Strengthening schools by joining forces [interview]

Peter Rubery

Peter Rubery has 23 years’ experience of successful school leadership in two different contexts, first in Telford and latterly as executive principal/CEO of The Fallibroome Multi-Academy Trust in Macclesfield. His school has achieved three consecutive Outstanding judgements, and achieved Teaching School status in 2011. In 2014, Peter established a Multi-Academy Trust, which now has an impressive record of school improvement in challenging circumstances. Peter is a recent member of the Headteacher Board advising the West Midlands regional schools’ commissioner.

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Images credit: Nether Alderley Primary School, Fallibroome Academy and Gawsworth Primary School. Images credit: Nether Alderley Primary School, Fallibroome Academy and Gawsworth Primary School.

How best to go about creating the ideal school group? Peter Rubery is the executive principal/CEO of The Fallibroome Multi-Academy Trust in Macclesfield, Cheshire. We spoke with Peter to find out exactly how education can thrive through an MAT.

Tell us about how the Fallibroome Trust was formed.

Fallibroome Trust was established 2014. At that point, Fallibroome Academy had been on a journey from a grant maintained school, to college of performing arts, to training school, to one of the first standalone academies and teaching school. Since I joined in 2002 we’ve had three Outstanding inspections and have become a national support school (NSS), so we’ve enjoyed a strong, varied history.

It came to the point where it was a natural evolution for us to establish a multi-academy trust (MAT), for two main reasons. One, we were keen to contribute to the system leadership model, where we could help support schools in challenging circumstances. And secondly, to be blunt, “We were keen to help support schools in challenging circumstances.”because there were incentives that would help us to improve teaching and learning. That combination of moral purpose and marketplace opportunity led to the proposal for us to become a MAT. It was a bold move from the governors because the school was very stable and successful, and this was a new challenge to take on, but we felt that it was the right thing to do!

With this in mind, we established the Trust with one other Secondary academy and two Primary schools - both of these were in our family of Primary schools.

Nether Alderley Primary was a very stable, strong school with a ‘good’ Ofsted judgement, but was a small country school. They wanted to become an academy, just not on their own - they wanted to feel part of a secure organisation. The other Primary school, Broken Cross Primary, had fallen into some difficulties, with two ‘Requires Improvement’ judgements, loss of parental confidence, standards below floor targets, and so on. However, their pupils progressed to Fallibroome, so it was a decision driven by moral purpose for us to help to develop one of our partner schools to and respond to the DfE’s invitation to sponsor a school in difficulty.

The other school to join on incorporation was The Winsford Academy. As a town, Winsford used to have two schools - but both had declined in terms of performance and reputation. There had been a federation and a closure to create a new Academy but Winsford had seen a ‘middle-class flight’ out of the town, with parents taking their children to neighbouring schools rather than committing to the local option. In 2013, The Winsford Academy opened on the site where one of its predecessors had been, with a brand-new building under the auspices of the E-ACT multi-academy trust. However, when the DfE came to us it was a result of them removing E-ACT of 10 of their schools nationally. This was our second sponsorship opportunity, with high challenge following a sequence of special measures, RI and RI judgements, falling roles, budget problems, poor outcomes, lack of parental confidence in the community, and so on. It was clearly going to be a risk, but we could see that the staff were committed to the school, and we felt that we could help them recover.

So how did you go about raising standards throughout the MAT?

Through the next two and a half years we restructured both of the struggling schools and the governing bodies, changed the leadership, recovered the budget position and invested in both teaching and learning and peer support. All of this hard work paid off with the ensuing Ofsted inspections; in 2016 Winsford received a ‘good’ inspection judgement, with a strong report commending the strength of the Trust and the quality of the recovery. Amanda Harrison [now the Academy’s principal] hadn’t been appointed by that point - she joined a month or two later - but she was present at the inspection in an observer capacity and was therefore in a good position to build on the recommendations.

At the start of 2017, Broken Cross Primary Academy enjoyed four out of five ‘Good’ judgements in their Ofsted inspection: teaching and learning, leadership management, EYFS and behaviour. These were very strong Goods, too, with words like “exemplary” used! However, because of the lag of the school’s legacy, the Year 6 outcomes were poor. We just hadn’t had the time to improve that area of teaching and learning. We put up a very strong case for predicted outcomes, but I couldn’t convince the inspector - she just wouldn’t step outside the framework. Therefore, the school is still currently judged as ‘Requires Improvement’, despite the four strong Goods. This is obviously very frustrating, but that’s the system. However, our predictions for the school’s recovery have been confirmed this past summer by the school’s results. Maths, for instance, was in the top 5% of schools throughout the country. For writing, the scores were in the top 25% in the country - it was a similar story for reading. So they’re terrific results, and when the league tables are published, I believe that Broken Cross Primary Academy will be judged as one of the most improved schools in the country.

In light of this, we’re now having a debate with the governors as to whether or not we ought to bring Ofsted back and say “Look, everything else is still good, and we fixed what needed fixing, so can you revise your judgement?” But of course, it’s not easy to do that, so this needs real discussion.

With two challenging schools being supported to recover, we’ve proved that the model works. The MAT is well established, and our reputation for school improvement makes us attractive to others. As such, two more schools have joined us last year - one of which is a feeder school for Fallibroome, “All of this hard work paid off with the ensuing Ofsted inspections.”another is a school who saw the value of the Trust and really wanted to get involved. Finally, at the very end of last year, a school from Macclesfield joined us as well. So we’re now up to seven schools - Fallibroome, Winsford and five Primaries: Broken Cross, Nether Alderley, Gawsworth, Adlington and Whirley - and there’s already another in the pipeline!

What would you say are the values of the Fallibroome Trust? How have they enabled collaboration and positive results?

Our core values are trust, respect and optimism, and everything we do is built on a shared belief in the concept of a ‘Whole Education’. We’re a partner school for the Whole Education organisation, and believe that education is first-and-foremost about preparing children for the future. We want all of our schools to be the school of choice for the local community, for the Trust to be the employer of choice for the best professionals, and for each school to all be a place of excellence. Each of our schools bring something to the table and contributes expertise to the school improvement agenda.

You recently ran a conference for the Trust. What were your goals here?

The conference was organised with two main purposes in mind: firstly, we were keen to test our operation against the principles and characteristics of high-performing organisations; comparisons looked at aspects such as culture, opportunities for CPD, results and so on in order to build on our own best practice. Secondly, we wanted to explore what we mean when we talk about the ‘spirit of collaboration’, and strengthen colleagues commitment to the principle of working together.

How does the Fallibroome Trust team embrace collaboration?

We’ve set up a peer-support model of school improvement within the MAT, so essentially the Trust is built on three pillars. Firstly, there’s the headteachers’ executive group; they handle areas such as strategy and performance. Secondly, you have the business team; their expertise covers “We matched heads of department and middle leaders with their peers.”the needs of the headteachers by taking care of HR, IT, finance, site management and so on. Finally, there’s the school improvement arm of the Trust, which has been built largely on peer-to-peer support but will evolve in the next phase of growth to include dedicated lead practitioner posts.

As an example, we bring Primary school colleagues together for a series of lesson study and peer-support programmes. We’ve done that in Maths, mobile learning, assessment for learning, EYFS, writing in Years 3 and 6… There’s a Year 3 writing session taking place this afternoon where we’ve got Primary and Secondary colleagues in the same room, looking at strategies to improve writing across Year 6 and Year 7.

On the Secondary side of things, we’ve identified departments where improvement was needed. This was particularly the case with Winsford Academy early on. Here, we matched heads of department and middle leaders with their peers at the Fallibroome Academy. This support and training helped the staff at Winsford to generate improvements. It’s now a partnership of equals as Winsford is a ‘good’ school, and they bring contextual expertise to the table. We have scheduled meetings where peers meet and shape the improvement agenda, share resources, run peer reviews and so on. This is a model that’s served us very well.

It isn’t just staff working with staff; pupils are working with their peers across the Trust, too. For instance, during the Shakespeare Festival just last week students from Winsford Academy and Fallibroome Academy came together to enjoy workshops, perform on the same stage, and so on. This has been terrific for the students and generated a sense of belonging to something quite special. Our next stage of development will include improvements to marketing and ensuring our vision and values align the Teaching School agenda with the MAT agenda. This will support our drive to recruit, train and deploy the best professionals and strengthen our leadership pathways.

The final piece in the jigsaw is governance. We retain local governing bodies in order to create a sense of autonomy, but an annual governors’ conference ensures that we are aligned in terms of vision and values, and that we are working towards standardisation of policies and reporting mechanisms.

The Trust model is still evolving, and we’re keen to join networks that will allow us to benchmark practice and learn from others with more experience. The system has finally woken up to the training needs of CEOs, who have made the step from headteacher to a very different role - a good head will not necessarily make a good CEO. The fundamental question is always “Are our children getting a better deal than they would have in a standalone school?” We think we have enough evidence to say yes, and welcome external verification and advice.

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