School Improvement: The NET Result
It’s twelve months since I wrote my first article for Trust journal and it’s just over twelve months that I’ve had the privilege of being Deputy Chief Executive at the Confederation of School Trusts. I’ve loved engaging with the Trust sector and on a range of issues, often but not always related to Covid-19. But there’s been one thing that’s really bothered me about my work this past year: I’ve not been able to visit many schools. This term I’ve set about trying to address that, starting with a visit to Northern Education Trust (NET) in the North East.
In this piece I would like to share some reflections from my visit. As a bit of context, it’s worth knowing that Rob Tarn, NET’s CEO, has developed a compelling model of school improvement which Rob refers to as being ‘tight and deep’. The schools in the Trust are locked into school improvement as an ongoing and collaborative Trust endeavour. There is a high level of alignment between the schools in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, the structure of the day and so on. But Rob is clear that none of this is ‘for the sake of it’ – it’s purposeful.
Leaders from across the Trust are continually scouring the schools for innovations that are being piloted and, if they work, these are rapidly rolled out across all the schools and supported by training delivered by the teachers and leaders who have been leading on it.
For example, Rob points out that central to the Trust’s improvement strategy is the ability to deploy expert practitioners across the group, teaching, leading and supporting as required. He argues that running a curriculum, behaviour policy and school day that is similar across the schools (though bespoke where needed locally) means that the work of these colleagues is more straightforward and they’re able to impact with greater pace and depth to improve education for young people.
The result is compelling: North Shore Academy, a school which had historically proven hard to lead and which had never been judged good by Ofsted, was recently judged Outstanding. Having spent some time at North Shore and also Dyke House Academy, it certainly looks like NET has established something of a recipe for school improvement – and I’ve chosen that word deliberately (it’s not NET’s) because I know that some people may wince at the suggestion that NET is attempting to replicate the same features across many of its schools. "What would you say,” I asked Rob, "to people who might argue that schools should be unique?”
The myth of uniqueness?
"From whose perspective?” Rob replies. He goes on to say that from the child’s perspective the school they attend is unique – it’s their school after all. He argues, rightly I think, that what matters most to individual children is that they go to a good school. The notion that every school has to be entirely unique is an adult construct, he says. "How would they know what the school ten miles away is like and if it is similar? And why would they care?” This was a refreshing take on an issue I know many within the sector have grappled with. Rob’s argument is that if some commonality across NET helps to make the child’s experience and outcomes of a high standard, then they’d be doing their children a disservice if they missed these opportunities.
Denying the dichotomy
A feature of my visit to NET was the sense that it’s not easy to put the Trust’s schools into the boxes that professional discourse tends to encourage. For example, I can’t tell you whether NET’s approach should be described as ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’; they value academic progress and are actively encouraging greater EBacc uptake, and they also encourage staff to use collaborative learning structures in the classroom. The Trust has worked hard to establish a strong culture of discipline, but this is matched by an equally strong focus on building relationships; I’m impressed by how well Rob knows the staff and students in both schools. He says he spends about 70% of his week in schools, walking the corridors and popping into lessons. It shows.
When I share these observations with Rob, he expresses frustration that too much professional discourse is ‘either/or’. He particularly highlights that schools with strong outcomes have tended to be caricatured as results factories. He rails against this, arguing that in the communities NET is serving, strong outcomes are a result of effective leadership and school improvement. This same strong leadership, he says, means children are also benefiting from an impressive range of extra curricular activities and events. So, choosing between outcomes and enrichment is a false choice, Rob argues. He also points out that the work they have done to align the Trust’s schools with the ‘NORTHERN Model’ has impacted positively on staff workload. Teachers don’t mark outside of lessons and Rob says the shared curriculum has reduced the burden of planning too.
School improvement at scale
What is also impressive is that the size and resultant capacity of the Trust has allowed NET to do some exciting things. "People think being in a tight, deep Trust is restrictive”, Rob says, "but we’re actually innovating at an incredibly fast rate.” He points out that across the Trusts’ 21 schools, the net (no pun intended) affect is 21 years’ worth of school improvement in a single year. Leaders from across the Trust are continually scouring the schools for innovations that are being piloted and, if they work, these are rapidly rolled out across all the schools and supported by training delivered by the teachers and leaders who have been leading on it.
During my visit I saw the results of this. From the book vending machine that serves up literary rewards to children, to the ‘proud’ desk where I saw hundreds of children queuing at break time to showcase their work to teachers, it was clear that NET isn’t standing still. Innovations such as these are being incubated in one school and then, following consultation with the headteachers, shared with the group.
NET has undergone such a rapid rate of innovation that almost all of the systems the Trust was using in 2018 have been replaced by more effective systems created in the Trust’s own schools. Rob is committed to a model of ongoing improvement rather than a static state: "That which we do today, that we believe benefits our children, may not be what we do tomorrow, and it is consistently evolving. When we do change something, however, we do so together.”
The tightness of the group has facilitated a mobilisation of school improvement expertise that might otherwise remain untapped. This, I reflected, is exactly what CST theorized in our recent paper which describes School Trusts as ‘knowledge building structures.’ NET is developing leadership knowledge too, building a pool of the next generation of head teachers and executive leaders. The intent behind this is to meet future need at NET, especially as it grows, but also to contribute to the wider school improvement expertise in the North East. It’s a Trust acting within the system and also acting on the system.
The whole thing
It is a truism in education, echoed by Ofsted no less, to say that ‘there is no best way’. We know that there are successful Trusts which are doing school improvement differently. But my trip to NET reminded me that there is an important difference between recognising that things can be done differently and thinking that this means we don’t have to make choices and tirelessly implement them. It seems to me that NET are all about making conscious choices about what they think will improve education for children in, say, Hartlepool. And if they think it’s right for the children of Hartlepool, they reason, why is it not right for the children of Stockton-On-Tees, Newcastle or Blyth?
What is striking about what I saw at Dyke House and North Shore is how these choices connect together coherently. Rob tells me that since its Ofsted judgement, North Shore is seeing a rapid increase in the number of people wanting to visit. He welcomes this, but he sounds a note of caution too. "The thing is,” he says, "you can’t just do parts of it. You have to do the whole thing, or the model won’t work.” This notion of the ‘NORTHERN Model’, it seems to me, is key to what’s going on at NET. Rob and his team have built a school improvement model which they believe is rapidly improving education in the North East. As you walk the corridors and classrooms of North Shore and Dyke House, it would seem hard to disagree.