This is the second of two articles – read the first here.
On 1 June 2013, five Oxfordshire primary schools became the Oxfordshire Primary Education Network (OPEN) trust. All are or are becoming academies. But as it is an umbrella trust, no one school dominates – a vital factor to the heads, staff and governors involved. We pick up the story from November 2013…
The five members of the OPEN trust
Heather Haigh, headteacher, Cholsey Primary School
David Burrows, headteacher, Ladygrove Park Primary School (incl nursery), Didcot
John Hawkins, headteacher, Manor Primary School, Didcot
Jane Ratcliffe, headteacher, St John’s Primary School, Wallingford
Jane Hemery, headteacher, Willowcroft Community School (incl nursery: ages 2+), Didcot
How the umbrella trust is working so far
From practical and financial points of view there are immediate benefits to the umbrella trust: they have been able to rid themselves of many of the costs of external services covering premises management, health and safety, accountancy/finance, pupil information and management systems, ICT, etc.
The local authority was dropping many of these services anyway, so the trust members had to find an alternative – and they had the confidence to do it for themselves. It is in situations like this that it is imperative to check that you are covering the ground properly, which explains the constant checking against the experiences of others in similar situations.
OPEN has created a group of its business managers to work together on these issues. ‘They are really collaborative and show a group sense of ownership,’ says Heather Haigh. The five business managers now work continually as one group, emailing each other as a matter of course.
On the broader issues of developing plans for the umbrella trust, all staff and governors – nearly 100 people in total – met together. ‘We wanted to go beyond what our partnerships might have done in the past,’ says Heather. ‘They had done various things – but did it have impact?’
The OPEN meeting came up with many ideas of what the trust could offer. All ideas contributed were assessed through a dot-voting exercise. One of the most important considerations was staff development. Among the favoured ideas were shadowing and secondments: staff were enthusiastic and keen to run with it.
Among the favoured ideas were shadowing and secondments: staff were enthusiastic and keen to run with it.
Some staff were worried that they might be required to work in different locations that did not suit them. The heads reassured them: under the umbrella trust this would not happen. Everything would be done by agreement.
Since then, groups of staff with similar interests and responsibilities in the different schools have sprung up without any input from the headteachers. These include SEN coordinators, a moderators group for the early years curriculum, and forest school leaders.
Support and challenge
In between the annual risk assessments, the schools undertake ‘mini Ofsted’ inspections, working in pairs looking at episodes of learning, for example. Jane Ratcliffe recalls one occasion when her two fellow heads identified the need to differentiate lesson planning more thoroughly at St John’s. ‘It was a huge positive from our collaborative work. This development feedback hurt me more coming from colleagues whom I trust than it would from Ofsted.
‘But a crucial point is to know the truth. Top-down hierarchical accountability systems encourage organisations, including schools, to hide the truth. Instead, we have trust and honesty: we can research in a safe environment for the truth in our schools.’
Heather Haigh agrees: ‘I’m petrified at the thought of you lot coming to find my truths. But we owe it to our children. We’re all in this together.’
Clearly, it’s harder to reject or ignore criticism that comes from people you know and respect.
The OPEN heads believe their approach to school accountability is actually more useful than the official one. ‘Ofsted’s five-yearly visits – what good is that?’ says John. ‘We will have annual risk assessments, so we’ll always know how we’re getting on.’
Each of the heads can easily recall specific ways in which the others are helping them:
What I’ve learned from Jane (Hemery) is a lot about working with parents and managing child protection issues’ – Jane Ratcliffe
‘I look at the way Jane (Ratcliffe) and David work and I want to be like that: finding out how to focus on the big picture, and to stop firefighting (worrying the details) all the time’ – Jane Hemery
‘My SATs results show very good progress through KS1, but we don’t do so well in KS2. We had been trying to tackle this for a while, without much success. We knew we needed to do something special and different, and that’s what the OPEN partners are helping us to do. We’ve all got these experts we can develop.’ – John Hawkins
And that willingness to help, that generosity, applies to other staff members. Heather Haigh says: ‘early years coordinators met to discuss the new foundation stage assessment; the expectations have changed completely. John’s deputy is an expert in this. She visited a colleague in another school (who was struggling with the new criteria) and stayed until 7pm to help her out. She didn’t see herself as an outsider.’