With schools increasingly focusing on what their future might look like as part of a partnership or trust, the journey towards attaining, and sustaining provision that’s rated outstanding is becoming increasingly complex. What works in one school might not necessarily work in another, making the choice of partner, and the implications of that partnership, vital if their future is to be a successful one.
How, then, should groups of schools looking to develop a shared common vision – one that strives for outstanding provision, whilst also responding to the unique features of each school within the group?
The Brindishe family of schools in south east London consists of three very different schools, all rated outstanding by Ofsted, and all with national reputations for innovation and excellence. Led by executive headteacher Dame Vicki Paterson DBE, each school retains its own personality, community and staffing, but also a distinct set of values and shared beliefs that unite the schools in the purpose of serving their shared local community.
Each of the individual schools – Brindishe Lee, Brindishe Green and Brindishe Manor – has reached the status of outstanding rating from very different starting points. More significantly, each has a very different ‘feel’. One is a close-knit community school, one a traditional local family school and one a school that sees itself as serving a global village.
With all three members of the Brindishe group currently featuring in the top 10% of schools nationally, they’re evidently following a formula that’s working well for staff, children and parents. As Vicki puts it, “If you focus on the needs of the children and put them at the centre of all that you do, then Ofsted will look after itself.”
There’s something unique about the ways in which the three work together. Working non-hierarchically in close partnership and collaboration, there’s a focus on the building of creativity, the pursuit of a rich and engaging curriculum, and a recognition that strength can be found in diversity and difference.
As well as benefiting from the practical advantages that increased scale can deliver – such as shared resourcing and bulk ordering – there’s a strong collaborative mindset among the staff across all three schools. There’s routine sharing of knowledge, skills and capacity not just in terms of leadership and teaching, but also in the use of premises, business and support staff. Professional development, training and INSET is always delivered to the staff as a whole, with many moving between the schools as they develop their careers.
A curriculum for life
Teachers working within Brindishe schools are encouraged to focus on their teaching by constantly keeping the following questions in mind:
- How does this child in my class learn?
- Why do they need to learn this?
- What’s the best way for them to do that?
- How will I know when they’re successful?
- How can I improve their successes?
Brindishe schools share a common curriculum that they’ve designed themselves, which recognises that the children across all three settings comprise a very diverse group of learners. The curriculum was developed by a group of 30 staff drawn from across the schools, who first established what their shared values were, before devising ways of addressing the schools’ diverse collective intake.
Parents and governors were also involved as part of a review process, with teams leading on specific areas. The detail of the curriculum was developed by looking at what tasks needed undertaking, and identifying people who wanted to help support the task in part or full. It’s a nonhierarchical approach that’s had a major impact on the schools’ mindsets, shared sense of community and subsequent learning.
Knowledge and understanding
What’s striking about the Brindishe curriculum is the way in which it incorporates elements of local, national and international curricula, with a relentless focus developing the skills, knowledge and understanding children will need for their journeys through life – while at the same time relating only in small part to national assessments and expectations.
Seeing the curriculum in practice is invigorating, and the staff have very clear views on how best to enable children to learn.
Creativity isn’t limited to certain activities, but applied to learning experiences throughout the day – be it through outdoor activities, using natural materials in the classroom, when learning vocabulary, or prompting questions.
Collaboration is expected at all times. This can take the form of cross-class partnerships, students supporting students and parents and carers being supported through home learning.
There can be myriad staff collaborations taking place at any given time, as well as various group activities for the children, such as interschool dance projects tri-school choirs and interschool team building work.
Environments are employed as a tool. Smart use is made of the physical spaces within, around and outside of the schools, and there are powerful displays that range from working/ learning walls to inspirational postcards.
Each school sees to it that every inch of space is put in the service of learning, whether it be gardens and forest school spaces, shared open plan learning zones or even rooftop astroturfed games areas. The schools are impressively resourced, in line with William Morris’ philosophy that everything in one’s house – or in this case, classroom – “Should be either useful or beautiful.”
Consistency is considered critical. This belief underpins the curriculum, of course, but also the expectations of children and staff, the presentation of the learning environment and the ways in which staff at all three schools interact with each other.
There’s a deeply embedded culture of respect and responsibility among the children and adults across all schools. Children are given significant responsibilities, while staff work non-hierarchically within and beyond the classroom.
An empowering ethos
It seems the ethos in place across the Brindishe family is one that’s able to empower staff, governors and the local community to support three very different schools, with very different needs, to the point where each can excel in its own right.
This surely illustrates what notions of ‘outstanding’ should be all about – strong principles and practice so deeply embedded that almost any obstacle to excellence in learning can be overcome. The schools’ collective motto encapsulates it simply; ‘Together we are more’.
From Year 1 to Year 6, the Brindishe curriculum is organised into the following six areas of learning. Each one is linked with the impact it will have on children’s later learning, and includes a set of ambitions to be achieved for every child over the course of their time at Brindishe.
- Communication, Languages and Literacy
- Maths, Economics and Enterprise
- Scientific and Technological Understandings
- Creative and Expressive Arts
- Historical, Global, Social and Spiritual Understanding
- Physical, Wellbeing, Health and Lifestyles
Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a doctoral researcher and former school leader, holding a number of non-executive board roles for multi-academy trusts and maintained schools