Collaboration and peer review: a path for trusts

Feb. 18, 2020
Tom Glover

Tom Glover

Dean of Executive Leadership Programmes, Ambition Institute

Trusts need to work together to drive real improvements for the education system and the children it serves. This requires leaders to increase collaboration for the benefit of the sector as a whole.

I recently listened to Reverend Dr Sam Wells on Thought of the Day exploring the difference between organisations and institutes, and the expectations society places on each. He argues that too many entities see themselves as organisations and, as a result, behave in that way. They compete. They focus on their own success. They act with self-interest. And, although they may be successful, they make no positive contribution to something greater. He compares this with institutes, which are outward facing and seeking to provide benefit beyond the confines of their own structures.

This struck a chord with me and the way that some trusts in our sector act. They see themselves as individual organisations and behave accordingly. But there is a movement starting where trusts are collaborating, sharing best practice and providing peer review. These trusts see themselves as institutes. They act selflessly and when they are successful, they share a positive impact on society.

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The Trust-to-Trust Dividend

At Ambition Institute, we call the impact of collaborative work within trusts the Trust Dividend. This is an application of the thinking of Sir David Carter and the language of the Confederation of School Trusts.

At our recent Trust Leaders residential, using an idea generously shared by STEP Academies, we described the Trust Dividend as a simple equation: 1 + 1 > 2. That is, two schools working in a trust must deliver a greater impact together than each of them would on their own – if not, what’s the point? This is the foundation of the multi-academy trust movement.

We know it benefits everyone when schools collaborate: those benefits are amplified when groups of schools, organised in trusts or other systems, work together.

"If you’re a trust leader reading this, there’s one thing you can do today: collaborate with another trust."

The potential of peer review

We’re lucky to have Sir David as our Executive Director of System Leadership and it’s been a pleasure to work closely with him on our Trust Diagnostic, an in-depth, face-to-face review which facilitates collaboration, bringing school trusts together to share effective strategies.

Through our first phases of reviews, we’ve seen collaboration that has gone beyond our initial intention. New links have been created and ideas shared openly for the benefit of children across the country.

So, while this collaborative work is already happening between some trusts, it is not yet widespread or systematic. That’s because the quasi-market that created the trust system has produced a set of individual organisations, rather than collaborative institutes. To make this shift requires changing the strategies of each trust, which need to include an outward strand of system generosity.

But the barriers are significant. Funding is tight, deprivation is high, mental health is challenging for staff and children. One answer to meet these internal challenges is facilitated peer review. If we empower trusts to work as collaborators, they can share best practice, expertise and improve standards through collective accountability. They can benefit each other.

The National Association of Head Teachers and their partners have already promoted this on a school-to-school level in their Principles of Effective Peer Review report, providing a roadmap for collaborative growth. They state that it is a supportive and developmental process done with each other, with a clear framework and commitments to better outcomes for all. The next step is for peer review on a trust-to-trust level.

Although this would not solve all the problems facing our sector, who better to identify poor practices and reinforce positive behaviours than educators themselves?

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System generosity

Full peer review is, without doubt, part of the solution. But first, trusts need to start with a principle of system generosity – that we will work together for the public good of all. If you’re a trust leader reading this, there’s one thing you can do today: collaborate with another trust.

Pick up that phone, send that email, offer that bit of support – start somewhere! Don’t worry about a collaboration strategy (yet), just reach out and support another trust.

Who knows, it might make the difference to a group of children you’ll never meet, whose education will be improved thanks to you and your trust. We can keep getting better together.

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