School Improvement through Challenge Partners, the enormous impact of peer review.

Back in Devon after three brilliant days @WyedeanSchool meeting passionate staff and great students. Fantastic leadership. Jamie Wordsworth‏ @jamiew23 Oct 18

Lovely and inspiring couple of days reviewing @WyedeanSchool with @ChallengePartnr What a fab place, and such great kids. Jane Werry‏ @JaneWerry Oct 18

Tweets from two of the reviewers from Challenge Partners who reviewed Wyedean School 16-18 October 2017.

Hen Coleg is the oldest part of the University of Aberystwyth and sits right on the sea front facing the winds and sea spray head on from the Irish Sea. It is a fascinating Victorian gothic structure that started life out as a railway station and grand hotel for visitors in the 1860s. It never got that far, and instead became the centre piece of the first university college for Wales, of which a significant proportion of the funds raised came from Welsh worker subscriptions to ensure that their children could receive a university education. I think it is that fact alone that has always made me look at these buildings with awe at the power of foresight, aspiration and education. The university at Aberystwyth has certainly grown significantly since the 1860s and now sits proudly all the way up the very steep Penglais Hill. Hen Coleg’s future is uncertain as a building but I was very fortunate over twenty years ago to not only heed the advice of a wise colleague from Bootham School to get my PGCE and leave York but to also return to Wales. I have always considered the year I spent in this atmospheric university town by the sea the most important year of developing in me the love of teaching and learning in a much more formal way. My interview was an awful January day having travelled down from York on the train through a snowy and cold landscape to arrive in what I can only describe as a desolate and icy windswept place. Whenever I heard Dylan Thomas say, “bible black” in “Under Milk Wood” at the start of the play I think of ‘Aber’ on that day it was so bleak. The head of the History course was the brilliant Dr Gareth Evans, sadly no longer alive but generations of educators were inspired by this great pedagogic Gog (a Welshman from the north). It’s fair to say I have had a few interviews in my time with some tough interviewers but the yardstick has always been the day I sat in Dr Evans’ study staring out to the freezing black/brown waves and sky for several hours being genuinely grilled on why I wanted to be a teacher and why I loved history. He referred to me throughout as the “Man of the Marches”, they have long memories in north Wales, especially Corwen, and at the end of the meeting I was happy to go back to York and carry on working in a private school but as an unqualified teacher he surprised me by very generously offering me a place on the course there and then. I may have had a beer on the train home back to the north of England. The rest, as they say, was history, but I owe a lot to this place and individual as a teacher and school leader for the example it set and taught me for my career in education.

These memories came flooding back to me this half term break as if they had only just happened last week when I walked around an empty and quiet Hen Coleg showing not only my wife and kids the wonderful lecture theatre, halls and library but it was also in the company of my old teacher and mentor from my own school. Life has a funny way of coming back to starting points when you least expect it and I sat in the old lecture theatre, in the front seats where Dr Evans’ referred to the group of us as the “Pontypool front row” and amongst the reminiscing I hoped that I have lived up to the high aspirations, service, intellectual ambitions and dedication as an educator which were the hallmark of the ethos and culture of the education department at Aberystwyth. I even remembered the inscription of the first book my old teacher gave me as a 14-year-old to read, “The Road to Wigan Pier”. It read; “Carry the flame and defend the weak”. I have it here in front of me now as I write, and it still resonates deeply within me when I think of the role we have as educators in schools. Ironically on my shelves it is next to is Orwell’s other classic from the 1930s, “Homage to Catalonia”.

Wyedean School had its annual review from Challenge Partners just before half term. This consisted of a three day visit by five colleagues who work as senior school leaders or with OfSTED, came into school to look at the leadership, the school improvement plans, the standards and data all centred around the quality of the learning environment and the teaching and learning.  The two tweets at the top of this blog are the comments from two of the reviewers.  I will say it again; I am so proud of Wyedean School, the students, the community and above all my colleagues who I work with. The review for me is how we should be raising standards and improving schools not just in England but in the UK and other countries.  The review team essentially do it “with the school” not “to the school” using the language of “What Went Well – WWW” and “Even Better If – EBI”. Challenge Partners is a school improvement network that came from the London Challenge and now has 400 schools in its national network.  At the heart of the collaboration, support and critical friendship is the desire to improve education and schools.  It is a model that will deliver the 21st century learning schools so badly need. The growth of leadership and teaching in Wyedean from being a member of Challenge Partners is astonishing and this was further evidenced this summer with the amazing results in Key Stage 4 and 5. The review is very thorough, but it is a conversation and I know as principal the time I spent with these external reviewers from other schools and OfSTED was invaluable in how I lead the school and take it forward.  It is also an opportunity to validate the hard work of the last few years and there was no prouder moment than the Thursday before half term standing in the staffroom for a special briefing reading to colleagues with the first initial feedback from the draft report.  My colleagues in the Applied Learning Area under the brilliant leadership of Emma Williams were chosen this year to be put forward as an “Area of Excellence” for Vocational Education and BTEC.  This is an area of the school that is not only a real strength of Wyedean in terms of teaching and results but their innovations to learning are something I am fortunate to have in Wyedean School.  They more than smashed the review over the three days and this year we have a working group looking at the IB Career related programme to implement at the school in the next couple of years.  Last year it was the fantastic English Learning Area, validated as an area of excellence, a judgement reinforced from the review again this year. The wider picture for education seems so gloomy at times nationally especially on funding but sitting in Full Governors just before the break reporting back to the trustees on the success of the school and the things we still must do to become high performing felt as if a milestone had been reached for Wyedean School.  There is so much hard work, passion and dedication from the entire school community driving this remarkable institution forward I pinch myself at times.

Looking ahead to the next 7 weeks and the run up to Christmas with the clocks going back and colder, darker days to come the vital and valuable daily work continues for the school. Year 11 have their mocks to face, the International Christmas fair is being planned for December, the Awards Evening being held in St Mary’s church for the first time on the 6th December will be a phenomenal celebration of our students in all fields and capacities, and we have the Open Evening for Sixth Form on the 30th November. I must make mention of several individual student successes we celebrated this autumn already. At the Cheltenham Festival, Year 13 student, James Robertson, was honoured with an award from the playwright and author Alan Bennett.  James has ensured that the local library in Bream has stayed open serving the community in the central Forest of Dean.  Words fail me as a principal to describe the pride I feel for James’ work. Year 11 student, Finley Wood, continued his incredible climbing success in becoming British national champion at the British Lead climbing championships.  When I spoke to him he was as modest as ever, but it is some trajectory this young man is on. I had tea in my study with Ollie Moss and Milly Connor just before the break to congratulate them on their national successes respectively in golf and dance. The incredible work of the school’s LGBTQ group has been recognised as a national case study by the Department of Education this month and staff and students have shown real leadership and transformative education in their work and support of LGBTQ in the school. I am encouraged whenever I hear the head of OfSTED talk about the importance of the wider and richer curriculum for all students and how we should be broadening educational opportunities not narrowing them.  That evening the geography teachers were taking their A Level students to a special lecture at the University of Bristol. The lead reviewer of Challenge Partners, came to see my Year 12 critical thinking group in full debate (female equality and glass ceilings the topic that week) in my room during the review and afterwards we both agreed completely that schools should be offering as much as we can to give these young people skills, qualifications, opportunities, life chances to develop and take them onto their next path as leaders in society. This is one of the reasons Wyedean School is working with Mike Peckham to put on a special conference on the 9th December for young people entitled “Making Sense of the World”.  There are details on the school website and social media and this is a free conference for young people.  There is a very strong line up of national speakers and I am really honoured that Baroness Royall and the Rt Hon Mark Harper MP, as Forest of Dean senior political figures will be there to open and close what should be a rich conference full of ideas and ways forward.  I can live with the annual reports on the unfairness and perceived bias of Oxbridge colleges because I know the education at Wyedean School is based around the old maxim of Dr Arnold of Rugby “an introduction to the very best of what has been said and thought”.  Still applicable 170 years later and even Malala jokingly said this week winning the Nobel Peace prize didn’t get her the head girl role of her school or help her with her Oxford interview.

I have a clutch of assemblies this half term coming to give for all year groups but hopefully none of the “traditional” beloved of some school leaders of the work harder, do your ties up and tuck in shirts variation. I am also lucky to be attending an EU-eTwinning conference this weekend coming up in of all the glamorous places my adopted home city of Bristol. I feel very honoured to have been invited to this conference as an ambassador for the British Council but will also get to meet and work with my partner school from Moldova.  On the 17th November I have been invited to give a talk to a special British Council conference in London about the development of international education in the current climate of a more inward-looking nationalism around Europe and the world and how global education can counter this narrative. I have contributed two pieces for books on international education and leadership for a Canadian publication from the University of Toronto and one on the impact of neo-liberalism on education for a book from the University of Gdansk.  Both books are out this December.  I am fortunate to be visiting and spending time at UWC Atlantic College as a guest of the principal Colin Jenkins this month.  A pantheon to the very ideas of international learning and the IB if ever there was one. I have teased my Vice Principal Academic, Gwennan Jeremiah, that I too was seen during the review with my Year 12 critical thinking group, she doesn’t buy it either, but I think integrity and heart as an educator is something Dr Gareth Evans was getting from me as a “Man of the Marches” all those years ago.  I have an incredible director of Teaching and Learning at Wyedean in Julie Smith, and we constantly talk about ourselves as learners and how we need to exemplify this always.  Education is no ordinary job and it is far too important to see as a mere process. It is also something that happens over a long period of time and nobody is ever sure what they may discover about themselves on the way, what they might learn and know or who they might become because of the influence of a good educator and education.  This is what makes the role so daunting but so exciting. I still feel the same as I did when I stood on the platform at Aberystwyth station clutching my letter confirming me on the PGCE course knowing that I was in the right place, at the right time and with the right people.  A feeling not changed as I type this blog nearly 23 years later.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s