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Annabel Kay: "Teachers come together to ensure we are all marking and assessing in the same way and to the same standard"

MAT mythbusting

Annabel Kay makes the case for how multi-academy trusts can support small, rural primary schools

Posted by Stephanie Broad | May 23, 2016 | People, policy, politics

In recent weeks, the perceived inability of multi-academy trusts (MATs) to meet the needs of small rural primary schools has received much national press coverage. I have found myself shouting at the radio on my way to work more times than is good for my blood pressure, so I want to set the record straight.

Background

The Warriner MAT came into being on 1 August 2015 and consists of one large secondary school (The Warriner School) and three small rural primary schools, the largest of which has 110 students and the smallest of which has 85, all of which are located in North Oxfordshire. The secondary school has 1,230 students on role and has a rural catchment of nine feeder primary schools, the majority of which are half a form of entry.

Our vision

The vision for the MAT came about three years ago at one of our partnership meetings between me and the heads of our feeder primary schools. One headteacher arrived late announcing that he had been unblocking the boys’ toilets, to which the other heads nodded in agreement. Until that point it had not occurred to me that my colleagues were regularly being diverted from our core business to undertake tasks such as gritting the site, testing temperatures in hot water taps, fixing leaks and cutting the grass.

At that time, Oxfordshire County Council had decreed that all their secondary schools should convert to academies, so it became clear to me that there was a real opportunity to create a MAT in which the secondary school could take on many of these important routine tasks to free up the heads to focus on teaching and learning. Because all but two of the primary schools are Church of England schools, it took three years of protracted negotiation to get to a point where the diocese was able to allow their schools to join the MAT should they choose to.

So what?

The MAT has three key functions.

Central services: Payroll, invoicing, budgeting, bulk purchasing, contract negotiations, recruitment administration, policies, caretaker/facilities management and HR are all undertaken centrally, to remove this burden from Headteachers and their staff. For example, a leaking roof was fixed within 24 hours, which saved the headteacher from having to write an emergency report, obtain quotes and supervise the works.  In the first six months of operation we have generated over five per cent savings across central contracts and services. This is money that can be ploughed back into our schools to benefit our pupils. 

Most small schools are not able to employ their own specialist support, for example, a SENCo. In our MAT, our schools share that resource, which gives our pupils access to high quality, specialist support that they would not otherwise have had 

Governance and leadership: Whilst authority for the running of our schools still resides with the local governing bodies, the MAT provides additional advice and guidance enabling school leaders and governors to focus more of their time upon the quality of teaching and learning and the progress being made by their students. 

School improvement: This is the key function of the MAT. Teachers in all our schools (primary and secondary) visit and learn from each other to improve the quality of teaching for all pupils, which is particularly important in small schools where there is only one teacher of each year group. Our staff are now able to jointly plan lessons, thus reducing their workload and greatly increasing their creativity. Teachers come together to ensure we are all marking and assessing in the same way and to the same standard. This not only ensures that pupils from different schools are marked fairly and assessed accurately; it also ensures that there is a smooth transition to the secondary school system.

Most small schools are not able to employ their own specialist support, for example, a SENCo. In our MAT, our schools share that resource, which gives our pupils access to high quality, specialist support that they would not otherwise have had. We coordinate project and topic work. This means our pupils have an opportunity to work with other students from outside of their own school and further develop their teamwork and collaboration skills. This enriches their learning experience.

We headteachers meet fortnightly to jointly plan our responses to the challenges being faced by our schools both locally and nationally, share best practice, review data, support each other and set strategies for school improvement. 

In summary 

MATs such as ours provide a vast array of benefits for small rural schools that address the following key issues:

  • Isolation – rural primary schools can be geographically isolated and joining a MAT mitigates for this through groups of similar schools working closely together. 
  • Rapid change – there is so much change that it can be too much for headteachers to do alone so working as part of a MAT enables headteachers to work closely together to minimise this workload.
  • Financial pressures – economies of scale ease the pressure on an individual school’s budget. 
  • Recruitment pressures - being part of a MAT helps headteachers attract new staff and retain existing staff as there are more training, CPD, career and leadership opportunities. 

I very firmly believe that where possible, rural secondary schools have a duty to support their small feeder primary schools and our experiences to date show that the relationships that we have formed and the speed at which we can bring about school improvement is mutually beneficial to all of us. 

Annabel Kay is Headteacher of The Warriner School

www.thewarrinerschool.co.uk

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