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Partner Story: Luke Coulson, Bearsted Primary Academy

Luke Coulson, Vice Principal at Bearsted Primary Academy, spoke to us about his experience of the Quality Assurance Review (QAR), both as a reviewer of St Osmund’s Catholic Primary School, and as a host for his own school’s review.

Bearsted Primary Academy is located in Maidstone, Kent and is part of our Leigh Hub. The school joined Challenge Partners in 2023. 

Please can you introduce your school, its context, and yourself

I'm the Vice Principal at Bearsted Primary Academy and I’ve worked here for three years. The school is relatively new - it's only in its fourth year of operation. It opened in 2020 so it was a difficult time, considering what was going on in the world. I joined in its second year as Assistant Principal, and then became the substantive Vice Principal in April of the 2021/22 academic year. Since then our school has grown steadily. We only went up to year 3 at the point I joined and we now have children up to year 5. We're built to be a two-form entry but we currently only have one year 4 and one year 5. We'll have our first year 6 cohort next year. Then, the current year 4s will become 5 next year and after that they'll be year 6. So, it's the year after that that the Academy will be full as a two-form entry school.

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

Our academy trust (Leigh Academies Trust) is already part of Challenge Partners so I first heard about it when I started working here, and we were working towards having our first Quality Assurance Review. This was within my first year of being here and we used the QAR as a good guide and marker to help us work towards our Ofsted inspection, which happened the year after. We managed to achieve Outstanding in all areas.

What is the context of St Osmund’s Catholic Primary School that you reviewed? Can you talk us through your experience as a visiting reviewer on their QAR? What worked well for you?

The school is completely different to Bearsted Primary, and the trust we’re in, because St Osmunds is part of the local authority – not part of an Academy trust, and it's a one-form entry school. Bearsted Primary is in Maidstone and St Osmund’s in Salisbury so a completely different contextual area and the families the school are serving are different in comparison. St. Osmund’s also has a religious identity, whereas we're not a faith-based school. 

This was the first review I'd been on after completing the reviewer training and the team of people that we had on the review team worked really well. The team included the Lead Reviewer who was an ex HMI, a serving primary head teacher, coming from London, and then myself as Vice Principal. There was a good breadth of experience on our review team, we were able to share our own knowledge and draw from each other's experience which helped us throughout the whole visit. The preparation before the review that took place was smooth – we had a discussion over email between the Lead Reviewer, the other reviewer, myself and the host school. From that, we were able to start to share our areas of interest or our specialism and the area which we really wanted to focus on ourselves for our own development as reviewers.

I have always been a Key Stage 2, and in particular, Upper Key Stage 2 teacher – that's where my main skill set lies. I think being able to go out to do reviews in other schools and sharing openly with your review team what you're wanting to work on and what you've currently been working on in a professional way, and to have the professional support in what you're wanting to refine without the fear of being judged is great. It’s a very supportive process. The roles that were present in the team were also positive and it created an interesting dynamic amongst the three of us as reviewers. All three of us entered the review from an unbiased perspective and it wasn't judgmental. From St. Osmund’s there were no preconceived ideas and our own experiences and leadership qualities did allow us to be objective and identify some real key relevant points for the school on their improvement journey. They chose not to have the QAR Estimate gradings and I think that was helpful for my first review. I'd like to conduct another review where the school requires those estimates, just so I could see the difference between the two, as in whether there's much more discussion that happens between the reviewers and the host school to get to the point of deciding. 

Another major strength of the review was the Lead Reviewer. She had a wealth of experience with her previous work as an HMI, but also through her work with Challenge Partners. She was able to shape and craft the review to make it as beneficial for the school and us as reviewers as possible. A considerable amount of time was spent on the first part of the first day identifying who would undertake which aspect of the review,  which was decided based on your own expression of interest. Later, from the interactions she'd had with us as reviewers, she was able to pick up on qualities or skills she'd observed to then reshape the rest of the timetable. That way the right people were doing the right activities to get the right bits out of whoever you're talking to. One example of that was, I wasn’t initially down to be doing the pupil council interview, but the Lead Reviewer said that, based on the way I’d been interacting with the pupils, she thought it would be a good idea to move me over. The Lead Reviewer thought I was better placed to be able to elicit the answers the school was going to need from the pupil council interview.

The Lead Reviewer also asked lots of questions, and had discussions with me about what I wanted to get from the experience. That made me step back as a leader to think about what I've learned: - 'what are my takeaways? How will I use that to improve my practice in my own academy?’. I think that has been a real key strength and a positive that I've taken away from the review.

I was fortunate enough to have visited a school that was really open and clear. They were remarkable in their openness and clarity, in the sense that nothing was hidden. They really were invested in their journey as a school, and in particular their journey with Challenge Partners. To work with a school that's fully committed to the process and Challenge Partners made it a lot easier because every interaction was honest. Ultimately, if you're talking about school improvement, openness and honesty is what's needed. You need to have that open, honest communication or otherwise you're not going to get a true sense of what needs to improve.

It was a pleasure to have a positive impact on a school's development that I'm not a part of and have no direct connection with. Coming from an academy trust you can potentially feel you're always working with your own schools in your own trust so it's really quite refreshing to actually experience and engage with a school that's not part of that, and – in particular – not in the same county. To be out of Kent and to have that opportunity to serve a beneficial purpose was quite remarkable.

Were there any activities in the St Osmund’s Catholic Primary School QAR visit that worked particularly well?

The pre review analysis was led well in terms of the fact finding and gathering of information. At this point, you don't have an understanding of the school or their context so it really worked well to bring us up to speed on where they were in their school’s journey. From this you can start to really understand what you're seeing and the backstory behind it. Having that information was particularly effective and beneficial.

What’s been the impact on your professional development since going out to review St Osmund’s Catholic Primary School? 

Visiting a school that’s outside of my trust was energising. We are a large academy trust and work very heavily together, to see a school in a completely different environment and location in the country does make you think differently about what you're doing. In my academy we deliver the IB and are really driven on digital innovation. The school I visited was not part of a large multi-academy trust and was faith based - and while technology played a big part in their learning and teaching it wasn't to the degree of that in my setting. It helped me to understand that a setting can be different but the people who work across these schools are still like-minded professionals. You get to change and challenge yourself as a leader to work on areas that you're less confident about. The early years have been my area of focus and development as Vice Principal and it allowed me to do exactly that. I've come back to my academy far more confident in my judgement of what I'm seeing within the early years classroom. Having the opportunity to ratify that I do know what I'm talking about and I am confident in what I'm saying was refreshing CPD for me. 

It is also great to get elements of best practice to take back to your own setting. I saw things that were happening with reading interventions in particular and have been able to bring that back, and suggest to our English lead that we adopt some of these strategies. We’d also composed a series of questions to ask subject leaders and I’ve brought them back into my own academy. This has helped my professional development in order to improve my own staff's development, giving them the CPD to be able to talk about and champion their own subject. Bringing that back and using it with my staff has been beneficial and supportive to their development and our own curriculum development as an academy.

The review also helps further strengthen in your own mind your leadership capacity that what you are doing in your own setting is the right decision for your pupils and your community. We were very different schools serving very different catchments and communities so you see things that you might think wouldn't work in my academy or my school, but I can see why it works here. It really helps you ratify in your own mind what you're doing for your children and your community. The review process doesn't only allow you to help the host school to improve, but it also helps you, as what you see or uncover makes you think about your own practice and what you're doing at your home setting.

Can you talk us through your first experience hosting a QAR? What worked well for you?

We were really fortunate again in that we had a great Lead Reviewer. She was a very experienced ex-primary headteacher, and there was no judgement. That's what I really can't stress enough, we've all been through Ofsted inspections, and you feel that pressure of having someone coming in and reviewing and inspecting what you're doing. Challenge Partners is the complete opposite of that. The whole supportive process is really like a critical friend, in the sense someone's there to hold you to account but to do it in a supportive way. Going through the QA Review process knowing how supportive it is was very powerful, it enabled me then to have a greater understanding of what we need to work on as an academy before we got to our actual Ofsted inspection.

Do you have an example of an action that you have taken as a result of hosting a QAR in your school?

A key focus area was developing confidence and notable impact as a brand new academy. Our review was two years ago and we had at that point, our current Principal, myself as the new Vice Principal, a new Assistant Principal and an early years lead who was consistent from the beginning of the academy's journey. So, it was key to think about how we were as leaders and could we identify all of our areas of impact. That was one of the real takeaways from the review. What they'd uncovered really helped us to actually see how far down the journey we were. Working at a brand new school, you can almost, at times, not realise how much you've achieved and not recognise how much of an impact you've had on something because you're building everything from scratch, such as the foundations of the curriculum and systems/routines. 

It is easy to lose focus of what you have achieved because you've still got so much left to do. The review process enabled us as a leadership team to sharpen and refine, to realise what we've achieved – and the impact we've already had – to help us pave the way to move forward.

We thank Luke Coulson 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!