Looking South: Sharing our learning and practice around peer review with schools in Cambridgeshire

The deep commitment to collaboration and school to school improvement that exists amongst Kyra’s schools is never more evident than through our work on peer review. Here, we learn about how Kyra is providing training and support to develop peer review models beyond Lincolnshire, and the difference this is already making to a group of schools in Cambridgeshire.  Kyra is a training hub for Education Development Trust’s Schools Partnership Programme, supporting schools across Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire in a cluster based approach to school improvement and peer review.

The Cam Academy Trust is a multi-academy trust based in Cambridgeshire. Established in 2012, the trust – which originated from Comberton Village College (a National Support School) – was traditionally a partnership of secondary schools. However, in recent years – driven by its vision for shaping an ‘all through’ system for education in the area –  the trust has grown to include a small group of local primary schools. This was a big step for the trust and it was very keen to ensure that it provided the primaries with a bespoke approach to improvement and development, with an onus on drawing upon the schools’ collective strengths and with support from beyond the trust. The trust, whilst keen to create an ‘all-through’ model, was very mindful not to fall into the trap that a number of other secondary-led MATs had done – namely, a failure to meet the specific needs of its incoming primary schools.

The trust’s executive team – including Chief Executive, Stephen Munday, and Executive Lead for Primary Schools, Chris Jukes – were keen to draw on the experience of another successful primary partnership to help. Kyra’s commitment to peer-review and its reputation for strong improvement partnerships was a key draw: “We wanted to create a model for school improvement and a leadership culture between our schools” says Chris “that was based on a culture of professional, constructive challenge and support. A real advantage of being part of a MAT is the ability to draw on strengths from across a group of schools and to foster a culture of professional learning.  The fact that Kyra has a strong track record in facilitating school to school improvement through peer review and their reputation for collaboration in the primary sector really brought us together.”

The trust’s four primary heads came together earlier this year with Helen Barker to undertake some training in preparation for adopting the Schools Partnership Programme peer review model – drawing heavily on the experience of Kyra’s schools. One of those heads, Shelley Desborough, Headteacher at Gamlingay First School wasn’t quite sure what to expect: “I wasn’t sure what it would hold. In education we are all too often provided with ‘done to’ models for improvement. From the beginning it felt like we were working in partnership and Helen was very honest and open about her own school’s experience of peer review and what worked well and didn’t work so well. That made it a richer learning experience.” This view is echoed by colleagues including Rae Lee, Headteacher at Hartford Infants School: “Helen’s approach – in sharing the experiences of Kyra and both the opportunities and the challenges associated with establishing the process – immediately created a real sense of trust. Honesty is a very important basis for a peer review and the meeting set the tone perfectly for how the group needed to work together going forward.”

The training included time looking at the format of an effective peer to peer review, including the importance of initial self- and peer-evaluation in determining the focus of a school’s review, the nature and format of the review visits to schools themselves, and the recommended methods of providing feedback. The group also looked at the importance of a non-judgmental approach; the need for honesty and the role of ‘difficult conversations’; and the role of Improvement Champions (those people who encourage the schools to implement the next steps of the review process).

Again, Helen shared the experiences of primary schools within Kyra. One particular area shared was Helen’s own experience of receiving feedback during the review of her own school, which she admitted that she had found challenging, particularly when the focus moved into areas that she wasn’t particularly expected to be covered. She explained that part of the challenge was shifting her own mindset and moving to a position where she was receptive to the challenge, but it was also important that the review remained focused on the agreed areas. The heads needed to be receptive to challenge, but considerate of the parameters of the review of one another’s schools.

The trust’s four schools have now begun to take their learning forward and implement the peer review model, and so far both Hartford Infants and Hartford Juniors have been subject to the process. The schools used their initial self-evaluation to identify areas such as curriculum development, pupil premium, and formative assessment as being the focus of the reviews. As with Kyra’s schools – the reviews involved learning walks, conversation with key members of staff (including governors), and time to review data and key information.

Shelley, as a reviewer head on both occasions, was very keen to ensure that her follow-up dialogue and feedback to her colleagues was both constructive and considerate: “We worked hard to make sure that we shared findings in the form of reflective questions rather than as conclusions. We wanted the head and team at the reviewed school to have a dialogue with us around what we had seen and experienced from our visit, and to help us shape the recommended next steps – rather than creating a judgement exercise.” Both schools receiving reviews have now planned for a number of next steps to follow through. For Rae and Hartford Infants, this includes a recommendation for a renewed focus on the ‘whole curriculum’ after a period of time where there has been a big focus within the school on the core subjects or reading, writing and maths. Rae is now working with colleagues to create a curriculum that weaves the core subjects within a broader curriculum offer. Indeed, the trust is now looking to put in place the role of ‘Improvement Champion’ to support all the schools with their next steps.

For Rae, Shelley and their colleagues, the opportunity to undertake peer review has been about much more than the review itself. The process has helped lay the foundations of trust between the schools, and is encouraging more wide ranging collaboration – including the sharing of best practice, resources and building links between middle leaders and teachers across the group. The trust is already looking at the next stage of its peer review approach and how the schools can explore common themes  and set up a working party to develop practice collectively.

As with Kyra, peer review is providing the foundations of a culture of deep collaboration. It is also building the trust’s capacity at primary level to be self-supporting and self-challenging. What is most apparent is that the schools and heads involved are highly motivated by the learning opportunities peer review presents and the chance to collectively make a difference to the outcomes of more children and more schools through partnership.

To find out more please contact enquiries@kyrateachingschool.com or partnerships@educationdevelopmenttrust.com.’