What we can we learn from exceptional schools, and how can they support and challenge each other to improve. Josephine Valentine unveils the findings from a Challenge Partners pilot.

The key question for school improvement is what are outstanding schools doing that sets them apart, and how can we bottle it? These schools have kept their successful status in an environment in which the metrics against which they are measured seem to change from year to year.

All schools should share their experience of improvement

Challenge Partners, a charity led by headteachers and senior leaders, develops programmes that support schools at different stages of their improvement journey.

Ultimately, we are interested in what can make a school thrive and how to spread that good practice.

Our charity believes that it is vital for all schools to share their experience of improvement to help others and so ensure our education system is world-class. While most improvement support focuses on those that are struggling, we have piloted a scheme, called “Growing the Top”, which focuses on stimulating outstanding schools to become even better, and sharing the secrets of their success.

Some interesting themes are emerging. A draft evaluation report by Dr Peter Matthews, visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education (IoE), focuses on what and how highly-effective schools can learn from each other, identifying common elements of good practice across the 21 schools involved.

Emerging key themes for sustaining excellence include: teacher development that includes internal associate leadership opportunities to aid promotion; CPD that focuses on coaching and subject development; change leadership that includes building the school community; target-setting and data-tracking to drive up standards and develop departments.

Curriculum and assessment planning and inclusion, and all aspects of student wellbeing, are also included.

No school has all the answers. Matthews looked at systemic challenges that centre on raising the relative achievement of particular groups, including boys, disadvantaged children and under-performing sixth-formers. The findings showed that sharing what works through Growing the Top has really helped schools to tackle these issues.

It notes some immediate change in the participating schools as a result of adopting or adapting great ideas and practice from each other, as well as changes now planned for the next academic year.

So how does it all work? It is a hallmark of the participants that they are committed to Challenge Partners’ culture of collaboration and challenge. The network’s headteachers and school leaders tell us they are hungry to learn from the public sector, business and academia too. They want to be stretched and invigorated, to visualise what is possible.

School leaders work in groups of three and visit each others’ schools. The visiting leaders can question, learn and take away interesting ideas for their own schools. But as every school still has systemic challenges, such as underachievement by boys, it’s also important that our cohort develops the trust to discuss these too, so colleagues can share experiences from their own schools to help to find solutions.

Expert facilitators join the leaders on visits to help the process. Feedback has been stunning and leaders have left buzzing with new plans. We are already planning a new cohort, alongside continuing to work with our Growing the Top alumni.

Matthews’ final report, to be published this autumn, promises to shine further light on this vital question of what makes some schools stand out. As practitioners we know it’s not about hero heads, as schools have sustained excellence after changes of headteachers and senior leaders.

Our emerging thesis is that the schools involved have really considered and come to understand what knowledge, skills and attributes young people need to navigate their future in a modern, complex world. And through their work engender in the students independence of thought and learning, and ambition.