A diverse and mature partnership of schools with peer review at its heart
Experienced headteacher and SPP facilitator Steve Wilks has been integral to the development and delivery of SPP in East London, firstly as part of the Seven Kings Partnership of Schools where he served as a headteacher working with other schools to embed SPP into ways of working.
Steve now coordinates the peer review cycles for the Seven Kings Partnership and has introduced SPP to other schools in nearby boroughs, including 18 primary schools in Redbridge where he has helped them to embed collaborative practice and peer review into the school improvement cycle.
Steve has spent his entire teaching career in three large outer-London mixed comprehensive schools in Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge and has over 30 years’ experience as a senior leader.
Here, Steve reflects on the development of the Seven Kings Partnership with peer review at its heart.
"Schools joining have seen SPP as an important part of their school improvement strategy."
The Seven Kings peer review group consists of 9 schools based in the London Borough of Redbridge. The group contains a wide variety of schools from different phases. There are four secondary schools: Mayfield, Oaks Park High, Valentines High and Woodbridge High.
We have two primary schools: Aldersbrook and Fullwood. In addition, we have Hatton Special School, The Constance Bridgeman Key Stage 4 alternative provision and Seven Kings, which is an all-through school. So as can be seen we have a real mix of schools, which has added to the experience of the programme.
Schools Partnership Programme has been an integral part of the improvement programmes for all schools within the group. We have transitioned over the years to a self-sustaining model of peer review after our initial work and now do our own training to ensure that the group is able to further develop. Covid-19 has been a challenge, but we hope to return to a full programme in 2021-2022.
Oaks Park were one of the founder members of the Seven Kings peer review group, where I served as headteacher until July 2016. Following my retirement, I worked as an Educational Consultant and accepted as one of my roles the coordination of the peer review programme on behalf of the Seven Kings group. I also attend the SPP Hub Strategic Group planning meetings and ensure that the Seven Kings peer review group remains in touch with all the latest developments from the Schools Partnership Programme.
Having developed into a self-sufficient group of schools, we have set up a framework to ensure that all schools get the best from the reviews. All the headteachers of the institutions meet regularly – every half term – and in the Summer term we have our evaluation of the programme. We have continued to refine the way in which we use the programme. One of the big advantages that we have is the diversity of our group.
However, this does present challenges in ensuring that the review group is able tackle the review questions set by the host school. To overcome this, we meet early in September to set up the programme for the year. In arranging the programme, we select the review teams and broadly identify the areas that the school would like to be investigated. Generally, we allocate four members to each team. If it is a primary school, three members of the team will be primary based (including the Lead Reviewer) but there will be a colleague from secondary. We believe that this is a real benefit of the programme.
As co-ordinator of the group, I arrange all the meetings, prepare agendas and take minutes, while also ensuring that everyone is aware of dates of reviews and who is on the team. We have over 45 reviewers, so there is never a problem with pulling together a team. At each half-termly meeting we look back at the reviews that have taken place, consider the outcomes and lessons to be learned. We really are learning all the time, so the programme is continually being adapted. The group continues to be enthusiastic about the review programme. Attendance at the meetings is excellent.
The benefits are summed up by Richard Laws, headteacher of Valentines High School, a six form of entry secondary school with a large sixth form.
"Having a peer review allows the school to have trusted professionals visit the school and focus on an area of development. We get open and honest feedback that enables us to reflect on our improvement journey and inform next steps. We have benefited from being part of the group, as we have taken ideas and excellent practice from other schools when we have visited them and used them to improve the quality of student experience at our school."
Engaging with SPP
We first engaged with SPP as long ago as 2014. We were part of the initial pilot group. I believe that there were seven groups across the country. The opportunity arose as we were part of the Seven Kings Teaching Alliance. Our original peer review group consisted of Oaks Park, Seven Kings, Isaac Newton Academy and New Rush Hall School. We did all the initial training and had several meetings in Reading. We did our first ever peer review in December 2014 when we undertook a review of Isaac Newton School. It is amazing how the programme has developed since those early days.
Although Isaac Newton School dropped out of the programme at an early stage as they became involved with a similar programme within their trust, the group expanded. We did not seek new members – they found us. Schools asked to join the group as the benefits of working together on the peer review programme became known to others. Schools firmly believed in the SPP approach. They liked the focus on improvement. The opportunity to have professionals into their school, who they respected, to offer opinions on an aspect of their work was much valued. This culture of enquiry, learning and growth has encouraged leaders to be more open than they would be in an Ofsted visit. This view is echoed by Tony Clayton, who is Head of the Constance Bridgeman centre, an alternative provision for 14–16-year-olds.
"The beauty of the peer review programme is that I can be open and honest with the reviewers. This enables me to gain far more from the process."
Assessing the impact
SPP has given the Seven Kings group a clear structure to ensure that it has a measurable impact across the schools. We assemble this evidence during our evaluation days to see if there are any patterns emerging that will then lead to formal training through the Seven Kings Teaching Alliance. An important part of the programme is the sharing of all reports to all members of the group. All the schools use the peer review programme in a different way.
However, Fullwood primary school take advantage of the peer review programme to directly inform and support their school improvement priorities. Danvir Visvanathan, Executive Headteacher at the school, is clear about the benefits.
"Firstly, the peer review programme enables school leaders to assess the effectiveness of a few of their school development priorities in a non-threatening and collaborative way. Secondly, the transparent approach of the [programme] also provides school leaders an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of their school improvement strategies, celebrate their successes and supports the school in identifying fewer effective strategies with possible alternatives to implement. Finally, it is fantastic professional development for school leaders in affording them the opportunity to visit other schools and have first-hand experience of the effective good practise in the schools they visit."
This view is supported by Steven Hogan, Headteacher of Woodbridge, a large 10 form of entry mixed comprehensive school.
"The peer review programme for us has been a helpful way to get an insight into how we are progressing with a specific area of our School Development Plan. Our last review focused on our work with disadvantaged students and helped us to pinpoint exactly where we might target further resources. Working in a partnership of trust with senior leaders from other local schools is also a powerful part of the programme. Once a review has been conducted, working with the lead reviewer to really establish what might come next has been invaluable, and through this we have also got to know each other better and been able to support each other on an individual professional level as well."
Beyond the impact that SPP has had on the school has been the significant benefits that it has for staff. This starts with the training, where the staff from different schools at different phases work together. The opportunity during the review to go to a different school and work with a range of different people is brilliant professional development. This view is echoed by Simon Ward, who is Associate Headteacher at Fullwood School and fully supports the work of peer review.
"The programme is also great for professional development, giving senior leaders a chance to experience work settings very different to their own."
A look to the future
SPP and the work of the Seven Kings group is an ongoing project. We are all hoping for a return to some sort of normality in the new academic year, 2021-2022. This will provide schools with many challenges that SPP will help support. It is interesting to note that since the nine schools in the programme have been together, six of them have experienced a change of leadership. However, this has not been an issue as all the new headteachers have fully embraced SPP. Indeed, for them it has been a help in undertaking a demanding role.
As Brian Hughes, headteacher of Aldersbrook Primary commented:
"As a relatively new headteacher, I found the peer review programme to be an invaluable source of support and professional development, and a non-judgemental way of helping me make my school the best it can be. The extra set of eyes from impartial colleagues really helped identify things we had missed and ways to improve. In addition, it is an excellent way to witness great practice in other schools and a superb professional development opportunity for my senior leadership team."
The success of the Seven Kings review group has led to the expansion of the Schools Partnership programme in the local area. Initially, this led to the development of the Mossford Green Partnership. This was a group that crossed local authorities with schools from Redbridge, Barking and Waltham Forest all participating. Although more difficult to organise, this group had the benefits of having different types of schools from different Local Authorities. The most recent development has been the addition to the programme of over 20 Redbridge primary schools. These have been organised into three cluster groups. We also have another group of Redbridge primary schools wanting to join.
There has not been a big marketing campaign. The programme has sold itself. Schools joining have seen SPP as an important part of their school improvement strategy.