Educating Oxfordshire column from The Oxford Times

As promised, here is Paul James’s Educating Oxfordshire column from this week’s edition of The Oxford Times…

At the River Learning Trust group of five secondary and nine primary schools, where I am privileged to be chief executive, we are always navigating the ‘autonomy-alignment-standardisation’ continuum.

It might sound like something from science fiction, but it is actually about getting the balance right between providing support, guidance and structure to education professionals and letting people with experience do what they know is best in the context of their own schools.

As with most multi-academy trusts (MATs), our situation is one where schools are starting to work together more closely having often spent years in relative isolation.

Schools entering multi-academy trusts are looking for the benefits that being part of a group can bring, while retaining the good elements that have developed during the years of doing things for themselves.

They hope we will respect the abilities of teachers to do things their way so that they can deliver the best outcomes for their particular children. But they also hope that being part of a trust will fill any gaps in structures, expertise and experience.

That is fine with us, because respect for each other is part of our philosophy and the ability to identify areas for improvement is, I believe, part of our skillset.

I always try to reassure staff that that we are not a trust where everyone is expected to do exactly the same thing in the classroom. Schools, and individuals within those schools, work within their own contexts. Schools are all about people and relationships and what happens in the classroom should flex to recognise this.

We also expect our staff to recognise there is much to be gained by some degree of alignment and sharing of knowledge, resources, training, experience (in fact, almost everything to do with life in a school).

Like it says on the landing page of the RLT website, we are ‘working together to achieve excellence in education’. The second bit of that quote is key, because we know that merely working together does not raise standards. Rather, it is the quality of the work done together that leads to improvement.

The need to achieve excellence and the responsibility of doing so was brought home to me at an event last week, when I met some of the children who could be among the first pupils at The Swan School.

As many of you know, the River Learning Trust is looking to open a new secondary free school in Marston in September 2019.

There have been some big moments for us in getting to the stage we currently at – being chosen as the preferred provider for the new school, getting the planning application in last month (it will be voted on by city councillors later this summer) and recently looking through the large pile of applications for the post of the first headteacher.

But the biggest moment has undoubtedly been meeting those children who could be among the first cohort of pupils.

We have just started holding information events for current Year 5s and their parents at a number of primary schools that would fall in the Swan catchment area. The first was at New Marston, where there will also be an open event from 6pm to 7pm on Thursday 12th July, and others are taking place over the next few weeks.

That first event at New Marston was special for those of us invited to speak. Talking to those pupils and answering their questions was a reminder of why we do what we do what a responsibility and privilege it is to be involved in education, and just why we are navigating the ‘autonomy-alignment-standardisation’ continuum.