Blog: Five reasons why I’m excited about the year ahead

26 February 2019

With plans for extra support for disadvantaged and SEND pupils, to extend excellence, peer review MATs and a toolkit for curriculum development, our schools are working together on a great range of programmes this year, writes Dr Kate Chhatwal


February half term marked a year since I joined Challenge Partners, and I spent it on holiday in Thailand, catching up with a former colleague who now trains teacher trainers in English language and pedagogy. An education geek to the core, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go along to one of her sessions to learn more about education in Thailand. Apart from that, I took the opportunity to relax and recharge. I hope you did too.


As for many of you, those weeks between the Christmas and February breaks were among the busiest in the Challenge Partners year. Our small central team ensured that 157 schools were able to benefit from their annual Quality Assurance Review (QAR), and more than 600 leaders have also benefitted from the CPD and ideas from going out on those reviews. In addition, we hosted our biggest national conference yet and published our annual report, which offered an opportunity to reflect on the successes of the past year, and consider how to continue to push the boundaries in the year ahead.


As we note in the annual report, the outcomes we share belong firmly to you, the leaders and staff in our partner schools. They are incredible testimony to your hard work with your pupils, communities and each other. It is no coincidence that a group of outward-looking schools and leaders, committed to mutual challenge and support, continue to outperform national averages for attainment, progress and improvements in Ofsted gradings. This is particularly evident among schools which have been in Challenge Partners for three years or more, 52% of those who were inspected last year improving their judgement, compared to 48% across the partnership as a whole, and only 34% of schools nationally.


Behind these statistics lie rich stories of innovative and evidence-informed practice, and we were delighted to showcase a small selection of these in our annual report and conference workshops. More examples are published in our fortnightly newsletter and shared in-depth through Leadership Development Days. A great privilege of my job is visiting our partner schools and seeing inspiring and effective practice for myself. Over the coming year we will continue to look for more ways to ensure excellence is shared as widely as possible, including drawing on the corporate expertise we can access for free thanks to investment from the Social Business Trust to develop digital approaches to knowledge transfer across our geographically-dispersed network.


Looking ahead, there are plenty more reasons to be excited for the future of Challenge Partners. Penning this blog as my plane cruises home at 30,000 ft over the Black Sea, I can count at least five.


First, we will be extending our Growing the Top - Stand Out Schools programme from its current pilot in 21 secondary schools to more secondaries, as well as primary and special schools. Stretching performance at the top end is essential to our aspiration for upwards convergence in school and pupil performance, and Growing the Top does this by harnessing expertise from other sectors, as well as the participating schools who work in trios to develop their systemic excellence. The programme will benefit from lessons captured in an independent evaluation of the pilot being conducted by Professor Peter Matthews, which we’ll publish later this year.


In another publication to look out for - and the second reason I’m excited - we will share the findings of curriculum research being conducted by Senior Partner and author of A Manifesto for Excellence, Rob Carpenter. Rob is working with a small “task and finish” group of Senior Partners to pull together a toolkit to support curriculum development in our schools. Drawing on academics and examples of effective curricula from across Challenge Partners and beyond, the toolkit will offer resources for leaders looking to develop curricula that promote excellence and equity in their schools.


Also on the theme of equity (and reason number three), our successful programme focusing on improving outcomes for children eligible for the pupil premium is being redeveloped to enable more schools to participate. The impact of Challenge the Gap has become well established, but we know that the time commitment and cost can be prohibitive for some. We’ll therefore be moving to a licenced model, where schools with a strong track-record in narrowing the gap can work with us and expert practitioners to deliver the programme in ways that meets the means and needs of local schools.


To support schools seeking to improve outcomes for children with SEND, we’re looking to scale up a successful project in our Portsmouth hub, which facilitates collaboration between staff in special and mainstream schools. That’s reason number four.


Number five is work to extend our successful pilot of MAT peer quality assurance reviews. Feedback so far suggests our unique approach of collaborative inquiry and challenge around MAT impact and development is providing powerful insights for reviewed and reviewers alike, catalysing the next stage of development in the same way our school QARs do.


Like good school leaders, we are restless not just for innovation, but also for continuous improvement in our core business. Also like schools, our challenge is to minimise variation and ensure consistency and quality across all that we do. That is why this year we are seeking not just to push boundaries, but also to ensure that every school and reviewer has a first-class QAR experience, and every hub enjoys the new gold standard experience we’re developing with Senior Partners and Hub Managers.


I hope you’re as excited by our plans as I am, and that you can see how they reflect our values, especially those of excellence, equity and innovation - as well as our commitment to being truly practitioner-led.


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