2016-2017 was certainly the strangest year in the life of our young multi-academy trust.
Having grown from a single academy in 2012 to 5 academy schools with a free school in pre-opening by the end of 2015-2016, our stock seemed to be reasonably high at that time. With only converters joining us, it was unlikely that we would show some of the meteoric improvements that Multi-academy Trusts (MATs) with sponsor projects (which usually joined them as weak or failing schools) can sometimes boast. Yet, although we were not pulling up any trees, phrases like, ‘well-performing small MAT’ were regularly used to describe us among peers and in official circles.
Then came the end of year assessments in 2016 – the first set of data for ‘life after levels’ assessing performance on the new national curriculum introduced in 2014. It was difficult to set expectations in such an unknown climate and yet we were satisfied enough that in Key Stage 2 Maths, Reading and GPS the Trust’s average scores were at or within 1% of national averages.
Controversially, it was teacher-assessed writing that took a crash in the data from across our MAT which was mirrored, albeit not so sharply as with us, across West Sussex. This in turn hit our combined Reading, Writing and Maths (RWM) which we were rather shocked and horrified to see ended up 13% behind national. This compared to our average RWM being 1% above national averages in 2015.
The DfE took some time to time to absorb this and in fact issued us with very ambitious MAT growth targets in late July 2016. However the mood changed over the coming months and we experienced ‘visits’ on two occasions either side of Christmas which felt very much like inspections. These visits in turn lead to a volte-face from the Department that meant we were temporarily put in sight of the ‘naughty step’. The results were that a long-planned conversion was put on the rocks and not approved and another was also delayed which caused a lot of wasted time and upset. Regardless of the impact on us, this has certainly set back the cause of academisation for a number of schools in our county for a few years.
As for Schoolsworks, it was hard not to feel a little humiliated and somewhat aggrieved at both of these decisions – especially with the rather clumsy communications around them. As noted, the writing data is controversial nationally, and such a punitive response seemed to be disproportionate.
But in such trying circumstances, there are opportunities to test one’s mettle. We turned our focus immediately away from seeking converter growth in the short term and geared maximum effort to improving the data in 2017 and beyond. My personal work plan shifted and I got to see every teacher in the Trust teach between February and May 2017. With senior colleagues I looked through all the books of Year 6 children who were deemed by the schools to be ‘not expected’ in writing to confirm or challenge those judgements.
Our strategic plan to grow steadily and manage our finances shrewdly, slowly building a school improvement resource, were moved to the back burner. We convinced our Board of the need to dig into reserves to second a lead literacy teacher to the Trust’s central team to focus on rapidly improving the teaching of writing where it is most needed. We spoke with Heads about the need to raise expectations and the only way to see the Trust repair its reputation was to focus on improving data. Subsequently, we have also used reserves to invest in action plans to boost improvements in our lower-performing schools.
Happily, results followed. The 2017 data showed a bounce, with our average RWM hitting national again. Even more encouragingly for the two schools we have been looking after longest (Rustington and Edward Bryant) the RWM is 10% above national.
So how to summarise all that? What are our feelings in retrospect? Well, first of all, it shows how closely academies in general and MATs in particular are held tightly to account for their results by the RSC’s office. Comparing this to local authorities’ interactions with schools is to compare different universes.
Second, to quote the philosopher Nietzsche, ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’. Whether or not the opprobrium that our 2016 data attracted was justified, it has galvanized us to improve and to ensure that we can make the case for Schoolsworks being seen incontrovertibly as a good haven for like-minded schools that are looking for a secure home.
Finally, to quote the philosopher Gallagher, ‘don’t look back in anger’. The past has gone and dwelling on it may occasionally bring pleasure but often brings suffering. We have a strong foundation as a Trust to go on into the future to build excellent outcomes for our children and a rewarding place for staff to work.
That’s what we will get on with.