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How academies can work with other schools

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When it comes to school improvement, no one approach is guaranteed to be effective, but school leaders are finding that working together in different ways can help build success.

At The Key, we regularly talk to our members so we can learn from them and share good practice. We recently asked principals and headteachers from high-performing multi-academy trusts (MATs) and stand-alone academies how they work with other schools to develop meaningful and successful partnerships. They identified three main themes: developing relationships, learning from others to improve core processes, and establishing the right culture.

Developing supportive relationships with other school leaders

Nick Blackburn is the executive headteacher of Heathfield Primary School and Hurworth Primary School, Darlington, which have been academies since June 2012. Collaboration is well established in Darlington, says Nick, with academies and maintained schools working closely together. Underpinning this commitment to collaboration is the belief that mutually supportive relationships between school leaders help improve the quality of education for the pupils. Successful relationships of this kind involve asking questions, being open to the answers, listening to the concerns of colleagues, and giving and receiving constructive feedback without being defensive, according to Nick. They can be enormously valuable because they challenge and stretch participants. What’s more, they can help school leaders prepare for the kind of scrutiny they will experience during more formal evaluation, including school inspection. Relationships like these can also be highly motivating. Elaine Brook became headteacher at Langtons Junior Academy in Essex in early 2012, after the school was placed in special measures. Elaine and her governing body decided that the school should become part of the REAch2 Academy Trust – the largest primary-only trust in the country. She now regularly talks to and trains with outstanding leaders from across the country, and this has built her enthusiasm for education. The relationships she has developed have two important features. Firstly, says Elaine, “you know the quality of information you’re receiving is outstanding – these are people with track records of success.” But, just as importantly, the process has not been intimidating or condescending. REAch2 specialises in taking schools from special measures to outstanding, so Elaine knows that her peers have made the same journey. “They know how it feels, and you trust their advice,” she says. This kind of collaboration comes naturally in an MAT, but can this approach work in other settings? “Absolutely,” says Elaine. What matters is regular, focused communication. If the motivation is there, school leaders anywhere can work together, and school type or location is no obstacle.

Working on consistency and the core processes

Consistency across a school or group of schools can also support rapid improvements in standards, according to Mark Ducker, executive principal of the STEP Academy Trust. The trust, which brings together four primary schools in Croydon, promotes a consistent approach to lesson planning, the classroom environment, and the curriculum. Mark says that this has helped it develop a style of education that works well for the pupils, and that promotes improvements in teaching, learning, and management. The trust appointed a new headteacher, Paul Glover, to Applegarth Junior School 18 months after it was placed in special measures. Within six months, the school was judged ‘good’ by Ofsted. According to Mark, the trust’s emphasis on consistency across its schools does not stifle exceptional leaders like Paul. Instead, schools are unlikely to be capable of systematic improvement if processes lack cohesion. So developing common practice and procedures can help to free up headteachers to lead their schools. In other words, these processes are a solid foundation for rapid school improvement. So, what can schools not involved in formal partnerships learn from this? Elaine Brook says you should not underestimate the importance of getting the basics right at your school, and support from your peers can help you hone ideas and develop the confidence to create the conditions for improvement. It’s not about changing everything you do, or might do. Instead it’s about speaking to school leaders that have experienced similar challenges, ensuring your ideas are appropriate, and then applying them confidently.

Establishing a culture that communicates your priorities as a leader

Whatever the setting, the glue holding everything together is trust, says Nick Blackburn. Without a culture of trust, staff won’t buy into what you’re saying, so you should use your professional networks and relationships to help you reflect on what pupils and teachers need to produce results, and then put in place a decisive and robust set of solutions. It’s about finding sustainable solutions to challenges. Brett Elliott, the principal of Bodmin College in Cornwall, which became an academy in 2011, encourages his staff to develop ties in the school’s networks and beyond. The college works closely with local primary schools. As a science specialist school, it has worked with universities in the UK and Europe to develop its curriculum. Brett says he encourages a culture of enterprise, and strongly supports staff who look for new ways of developing and improving practice. Whatever the model, The Key’s members are telling us that it’s important to be open to learning from other schools. For all of these headteachers, reflecting on what others do and taking on the best ideas can open up new possibilities on the school improvement journey.

This article first appeared in Academy magazine, published by FASNA – the national forum for self-governing schools.

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