The post-Covid recovery calls for collaboration over competition and our MAT-to-MAT peer review pilot shows what can be achieved, write Helen Rowland and Andy Yarrow

We know school-to-school collaboration and peer review are effective in supporting school improvement, but this sort of work is far less common between multi-academy trusts. Yet our recent experience of a MAT-to-MAT peer review process has taught us that collaboration – rather than competition – holds real potential to make us more effective leaders and improve practice on a large scale.

To begin with, we had different levels of experience of peer review. Focus-Trust has been undertaking reviews across our 15 schools for the past five years as part of the Schools Partnership Programme run by Education Development Trust. Having already seen the benefits of professional honesty and constructive, challenging conversation via one MAT-to-MAT review, we were keen to participate in another through this pilot. By contrast, Anthem had limited prior experience.

What we had in common at the start was a shared belief: if we want our schools to work collaboratively, we must set an example at the top. So we went into the process with an open mind, and we have both been impressed by the impact.

We’ve made significant improvements so far. At Anthem, we probed familiarity with and ownership and understanding of the trust’s values. The peer review process was crucial in giving us clarity about the steps we needed to take to develop the culture of the organisation, and we’ve made considerable progress in embedding those values. Our people don’t just know them; they are proud of them and genuinely enthusiastic about modelling them. Indeed, Focus-Trust was further ahead in this area and has been a great model to bring us on.

An external view and a low-stakes context for evaluation are invaluable

For collaboration and peer review to be successful, you need mutual respect and honesty. If we told each other everything was going brilliantly when it wasn’t, the process would have failed. So while we were initially apprehensive about providing feedback that might be uncomfortable, we quickly developed ways to do so respectfully, which was vital to ensure it would be of value.

Of course, this also required us to deliberately make ourselves vulnerable, to be up front about the areas we really needed to address. To give ourselves the best chance of improvement, we needed to know there would be some tough conversations and that some things would be exposed that weren’t all positive. We’re pleased to say there were plenty of positives too, but it is all too easy to develop blind spots within an organisation. Having an external view is extremely helpful, and a low-stakes context for evaluation, invaluable.

The new relationship we’ve formed has proven highly valuable too, personally and professionally. Chief executives don’t necessarily have a large network of people they can be completely honest with. But the peer review experience means we would have no concerns about sharing anything moving forward, peer coaching each other where we wanted another CEO’s perspective on tricky issues. It has been an amazing learning opportunity to see each other in action – in our head offices, in our schools and with our teams. So why stop?

Putting ourselves aside, the collaboration has also provided opportunities for our teams to work together with their counterparts. There are a huge number of conversations going on at every level, helping the participants to see how things are done elsewhere, to reflect on their own practice and  contributing to their professional development.

At Anthem, for example, we deliberately involved experienced headteachers who were not on the executive team. Our aim was to enable them to develop experience of working beyond their own schools and both have now gone on to take more responsibility supporting other schools.

This sort of collaboration, in a space  can that often be competitive, has been transformative for our trusts, our schools, our staff and our own development. If every MAT leader had this kind of opportunity, there’s no telling how much the system could gain.

As we look to rebuild from Covid, valuing collaboration over competition is surely an area of policy worth exploring.