Case study

St Mary Cray Academy, the Network of Excellence

The journey of the school

Adam Lowing has been the headteacher at St Mary Cray Academy since 2014. The school had been through challenging circumstances for quite some time, and in 2014 became an academy, providing what the school community considered an opportunity for a real fresh start. This fresh start meant a number of new staff members joined the school, including a new headteacher, Adam Lowing,

In the second year of his headship at the school, Adam decided the time was right for the school to join Challenge Partners and a QA Review was scheduled for the November of that year. There had been good gains made across the academic year, and the school leadership team was confident the St Mary Cray Academy was showing positive signs of being a good school. Joining Challenge Partners, reflects Adam, was a conscious decision to seek external validation, and equally importantly, support. In actual fact, for Adam and his team, the QA Review was more than just a process of validation, although the review team’s acknowledgement of the aspects of the school that were going well and the verification of the best practice that the school thought it had - and also some useful suggested next steps - helped the school to see where it was, and where it needed to take the next steps on its improvement journey to secure those gains made.

Adam recalls, that “because the Challenge Partners QA Review is so focused on the quality of teaching, and there was real rigour in terms of what was going on over time in classrooms, that put the school in good stead.” The team also helped the school to revisit their school improvement planning and gave focused feedback on how to make that even better. When Ofsted came two years later, the school received outstanding for leadership and management. Adam firmly believes that this can be attributed to the challenge from the review, which had started St Mary Cray Academy on a journey that made a difference in real terms to school development and evaluation. The school was able to take on board the feedback they received and work on the suggestions from the review team.

Staff development is key

On a personal level, Challenge Partners has made a huge difference to Adam. He had first experienced the review process as a middle leader in a different school, where a review team visited his classroom. Initially, he was wary of what the purpose and meaning of the QA Review was. Later, as a senior leader and finally as a headteacher in his own school, Adam says, “each time, I came out as a better leader - also more confident and more inspired”. He considers a leader’s level of understanding against a national perspective as hugely significant. “As a middle leader in a school”, he continues, “your world is the four walls of your school and maybe your local authority forum or multi academy trust. The standards that you think are acceptable standards, are what you are used to and what you see. If you are an English leader, you benchmark yourself against the maths leader in your school or what you are told are the expectations for your borough. Challenge Partners is national-centred, and that makes you start to think in terms of the national, and take a more objective perspective that brings real clarity.”

“Going out on a review is potentially even more powerful for your professional development than being reviewed yourself in some cases. It is the greatest privilege.” Adam recounts that he has seen many colleagues come back from a QA Review, more ready to question their own practice, that of the school. “They are more reflective, and able to lift themselves above the context of their own school to see things in far more broad brush strokes” he summarises.

The benefits outweigh the cost

Responding to the question of the cost of membership for the school and of sending senior leaders to travel far and wide, Adam explains that, “in terms of CPD for leaders, the classic, formal route can be quite limited. The senior leader that has completed the NPQML and NPQSL and might go onto the NPQH, doesn’t have that many opportunities out there. The cost of releasing a member of staff is real, but the benefits outweigh this greatly. A staff member returning from a QA Review with a tangible level of professional growth represents immense value for money. You need to invest in people and their growth has a knock-on effect on your own school.”

Adam illustrates his point by quoting the saying, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." For Adam, it is clear: “for example if you are a senior leader in post for a decade and have no external stimulus to your growth, the QA Review could be a way to create a new experience that helps leaders to use skill sets that may not be developed in their own school context. It is a unique opportunity. Even across a multi academy trust, the breadth of experience cannot be replicated in the way a national peer review can be. A peer review at a school down the road is different, as these people are your colleagues, you see them every week, there is only so much you can do to challenge them.” At St Mary Cray Primary Academy, the senior leadership team members appreciate being sent from their local area in Bromley, to Cornwall for example, as it is “a completely different environment and you are neutral, you have no history or ongoing relationship.”

When someone returns from a review to St Mary Cray Primary Academy, the leadership team will come together and talk about the experience and the learning. Part of it is about ‘magpieing’ ideas from another school. The discussion after the review and back at school might be about skill sets and what the individual has learned about themselves as a leader over the course of the time away. The importance is to give time to reflect. Adam himself has developed a technique of keeping two separate notepads of reflections - one will be quantitative and qualitative information about the school, that will help to guide him and keep him focused in his challenge throughout the review at a host school. This one gets binned as soon as the review is over. The second notepad, is about his own learning. In the hotel room at night, he will revisit these notes, making sure they will also make sense in future and that they capture his reflections and learning as a leader.

The impact on the whole school

Giving the context, Adam explains that St Mary Cray Primary Academy was isolated, historically. Therefore the sense of being part of a broader network is very powerful. “The first review experience saw the QA Review team conduct themselves impeccably”, which is meaningful in particular, Adam believes, for a school staff that was feeling quite bruised. The feedback from these outsiders was positive, which not only impacted on staff but also gave hope and inspiration for the wider school community, including the teachers, the teaching assistants and the children. “The feedback also mirrored the leadership team’s own assessment that the school is on the right journey, which can’t be underestimated” Adam reflects.

“When you are on a review team yourself, you can be quite mindful of your own interactions with the senior leadership team of the host school. You can never forget the importance of the impact on the whole of the school”, he explains.

The rest of the school at St Mary Cray Primary Academy is kept informed through the whole process of the QA Review. “The children at this urban school have old heads on young shoulders” according to Adam. The school talks to the children about the team that is coming in, and feeds back their positive thoughts and impressions of the school, as well as some of the areas for improvement where the children themselves can take some responsibility either by holding the school to account or by their own behaviour and attitudes.

Ofsted and the QA Review

We need to be careful not to see the QA Review as having a direct correlation with Ofsted outcomes. It is not a mock Ofsted, and Challenge Partners is careful to make the differences clear. However, “in terms of the level of rigour and challenge, the focus on teaching and learning, and on leadership, the QA review gives a more focused and therefore deeper experience.  It is a safer environment and can give scope for a greater dialogue without losing the rigour and intensity. The chance to talk is powerful.” reflects Adam.

Adam explains that in his experience, the technical aspect of the QA Review is not the difficult part. “Understanding data and having the confidence to speak to another headteacher about for example their percentile rank for progress, seems scary the first time you go out on a review. What you learn most is the need to develop your own ability to take what you are seeing and to coach, to collaborate and to consult along the way”, he summarises. “The people skills learned are huge. Each time you go on a review or invite a team in to review your school, you need to use that skill set of building a very quick relationship with people to such an extent that you can challenge really hard if need be, but that they also know that you are doing it for the right reasons, and in the right way.”

Schools are dynamic places. They change so much in 12 months, whether that be the staff, the roles they are in, the children and the different year groups and all the related different dynamics. Having that annual review therefore is essential for St Mary Cray Primary Academy, asserts Adam.

The hub: finding the common goals

St Mary Cray Primary School is part of the Impact Alliance Hub and the leader of the hub is described by Adam as “brilliant, very passionate.” He goes on to describe the hub experience, saying “the other schools in the hub are good and are trying to do the right things. It is a great opportunity to work with other schools which are outside of your own natural group. The challenge is always to find common goals to work towards that impact on your own school’s development.” Different models of working to create this impact are worth exploring within a hub. Adam returns to his earlier reflection that this need to find the right working relationship for maximum impact is especially true if a school is part of many networks through their local authority, their multi-academy trust, the teaching school in addition to their Challenge Partners local area hub.