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Partner Story: Nether Hall School - Sarah Naylor

Sarah Naylor, Headteacher of Nether Hall School, spoke to us about the school’s experience of partnership with Challenge Partners, including the Extending Leading Practice programme as well as the Quality Assurance Review and local Hub collaboration with Ash Field Hub.

Located in Leicester, East Midlands, Nether Hall School is a special school for 133 pupils from 4-19 years who have a range of needs including speech and communication difficulties. The school has been partnered with Challenge Partners since 2014.

When did you hear about Challenge Partners, and why have you chosen to partner with us?

Prior to taking on the role of Headteacher at Nether Hall School, I worked at another city special school, Ash Field Academy, who are also part of the Challenge Partners network, so while I have only been here for 7 years I have been within the Challenge Partners network for as long as Ash Field has been with them, so a good 10+ years. 

During my time at Ash Field Academy, we were involved in annual Quality Assurance Reviews. I had the opportunity to go out as a reviewer to a number of different special schools across the country, and that has always been positive and beneficial. It is a privilege to spend quality time in another school, because you see and learn so much. The Challenge Partners network and particularly the Quality Assurance Review really facilitates that for teachers. 

I have visited many schools as well as been a host school for in excess of 10 years but for the first time last year we opted to engage in the Extending Leading Practice programme rather than the Quality Assurance Review. We particularly liked how our middle leaders were required to lead the project in the school, and it gave us the opportunity to work more collaboratively and for a longer period of time with two like minded schools, which were both London based special schools, and that's why we made the decision.

What did you find impactful from the school visit days through Extending Leading Practice? 

I thought all of them were equally interesting and useful, both as a visitor and when we hosted. With the discussions I had with the other schools, we all felt like we benefited from the process. 

The first London school visit set the scene as there was quite a lot of discussion around how the day was going to work and the others followed on from there. The school is not dissimilar to Nether Hall but bigger and over a number of campuses. As leaders we were able to provide some really helpful, useful and developmental feedback on their project - when we met at subsequent visits and more recently at the 23/24 Extending Leading Practice and Growing The Top launch event, there was a significant difference to their project and the way that school is functioning.

What was your school’s improvement initiative, and did you have a particular challenge you wanted to address and use this project for? 

We had identified that in the previous year, throughout our own evaluation work that we weren't as sure as we wanted and needed to be about the quality of teaching maths across our school, giving the level of need of our children. One of our teachers who came from a mainstream school background as a maths specialist led the project with the wider leaders. We had a real focus on the Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) approach to teaching maths. As maths is so broad, we focused our project on using the CPA approach to teaching measure with our pupils, case-studying children in each class. We learned that it's a very appropriate approach for our children: Not only for teaching measure but the concept of something being very concrete and then moving more towards something abstract. 

In terms of our visitors coming into our school, they saw that in practice and for us I guess more of an affirmation of: “We can see that's what's happening in your classes and it's supporting the children's learning.” Our visitors benefited from having the opportunity to look at our school more broadly, for example, we have a total communication environment in our school and they were very interested in that. Everyone was very open about sharing resources, documents, etcetera so we all benefited. 

Was it your middle leaders which led on the project, if so what was the impact on them and their CPD?

That’s the intention with Extending Leading Practice, that the project is led by middle leaders giving them that fantastic opportunity. In terms of how they benefited, they met as middle leaders more frequently, with the opportunity for collaboration such as joint work, planning and thinking as well as spending more time together than they would ordinarily. This developed stronger relationships and that collaborative approach, making anything else the group lead or work on a little easier going forward, bringing them together again.  

Were there elements of best practice that you saw within the two London schools which you could take back to your setting? 

The first school which we visited, we were interested in their project around middle leaders and their expectations, which is something we are also working on. We felt that what they had introduced was super tight and we were at the opposite end of the spectrum. What we took away from this was that for us it would be too tight and that we needed a happy medium. This is a priority for us this academic year so this was particularly helpful. The other school in our trio is a smaller setting, with children cognitively more able than our cohort. What we really liked from them was the creation of meaningful work experiences. Opportunities for personal development and independence are so important in special schools. It was brilliant to see how that was working for their children, especially teaching and supporting them using public transport such as the tube network.

Is there any comment on the whole cohort events, where you come together as a whole and the Growing the Top cohort and did that challenge your thinking as a leader or provide working opportunities- to find value in those? 

Yes, definitely networking opportunities. Once you’ve met your trio you tend to stay together, but these events are important as it’s an opportunity to get to know each other. I am a facilitator this year and I met with my three schools, getting to know them, which was great as well as seeing how their relationships are starting to develop. At the launch event I found Anne-Marie Canning’s (CEO of The Brilliant Club) presentation incredibly interesting. It is quite a commitment for a senior leader to be out of a school a whole day but it allows you that opportunity to think about things slightly differently, so I have found them very valuable.

What’s your summary and value of the Quality Assurance Review? 

At Nether Hall for 23/24 we have opted to have a Quality Assurance Review and decided to do ELP or GTT every other year. In my experience in my previous school and at Nether Hall we have always found the QAR to be incredibly helpful and useful. As a Headteacher on the review days I tend to take more of a backseat and let my senior and middle leaders lead and present whilst still keeping an eye on everything and to see what is happening. I believe it is a great opportunity for further leadership development within your school.     

Nether Hall is a part of the Ash Field Hub, what sort of things do you do with the hub? Such as what sort of activities do you partake in and is it useful for you? 

My Deputy Headteacher is the one who attends the Ash Field Hub from our school, however I know it is very well-led by an ex-colleague of mine, Ellen Croft of Ash Field Academy. At a recent hub meeting we received the hub action plan for the year so I am kept abreast with what is happening within the hub. Our hub action plan involves quite a lot of peer review or peer support work between the schools in the hub including TA exchange. We also do development days in each other's schools which we have been doing for some time. Three people from other schools; a senior leader, a middle leader and a teacher come to visit your school very similar to the QAR process but based on a focus area and spread across one day on a local scale. It is a great opportunity for different leadership levels in each school. These development days have been running for quite a while through the hub, and it speaks for itself that all of the schools want to stay involved year-on-year. Recently the hub added a similar process of day-long safeguarding visits, where you go into another school and can see things which could work for your own school and equally it’s a bit of a test for us. When you are in a setting for a long period of time you get used to practise, whether it’s safeguarding or curriculum - it becomes your normal. So these visits, just like the QAR are always beneficial, giving us food for thought.

We thank Sarah Naylor 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!