Ofsted’s “guiding principle” is to be a “force for improvement through intelligent, responsible and focused inspection and regulation”. Yet, last year’s National Audit Office report revealed that less than half of headteachers felt that their latest inspection led to any improvement. That’s because our formal accountability system is geared more to shaming than support, competition than collaboration, intervention than improvement.
Look elsewhere and you will find that peer review and mutual accountability is a greater driver of school improvement than any top-down scrutiny.
Peer review may be informal, but it’s more meaningful. It’s an accountability provided by the commitment we make to our children, parents and communities, and to each other as fellow educators. The commitment to a relentless pursuit of excellence through mutual support and challenge.
In its report published in September last year, the NAHT Accountability Commission recognised the potential of more lateral forms of accountability. It urged evaluation of peer review programmes to identify the characteristics that could see them more widely used as a driver of improvement.
At Challenge Partners, we’ve facilitated over 1,500 peer Quality Assurance Reviews in schools, and recently piloted them in multi-academy trusts.
Drawing on that experience, I’ve found four ways to make a peer review a really strong tool for accountability and improvement:
Reviews should be led by someone with no vested interest beyond ensuring the rigour and integrity of the process, and especially that it is improvement-focused. The review team they lead should be constituted of peer leaders with the geographical, emotional and mental distance to give a truly honest appraisal of how the school or MAT is doing.
A Challenge Partners Quality Assurance Review takes place over an intensive three days, and the independent lead reviewer’s role is to provide rigour, coaching and guidance to peer reviewers drawn from across our national network. We avoid using local reviewers because we know how difficult it can be to challenge a colleague you might see again at a meeting the next day, or indeed in the local Tesco.
But it isn’t only geographical distance that’s important. Reviewers must be able to step back and ask not “why aren’t they doing it the way I would?”, but the more open “what are they doing and what impact is it having?”. We train them to do this, and it is the job of lead reviewers to ensure that the principle of openness is maintained.
Undertaken with this spirit of professional curiosity, the review also provides an opportunity for reviewers to reflect on their practice and to magpie ideas to take back to their own school or MAT. It ensures mutual benefits for both reviewed and reviewers, often sparking follow-up contact and collaboration between those involved – what an independent evaluation referred to as ‘multiple gains’.
Review with the school
The second point – and one which really delineates it from an inspection – is that it must be done with, not to, the school or MAT being reviewed. This means making the school's leaders part of the review team, inviting them to interrogate what is going on in their own institution alongside the external reviewers. Doing so generates rich professional dialogue in which pairs of leaders, who have seen the same lessons and books, spoken together to middle leaders and so on, can reflect and conclude together about the strengths and areas for improvement in what they’ve seen.
Skeletons in the cupboards
A third feature of peer review that makes it both effective and different from an Ofsted visit is that it invites the host to open doors that would remain closed during an inspection. Peer review is an opportunity to fling open the closets and raise the carpets on the things that aren’t going so well, on the “wicked” issues where additional eyes and expertise can help the leaders to see more clearly and find a way forward. For many, this is the hardest, but also most valuable, aspect of peer review. It takes courage to bare those skeletons, but it is also where the best insights and most productive discussions take place.
A commitment to better outcomes
The final feature (and prerequisite for such soul-baring) is the trust that comes from adherence to commonly-held values and a commitment to securing better outcomes in all schools and MATs, not just one’s own. The pledge of each review team is to leave the school or MAT in a better state than they found it by contributing to the institution’s understanding of its strengths (which they are encouraged to share), and what and how it can improve.
Our schools and MATs commit to work together before and after their annual reviews to share their experience and expertise, so peer review becomes a comma in an ongoing professional dialogue about how collectively to make all our schools better. It is this, as much as the review, that gives peer accountability its power – because it is about a responsibility we all share, not just to the children and communities we serve directly, but to each other.
Dr Kate Chhatwal is CEO of Challenge Partners, a national, not-for-profit school improvement network