It’s All About Trust! - Developing trust leaders and improving school trusts

5 January 2022

Our CEO Kate Chhatwal explains how a collaborative peer review model has been developed as a way of effectively evaluating and improving school trusts.  She shows how professional development of trust leaders is at the core of this process. 

Powerful tool

Founded by practitioners in 2011 to build on the success of the London Challenge, Challenge Partners has in the last decade facilitated over 2000 school peer Quality Assurance Reviews (QA Reviews) involving thousands of school leaders. In 2018/19 we adapted this tried-and-tested approach to develop a model of Trust Peer Review (TPR), which would evaluate trusts’ approaches to improvement across a group of schools. In doing so, we sought to replicate the ‘multiple gains’ identified in an independent evaluation of our school QA Reviews.

An NFER review of our TPR pilot confirmed the process as a powerful tool for the professional development of trust leaders, as well as for the continuous improvement of school trusts. The programme is also enabling us to gather evidence of the features of effective multi-school improvement to help guide trust leaders as they develop their approaches.

The foundations upon which peer review is built 

Challenge Partners has used peer review for a decade to further its goal of ‘upwards convergence’ in school performance in order to improve life chances for children and young people - particularly those facing disadvantage (in whatever form that takes). The upwards convergence model was established by my predecessor and Challenge Partners’ founding CEO, Professor Sir George Berwick, as he developed the original teaching schools concept

Upwards convergence “is about raising the performance of the highest achieving [schools] while reducing the gap between them and the lower achieving. It applies equally to student achievement and teacher quality”  (see Figure 1: The Upwards Convergence Model). Our Trust Peer Review and facilitation of hard-edged collaboration between school trusts seek to achieve upwards convergence at trust level.

Figure 1: The Upwards Convergence Model

Peer review is a necessary component in upwards convergence, but is not on its own sufficient. Success depends on the learning and actions catalysed by the peer review process. Peer review is a comma in an ongoing school improvement dialogue within and between participating institutions committed to robust lateral accountability and mutual improvement. It is the whole conversation and successful implementation of actions arising from it that make the difference. This is captured in another of our theoretical underpinnings, the Olevi and Challenge Partners’ collaborative learning wheel (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Collaborative Learning Wheel


In the wheel, after establishing the desired goals or aims, professional audit (or peer review) is the first step in a cyclical process of performance improvement. The wheel highlights the contribution robust peer review and collaboration makes to individual professional development, alongside institutional improvement. The preparatory training and conduct of the professional audit of an institution yields significant professional development benefits for peer reviewers and host institution leaders alike. It also provides a springboard for further experiential learning as leaders and teachers collaborate within and beyond their school or trust to address the points arising from the review, including learning together, from role models, and through coaching and mentoring.

Common in the higher education sector, interest in school peer reviews intensified from 2010, influenced by the vision of a self-improving system. By 2018 the Accountability Commission was recommending that “existing peer review programmes should be evaluated to identify characteristics of effective practice in order to develop national accreditation arrangements”. In 2020, the School Improvement Commission went further in recommending “all schools should consider the role that school-to-school peer review and family of schools data could take to help provide a regular external view of their strengths and areas for development”. In the previous year  the NAHT worked with organisations, including Challenge Partners and the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), to “establish what evidence exists on what make a successful peer review.” This resulted in a published guide to the principles of effective school-to-school peer review, which we argue applies equally to trust-to-trust peer review.

Understanding the trust in its own terms 

The model developed for Challenge Partners’ Trust Peer Review (TPR) is consistent with the NAHT principles of effective peer review and proven methodology of our school QA Reviews. However, there is one main difference.  While our school QA Reviews are supported by a detailed rubric and descriptors outlining the standards a school must meet in order to be peer-estimated as operating at one of four different levels (leading, effective, working towards effective or not effective), none of these are yet in place for making similar judgements related to trusts. There is a good reason for this: while the features of successful schools are well-documented, far less is known about what makes for effective school trusts. This is because many of the trusts across England are in their infancy or childhood, with the eldest still in their teens (and representing models that may never be replicated given changes in the academies programme since the likes of Ark, Harris and United Learning were established). What evidence there is suggests a range of approaches to multi-school improvement none of which can be “consistently associated with [school trusts] in particular performance bands”.

Acknowledging the great variety in school trusts; importance of contextual factors in shaping how trusts approach school improvement; and lack of evidence/consensus on the best approach to multi-school improvement, the TPR has no checklist or rubric, rather it seeks to understand the trust on its own terms. The power of the model is not in evaluating trusts against some abstract or contested standard, but in providing practical insight and evaluation into what is working well in the trust’s approach to school improvement and what it needs to consider next to move forward. It seeks to move each trust from A to B, C or D, not to some unattainable point at X, Y or Z. Unlike the school QA Review, the TPR does not conclude with recording ‘peer evaluation estimates’, only a narrative report identifying key strengths and suggested next steps, backed by evidence robustly gathered and triangulated through the review.

From the host trust’s point of view, the purpose of the TPR is to shed light on the key question: what is the trust doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise, and is it working? For trust leaders involved from the host trust and as peer reviewers, the purpose is to accelerate their professional development through guided experiential learning in effective questioning, evidence-gathering, evaluation, collaboration, and honing of a range of leadership skills - such as relationship-building, working together, and influencing. It also provides the opportunity to identify practice which will benefit the development of peer reviewers' own trusts.

The crucial role of professional development

The continuing professional development (CPD) element of TPR is intentional, not incidental to the process. Most trust leaders involved in the programme have already been trained and had experience of our school QA Reviews, and others are systematically inducted into the principles and philosophy of the approach. All undergo a day’s training, which enables them to practice key elements of the TPR process and receive peer feedback to augment their own professional reflections on what they learn from that practice.

Once on the review, the role of the expert Lead Reviewer (who has themselves undergone selection, training, and quality assurance from Challenge Partners and our lead practitioner) is as much to provide coaching, challenge and support to the peer reviewers as it is to ensure the effectiveness of the review for the host trust. We refer to this as the 50:50 model and we expect all our Lead Reviewers to lead the review in a way that delivers these dual benefits to the host trust and peer reviewers. This is reinforced by time being built into the programme for the peer reviewers involved to reflect on and capture what they are learning from the process and the host trust which is relevant to the development of themselves as trust leaders and their own trust.

Main features of Trust Peer Review 

The key learning derived from TPR for peer reviewers is based around the different components of the review, which takes place over three days. The principal activity on the first day (and in pre-reading) is orientation to the host trust, understanding it on its own terms. This requires peer reviewers to come with an open-mind and to engage faithfully with the information presented by the host trust about its context, vision and values, key characteristics, approach to school improvement, and evidence of impact. Analysis of the information provided is used to identify the key questions to be addressed by the review, which are shared and refined in collaboration with the host trust.

Evidence to answer those questions is gathered and triangulated through a series of activities, many of which are conducted in partnership with host trust leaders – including climate walks; interviews with key personnel; focus groups with school leaders, governors, trustees, teachers and pupils; and observing the trust going about its business (e.g. trustee meetings). This hones skills – introduced and practiced in TPR training - around evidence-gathering and capture through skilful open questioning, and non-judgmental observation. Learning is deepened through structured professional dialogue with host trust leaders about what is seen. It is supported by a bank of questions, evidence forms and common lexicon of approaches to multi-school improvement which form part of the TPR handbook.

Peer reviewers then work together – with facilitation and guidance from the Lead Reviewer – to synthesise and further triangulate the evidence gathered to identify common themes under prescribed headings. They develop these into points to feedback, highlighting what is working well and potential next steps. Giving the feedback itself demands skill that balances tact and rigour; punches should not be pulled, but need to be delivered in a supportive and developmental way, consistent with Challenge Partners’ values and the ethos of TPR. Coaching from the Lead Reviewer can be instrumental in getting the balance right.

The final element of the TPR is an opportunity for the host trust to present an area of challenge and to invite the insights and ideas peer reviewers bring from their own experience and research. These are gathered through a structured process, facilitated by the Lead Reviewer, drawing on established problem-solving approaches such as Problem Solving Team Building (PSTB) and Nancy Kline’s Time to Think ‘Council Process’. This structured approach enables input to be gathered in a systematic way and gives the host trust control over which ideas are pursued further. For those participating it provides a tool and experiential training in an approach they can use in their own work.

The difference Trust Peer Review makes

The pilot of Challenge Partners’ Trust Peer Review was reviewed by the NFER and found to deliver multiple benefits consistent with earlier findings about our school QA Review. Starks and Mcrone noted how:

“peer reviewers recognised the value of undertaking a TPR to their own personal development as a trust CEO. They reported it was a privilege to experience how other trust approached school improvement. Attending the visits helped peer reviewers to understand the structures and strategies of different trusts and enabled them to reflect on areas of development within their own trust.

“All four trusts stated they had taken away key areas for development. […] Trusts agreed that the report agreed at the end of the review can be used as a tool within the organisation to change things”. 

We believe these benefits are no accident, but lie in the intentions built into the structure of our TPR process, which has been designed and expertly-facilitated to maximise learning for the host trust and peer reviewers in our 50:50 model. Trust leaders’ CPD and their effectiveness as peer reviewers are further enhanced through interactive training which gives them the opportunity to practice, reflect and receive feedback on key elements of the process.  This is further supported by the tools and materials collected in a comprehensive handbook which is regularly updated based on lead and peer reviewers’ feedback. The positive outcomes lie in the development of individual trust leaders, improvement in host and peer reviewers’ trusts, and contribution to the evidence base about the features of effective multi-school improvement. All these are secured in pursuit of our ultimate goal of upwards convergence in trust and school performance leading to better life chances for the children they serve.