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Partner Story: Claire Binns, Frederick Bremer School

Claire Binns, Assistant Headteacher at Frederick Bremer School, spoke to us about her experience of the Quality Assurance Review (QAR), both as a reviewer of  Southgate School, and as a host for her own school’s review.

Frederick Bremer School is located in Waltham Forest and is part of our East London Hub. The school re-joined Challenge Partners in 2023, having previously been with us from 2015 to 2018. 

Tell us about  yourself, your school, and its context 

As Assistant Headteacher, I lead on teaching and learning and the implementation of the curriculum and staff development. I've been here for 10 years – I was the SENCo, and now I've moved over to teaching and learning. We re-joined Challenge Partners this year, although we were involved a long time ago. I first heard about Challenge Partners seven or eight years ago when I was the SENCo. We previously had an Area of Excellence which was SEN practice.

We're in East London, with 900 pupils. So quite small, no sixth form. We're very diverse. We have a resource provision for autism so we have lots of pupils with special needs. We're nearly 10% EHCP now, and we're a magnet school for SEN in the area. It's a very quirky school and we foster our pupils’ individuality. Our school motto is ‘Be The Best You Can Be’. We embrace that in all its forms and assume that everyone's going to be different and everyone's got their own unique strengths.

You recently reviewed Southgate School in Enfield. What is their context?

Southgate is on the outskirts of London. Probably a bit less disadvantaged area than my school, but again, any London school is going to be challenging and it's going to have a diverse intake. They had more pupils with high prior attainment, for example. It felt like a really different environment – they were much larger and had a sixth form, but similar enough to Frederick Bremer to be able to make those connections between your own setting and a different setting, and make comparisons.

As a new school to Challenge Partners, the review was more collegiate than they were expecting. So the first afternoon when we analysed all the documentation, it highlighted their areas for development, whereas we, as a review team, unpicked what was really good about the school. It made me realise that as schools, we are sometimes not very good at recognising what is good about our school because we always see the weaknesses.

What was your experience of the QAR and how it was led?

I'm assuming Bernard Senier, the Lead Reviewer, is a legend in the organisation as he's so experienced! He has reviewed Frederick Bremer School and some of our colleague’s schools. Working with Bernard on the review at Southgate School, a few weeks before he led a review at Frederick Bremer, was a wonderful experience. If you feel a little bit nervous that you've never reviewed a school before, the Lead Reviewer guides you through it. And it's really good that you get that time on that first afternoon. You're not only learning about the school, but you're learning about the process. So, there's two things going on the whole time, which is why it's such good CPD.

The Lead Reviewer taught us what the expectations were about how we were going to conduct it and what we were going to do. He then taught us how to look at another school, starting off with the documentation and pulling out, quickly and accurately, their themes and making a hypothesis. That first afternoon was really good to get to know each other to understand the expectations, as well as to build that rapport as a team – including both the review team and the other school. It makes everyone feel really safe and secure and it sets the expectation to be a critical friend. And, making it clear that we weren't Ofsted.

Most schools, I imagine, will know what their weaknesses are and their areas for development. When you go to another school, you can see their policy and their practice, but you review where it's perhaps not implemented as effectively as it could be, and our Lead Reviewer ensured that we were doing it in a positive way.

What has been the impact on your CPD as a reviewer?

It has given me confidence to know that what we're doing is the right thing, and that we actually don't need to change things massively. We just need to focus on really ensuring that what we're doing is implemented properly and across the school. And I think when you get the opportunity to go to a school – which I think everyone should do – you can really see where things are and aren't implemented as effectively as possible. Then you can come back to school and think ‘where could an observer see outstanding practice delivered, and where could they see where it's not implemented effectively?’

I think as an outside observer it's really easy to see that, and sometimes when you're too close to what you practise every day, you just need to step away a little bit. The opportunity to review other schools allows you that stepping-away time, and working with other people gives you that fresh set of eyes, but also rigour. You want to go back to your school and you want to change things because you see practice that is really good in other schools and you consider how we could do that. It is inspiring.

Are there elements of best practice that you took from reviewing Southgate School to implement in your own school?

There was a lot! They were really good with their middle leaders and their self-directed quality assurance. In doing so there was a lot of trust in the middle leaders. And I think that's something that we do at Frederick Bremer School where middle leaders undertake their own QA every half-term. But we applied an extra element of bringing it back to senior leadership to have that extra layer of accountability, and to have a mechanism whereby you can make sure that it's happening effectively. In addition, we now quality assure across departments. So instead of departments just measuring themselves and coming up with their own strategies, we now encourage cross-department QA. For example, we might put PE and maths together, just so there's that extra layer of rigour in the system.

What was your experience of receiving a QAR at Frederick Bremer School?

I worked closely with our Deputy Headteacher on putting together the programme. This included the visiting review team being in observations, as well as meeting with middle leaders, the pastoral team and heads of department. They looked at our literacy strategy and enrichment strategy. They talked to the teaching and learning team. It was really good, and very well received by staff who were totally on board with it. We’re lucky that we've got to a point now where staff are really open to having people in.

Everything was done positively and there were clear areas for development. We got positive feedback from the review team about the warmth in the school and the relational approach to our behaviour: We're a trauma informed school because we've got so many SEND pupils. In terms of development, they highlighted the fact that our marking and feedback policy wasn't consistently applied across all subjects, which we’ve since developed. The design of what we were doing is good, but it's the implementation of it in terms of consistency. Similarly, we've got excellent enrichment, but we have an issue with the equality and equity of who's signing up for it. So it was just reinforcing for us to strengthen our current practice, while giving us that extra impetus to change things, to tighten things up and to make our systems more effective in terms of implementation.

We thank Claire Binns for taking the time to talk to us. If you are a partner with Challenge Partners and would like to share your story, contact and we would love to talk to you!