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Partner Story: Kevin Riley, Bretforton Village School

Kevin Riley, Headteacher at Bretforton Village School, spoke to us about his experience of the Quality Assurance Review, both as a reviewer of Victoria Primary Academy, and as a host for his own school’s review.

Bretforton Village School is located in Worcestershire and is part of our West Shires Hub, having been with Challenge Partners since 2018.

Tell us about yourself,  your school, and its context

I'm Head of School at Bretforton Village School, which is a very small school in the Cotswolds. We're just on the outskirts of Evesham. We have 65 children on roll at the moment, which I think makes us one of the smallest schools in the Challenge Partners network. We’re organised into a reception and year one class, year two and three – which I'm also a teacher of – and year four to five. We've had quite a journey of improvement, the Ofsted 2016 and then the HMI of 2017 were particularly challenging, but that was before I arrived. Challenge Partners have very much been part of our journey of improvement in the years since then and we achieved Good in Ofsted in 2022. So things are very positive and the numbers are well up. We were down to 47 children in 2018 and we're now at 65, projecting at least 70 come September.

When did you first hear about Challenge Partners, and why did you join?

The school became part of  a very small multi-academy trust,  Bengeworth MAT. Bengeworth had been involved in Challenge Partners for quite a long time. One of the previous head teachers was Julie Bourdon-Pierre who is one of the major players in Challenge Partners. My executive head teacher, David Coache was involved in Challenge Partners as well and he was very keen on Bretforton getting involved, even though there was a financial cost he felt that it would be extremely powerful for us to have the Quality Assurance Review process happening. Also, from my point of view as a new head of school to have the CPD that Challenge Partners offered. It was a combination of the dual strength of the CPD and the school improvement model that the QAR offers that attracted us. We first joined in 2018 and never looked back. I've recommended it to other schools. I think in small schools it can be tricky because it can be expensive, but equally you can't put a value on it because it's such valuable CPD.

You recently reviewed Victoria Primary Academy, what is their context? 

It was a very different school, but to be honest, because of the nature of my school, every school that I've been to on a QAR has been very different to my own. It was urban and it was considerably larger than Bretforton. They were, I think, one form entry on a large site. They've been through quite a journey of improvement themselves. They've got almost an entirely new senior leadership team who were very keen to use the QAR to make sure that the decisions that they take were steering the school in the right direction. 

What was your experience of the Quality Assurance Review and how it was led?

We had a fantastic Lead Reviewer who set the tone for the review right from the start, that it was going to be done with and not done to, so it's not like the Ofsted model. She set out protocols and the expectations on both sides for the reviewers and for the senior leadership team involved. The timetable had been arranged during the pre-review assessment so that meant that we were seeing a really good overview of the school, but with a particular focus on the subject areas that the school itself wanted. So, because they have relatively new subject leads, they wanted to make sure that subject leads were focused on those key points that would help the school to really improve. This made it much easier because we had a very laser-sharp focus on what we were going to look at, it wasn't just a scatter fire of hoping for the best. I've said before, to other colleagues, the big advantage of the QAR is bringing someone in with fresh eyes and with no preconceptions. That's the strength of Challenge Partners really, coming from a different area. When you don't really know anything about the school you do see things that the school doesn't always see because they can sometimes be introspective. I think we all are teachers and school leaders, but it gives that very strong insight that, yes, you're really working hard on this and I can really see the impact. 

It provides the focus to think about this area – either you're missing a trick because you're doing really well on this or it’s not really having the impact that you're hoping for and you might need to look at that in a different way. It's all about those deep professional conversations that make sure that everybody gets something from it. It is a two way process. You know, from my point of view, I've managed to bring something back even from schools in totally different contexts, which I've managed to use in my own school. Be it an assessment model, a technique in the classroom, the structure of some of their school improvement planning, I have always managed to bring something back and I think that's the big bonus of the QAR process.

What has been the impact on your professional development since going out to review other schools? 

I've actually gone out on review to six QARs now. As we're just a small school, we have our own review every two years because we paid the ‘small school offer’ subscription, but I go out and I do a review every year. I look forward to it every time. I deliberately try to go as far afield as I can so that I can see something really different because I think the danger if you're tied only to your local authority and to schools in the nearby area – and particularly schools that have a similar context – you really don't get to see everything else that's going on out there. There is fantastic practice going on all over the country, but in isolated bubbles. So my experience is very much to go out there, see what's going on somewhere else and bring it back. Every school I've been to has been different. They've all been larger, because like I say, there are very few  schools as small as mine. I think that's an interesting culture shock for some people when they come into my school. You know, they're coming from a large London three form entry primary school and then you've come to us where we're a tiny first school and we don't even have year six. In terms of assessment this means that the way that we assess the children is completely different to the primary model, because our children go into middle school and they do their Key Stage Two SATs in the middle school. It's good to share the things that are different. 

The whole point is, it shows how different everybody is, but how similar we are, everyone's got the same values within the organisation, we're in it because we want to make education and schools and ourselves better. And I think that that's the key within the QAR process. I've always found that it's invigorated me, and given me that new drive to think yes, I haven't thought about that, I need to take that back to school. Or, I can see what they're trying to do there, it's not going to work for me but if I change this or I do it this way, I can actually make it work for my staff in a way that's not going to mean massive upheaval. It will allow the evolutionary change of school improvement to really move forward. That's the real strength of it. It's also on a very basic level, improved my ability when talking to colleagues on various levels, be it senior leadership, teachers, teaching assistants, sometimes midday supervisors and cleaners when you just try to find out a bit more information about what the school is really good at. It helps you to really fine tune your communication skills so that you can get information but without doing it in an interrogative and really forced way, it actually makes things much more straightforward. It's just a shame Ofsted don't take the same approach.

Was there anything in the Victoria Primary QAR visit that worked particularly well?

I'd raised a point about having a conversation with middle leaders because in one of the previous reviews, I felt that I underperformed and hadn't really got to the heart of what was going on with some of the middle leaders' attitudes. I wanted to have a second bite of the cherry so that I could almost rerun on that with different leaders. I wanted to see that, if handled differently, I was more likely to get the sort of answers that I needed. To make sure that it was really a two-way process rather than the middle leaders being talked at and not really getting to the point of the questions that I really needed answering so I could tie down ‘do they know what they're doing?’. And they did. They spoke really well. They were able to articulate their vision for their subjects. I felt I handled it better and as a result I got better responses from them that were more useful to the school.

Have there been any elements of best practice that you or your team have taken from reviewed schools, and implemented in your own school?

Yes, the biggest one was at least three reviews ago now. One of the schools had changed the way that it was doing its success criteria. They had done it in a hierarchical way so that the skills that would be needed in order to access the lesson were laid out in advance. We felt at Bretforton it was a bit too regimented for our model and also, because we don't work in teams, we don't have three people working on the same planning, everyone has to do their own. We needed to simplify it so that we could make the model work better for a small school. As a result of that, it helped staff to identify the key things that needed to be known or the attitudes that needed to be shown by the end of the session, and it broke it down in a much more structured way. As it was hierarchical, it showed that if they can do that they might be able to do this and hopefully they will be able to do that - you can actually see different levels of understanding for different children. 

Can you talk us through your most recent experience hosting a QAR at Bretforton Village School? 

The Lead Reviewer was absolutely fantastic. On the one hand, we were unlucky because we lost one reviewer, but as a result, we ended up with one of the replacement reviewers who ordinarily is a lead reviewer. So, we had a very experienced team that really understood how Challenge Partners worked and how to get the best out of people. The experience with the staff was extremely positive. One member of staff had had quite a negative experience on a previous review, and was quite hesitant to get engaged with the process this time. And she came into my office to speak to the review team towards the end of the review to just say thank you for the professionalism and courtesy. The mutual professional respect was so good but again, it was about the ground rules. They were all laid out perfectly in the first instance so everybody knew where they stood. They met up with staff at the start of the review on the morning after they'd done the Pre-review Assessment which set the tone perfectly. Everybody knew that we are all in this together and we all want the same thing – we want the school to come out a better place at the end of it. It was sold very, very well to the staff, and therefore we had perfect buy in. We also felt lucky with a third reviewer, she was relatively inexperienced and had only done one QAR before but her questioning was exactly what we needed. She spoke to the staff in a really supportive and collaborative way. Again, it reinforced this idea of done with and not done to.

Could you tell us what you value from your involvement with West Shires Hub?

One of the big projects that we were doing over the last year or so was called ‘Exceptional Lunchtimes’. The schools in the hub had all identified that lunchtimes were a particular pinch point in terms of student behaviour and we felt we were all doing different things in different ways. So what we did as a hub, was a circuit of visits where people would go and visit the other schools in the hub and take children with them. We took our eco team and we went to two of the other hub schools so that they could see what they did that made their lunch times really good. Other schools came to us, it was one of those where you don't always see the things that you're doing well, you need someone from the outside to come in and say ‘that works really well’. It makes you think, yes it is but we hadn't really seen that we just took that one for granted! It gives you that second pair of eyes, bringing the children in also improved the level of pupil voice and gave them an understanding of how they could be more involved in the development of the school. They've actually drawn up their own action plan of things that we're doing here and we're part way through that now. The issue we have with lunchtimes is the rotation of staff. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to hold on to midday supervisors, but now we've got a better system in place. At the point of induction we can talk them through what's important, what makes lunch times better and what gives the children a better experience at lunchtime. That all came about because of a Challenge Partners’ hub project. It's ongoing, because like everything else, you never entirely solve the problem. It's always something that you need to work further on. 

The relationships with the other schools in the hub have always been very solid. We obviously have a particularly close relationship with Bengeworth and we’re very well led by Kirsty the hub manager. We also have fairly regular meetings. It's always there in the back of my mind that there are projects going on that we can get involved with on a national level.

Do you access the National Network of Excellence, such as National Network Conferences or Sharing Leading Practice events?

It's great to go along to the conferences especially when they’re in person. Online ones I've always found a little bit more difficult as something always comes along in school that gets in the way of you fully focusing. So the in-person opportunity to network with people has been really good. The side benefit is there's been a few occasions where I've been to the London conference and met up with reviewers from schools that I've worked with before and you get a chance to touch base and say how are things going? How did that work out? Did you manage to do anything about that particular problem? It's great to keep in touch.

Some of the guest speakers at the NNCs have been absolutely inspirational. One year we had Tanni Grey-Thompson, the kind of speaker that you wouldn't ordinarily see at an education event because they're working in a completely different field. Actually, what she talks about in terms of motivation, in terms of perseverance, in terms of personal struggle, in terms of giving you that reason for wanting to do better for other people as well, it was a really powerful speech. 

Beyond that, there are also the presentations where schools share things that they're working on. You know, sometimes on quite a soft level where they talk about a behaviour approach, sometimes something like assessment, and it gives you the chance to on the one hand see it, but also talk to other people about their experience and to learn more about things from a different area that otherwise you're only ever really going to get on a sales pitch. I think that's the big difference between the way that Challenge Partners operates compared to other organisations. It never feels like you're turning up to something so they can sell you something. There is always this feeling of you go in there to learn about something that actually might be really useful to you. I've been to other conferences organised by different organisations and when I got there it was basically lined up for sales talks all day. If I wanted that I’d just do it down the phone. Challenge Partners is run by the right people doing the right things for the right reasons and I think that's the big difference between Challenge Partners and other organisations.

Anything else that you’d like to add?

I was completely oblivious to the existence of Challenge Partners until I became involved in this school and I freely admit, initially, I was just very cynical thinking I'm not really sure what this is going to do. Or, it just sounds to me like it's gonna be some sort of local authority on a wider scale where people just come together and chat. It's not that at all. It's the relentless positivity and the relentless drive towards improving standards, and people who are genuinely passionate about education on a multitude of different levels coming together and finding ways to make schools better. That's the unique selling point, I think of Challenge Partners. Even having said that, it's not a selling point, it's actually about doing it for the kids, that's really what we're all here for.

We thank Kevin Riley for taking the time to talk to us. If you are a partner with Challenge Partners and would like to share your story, contact partnershipsteam@challengepartners.org and we would love to talk to you!