School improvement

Our schools are now a testbed for tackling systemic issues

AET is launching a platform that will share data and insights to drive improvement in its schools and beyond, explains Unity Jones

AET is launching a platform that will share data and insights to drive improvement in its schools and beyond, explains Unity Jones

22 Nov 2022, 5:00

A funding crunch, a cost-of-living crisis, acute recruitment challenges and looming strikes. It’s tempting to hunker down and focus on keeping our own house in order, but now more than ever we need to work together to meet the scale and complexity of the challenges ahead for schools.

Our capacity as a sector is vast, yet for all our efforts to create a self-improving system the truth is we’ve failed to leverage this latent potential. Instead, we’ve developed some collective bad habits that prevent us from developing resilience and improving sustainably. These are not insurmountable, and doing so is absolutely essential.

In 2022, England had the widest disadvantage gap for key stage 2 SATs on record and key stage 1 attainment is the lowest it has ever been. This national picture hides stark regional and local disparities, and that is just as true within our trust as it is across the country.

Although our primary school results across the trust this year were positive compared to national outcomes, we still had a 40 percentage point spread between our highest and lowest performing schools in phonics, and a 52 percentage point spread in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2.

That’s why we’ve launched Project H, a platform and approach to mobilise talent and expertise from across the system to solve big, seemingly intractable problems like this. Our plan is to share insights, resources and reflections about what it takes to embed school improvement at scale.

With 57 schools spread across in every region of the country, AET is one of the largest networks of schools in England. We have a disparate footprint, and that makes our schools more exposed to the structural complexity of the education system and to regional challenges.

We intend to get real about the shortcomings of our approach

So Project H is not a ‘side hustle’. It’s a fundamental and deliberate effort to unleash improvement across our network and beyond – a vehicle to move beyond individual efforts and to collectively drive progress by sharing the perspectives and understanding of educators who work in all manner of circumstances.

Nor is it a cosy club for like-minded people. It’s a radical new approach to thinking about improvement at scale, challenging our own and others’ biases and thinking about different approaches to improvement.

We intend to get real – REALLY real – about the shortcomings of our approach to date – and ongoing. We are setting out to challenge the doctrine of our current methods and to break cycles of under-performance in order to drive improvement within our network and beyond.

To deliver this, we’ll allow real data and insights to do the talking. For instance, a recent analysis across the secondary schools in our trust revealed that among those eligible for pupil premium, pupils with attendance of 95 per cent or higher are 5.2 times more likely to achieve a GCSE grade 4+ in English and maths than those with attendance below 80 per cent. Among those not eligible for pupil premium, it’s 3.2 times.

It’s hardly surprising that attendance is critical to improving outcomes. Yet there is so much that we still do not truly know about how to respond, including causes of and opportunities to reduce absence. 

So we are offering Project H as a shared space to explore this and other stubborn issues by using our schools as a living testbed. The platform will be crucial for us as we develop as a network, and we hope that it will help others to accelerate and sustain improvement too. We’ll start out by sharing the journey our schools are on, and we hope others will join us on the platform and beyond

Academy trusts like AET have an opportunity to be net givers to the system. That demands refocusing our attention to think about our impact on the system, rather than just the impact in our own backyard.

Institutional learning – even in a trust as large as ours – has hard limits. By challenging ourselves and each other openly, we have an immense opportunity to overcome those and finally to deliver the self-improving system we’ve all been aiming for.

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