How NFER evaluation confirmed ‘unique benefits’ of our trust peer review - and helped us keep learning

8 March 2020

Evaluation of our new Trust Peer Review programme by NFER shows it offers multiple benefits for trusts, and has helped us refine the model, writes Dr Kate Chhatwal

Guided by a group of trust practitioners, we initiated a pilot last year to test whether a scaled-up version of our school Quality Assurance Reviews (QARs) could provide insight and impetus for trust-level school improvement practice. We wanted these Trust Peer Reviews to act as a catalyst to development and continuous improvement in the host trusts, and to provide CPD and stimulus for peer reviewers drawn from other trusts so their own organisations could benefit. In a context where there is limited evidence of what effective improvement in school trusts looks like (Prof Toby Greaney’s 2018 report for DfE is a notable exception), we aim also to contribute to system knowledge of what works well.

We are well placed to do so: over the last nine years, Challenge Partners has facilitated more than 2,000 school peer QARs. An IOE evaluation of these expert-led peer reviews in 2015 found that they delivered ‘multiple gains’, with benefits for the school being reviewed and for peer reviewers, who gained valuable CPD and ideas to take back to their own schools. Systematic analysis of data from QARs has also enabled us to identify areas of excellence within schools, which we share across our network and beyond so that good practice can become common practice.

Alongside the challenge and collaboration inherent in our peer review processes, innovation is in Challenge Partners’ DNA. We pride ourselves on the disciplined use of existing evidence and rigorous evaluation of our activities and programmes to further develop that evidence base. I was therefore delighted that a serendipitous conversation with Maddie Wheeler at NFER revealed a common interest in investigating school improvement in trusts – and so a review of our Trust Peer Review pilot was born, jointly funded by Challenge Partners and NFER.

I am grateful for the way NFER researchers Louise Starks and Tami McCrone threw themselves into understanding our Trust Peer Review model, in just the same way our peer reviewers throw themselves into understanding the trusts they evaluate. I am also grateful to the four trusts which opened themselves up to pilot peer reviews and the NFER review of the pilot.

We asked NFER to undertake a review that was formative and summative. I am delighted that the summative aspect of their review demonstrates how the Trust Peer Review process has indeed delivered ‘unique benefits’ and ‘multiple gains’. It reveals how trusts “took something away from the review and have taken action as a result”, and how, for example, one peer reviewer felt it was “the best CPD I’ve had this year”, while another reflected that “it drives all our thinking now”. Although only conducted across a small number of trusts, the findings from this review are promising and offer some early evidence to test further in the next stage of roll-out of our Trust Peer Review.

Most useful to an organisation committed to continuous improvement through challenge and collaboration are the formative aspects of the review. These have shaped the development of the Trust Peer Review model as it is now being implemented across the Challenge Partners network and beyond. The training we provide our lead and peer reviewers, and how we and they work with trusts hosting reviews, have all improved as a direct result of NFER’s insights. Just as we expect our schools and trusts to respond purposefully to external challenge and scrutiny, so have we.

You can read the NFER report, A Review of Challenge Partners’ Trust Peer Review Model, here.