum and home learning to plan their provision. She attributed their ability to take a thorough and robust approach to the SPP training.
For Paul Quinton, the mutual trust between the schools and willingness to help each other that have been developed through SPP has been important, both in addressing the current situation and, perhaps more critically, in thinking about and beginning to plan for the future.
Nearly 70% of the partnership leads we spoke to, representing around 300 schools nationally, have found membership of their partnership to be helpful to them in responding to the crisis and more than half felt that their partnership had matured during the response to the current challenges.
Elena Print commented that the group of schools in her partnership was very collaborative before engaging with SPP, but that peer review has helped cement that and strengthened links between the schools. It has also built high levels of trust and positive relations. Connections such as these have been ‘massively’ beneficial according to one partnership lead: "The impact has been huge."
Learning the way forward
As Ronald Heifetz has argued that leadership takes place in the context of problems and challenges. It becomes especially important when people have to change their ways of doing things, rather than just improve current practice. When challenges are unprecedented and new ways have to be found or invented, learning is essential, both for leaders and for the people they need to mobilise around them.
It is clear from our survey that partnerships are already engaging in that, as they grapple with ensuring that educational provision during and post pandemic is much more than accommodating children safely. The place of a carefully considered recovery curriculum, creative and meaningful parent / carer engagement and the wellbeing of both staff and pupils are high on the agenda. We asked them about their partnerships’ desire to continue working together and continue engaging in peer review. Responses were strongly positive; many groups consider that they have benefitted hugely from the learning in the SPP programme and, where there was doubt, it sprang from the issue of leadership ‘churn’; "Leadership changes, internal school challenges and lack of capacity are the issues - NOT the programme…which has been very beneficial."
As one partnership lead commented, "We have loved the programme and the response to whether we want to continue has been unequivocally yes!"
Partnership leads spoke eloquently about the deep learning that has been such a part of the programme and how they have applied it. When discussing their current priorities, it is clear that they see opportunities within the SPP programme to focus on emerging priorities, as well as existing ones, and that learning will be essential if they are to succeed with the new challenges presented to them, now and in the future. They are thinking deeply about the different priorities for this new academic year. KS2 numeracy and literacy are seen as very high priorities, but the issue of disadvantage is a top priority, too, with big questions about how to address gaps in learning and attainment. Additional high priorities from the interviews were:
+ ‘Recovery’ curriculum, including academic and social aspects, readiness for learning and delivering an authentic full curriculum;
+ Mental health and wellbeing, for pupils and staff;
+ Effective T&L in ‘blended' environments.
Several expressed the view that there is a need to focus on building a broader curriculum, rather than simply focus on numeracy and literacy.
The place of training and peer review: appetite and uncertainty
We asked about the place of peer review in the new academic year. Many partnership leads were both enthusiastic about the benefits they have seen already and very keen to continue. Over 80% of them were hoping to start conducting peer reviews again fairly soon, but the majority felt that this will be in the spring term, possibly using a blended approach.
Given the need to maintain the social distancing rules for the foreseeable future, Education Development Trust has been thinking about what might be delivered virtually, both for training and peer review, and we discussed initial ideas with partnership leads to gauge their reactions.
In respect of training, we had positive responses to the idea of training being delivered virtually. Some want to continue their virtual collaboration anyway, so they see virtual training as a natural extension. One was clear that virtual training was not a problem at all in general, but was keen to emphasise the benefit of improvement champions meeting face-to-face so that they can get the most out of learning to use the facilitation tools. Others felt that any form of training that would help people to be more reflective would be valuable in meeting the challenges and looking at issues from all angles. The only caveat we heard was about workload and timings for release.
The notion of possible virtual reviews met with a more mixed response. One partnership lead was ‘intrigued by the idea of virtual peer review with a Covid-19 theme,’ but was unsure how evidence collection would work. Another said they were, ‘not sure online reviews for certain areas would be possible; for example, a review focusing on leadership may work virtually but looking at pupils' reading probably wouldn't work as well.’
Another expressed uncertainty because 'a real strength of the reviews is having a trusted colleague in your school to feed back with honesty,’ and this accorded with the general sentiment expressed by several partnership leads, namely, ‘the SPP model is very powerful and we are keen not to dilute it in any way - we are very invested in it.’
Nonetheless, while we heard concern about protecting the essence of peer review, it was clear that enthusiasm for SPP and peer review is strong and so partnership leads are open to looking at what shape new ‘virtual’ approaches might take. One expressed appreciation for all that has gone before and is keen for it to continue. For Pete King from Darlington, "Heads will want to be cautious but also want to get going when they feel safe. I’m looking forward to seeing the virtual approach."
We are grateful to all the partnership leads who spoke to us for their time and insights. Their responses have been heartening and inspiring. For many, the partnership approach has been a key resource during the Covid-19 crisis and already good relationships have been further strengthened during this period. They were very positive about the value of the skills developed through staff engagement with SPP, how those skills have helped in their shorter term Covid-19 response and how they hope to use peer review to reflect and improve their collective practice next term and beyond.
It’s clear that there is widespread commitment to peer review amongst our community of schools and a strong desire to continue as a learning partnership. There is an appetite for Covid-19-related peer review training and openness to new forms / modes of professional learning. Partnerships are keen to reignite their peer review programme when possible and some schools have been active in helping us to test our thinking and new approaches.
How can SPP continue to support you in peer review?
All schools who have engaged with SPP, past or present, can access programme materials from our members area. Along with all of our core materials, including the SPP Handbook, you will find a new set of resources; SPP Rapid Response - our guidance for running rapid peer review in a fully or partially remote environment - plus two research-based sets of enquiry questions that you can tailor to focus peer review quickly on Covid-19 Response and Recovery and/or developing your Recovery Curriculum. Please log on to our members area here.
We are holding an additional, optional, free national webinar for all schools in the SPP community (past and present) on both 29th September and 8th October to support further engagement with and co-development of these materials, where we’ll be joined by headteachers who have helped us develop our new ways of working. In addition, we plan to continue to develop more research-based lines of enquiry in line with what school leaders tell us they need, so that rapid peer review can help schools face the most immediate and pressing challenges together, with a collective will and purpose.
Education Development Trust are passionate about helping teachers and school leaders to thrive and to help others do the same. SPP, through its non-judgmental, non-competitive, supportive approach may be more valuable to both staff and pupils than ever this year in our collective recovery. While there are uncertainties about how virtual peer review might work, there is openness to looking at what might be possible and co-developing an approach that continues to empower schools and teachers to drive their own improvement journey. We look forward to working with all schools that are part of the SPP community, to develop the next phase of collaborative peer review together.
 Heifetz, R. 2003, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Ma.
 See also Thinkpiece by Professor Barry Carpenter: Carpenter, B. 2020, http://www.recoverycurriculum.org A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic.