CEO's blog: How do you improve a school in a lockdown?

12 February 2021

A time when many students and staff are not together in the school building might not seem the best moment to evaluate and improve your school, but Dr Kate Chhatwal thinks it could be the perfect opportunity

For many of us it is already hard to remember the time before an autumn fraught with contact tracing to a summer term when staff were able to engage in online CPD and leaders had the headspace to actually think and plan more than a few days in advance. My hope is that when schools have settled into a new lockdown routine, they will once again have this chance.

Even in the maelstrom of November, school leaders involved in pilots of Challenge Partners’ virtual Leadership Quality Assurance Review remarked how energising it was to refocus on strategic school improvement, to evaluate their approaches and - crucially - to do so together with their peers. As Jason Tudor, Principal of Kingsbury Green Academy and host of one of the pilots reflected afterwards “there is still a need and desire to move your school forward on a strategic basis… and to be working with other colleagues - even though it was remote - with such positivity, who brought ideas and solutions, that’s what made it special”.

Normally the main focus of our peer reviews - of which we have facilitated over 2000 across England in the last decade - is teaching and learning, that magical thing which translates carefully sequenced curricula into powerful knowledge and skills for young people. Significant time is spent in classrooms and otherwise exploring approaches to learning and the impact it has, particularly on pupils facing the greatest challenges.

Our virtual peer reviews can’t do this in the same way, but do maintain the same ethos of rigorous challenge done with, not to, the host school. They enable deep joint scrutiny of key strategies and approaches to the things that make the biggest difference to life chances - like curriculum, pedagogy, leadership at all levels, and staff development. What the team hears about from leaders - through meetings ranging from emerging middle leaders to governors - is triangulated through interviews with other staff, pupils and parents. The process provides great CPD and chance for professional reflection and dialogue for host and “visiting” leaders alike.

I joined the pilot virtual review at Manor Leas Junior Academy in Lincolnshire and was astonished by how easy it was to get a feel for a school 150 miles away just from listening to two effervescent subject leaders talk passionately with screen-shared exemplars about their approach to curriculum, how they were empowered by senior leaders, and made use of research. The school was delighted their middle leaders were able to develop and extended their thinking thanks to thoughtful probing. Parents interviewed by the review team were equally passionate in talking about how the school had made the transition from infants to juniors enjoyable and engaging, despite doing it all remotely, and continued the approach through bubble closures.

With remote learning again to the fore, we are grateful that those pilot reviews - a third being hosted by Children’s Hospital School, Leicester - enabled our expert-led peer review teams to identify some strong practice, which can be shared for the benefit of all. Our knowledge of what is working well will only grow as our programme of virtual reviews kicks off in earnest in the coming weeks and reviewers will have the unique opportunity - where invited - to see it firsthand, conducting virtual learning walks through online lessons.

The opportunity schools have through peer review isn’t just to improve their own school, but to improve education for everybody everywhere, with digital connections making it as easy to share excellence with schools at the other end of the country as it does the school down the road. That’s why we encourage schools in our network exhibiting leading or promising practice accredited by the review process to share it via free online webinars, open to everyone whether they’re part of Challenge Partners or not. Given the challenges we collectively face, it seems the least we can do.