Blog: Why Challenge Partners is the parkrun of school improvement

21 August 2019

Our CEO Dr Kate Chhatwal on how Challenge Partners helps chart a path to better performance, much like the beloved running phenomenon parkrun 


This is the blog I’ve wanted to write for months, inspired partly by Daisy Christodoulou’s excellent piece on What the marathon teaches you about education. The quieter summer months have finally given me the opportunity to indulge myself. I hope you will indulge me by reading it (even if you don’t like running and have never been to parkrun)...


I love running. I’ll never be Paula Radcliffe, but I run four times a week and it keeps me fit and sane. (I’ll also never be Belal Ahmed (pictured), Challenge Partners’ very own sub-2.22 marathon runner and Finance Officer. Catch him if you can!) I particularly love parkrun. Like Einstein in a lift, it is genius on many levels. It contributes more to our national physical and mental wellbeing than almost anything else I can think of. It also has data. Lots of it. Perfect for a geek like me.


Challenge Partners is just like parkrun in several important ways. Bear with me and I’ll tell you why. If you haven’t heard of parkrun, it’s a global phenomenon (started in England), taking place at 9am every Saturday in parks around the world. You turn up, run 5K or volunteer, socialise, and get a recorded time.


So how is that like Challenge Partners?


I started doing parkrun because I wanted to improve my time. I knew the discipline and challenge of testing myself weekly against the clock would help. Schools join Challenge Partners because they want to improve themselves and secure better outcomes for the children they serve. They know the discipline of an annual Quality Assurance Review, conducted with their peers against a rigorous framework, will challenge them to continuously improve.


After a few weeks at parkrun, I recognised the same people running at a similar pace and a bit faster. Being somewhat competitive, I wanted at the very least to keep up. It inspired me to try harder. Schools in Challenge Partners are able to identify similar schools and those with strengths they don’t have and learn from them to keep up.


What also happened after a few weeks at parkrun is I found a new running buddy and friend. Now every Saturday we push and encourage each other to perform better and we train alongside each other throughout the week. Schools in Challenge Partners similarly forge new mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools they might never otherwise have connected with, collaborating and innovating to keep moving forward. This includes schools from beyond their immediate networks, which helps avoid the cosiness/competition that can come from relationships forged on their doorstep.


Parkrun relies on volunteers. Every parkrunner is expected to give something back by volunteering as a marshal, timekeeper or tailwalker once in every ten runs. I always find volunteering rewarding, deriving pleasure from providing encouragement and support to the wide and diverse array of runners slogging their way round the course. Challenge Partners relies on a similar generosity of spirit. Our schools sign up expecting to give challenge and support to others, as well as receiving these for themselves.


Also like parkrun, Challenge Partners is a broad and diverse church, welcoming schools regardless of phase, location or governance type, as long as they subscribe to our mission of mutual betterment through collaboration and challenge. It welcomes those near the start of their improvement journey and the elite performers looking to push themselves still further.


And the data?


Parkrun provides tables of data and analysis that allow participants to track their performance against a variety of metrics, including contextual ones like gender and age. Consistent with other regulars, my charts show non-linear improvement and the occasional personal best.The great thing about these performance improvements is that they are not zero-sum. Others don’t get worse because I get better; we improve together. Times that seemed impossible for me and my running buddy a year ago are now routine. And still we’re hungry for more.


It’s the same for schools in Challenge Partners, charting a path to better performance that isn’t linear, but shows steady and sustained progress over time. And they do it not at the expense of the schools they collaborate with in the network, but because of and alongside them. We call this upwards convergence. It’s what Challenge Partners is all about.