Samuel Ward Academy Trust aim to have a balance between autonomy and accountability across their MAT. We spoke to Chris Dale, Director of Teaching and Learning and Research School at the MAT, about their approach to embedding a more ‘balanced, disciplined and nuanced’ evidence-informed approach to classroom practice across all schools.
The MAT has doubled in size over the past year, now being made up of 19 schools – 13 primary, five secondary and one special school. Based on the focus of the previous CEO, and continued by the current CEO Dr Tim Coulson, there is a determined effort not to create a corporate environment across the schools. Instead, Chris Dale explains, ‘there is a focus on inter-dependence; the idea of being better together rather than apart.’
The schools are spaced geographically, but all within 30 minutes’ maximum travel time to nearest neighbour. They form four hubs, of an interdependence partnership, named individually as Haverhill, the largest, along with Great Cornard, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket.
‘I have always had an interest in evidence-based approaches as my father was a scientist, says Dale. ‘He and I have discussed the core nature of scientific research at length. It involves a laboratory environment, nailing everything down, making interventions and replicating it.’ However, he emphasises, ‘it is not always possible to do this type of research in education: it is often difficult to precisely replicate a classroom environment.’
This insight has led him to coin the phrase ‘balanced, disciplined and nuanced’ evidence-informed teaching and learning. He describes evidence-based practice in school as focusing on three factors: context (student background, family etc); robust external research (academic papers etc); and enquiry evidence (what is tested in the classroom).
Samuel Ward focuses its evidence based practice on three factors: context, robust external research and classroom based enquiry evidence
Using this method for evidence-informed decision-making, SWAT are developing a knowledge-based curriculum for their students. ‘Our intake is fully comprehensive and we aim to ensure the same knowledge base for all our pupils. The body of evidence for this approach is significant and robust; we have a duty to teach and value memorisation and recall of key knowledge as this will unleash the curriculum of aspiration, inspiration, debate and discourse that we aim for.’
Bearing in mind the focus of balancing autonomy and accountability as well as having this evidence-informed approach, the MAT has developed five strategies to improve teaching and learning across all schools:
1. Enquiry Cycle
An evidenced based, four stage enquiry cycle that will allow teaching professionals to actively and meaningfully engage in research to improve their practice.
2. ‘Hand-grenade events’
Events at MAT leadership level, which involve bringing in external speakers to share ideas and experience of evidence-informed practice.
3. Guiding coalition
Group of teaching and learning leads across the MAT, who meet regularly to remodel practice, challenge each others’ thinking and feed into the headteachers group.
4. Teaching and learning policy and exemplification
Created through an extensive three-month process of rewriting and consultation with individuals across the MAT, including heads of departments. The grid is based on five key teaching and learning domains, with three strands for each. The grid is used in school-to-school and peer reviews and creates a MAT-wide common language for teaching and learning.
5. Lead Practitioners and becoming a Lead Practitioner Learning Centre
Introduced to facilitate coaching and improve others. The initial cohort of nine LPs have carried out research projects and will share findings across the MAT. A further 22 will begin this autumn term. The scheme supports career development throughout the MAT, including primary level. A big factor is the scalability of the programme, taking into account the MAT’s growth. LPs will lead on subject specific exemplification of the teaching and learning domains.
‘When an intervention works, as teachers we learn from this and do it again,’ says Dale. ‘When teachers believe in what they are doing, they can do anything to help their students achieve.’ This core message runs throughout the work across the trust.
Establishing and conducting change in teaching and learning must happen through collaboration. Having an evidence-informed base combined with a collaborative spirit goes a long way to winning the hearts and minds of teachers and school leaders. This, in turn, makes a positive contribution to the outcomes of all young people.