When it comes to carrying out quality assurance with respect to your teaching and learning, management and outcomes, what should you do? You can engage the services of an expert consultant and be given solutions applicable for today, but then have to rely on constant ongoing input, with no opportunity to develop your own problem solving.
Alternatively, you could enter into short-term, piecemeal local collaboration that’s only good for the duration of the relationship, and could be tainted by familiarity or local politics. Or your school can use a safe, coaching-based peer review model – one that allows you and your leadership team to accurately evaluate areas of development and enable a self-sustaining growth culture to thrive. The choice is yours…
What do we mean by ‘peer review’ in relation to school evaluation? My own experiences are based on having it used it for the past seven years and my association with the education charity Challenge Partners. I first came across the organisation as a sceptical class teacher and middle leader, after being told that they would be visiting our school, and in the time since have come to value highly the approach that they facilitate.
I’ve now had dealings with them at four different schools, the latter two as headteacher, and would recommend a peer review model to any school. As I move into my fifth year of headship, I remain a passionate advocate of this form of quality assurance, and believe it’s made a huge difference to the schools I’ve been involved with, and to myself and my colleagues.
Challenge Partners is an organisation that currently works with over 435 schools, split into 35 regional hubs, and has peer review at its heart. The form of quality assurance it can provide is, I believe, perhaps the biggest single factor in one of the schools I led receiving an Outstanding Ofsted judgement in leadership/ management in September 2017.
Why? Because instead of being a process of quality assurance that’s ‘done to you’ by professionals who are some distance from the coalface, the Challenge Partners approach sees you apply it to yourself, while receiving coaching support from practitioner peers facilitated by an expert lead reviewer. This not only enables growth in the personal skills of the leaders taking part, but also helps foster a much deeper understanding of your context.
Rigour and transparency
So how does peer review actually work in practice? I’ll use Challenge Partners’ Quality Assurance Review as an illustrative example. A team of senior leaders from outside your local region, who are led by a lead reviewer with current Ofsted experience, will visit your school and proceed to spend two and a half days helping your leadership team evaluate its ‘School Improvement Strategies (Leadership and Management)’, ‘Teaching, Learning and Assessment’ and ‘Outcomes’.
Working in partnership with your leadership team, they will follow a timetable created by the host school. Time is spent in classrooms going through and understanding achievement data, meeting with leaders, looking at books and speaking to children. Via safe and discursive dialogue, it’s established what things are going well in the school, and any areas of development. At the end of this rigorous and transparent process there will be a final meeting, where the review team pull together their shared findings for the lead reviewer to then capture in a final report.
Whilst far from being an inspection, estimates are made against a framework with similarities to the Ofsted framework. It’s then up to the host school to share the evaluation feedback with staff as they see fit. The attitude throughout is that this is your school, and for leaders to share the information with their team. My own approach has been share it openly with colleagues – they ought to understand the overall evaluation, since they’re the people who can make a difference at the next step.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ form of quality assurance; different approaches serve different purposes at different times. School improvement partners or LA/MAT reviews may add value in certain ways, but it’s likely that these approaches will be based on someone sharing their expertise which can create a parent/ child-style relationship to some degree. In effect, you’re relying on perceived wisdom that’s handed to you – yet surely you and your school understand best what may or may not work and why, given your circumsances?
Inspiration and clarity
In terms professional development, hosting a peer review is only half of the benefit. Having your leaders visit other schools as part of peer review teams affords massive additional learning opportunities. They get to spend hours with someone possessing current inspection experience and can discover how evaluation works from their perspective. You get the great privilege of going into other schools and seeing excellent practice.
Then there are the skills you can develop in coaching, supporting and challenging senior colleagues. For leaders, becoming involved in peer reviews is the best CPD I can imagine.
Other accredited leadership programmes are available – and some are excellent – but there’s no other experience that can replicate these peer reviews.
On a more personal note, my involvement with them has given me considerable inspiration and clarity when making the next step in my career and moving towards headship. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a wide range of settings – when you help other schools evaluate themselves against national benchmarks, you end up returning to your own setting seeing things through fresh eyes and wanting to apply what you’ve learnt.
Every leader will self-evaluate to some extent, but peer review – potentially conducted on an annual basis – creates time and space to stop and see things with absolute focus. There’s a reason why athletes have coaches. They make a real difference to their performance, and that’s how I see school peer review. Your own evaluation skills will grow over time, but a peer review will always leave you in a better place for self-understanding.
The impact of school peer reviews can be massive, and provide the spark needed for substantial school improvement. They’re far more than simple, harsh ‘mocksteds’ that only provide summative judgements with no developmental aspects. By giving schools an objective framework to use and establishing a safe approach, peer reviews provide freedom for leaders to reflect on not only their own contexts but also common themes that drive all school improvement.
When I first heard about peer reviews as a class teacher and middle leader, my biggest concern was that they’d be used as a blunt instrument to hammer colleagues and destroy good work that was in progress. In my experience since then, they’ve done the exact opposite – serving instead as a catalyst for significant positive change for schools and leaders.
Schools have the most potential to support themselves and other schools in terms of evaluation and development. By working together in this manner, schools can foster knowledge and skills transfer between themselves, with the result that all involved become stronger.
The peer review process
Day 1 – Pre-review analysis (pm)
Examine school’s self evaluation documentation, development plan, achievement data (end of Key Stage and in year) and anything else pertinent to help form key questions.
Day 2 – Day in school (whole day)
Observe lessons with leadership team. Look at books, meet to discuss teaching and learning, analyse outcomes and talk to children.
Day 3 – Morning in school (am)
Observe lessons and carry out a learning walk across the school, examining central theme. Hold final meeting with leadership team and share findings together.
Adam Lowing is headteacher at Whitehill Primary in Gravsend in Kent and leads the Insight Hub as part of Challenge Partners. Find out more at challengepartners.org.