By Steve Pendleton
Peer-to-peer professional support and school improvement are two different processes. Naturally, there is some overlap, in terms of change management and transformation. However, in the current educational climate, we are seeing an increasing confusion between the two. Peer-to-peer support is a process of cooperation between professionals who have interests in common and experiences to share. Specialist school improvement is where developments are planned, carried out and evaluated with external advice, and where there is clear accountability for outcomes.
In this blog, I unpack some of the myths around using good practice to establish high quality provision. I do so, from a school development perspective and I will use the case study of social emotional and mental health (SEMH) provision to highlight the key points.
One of the things I have learned from working with school leaders over the past 17 years is that good practice in one place doesn’t inevitably lead to good practice somewhere else. Context is more important than is often given credit. Underneath the surface schools vary considerably. Schools may have similar systems, classrooms, and curriculums, but function differently because each has a unique community culture which is strongly influenced by the organisation’s beliefs and values and the geographical location of the school.
A useful metaphor to explain this can be found in gardening. Like transplanting a thriving plant from one garden to another, there are differences, invisible to the naked eye, that can cause it to struggle. The plant might need additional help to survive in its new setting because the soil may have a different level of moisture, acidity or minerals. To ensure a successful transplant, the soil may require additives. It is possible that the transplant may never be successful because the essential conditions cannot be recreated.
Differences between schools which appear physically very similar are hard to spot when you are a successful leader in one school and have developed systems which work well in that context. The benefit of engaging with external support and school improvement trained professionals, is that you can have your assumptions challenged. This is important when you need to see the interplay between the effective approach and the context in which it is working. An external view can help you establish whether you can provide the essential conditions for a new approach to be successful.
Jane, the head of a highly successful Warwickshire primary school opened a SEND specialist resource provision for key stage one children with social emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in October 2020. Jane sought my input as school improvement specialist to help her discern between good practice (the seed or plant, to extend the gardening metaphor) and the culture (the soil and other variants, unseen to the eye). As part of the preparation we jointly visited an award-winning independent special school across the border in Leicestershire. Places in this school are in high demand because of the successful outcomes and added value for children with SEMH needs This has helped transform the lives of the children and their families.
Our intent was to distil the elements of good practice that could be applied to the new school in Warwickshire. So that the children could experience high outcomes too. Clearly, the two organisations are vastly different and serve different communities. One is a mainstream primary in Warwick and the other is an independent primary special school in Leicestershire.
Five things we discovered through this process:
- Even though the age range for provision deferred, many of the children felt like failures at their previous school or setting. Many of the children had unmet needs, causing further distress and in some cases, leading to trauma. This was common (to varying degrees) across both school communities.
- The Leicestershire school clearly has effective systems and processes that enable these vulnerable children to flourish. However, these cannot simply be replicated, as they have evolved over time. We had to flesh out the principles underpinning the systems and processes and ask key questions to understand the interplay of the whole system.
- When the Leicestershire school employs staff, it looks for people with the values and beliefs that will enable them to cope emotionally with distressed children. Jane will adopt the same approach for her provision. Staff can be trained on how to help children learn. It is harder to give them moral purpose.
- Leaders in the Leicestershire school prioritise their own emotional well-being by making sure they have access to external support. Jane and her colleagues will need to do the same. When the going gets tough, the leader is the last line of defence and needs to be available to help and protect staff.
- The Leicestershire school has found that traditional rewards and sanctions are not effective at helping children with SEMH needs to cope. This led Jane to wonder whether her school’s behaviour policy was effective. Replacing it with something radically different was a bold step and took courage. Jane needed reassurance that it was the right thing to do and the support of other leaders in the school to make it work.
We will continue to update you on the development of the school in Warwickshire. In the meantime, a few thoughts for reflection:
- What do you see as the main differences between peer-to-peer support and specialist school improvement support?
- What are the strengths and challenges of each?
- At this point in time, would your setting benefit from peer-to-peer support or specialist school improvement? Further reflect on why. We would love to hear your thoughts, so do feel free to comment below.
About Steve Pendleton
Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist for #TeamADL with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser, virtual head, SEND Commissioner and senior leader for a local authority in the West Midlands. His specialisms include leadership development, and strategic approaches to impact delivery of provision for behavior SEMH, attachment and trauma needs.
#TeamADL is committed to ensuring everyone thrives in education, employment, and life. We stand up for people who are different because we are different. To find out more visit www.teamadl.uk