Thought Leadership

The Schools Alliance for Excellence was created in September 2019 and is a local education partnership that draws together all the key education partners in Surrey to deliver a high quality, cohesive, coordinated school-led improvement system to serve all children and schools from nursery to post-16.  

We believe that All Surrey Children are our collective responsibility and working in partnership, drawing on the collective strengths of all schools, we can support each other to do the best for every child through excellent education.  

We are an independent not-for profit school improvement company that is owned and governed by schools (80%) in partnership with Surrey Local Authority and the six Dioceses in Surrey. We will represent the voice of their local schools, regardless of phase or status, through membership and consultation and seek to create a contemporary middle tier. The local authority has also commissioned The Alliance to deliver its statutory school improvement service for three years from September 2019. 

Here you will find our latest thoughts and writings on education in Surrey, as well as links and signposting to thought leadership.

SAfE's latest articles and thoughts 


...As we reach the half term break...

Reflecting and Rethinking – learning from the pandemic

As we come towards the end of the first half of the Autumn term to say that the beginning of the academic year has been challenging is an understatement. We, at SAfE, continue to be humbled and inspired by Surrey’s school leaders, teachers and school staff.

It is tremendous having young people back attending schools, learning, socialising and being a community. However, in order for this to happen the relentless planning for staff absence, logistics, changes in curriculum and timings of the day require agility and resilience that verge on the superhuman!  The need to keep abreast of daily updates, to interpret and respond to them and to communicate to all stakeholders in a way that fosters a ‘can do’ and positive climate is unremitting – yet you do it.  Everyday.

Thank you!

It is now over seven months since we went into lockdown and we are likely to have to live with the pandemic and its implications for many months to come. Despite the challenges of the ‘now’, how do we ensure our ‘new’ normal is better than the normal we had before? How do we use our learning from the last seven months as a platform for change to address some of the endemic challenges that have long plagued us?

In the ‘building back better’ playbook created by Big Education three distinct phases of moving forward are identified:

Respond, Recover, Rethink.

The respond phase includes making ‘back to school’ possible; logistics, staffing, communication and the day to day needs of the moment.

The recovery phase is one of listening and learning – it allows us to begin learning the lessons from lockdown. 

The rethinking phase is potentially the hardest but the most crucial. The playbook promotes the importance of rethinking during the recovery phase and suggests that leaders who do not engage in ‘rethinking’ are in danger of leading schools that return to their ‘status quo’, losing the potential gains of doing things differently and perhaps even better! The Playbook emphasises the importance of engaging with all the school community – staff, parents, pupils and other partners – they all will have insights.

In the spirit of sharing here are four personal reflections from the last seven months.

  1. Blended Learning

Technology was never going to replace a teacher but lockdown has highlighted the huge advantages of integrating technology and more traditional pedagogy. Technology can significantly add to the learning experience, support self-regulation, improve assessment, give access to powerful resources and help reduce workload. As the EEF reflect it is how technology is used that matters most: ‘Great teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for their pupils’. Moving forward, professional development is that prioritises the effective use of technologies whether pupils are in school or working at home is crucial. But equally important we will not achieve equity unless all children and young people have equal access to technologies – our question is how do we achieve this.

  1. Community collaboration

The pandemic highlighted the extent to which schools have been plugging the gaps in support for vulnerable children. Schools stepped into the breech whether through delivering food parcels to families, visiting and checking up on pupils, making additional phone calls pupils, providing support in a raft of ways. The dedication, determination and commitment of schools and their leaders was amazing. For years, schools have had to take on more and more responsibility for the wider wellbeing, safety and welfare of pupils as capacity of other agencies to provide high quality support has become limited. This situation was unsustainable before the pandemic. Now, with the demand for additional support likely to rise we need a fundamental shift towards schools being ‘an anchor for, but not the provider of, a comprehensive range of state and community support for children.’(RSA, Bridges to the Future). We need joined-up, collaborative, place-based action with central and local government working with schools to co-create and commit to a new way forward. Schools cannot meet the needs of children and young people alone.

  1. Professional learning

At a personal level we have all found new ways to work – and many of them are positive. Gone are the days when we will make long trips for short meetings, or travel miles after school for a professional development course. We have all become ‘zoomers’ (other platforms available!) and it has been fabulous to see the sharing of knowledge and practice across Surrey through our webinars and networks. Schools have continued to prioritise professional learning and the communities of practice that are developing and deepening remain ever more crucial. We must not lose these ways of working.

  1. Esteeming Teacher Expertise

Teachers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic over the last seven months. Parents have gained a deeper appreciating following their experiences of being ‘teacher at home’! But more than this now is the time to truly celebrate teachers’ on-going expertise and commitment. John Hattie reflects:

‘Unlike parents with 1-3 children in the home class, teachers have 20-30 at once, can motivate them (mostly) to engage in activities that the students initially do not know to do, know how to make the struggle of learning joyful, can provide feedback at the right time and in the right way to each student and teachers do not ‘do’ the work for the students – and for 200+ days at least 5 hours every day. Teachers know where to go next for each student’s learning, how to balance the breadth and depth of the ever-varied school curriculum, and invest in after school work of marking, preparing, developing resources, going to professional learning, and meetings. As parents, how exhausted were you each day!’

On a daily basis teachers make thousands of individual decisions in the classroom which at a whole school level make a collective difference to the lives of a generations of children. Teachers are intelligent, articulate and experts in people and their behaviours. Let none of us accept ‘teacher-bashing’!

I believe that despite the ongoing challenges this remains a time of possibility and optimism. We must all take the opportunity to make some time for strategic thinking, raise our heads from the stress and pressure of the right now and look ahead with intention to ‘build back better’ for both our pupils and our profession.

I hope that everyone has some down time over the half-term.
Thank you all for being brilliant.

Maria Dawes
Thank you to Michele Miller for her big contribution
to our collective thinking in this blog.



...Sharing our thoughts in early October... 

Better together in a time of crisis: The positive role of a local education partnership in COVID-19


When we set up Schools Alliance for Excellence in September 2019 we did so with the belief that we are stronger together – the belief that all Surrey children are our collective responsibility and working in partnership, drawing on our collective strengths, we can support each other to do the best for every child through excellent education. A key principle of our work is that we see ourselves as the ‘glue’ supporting partnership and collaboration between schools so no school is left isolated and vulnerable regardless of phase or status. I don’t think that as we started we would have expected our beliefs to be tested quite as much as they have been during this COVID crisis.

The importance of working together

Steve Mumby reflects that ‘schools that are isolated cannot easily function well in times of crisis and that there is great power and potential in collaboration at local level.’ We are a county of 400 schools of which nearly 40% are in a multi-academy trust of various sizes. I have seen over the last six months the power of trusts to bring together their schools, provide leadership, guidance, support and a sense of community. But I have also seen how potentially lonely it is if you sit outside the ‘bubble’ of a trust – particularly if you are a small stand-alone academy or maintained school. Leadership can be, as we know, a lonely place - exacerbated at times of crisis by being outside one of the ‘MAT clubs’.

How SAfE can help

As an alliance that operates regardless of phase or status and unfettered by the politics of the local authority (although working in partnership with them) we have seen the power of local education partnerships to make a difference. From the beginning of the crisis we were able to say to all schools, ‘We are here to support you when and if you need us.’ We have provided the vehicle by which leaders and governors can communicate, share and question in a safe space; we have brokered support where needed; we have brought together schools, regardless of status, to provide guidance to others on home-learning, wider school opening, the role of governors, pupil mental health and wellbeing; where necessary we have challenged the Local Authority - we have had the ‘backs’ of our school leaders. Our schools  have been magnanimous in giving time and sharing expertise and resources with others despite the pressures on their own schools.

Collaboration where place still matters

COVID-19 has shown us that there are things that are out of our control and the control of politicians  and when the world tilts we need to pull together. Despite rhetoric from some quarters I think it is unlikely to be a time when academies are taken back into LA control. Conversely, despite there being many amazing MATs it is unlikely to be a time when all schools are in a highly performing MAT. We have seen the impact of the limitations of government and some local authorities. The crisis shows us that we need a different way forward. No school or group of schools should prosper at the expense of others or risk isolation.

But COVID-19 has shown how local education partnerships such as SAfE can offer a means of supporting all schools to work together.  As we move through this new academic year with all its challenges we cannot afford competition and self-introversion whatever a schools status.  Place matters - we have seen in our alliance a commitment to all local children and to all local schools. As we increasingly start to focus on the future let us not drift back to the old status quo but grasp the moment.

Maria Dawes,


Research Articles


Metacognition as a part of lesson routine

When the EEF toolkit cited metacognition and self-regulation as a high impact, low cost classroom strategy with the potential to add 7 months of progress, the approach attracted much interest.  Their really useful summary poster is here.

This article by Michele Miller seeks to encourage you to keep metacognition ‘on the map’ of high impact strategies, and perhaps think about the extent to which our modelling is deliberate, explicit and clear.




Town Farm Primary School & Nursery: Our experience of the new inspection framework

Asif Bhatti, Headteacher at Town Farm Primary & Nursery School shares his thoughts following the school’s experience of their recent inspection.



The EEF Guide to Supporting School Planning: A Tiered Approach to 2020-21

The EEF has produced new guidance to help support schools in re-opening following COVID-19 school closures. Building on the model EEF demonstrated in their Guide to Pupil Premium, the guide proposes a tiered approach to prioritising your efforts and honing existing plans based around: high-quality teaching for all, targeted academic support, and wider strategies to support pupils in the year ahead. 

Download this guide here.


Reception Baseline Assessment

The schools within South Farnham Educational Trust have made the decision to sign up for the Reception Baseline Assessment pilot. At times of great controversy surrounding the assessment of children in the first few weeks of school, it is important for school leaders to make careful decisions for their school community. We perceive the opportunity to take time to sit with each child individually during these early weeks as a hugely beneficial activity for the child and for the teacher.

This article by Claire Harnden reflects on the participation of SFET schools in the RBA pilot. Read on to find out about the opportunities and benefits that SFET’s experiences highlight.


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