Accelerating improvement in Knowsley schools

Deploying experienced headteachers/CEOs to advise and coach Knowsley school leaders led to what external evaluation by Manchester Metropolitan University reports as an extremely positive impact on classroom practice, outcomes (including improved SATs and GCSEs) and teacher development.

Challenge Partners was commissioned to work on the Department for Education-funded Knowsley Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) project, which aimed to raise standards in literacy across 29 primary and secondary schools. The Pathways to Success initiative was coordinated by the Knowsley Education Commission, and the focus centred around curriculum development, the quality of pedagogy and developing leadership capacity.

Participant schools are all located in an area with exceptionally high levels of disadvantage and this was an important driver for our involvement. The project was led by Christine Gilbert, former HMCI and visiting professor at UCL Institute of Education, in partnership with the local authority, Challenge Partners and Professor Mel Ainscow.

The programme ran between February 2018 and July 2019 and was based on a collaborative learning model which provided effective challenge and support through 12 Pathways to Success Advisers, working alongside participating schools. The advisers were credible practitioners, a mixture of serving headteachers/CEOs, Ofsted inspectors and former HMIs, many drawn from the Challenge Partners network.

The model which was developed is a fine example of adult learning with coaching at its heart, but also demonstrated a disciplined approach towards school improvement through the use of audit, joint planning and mapping alongside current provision, followed by review, reflection and evaluation of impact. In each school, an Accelerated Improvement Group, including governor representation, was set up to monitor the impact of improvement plans.

Advisers benefited from the strong central support and communication provided by the project management board and the sharing of practical strategies to effect change. The most effective advisers were able to flex between adopting a consultant role, providing resources, brokering external support and offering guidance and advice, alongside mentoring and acting as a coach to ensure ownership.

It is important to note that this was not a blanket strategy, but an example of bespoke support provided by a dedicated adviser regarded as being independent of the local authority, and success was also dependent on the trust and relationships built over time. A range of curriculum, assessment and literacy schemes were introduced across the schools and the Manchester Metropolitan University evaluation of the project is extremely positive about impact on classroom practice, outcomes and teacher development.

Is this way of working sustainable in the future? It may be perceived to be an expensive model in the short-term but the long-term benefits could be significant. Senior and middle leadership capacity has been strengthened through the project and a momentum has been created because progress is strong in the majority of schools. Baseline data is used more effectively and schools are setting higher expectations. This trend is evidenced by their improved SATs scores and English GCSE results in 2019.

There is now a strong local focus on the power of hard-edged collaboration which is being supported by the local authority, and plans are already in place for an extension of the project. There has been a cultural shift towards becoming more outward-looking and, in keeping with the Challenge Partners philosophy, a recognition that we need to create an environment where practitioners feel empowered to lead.

We are delighted that a number of schools from Knowsley have joined with colleagues from Widnes and Bolton to establish the Aspire Challenge Partners Hub for our 2019–20 partnership year.

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