Looking North (and South West!): Sharing our lessons on peer review

The development of collaboration in Lincolnshire has taken many forms. Much of it, as we have seen, has originated from CfBT’s visionary collaborative schools project – launched around five years ago – and aimed at encouraging schools in relatively isolated areas to work together for collective improvement.
Beverley Riddle, Headteacher at Morton Trentside Primary School and Angie Waplington, Headteacher at Hemswell Cliff Primary School, are part of such a collaborative group of primary schools – which also includes Charles Baines Primary School and now St Mary’s in Grantham. “The initial three partners were brought together through the collaborative schools project and quickly, through that work, identified a shared philosophy for what our collaborative group would look like” says Beverley. “We wanted to support one another as heads, to ensure our staff received high quality CPD delivered locally, and to share resources wherever possible. These were all important starting points for us as a group of small and, in some cases, rural schools.”
The schools threw themselves into collaborative working, with some sharing staff – including a SENco, a School Business Manager and a Parental Support Adviser. Middle leaders soon also became engaged in cross-school moderation – looking at all the core subjects including maths, writing and reading. “We quickly found that our staff were sharing ideas, resources and best practice” says Angie, “as were we as headteachers. A real benefit for heads has been the opportunity to have honest, supportive conversations – which we were keen to cement through peer review when the opportunity arose.”
The schools embraced the chance to become involved in peer review when it was launched through Lincolnshire Learning Partnership in 2015. “We immediately recognised that peer review would help us to take the next step in formalising our relationship as a group of schools and as leaders” says Beverley, “we felt that the framework and the ethos would give our conversations more focus and very clear next steps for school improvement. What we had done to that point had been really positive, but we wanted to develop the focus on school improvement.”

“we felt that the framework and the ethos would give our conversations more focus and very clear next steps for school improvement. What we had done to that point had been really positive, but we wanted to develop the focus on school improvement.”

An interesting initial outcome of the peer review planning meeting in Lincoln was the emergence of a relationship with a new school, St Mary’s in Grantham, which joined the group because it was felt that the schools shared certain characteristics – including size and pupil characteristics. The group’s decision to bring in St Mary’s owed much to the sense of working in the interests of children across Lincolnshire and in an openness to collaborating with more schools. “We thought they could bring a new dynamic to our group, an outside perspective to an extent that would help us to avoid group-think and our conversations becoming too defined by local dynamics. At the same time we could learn a lot from one another” says Angie.
The group’s first peer review was very much a case of ‘see how we go’, and Beverley was the first to put her hat into the ring, inviting her colleagues to provide a review of Morton Trentside in 2016. The format of peer review generally includes an initial planning meeting to identify the area of focus; a day’s review based on lesson observations; learning walks; book scrutinies; conversations with key staff etc.; and then a feedback session where the reviewed school’s head would receive feedback from their colleagues. The ethos of peer review is also very much based on an emphasis on developmental conversations – underpinned by professional perspectives and mutual-respect.
“The review was useful, but we learned much about what we didn’t want future reviews to be like” says Beverley, who was determined to provide honest and constructive feedback to inform future reviews. “In identifying the area of focus – which in our case was ‘the use of adults in the learning environment’ – I spent too much time looking at our own data and self-evaluation and less time engaged in up front dialogue with my colleagues. Whilst reviewing the school data and improvement planning is important, what I really missed was a professional dialogue at the beginning to help set the tone of the review.” This in turn seemed to lead to a lack of focus in some respects on the issue identified, says Beverley “whilst my colleagues were reviewing the use of TAs, there were also times where they strayed into looking at other aspects of teaching or the learning environment which we hadn’t discussed in advance. In some cases, what I was told was actually quite useful, but none of my team or myself were prepared to be reviewed on those other aspects and it did risk undermining the staff team’s confidence in what was going on.”
What did emerge, however, was very useful, with Beverley’s colleagues feeding back their observations on a tendency amongst some TAs to working with lower ability children only and some cases where communication between the teachers and their TAs could be improved. This feedback, in turn, was key to the school becoming heavily involved in the Mobilise project. However, the learning around the peer review process did not end there, with Beverley also observing that the feedback was more summative than formative in tone in places. “My colleagues were telling me what they had seen – and what they told me was absolutely correct. It was extremely helpful to have my views confirmed in many cases. However, I felt the feedback could have been provided in the form of a dialogue, with the reviewers asking questions of me that encouraged me to reflect on the issues and discuss where the challenges lay and what the next steps could be. The first review missed that.”

For their part, Beverley’s colleagues – including Angie – were happy to receive the feedback on the feedback (and the wider review itself), not least as Angie’s school would be the next one to be reviewed! The group took away some key learning from the review of Morton Trentside, including the need to have a professional discussion from the outset around the reviewee school’s data and improvement priorities, the need to identify a focused question – which would provide a clear remit for the review, and a revised approach to providing feedback – delivered less through statements and more through a greater emphasis on constructive questioning to encourage the reviewee to reflect and enter into dialogue.

The review of Angie’s school saw the benefits of peer review come into their own. Hemswell Cliff, which is a small rural primary school, had seen its children struggle with making progress in maths. The review led to Angie reflecting on the materials and assessment systems used and provided her and her team with exposure to new resources. In terms of next steps, other schools within the group were able to support her with the introduction of the resources and in providing advice around systems of assessment. “The experience was invaluable” says Angie, “not least because we had an Ofsted inspection very shortly after the review. While we hadn’t got all the actions in place, we were not only able to demonstrate that we had identified the issues – with support from other heads – but we were also able to demonstrate that we had identified the necessary steps towards improvement.”

“The experience was invaluable – not least because we had an Ofsted inspection very shortly after the review. While we hadn’t got all the actions in place, we were able to demonstrate that we had identified the issues with support from other heads and we had identified the necessary steps towards improvement.”

Following Angie’s review, the learning that the group had gained in the initial reviews came into its own again – this time for Charles Baines Primary School. “Whilst the data and the school improvement plan had identified a particular area of focus” says Beverley, “the professional dialogue instead went on to identify succession planning as a key issue for the school. A new head had been appointed and we all felt – including the head at Charles Baines – that we could add the most value by supporting the transition from one head to another. If we had just relied on the data and what the school’s evaluation had said – without that professional dialogue – then we wouldn’t have come to that conclusion.”

All four schools believe that peer review has helped them to progress and manage change successfully. Alongside the next steps identified through the reviews, another key outcome has been the schools’ decision to work together on developing common systems of assessment – enabling them to ease the workload and challenges of the move to assessment without levels, but also better enabling them to work together on areas such as moderation and sharing of resources in future. The schools are also using the outcomes of the reviews to identify best practice and to facilitate CPD – led by staff – across the schools.

“There is definitely a deep level of trust and a collective commitment to the success of staff and children across our schools” says Beverley. “That is in part driven by the peer review process, but it was also an essential basis for it. My advice for all schools embarking on peer review is to do so with colleagues that are learners and are committed to the success of one another’s schools. It’s why being part of networks such as Kyra is so important – because we are joined together by that ethos – and the opportunities to take peer review and school to school support even further in the future are huge.”

Beverley and Angie were speaking with Michael Pain.