Federation: Building a whole school culture

Dr. Sue Robinson

Dr Sue Robinson interviews Karen Crawley, Executive Principal of the Nene and Ramnoth Federation in Wisbech about the building blocks of success.

Ask any educationalist about their impression of a school and they will say that they know immediately by the ‘feel’ of it, the ethos and atmosphere as soon as they walk in. You know a great school as soon as you meet the welcoming staff, view the learning focused displays and meet the children. There is a definite buzz about the Nene and Ramnoth Federation of schools. This is especially pertinent to Ramnoth Junior School which has seen impressive improvements in standards and children’s well - being as part of its federation with Nene Infant School and under the expert leadership of Karen Crawley and her team

How did they do it? I recently spoke to Karen who steered the schools’ journey from joining the Elliot Foundation and federating on October 1st 2013 I started by asking Karen about the context of Nene and Ramnoth

‘Nene and Ramnoth are schools in high areas of deprivation in a diverse community which isn’t well established with a lot of Eastern European children who are new to the area and country. It has been a time of great change.

When I look back what I’m most proud of is how far we’ve come as a federation from being two schools to being a family of schools. Before October 2013 we were two schools which were geographically close but in terms of practice and being close to each other, with the only real contact being the annual visit made between year 2 and year3, they may as well have been in different continents.’

Karen described how the decision to federate brought with it a worry about a loss of identity.

‘Even when we first started and it was muted we might federate the majority of staff were worried I would either ‘Neneify’ Ramnoth or ‘Ramnothise’ Nene. There were two schools which were fighting to maintain their identity without recognising the strength of union. The challenge was moving from being two parts which didn’t want to meet to being one unit which exists for our families.’

How did you overcome the challenges of forming an identity for the two separate schools?

‘The reason it worked, is I went against all advice and instead of having heads of each of the two schools and me as executive, everything became focused on the federation. Everything came from the mission statement and ethos: I can, you can and together we can. That was the challenge and it was saying it to everyone and every audience on every occasion! In everything I did, I had to keep pulling it back to federation. The idea of a head of school wasn’t going to work for this situation. The schools and staff were too far apart and were always going to end up being two schools in different places. I had to unify it and we had to look at what we needed to do as a team. I have to emphasise that. What did we need for these children from 2-11 and their families but as one unit and not two schools’

Were there changes to the staffing structures in the schools?

‘We started by restructuring the Senior Leadership Team. We restructured across both schools. We had two existing deputies. We could have just made them heads of school but when you have some of the lowest SATs scores in the country we would have had people at Ramnoth with a mountain to climb and people at Nene sitting on top of the mountain and looking down. That wouldn’t build with shared values Both deputies had worked with me but they had to go through an interview. The task I set them was ‘The journey and where do they want the federation to go?’ They had to see us as a federation. While the presentations were different they both showed how they saw the federation as a strength whereas before conversion they wouldn’t have seen the value in one another’s settings. Once appointed we had a team to create change. Once that was complete then I could look at staff teams. I wanted to ensure we gave people strength and power. We thought about getting a key stage 1 and a key stage 2 leader but that didn’t flow for us and so I put that on one side because we needed to maintain self –esteem and get people who wanted to be on the journey rather than force the journey on anyone. Not everyone saw the benefits of federation and thought we would lose the identity and resources from Nene and not all staff in positions were necessarily in the right places to move across the federation. I tried to break down barriers through working together and staff development. We had a Vice Principal for inclusion because you cannot fight for vulnerable children if you aren’t in school and working with the families. We had a Vice Principal for teaching and learning and it’s important to look at each child’s learning journey from the start and how they develop and progress. It’s recognising the steps they need to make and so the teaching and learning moves with them across the schools. I wanted someone to lead on achievement so we were looking at challenging and data and making sure we hadn’t got anyone slipping through the net. There are curriculum teams such as a maths team with people working from Early Years through to KS2 and who have an understanding and overview of the needs of the children from all the phases. They are looking at policy and practice for all children. When children start there will be consistency of policy and practice and especially marking across the federation. We set up the subject leader roles which also helped with retention. I was able to make a role for someone who I knew had leadership and coaching skills and expertise to be a KS2 leader. We also had a KS1 leader who had bought into the federation as she began to see it work. We developed the roles through moderation and there grew a strong relationship as the person I wanted for KS2 leader came and worked in partnership at Nene. The KS1 leader wanted to work together with him and so it was natural then to create a KS1 and 2 leadership structure whereas it wouldn’t have been at the beginning. Joint working across the federation in teams has enabled us to raise standards across the federation and created and build capacity making a sustainable system. The staff in these teams feel empowered and supported while enabling challenge.’

Karen likes to take time to develop organically and use systems which are contextually suited to her schools and not just buy in a system and bolt it on to her practice. While the schools were interested in assertive mentoring they wanted to do it ‘their way’ and set out to see what they needed to do to make it ‘work for us as a federation’

Karen described how:

‘Colleagues worked together, trialled and refined the system which can be used for assessment, gap analysis and inform teaching and learning. We can use it with a more able year 2 and year 5. It was better for them to shape their own but I had to create the circumstances for it to be set up in the first place as a system they wanted rather than impose a solution which might not work. I felt if it was going to work it would have to grow from us. We’d had a situation at Ramnoth where everything had been imposed by the LA and people felt things were being done to them and I didn’t want that.’

Karen is describing elements of an organic, bespoke, contextually defined system which is being refined constantly to suit its circumstances and is reflective and responsive to change rather than rely on a form of imposed or bought in solution. That takes time and trust but what did she need to think about?

‘We couldn’t do everything simultaneously and I wanted to begin by giving them one thing to focus on which was marking and feedback and making sure feedback impacted on next steps. They had success by focussing on one thing and that then bred further success rather than trying to do too much too soon and failing. I think the key to success was because we started and took one step at a time. We recognised every small step to success we made and built upon it.

Karen, is there anything you would like to highlight about the way you have brought together two schools?

‘The main point for me was that I knew this was a community and everything we did we brought back to the school with the idea that every child matters and everything we do must impact on the children. They have one chance and in this community they only have one chance, that’s the vision. Everything I talk about to the staff is that if they don’t love the children and believe passionately in their success then you shouldn’t be on this journey with us. It’s not about getting it done and moving on. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I bring it all back to, this is what these children deserve. It’s also the network you have as well that’s important. I had a chair of governors who believed this was right for children. If you’ve people around you who believe in the same vision it helps for those times when you have a wobble. People can say look at where we are and where we’ve come from. We have parents who trust us and happy children. Also with the Elliot Foundation I had sponsors who had the same values and all want the same for these children.

I left Karen feeling uplifted and inspired. Dr Sue Robinson 16.12.14


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