A Community of Purpose: Working in collaboration to create an inclusive future for all Surrey Schools

Building on the work we started with our Leadership Summit in February, we invited Heads from across Surrey to join the conversation about how we move forward; to help us identify our priorities, our obstacles, and our opportunities as a school-led system.

Across the four engagement sessions we welcomed 100 school leaders from all phases reflecting the incredible variety of education settings we have in Surrey; joining us remotely from classrooms, home offices, and in some cases even whilst on playground duty!

A Renewed, Shared Vision

Now that we have returned to the classroom, we know that many of the challenges and issues our school system faced before the pandemic remain, but we recognise the pandemic has also been a disruptive catalyst that can shape our collective renewal.

We kicked off our sessions with asking our Heads to consider the question: “If we are truly successful at addressing our challenges, what will our school system look like in 2023?” Interestingly, whilst there was a range of answers, the majority of the responses highlighted three key ongoing themes:

Collaboration – Whether as part of a partnership, a community, or simply as part of Surrey’s ‘family’ of schools, a system that strives for purposeful collaboration over competition is at the heart of our vision for the future.

Inclusion – A system that understands and serves all of its learners, its staff and its communities equally, with clear values and moral purpose at its core.

Prioritising what matters most – High quality learning, shared excellent practice, and support for the wellbeing of everyone in the school system. As one of our participants put it; “doing less better”.

Achieving our vision – What are our barriers and opportunities?

After this initial discussion we then considered in smaller groups the barriers and opportunities for our school system in achieving this vision. These conversations reflected the wide breadth of challenges face by individual settings and brought together some common concerns.

Key themes that emerged were:

A significant focus of the public discourse as we move out of the pandemic has been recuperating ‘lost learning’ during the last year, particularly for disadvantaged pupils as a result of the widened learning gap. But our participants questioned whether this narrative was helping or hindering our focus.

Is this what we are seeing in the classroom? Is it taking away from what we know to be most important – developing high quality teachers? Are we disenfranchising certain groups of pupils and families with our terminology? Perhaps now is the chance to change the narrative, consider our messages and reframe stigmatisation.

Throughout the four sessions we discussed our approach to inclusion. A number of participants highlighted concerns around SEND provision and perceived inequity in the proportion of pupils with SEND in different schools. We also talked about the wider inclusion agenda with participants expressing concern of a tokenistic approach towards inclusion, and in some cases a lack of acceptance for the need to work on more inclusive practice. However, participants also highlighted the opportunities that were coming from the HT Inclusion Round Table and the work on Mental Health and Well-being through the new iThrive model. There is a genuine passion for changing the culture in Surrey through ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ and we need to continue to build on this.
Many of our primary colleagues raised concerns that the shifting demographics and falling rolls both potentially provides a tension between schools leading to competition but also means that schools capacity to collaborate is limited. As one participant said ‘collaboration is key but how do you build the capacity in your school when you are already maxed out’.

On the other hand, others considered that the mitigation to this was ‘collaboration for purpose’. Collaboration is greater than ‘sharing good practice’ and there are real opportunities to share skills sets, look for innovative solutions and work smarter.

Staffing capacity has been a heightened concern, and with a tough year for the education community, recruiting and retaining high quality staff is a priority.

Many of our participants thought that the use of technology throughout remote learning has helped generate innovations that have been incredibly helpful. Some schools feel that blended learning will become a feature of education in the future – they see the possibilities of digital technology as an enabler of learning, both complementing and enriching teaching. But, it comes with it some concerns about capacity, and making sure that technology can be fairly used and distributed amongst all children.

It was clear that none of these barriers will have simple, silver-bullet solutions; but our participants could see ways in which we could mitigate these concerns as a school system by ‘looking for the diamonds’.

The difficult circumstances of the last year led to a renewed sense of collaboration and created pathways between Surrey schools to work together and share best practice through online networks and events. Increased, focused collaboration, was a key priority for a great number of school leaders.

The shake-up of our system also provides the opportunity to identify and embed values that have come to light over the last year and a half: inclusivity, wellbeing, and support.

What are our Covid Keeps?

After feeding back to the group, participants returned to break out rooms to discuss some of the key challenges and some key takeaways from our pandemic learning that could apply to them: what could we lose, what did we want to keep, and what did we want to introduce, both as schools and in partnership? These are just a few of the answers.

For many the rapid rise of remote learning and communications has provided time for networking and professional development that might have otherwise been impossible due to travel or difficult schedules. There are also opportunities to use this technology to refine and create space elsewhere for educators – such as moving parents’ evenings online or facilitating lessons around pre-recorded input.

The opportunity for greater levels of communication and understanding that came from the pandemic did not only apply to the relationships between schools – for some schools there were also opportunities to build relationships with their community, including parents and families that had previously gone under the radar.

Some schools highlighted the opportunity to focus on diversity in staffing and hiring, and to reflect inclusivity in their own communities. Embedding inclusive practice at the recruitment level and equipping school leaders with the training they need to drive this forward was another key message from our groups.

These innovations, born from unexpected circumstances, could help us to build back a better school system for all learners.

Your Voice – SAfE’s Promise: Delivering on our Surrey Vision

SAfE is committed to its role as a conduit for collaboration in Surrey, creating opportunities for all our schools to connect and thrive. The engagement workshops were a great way to listen to your views and explore how we can support the development of an even stronger Surrey education system. We are using your thoughts and views to realign our vision and priorities for the next few years.

In the short term we will use your feedback to support our thinking about our Professional Learning Programme for next year. We will ensure that we keep a ‘Thread of Inclusion’ underpinning all our work. We will keep the majority of our engagement on-line to support headteachers and teachers well-being and promote ease of collaboration. In addition, we are planning to set up some new ‘Learning Hubs’ to support collaborative thinking, planning and action.

Thank you to everyone who participated in these events. We want to keep the conversations going – by working together we will build back stronger. We look forward to keeping you updated and really interested in your thoughts.

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