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Partner Story: Parkwood Primary School - Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas, Headteacher at Parkwood Primary School, is one of our facilitators for the Extending Leading Practice and Growing the Top programme. 

Paul spoke to us about his role as a facilitator and the impact it has on school leaders and facilitators themselves.

When did you first hear about Challenge Partners, and why did you join? How long have you been partnered with us? 

I joined Challenge Partners through the Getting Ahead London coaching programme in 2016/17. I found this experience really powerful and valuable in terms of my own leadership and subsequently in my current role of Headteacher. Following this there was a call for people who have been through Getting Ahead London to join us as Facilitators and I wanted to pay back what I had got out of the programme. I facilitated Getting Ahead with senior leaders for one year before facilitating the Extending Leading Practice programme last year in 2022/23 and now currently facilitating Growing the Top for 2023/24. Working across multiple programmes I have seen the benefits for aspiring senior leaders, as well as senior leaders who are working to improve and develop within their own school.

Can you tell us about your experience of knowledge exchange facilitation at Challenge Partners? 

Before any of the visits take place, the training to become a facilitator is really valuable to get into the headspace and understand the outcomes of the programme. As well as building that social capital between facilitators to share experience and practise within the role of facilitator, so when we go into the visits you are feeling more prepared to work along other senior leaders. It also allows you to identify their strengths and challenge ways of thinking. Often, leaders come with challenges they are finding in schools which they want to focus on, but the key is to check and challenge whether it is the real issue within the school, by getting leaders to dig down and find the cause of these issues to see if something else would be worth working on in order to have a wider impact within the school.

I think with Extending Leading Practice, having leaders come into the schools within the group working, is really effective, sharing that good practice, building social capital and trust between participants. As the sessions progress throughout the year you can see the confidence in sharing and challenging between the participants is much stronger.

Are there any examples that you have seen throughout the Extending Leading Practice programme of really great practice other senior leaders have taken away to their own school? 

At each visit, one of the most valuable things is the ability for leaders to showcase their school and for other schools to see good practice. One of the things we did was at the end of each day we reviewed what our actions were, alongside practice that we really liked to take away to our own school settings. One of the things from last year which came up was the effective use of SEND provision on a particular school visit. The school wasn’t a local authority specialist provision - they used their own resources to support SEND and one of the visiting participant schools were really interested in how effective that was and were looking at how they were able to develop that into their own school. This was completely separate to the focus of the day but it was that valuable sharing good practice which was able to take place. 

How has your work as facilitator supported your own development as a leader?

It has had an impact in a number of ways. I have been reflective of my practice and developed the ability to ask more challenging questions to extend thinking, which has led to conversations with my own senior leaders to challenge and stretch their thinking. As mentioned, the opportunity to see best practice in other schools and how that can develop here at Parkwood, and building that network of leaders within different settings, is valuable. All of the schools I have worked with are in various settings and areas facing different challenges, but they all approached these challenges in a similar way through encouraging staff engagement to move in the right direction. That is something I have reflected back on in my role within the school. 

What was the geographical spread of your trio last year? 

They were all within London; East London, out towards Barking and South London. They were two very different areas and schools. One school was a very big school, split across two sites and the other was a local authority maintained, two-form entry school within the suburbs so the makeup of the school was slightly different. 

Did you attend the whole cohort events run by Challenge Partners across the year and what value did you find from those? 

I thought they were really valuable. It was an opportunity to network, share experiences and good practice. Picking up what’s working well and if you had an issue you were able to share that with someone and gain feedback on how to overcome and work through any issues that do come up. 

We thank Paul Thomas 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!