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Partner Story: Katie Oliver, Mowbray School

Katie Oliver, Deputy Headteacher of Mowbray School, talks about her experience of our Quality Assurance Review (QAR), both in reviewing other schools and hosting Mowbray School’s own reviews.

Please can you introduce yourself and your school?

I’m Deputy Head at Mowbray School, which is a specialist setting in North Yorkshire. We’ve got 309 pupils on roll spread across two sites, one with 60 young people with special needs aged from 3-11, and the main site has the rest of the pupils from 3-16. So all children who come to our school have an EHCP.

We joined Challenge Partners after a colleague had spent time in some other schools that had joined Challenge Partners, and could see how beneficial it was.

Tell us about your experience of attending Quality Assurance Reviews since joining Challenge Partners

I have been on three reviews in other settings. Two were in London, the other was in Leicestershire, and all of them were specialist settings. The London reviews were in settings similar to mine, so I could not only offer knowledge and ideas, but equally I was able to take good practice and ideas around developing strategies for curriculum and pastoral practice back to my school. It was a really positive experience for me.

The school in Leicester was a slightly different cohort to Mowbray School. We have severe learning difficulties (SLD), moderate learning difficulties (MLD) and a high percentage of our young people have autism. The school in Leicester was predominantly children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) which is different. That was really interesting in that I gained knowledge about the approaches and interventions that could be used, and I was still able to give ideas about curriculum knowledge. I was able to bring ideas back to my own schools to adapt for our lower learners to best meet their needs.

We completely revised the way that we did learning explorations in our school, down to the format of filling in a Challenge Partners review form before formal lesson explorations. We have also taken the elements of WWWs/EBIs into most practice into the school, even taken to the level of young people. If things aren’t working well, we think about what is working well for that young person and what the ‘even better if’ would be. So our language and approaches have changes because of the way Challenge Partners approaches its reviews.

What was the impact on your leadership development when going out to review other schools?

It has definitely raised my confidence in being able to speak up and put forward ideas. It has also enabled me to think about how you can create challenge without it being something negative or confrontational. The Lead Reviewers have constantly supported me and my development through the three reviews by challenging my thinking and thought processes, supporting me to further think about different ways in which I can develop my next steps for the future. 

Have there been any activities that have worked particularly well in the reviews you’ve attended?

The collaborative learning walks – where you as a reviewer are going in with a fresh pair of eyes with a member of the school that you are reviewing – is a really valuable process for reviewer and the reviewee. You both come at something from completely opposite viewpoints. The reviewee has a real background of knowledge of the children and staffing, whereas you are going in with fresh eyes to compose questions and seek information to clarify the quality of education within those classrooms.

The collaborative nature of the review from start to finish makes the experience very sociable and friendly, putting everybody at ease. At all three reviews the schools have commented that they have enjoyed the experience. It has been such a challenging experience but equally the review has been done in a way that prevents any stress or worry, or any kind of confrontation.

What was  your experience of hosting Mowbray School’s Quality Assurance Reviews?

I have been involved in three QARs at Mowbray School, and each one has been a pleasure. It has not been confrontational, it has been a really worthwhile experience to be able to review the provision within our school. The Lead Reviewer has always introduced themselves and held a meeting prior to coming in.

As a result of our last QAR, we were starting on a journey of a full curriculum review. We recognised, identified by the review, where gaps were and what the next steps were for us to move forward with the curriculum review. It pinpointed, within the different areas of the curriculum, what short-term and long-term actions needed to happen to make sure everything was embedded and succinct so that we could fully establish the curriculum that we wanted.

I can’t emphasise enough how great the Quality Assurance Reviews are. It is done in such a friendly and supportive way and it is beneficial for all involved.

Mowbray School is a member of Challenge Partners’ North East Special Hub, and you are now the Hub Manager. What has been your experience of the hub?

It has been beneficial to a lot of lead teachers that have worked collaboratively in workgroups across the hub. We had a literacy working party established across all of the schools and examined what the literacy and phonics provision would look like. We also introduced an EHCP working party to get best practice across all schools within the hub. At every level, from leaders working collaboratively at hub meetings, to subject leads working collaboratively in their areas, we have friendly faces to call on based on our different areas, to gain ideas from other schools, or simply talk through with somebody and bounce ideas off them. It can act as a phone-a-friend!

Having taken on the role of Hub Manager I have had support at every level from the Challenge Partners team, and I have a Hub Mentor who met with me and went through what the role encompasses.

I also attended the March 2024 conference with keynote speaker Sam Freedman, which was very interesting and an easy way of accessing direct information in a succinct way. I look forward to attending future events!

We thank Katie Oliver 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!