Saturday, 27 October 2012

Beyond Outstanding - The Challenge Partners Peer Review

This week we have hosted an Ofsted inspector and three senior leaders from other schools for our Challenge Partners peer-led Quality Assurance Review process. Their job was to come and look at the school in a supportive but challenging way and to provide us with a report, for our own consumption, to reflect their (and our) thoughts in light of the review.

I won't say too much about the Challenge Partners, as you can have a look at their website to find out more.

http://www.challengepartners.org/

What I will say is that it is a mutual organisation created to keep the work of the London Challenge (and Northwest and Black Country Challenges) going. The ethos that underpins the organisation is that schools can support each other to raise standards and achievement. The Quality Assurance Review is therefore the only part of the process that is mandatory. Every school in the partnership has to participate in one and every school has to give two of its staff a week off in order to conduct two reviews of other schools. It's a model Sir Michael Wilshaw seems determined to copy with his public pronouncements on Heads of outstanding schools being forced to become Ofsted Inspectors. What this model has in its favour is that it is based upon a willingness to help and to be helped: an invaluable quality in any school-to-school support process.

A month ago I was fortunate enough to visit two other schools as part of their review team and was struck by the collegial and supportive nature of the process. We reviewed two schools in Devon with very different histories and current situations. The discussions we had were powerful for all parties and I took away as much for my own school as I left for the schools ostensibly being evaluated. The experience left me both eager for our school's review and nervous about what it would tell us: there is definitely a rigour and robustness that undergirds the whole process (one for @learningspy @johntomsett & @missJLudd there).

The first challenge to overcome was to manage the potential threat of the process for Canons teachers, particularly in light of the current union action. I needn't have worried. Canons staff were more than happy to participate in a process that on the surface has a similar structure to Ofsted, but that in reality is far more empowering. They volunteered in huge numbers to be observed, to meet with the team members, co-observe their colleagues and to showcase our areas of outstanding practice (Science, English, Drama and Music if you'd like to know). It's a testament to their commitment and dedication to their own professional development that rather than having to twist arms to get people involved I had to console those who I had to leave out of the process.

The second challenge was to ensure that the team had all the information they needed. The process involves the team spending the Monday of the review week looking over the RAISEonline reports, SEFs and School Improvement Plans of both schools. We added more information about our latest exam results and other documents to help the team get a flavour of our distinctive ethos. I even took them over to their base in the other school so that the rapport-building process could begin. Peer review has empathy built into it in a way that Ofsted never could, and perhaps offers a way in which partnership working may one day supplant the current model of school accountability.

The third challenge was the review itself. The good thing about having other school leaders in to observe your school is that there is no shortage of inquisition involved. It may seem that there could be a problem with too little challenge and a cosiness borne out of a you-scratch-my-back over-collegiality. Alternatively it may seem that there could be a problem with too much challenge borne out of having too many successful school leaders all saying "in my school we do it like this". But actually the process managed to walk the line between those two potential perils. For teachers this manifested itself in lesson observations that generated a huge amount of developmental feedback from the external visitors and Canons co-observers, but which also resulted in Ofsted-style grading that sometimes thrilled and sometimes disappointed. For school leaders this meant sometimes sharing aspects of our work that we could see the reviewers wanted to take back to their school with them, whilst also having to answer tough questions about our assumptions and practices (or not actually get round to answering them as I was accused of on the day). All in all it was simultaneously tough and tender; an interesting combination.

The final challenge for us at Canons is responding to the feedback from the Challenge Partners peer review team. On the one hand we want to savour the fact that they felt that we were confidently outstanding in terms of pupil progress, school improvement strategies and (most crucially, as it represents progress since our last Ofsted), teaching and learning. The fact that they called CanonsOPP a "beautiful model of how teaching and learning should be done" and said both the teaching and the strategies to improve teaching were "amazing" is a testament to the work we have done, and continue to do, as a school. On the other hand we have to now meet the challenges that arise from our positive judgements, especially the agreed belief that we are well on the way to becoming a great school. In particular our English, Science, Drama and Music departments need to swiftly develop their capacity and capability to "strut their stuff on the national stage" (my favourite quote from the lead reviewer). The school also needs to shout increasingly loudly about our model for improving pedagogy, an area of outstanding practice they asked us to put forward for validation.

All of which leads me to one final challenge for any school leader who has made it all the way to the end of this blogpost. I challenge you to heave a close look at the Challenge Partners and take what you find to your next SLT meeting. If you're not a school leader then I also challenge you to send this blogpost you your SLT line manager and ask them if they think Challenge Partners would be right for your school. I make this challenge because I think that this model of schools working together to take responsible for both self-improvement and peer-improvement could be the start of something big; the end of a top-down, Ofsted-and-government-knows-better model of accountability and its replacement with a mature school-centred model of interdependent improvement.

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