Principal's Blog - Working together to challenge ourselves

Principal's Blog - Working together to challenge ourselves
Blog Whole School

In the world before COVID, ISC chief executive Julie Robinson and I were discussing how to make it easier for busy independent school heads to engage in partnership with our maintained sector colleagues. There seems to be consensus about the value of these relationships, but actually building them is hard for many school leaders. Very quickly it drops down the list of things that need to be achieved, the urgent trumps the important and as a sector we continue to be portrayable as selfish, aloof, or at worst, elitist.

Where some of our better resourced colleagues can afford deputy heads who develop partnership work, for many independent schools progression is more challenging. Our maintained school colleagues are, in many of our immediate surroundings, competitors; resources in ISC schools are very different from context to context; many heads reach out to state school colleagues and find heads who are so overstretched that these approaches are ignored or rebuffed. At a meeting with Number 10’s special advisor for education, the request again came for us to ‘allow us to use your swimming pools’. This is a gross underestimation, and in many cases misevaluation, of what we could offer and that message did begin to get through, but now we need massive sector-wide evidence of what we are achieving. As long as we defend ourselves, rather than securing advocacy of our value from those who have worked with us, we will never shift the narrative.

Julie introduced me to the CEO of Challenge Partners, a network of schools which supports collaboration between partners to improve each other and the education system as a whole. A membership organisation, this group is made up from 500 maintained schools across England and one independent school: Monkton. It was a bit of a leap of faith. The group operates through two means; a local hub who meet, share training and link staff members across schools and an annual quality assurance review.

The local hub is a good way into engaging with other local schools who may be a little further than your neighbour. Our local hub is 20 miles away in Wootton Bassett but the advent of stronger technological communication has made it much easier to be part of the group. They offer great training and support programmes and teachers have enjoyed working together on various projects.

Even more powerful, however, was the QA review. For state schools, peer review is not built into inspection in the same way; for us, of course, it is the norm through ISI. My senior team were inevitably a little uncertain about the idea of volunteering for additional inspection. The experience, however, was completely different to anything ISI might offer and takes us back to the charming world of school inspector Gervase Phinn, when observation of others was genuinely about school improvement and partnership sits central to making it work.

The review team was made up of a former Her Majesty’s Inspector and six current school leaders from across England, each in their own unique context. The key difference is that the review is a collaborative exercise - done with not done to. We shaped some questions in areas we felt more feedback would be valuable and the team explored these over three days. The level to which they understood who we are and what is important to us was impressive but perhaps even more so was how powerful it was to share common ground. This was ground-breaking space - ditching the stereotype of an independent school deigning to condone a local partner with its tremendous resource, we were vulnerable with our partners, open to their ideas and keen to learn from one another. 

The impact was extraordinary. In just three days our review team built meaningful relationships with staff and pupils, offered huge encouragement for the areas we are doing well and offered tailored and thoughtful solutions that might make us ‘even better if...’. As they left the school the team were keen to keep in touch, to build further partnership and to do more together; with a fair wind and a COVID-ly cloudless sky, we are already planning to run pupil exchanges across the country as well as begin discussing curriculum development and how to support wider co-curricular programmes in different contexts. 

Our experience of Challenge Partners was so positive I would now characterise our staff response in the words of Gervase Phinn: “Well, that's a rarity, I thought – a teacher actually wishing to be inspected.”  We have an exciting list of what we might do next, an enthusiastic team of senior leaders keen to go out on their visits and have built meaningful relationships with maintained schools in other parts of the country who genuinely understand who we are and what we are about. We might not be at advocacy yet, but I hope it won’t be long as we continue to build relationships with an increasing number of schools who know that we are not selfish, aloof or elitist and want to travel together. Because otherwise it can be a lonely road.

If anyone would like to know more, please do contact me at [email protected] and I would be happy to share our experiences and offer introductions to the CP team. Based on our experience, it could be one of the most transformative experiences you can offer your staff, your pupils and your school.

Chris Wheeler, Principal

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