Commentary

The Schools Partnership Programme: adaptation and evaluation in the time of Covid-19

The Schools Partnership Programme (SPP) is Education Development Trust’s cluster-based school improvement model, designed to support continuous improvement through cycles of peer review and school-to-school support. As a model which typically involves group training and close interaction between school leaders, and with the added pressures school leaders are currently facing, some impact to the programme was to be expected. However, in a time of unprecedented disruption to the UK education system, collaboration and school to school support is arguably more important than ever, and we have been thrilled to see that the collaborative spirit of SPP schools had persevered. To further support our schools, the team have rapidly adapted the programme to include options for remote peer review and evidence gathering, as well as developing new lines of enquiry to support schools with their Covid-19 recovery. Following the disruption of the programme’s evaluation by the pandemic, an extra year of delivery has been funded by the Education Endowment Foundation to complete the evaluation process.

SPP was designed to help schools sustain a model of continuous improvement, develop great leaders and give children and young people the very best start in life. Through this programme, we support school leaders in England to drive their own improvement through a continuous cycle of self-review, peer review and school-to-school support and improvement. As schools have become more autonomous, headteachers may feel significant pressure for improving their schools. The Schools Partnership Programme model allows headteachers from different schools to share their expertise and participate in peer evaluation and collaborative input, which can help to increase confidence and skills in school improvement decision-making, develop peer relationships. More than 1,700 schools across England have engaged with the programme, helping to build a culture of trust-based accountability, a focus on tangible improvement and a commitment to school-to-school support and collective will.

Extending the evaluation of SPP

To further support our emerging evidence on the impact of the SPP, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has been conducting an evaluation of the programme. The evaluation, which is one of the largest ever undertaken by EEF, compares SPP schools with statistically similar counterparts. This involves an impact analysis, comparing outcomes in maths & reading at Key Stage 2, and an implementation and process evaluation, observing SPP in action (e.g. shadowing training and peer reviews in participating schools and interviewing participants). More than 450 schools in England signed up to take part in the evaluation. As the partnership peer review cycles and exams that would have been used for the evaluation were interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, EEF have agreed to extend the evaluation by one year to 2021. They will be adjusting the assessment to include a new section on adaptation to the post-Covid-19 scenario. This will enable the SPP team to provide additional training to school partnerships in the next academic year, helping deepen and develop their core peer review skills, adapt to the new climate, and rebuild momentum of the peer review cycle.

How we have adapted SPP in light of Covid-19

Peer support for leaders has arguably become more valuable than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. In an atmosphere of pressurised, high-stakes decision-making – which features sustained challenges to staff and pupils’ physical and mental health and wellbeing – support, peer coaching and validation rooted in an understanding of common challenges can be highly significant. The Schools Partnership Programme has therefore implemented a rapid response strategy for the pandemic to provide timely and rigorous support.

In our response and guidance for schools – we have supplemented the handbook and training with practical advice on how to conduct essential peer engagements in a remote context. The guidance includes how to engage in effective, virtual peer reviews – with suggested tools and strategies to gather evidence and data – and how to facilitate effective improvement workshops online to develop evidence-based improvement strategies. For this, we have been able to draw not only on the SPP teams expertise, but also that of other parts of Education Development Trust, such as the London Connected Learning Centre, which specialises in the use of technology in educational settings.Our new guidance also provides insights into how to develop a culture of trust, honesty and transparency in a virtual peer review environment. To further support schools with their recover plans we have been working with sector partners to develop new enquiry questions focused on the key issues which schools will be facing as they prepare for the new term in September, such as curriculum catch-up and pupils’ mental health.