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Turning around a failing school is always challenging for multi-academy trusts (MATs) but consistency and persistence can lead to success beyond expectations, says Chris Brislen.
Transforming the third worst performing primary school in the country into a school pupils and staff can be proud of is not a job for the faint-hearted, but it’s one St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust was happy to take on.
Words like ‘miraculous’ and ‘amazing’ have been used to describe the progress St Nathaniel’s Academy has made in the three years since it became part of our MAT. While this is gratifying and a wonderful testament to the commitment of many people, it doesn’t mean we’ll be resting on our laurels.
Instead we’ll be working with other talented headteachers, taking what we’ve learnt and applying it to other failing schools.
So how can MATs help drive the quick turnaround of a poorly performing school?
MATs offer an opportunity for schools to work collaboratively to drive improvement, backed by a strong central crew. Having a core team to support them means academy principals can take a step back from administrative tasks that eat into their time, and concentrate on delivering outstanding results for pupils. With more leadership time, school improvement can gain pace much more rapidly.
As delivering excellent results is always in the spotlight, our MAT positions leadership as a choice, not a job title. All our staff are empowered to be leaders, which places the responsibility for driving forward improvement in the hands of every employee.
That’s not to say we don’t select experienced staff for key posts – we do. For example, our principal at St Nathaniel's Academy had two years’ experience in another special measures school before taking up his post within the trust. This know-how speeds up the process of transformation.
We also like to ‘grow our own’ when it comes to recruitment. We employ staff at the beginning of their careers, invest in their training and ensure they have a clear career pathway so that they choose to stay with us. Providing first-class professional development ensures high-calibre staff who have high aspirations – and that sets the tone for pupils too.
A new era
Becoming an academy is an opportunity for a school to have a fresh start. It’s also an opportunity to get everyone on board with the new ways of working and share the school’s ambitions, future plans and ultimate goals with the whole school community.
Gaining the support of teachers and parents is a key focus during this process as, quite naturally, there can sometimes be a sense of apprehension and uncertainty when things change.
As a trust, our aim is to make sure everyone feels included and empowered by these changes. Before we consent to an academy joining our family, we communicate our values – PEACE, which stands for Passion, Encouraging, Ambition, Commitment and Enjoyment. These are the key drivers of everything we do and helps establish firm ground rules from the start.
Navigation is key
Navigating the path to improvement can be tricky so we look to data to evidence what we are doing and ensure we deliver the best possible results for pupils.
Performance needs to be measured in individual academies but also across the trust, so we use our SIMS management information system for consistency. It helps us adopt a uniform approach in improvements as new academies join our trust, and allows us to spot any issues very quickly.
We carefully monitor student attendance and performance, and address any behaviour or safety issues that are highlighted in the data. Academy leaders and teachers have access to the same detailed attainment information about their students as we do. This ensures that issues are easily identified, interventions are swift and every child progresses as they should.
Outside the school gates
We’ve found that our approach of ‘no excuses, working together’ puts us in control of behaviour and attendance. Once that is moving in the right direction, achievement follows suit. The proof is that, in all post-academisation inspections, all our academies have been graded as good schools, bar one, which was graded as outstanding.
When St Nathaniel’s Academy was last inspected by Ofsted, it had moved from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good with many outstanding features’.
Its journey highlights the full and on-going commitment our trust has to raising standards. There is still a lot of work to do but, with the support of well-run MATS, many more struggling schools can benefit from positive transformation.
Chris Brislen is chief executive officer of St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust and as a National Leader of Education (NLE) he has led several academies to an improved future. St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust chose SIMS to manage their school data. www.capita-sims.co.uk/StBarts2
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