This blog is offered by Ed Finch, Trust Champion. The blog reflects Ed's own personal views not the views of DMAT as an organisation and is presented as a provocation to thought and discussion. We would love to see comments from all who read it - whether working within the Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust or beyond. Do comment below. All comments are reviewed by a member of the team before they are cleared to appear on the site.
I joined Dartmoor MAT as a Trust Champion in January of this year. My son and I drove down to Devon on the second of January and two days later, on the fourth of January, we were locked down. A strange way to start a new job in a new part of the world.
The first thing I noticed about Dartmoor MAT was the warmth and welcome of my new colleagues - not just in the office at Okehampton College but all around the Trust.
One of my first jobs as a Trust Champion was to pick up seventeen heavy bags of treats that our Trust leaders had clubbed together to buy - their personal donations being generously matched by Waitrose - to deliver to each of the schools in the Trust. I spent a happy couple of days touring the area visiting each and every school and dropping off their bag with a card from all of us in the services department.
Goody bags or no goody bags, early January 2021 was a stressful time for schools - no doubt the people answering the buzzer at the schools were busy and anxious but everywhere I went I was greeted with smiles and thoughtful conversation. Maybe Devon attracts thinking people - certainly I was impressed by the knowledge and independence of mind of all the teachers, leaders and support staff I met on that tour of the Trust's schools.
Independence of mind is vital in today's world of teaching, perhaps it always was. Pressures come from all sides - from perceptions of what the dreaded inspectorate are 'looking for', from parents, from the DfE, even - dare I say it - from the Trust from time to time. As leaders and teachers we need to have a laser-like focus on what it is our pupils, the ones right in front of us, really need. You wouldn't be the sort of teacher I'd want teaching my son if you weren't ready to stand up to dictat and be led by your own experience and your own gut to do the right thing. We used to talk a great deal about 'Professional Judgment' and I really wouldn't mind seeing that coming back into fashion a little.
But independence of mind can be a source of problems in a system if it stops us from sharing and developing good practice with others who might be able to help us. I can remember times in my professional life prior to coming to work at DMAT when it seemed to me that schools I taught at were in competition with neighbouring schools. We were in competition for pupils - a school that loses pupils quickly runs into financial difficulties. We were in competition for SATS results, watching each others' figures with an eagle eye. We were in competition for OFSTED gradings and for good perception in the neighbourhood. In some walks of life, competition may be healthy perhaps but in schools it's toxic. At DMAT we don't work for the benefit of the pupils at our individual classes or our individual schools, we don't even work for the benefit of the pupils in our Trust - we are public servants and we work for the benefit of the pupils of Devon and beyond.
One of the really gratifying things I've seen in my time at DMAT - only a few weeks now but I am starting to find my feet in the organisation and in the region - is seeing the increasing cooperation and collaboration of colleagues between the seventeen schools. We've worked together as leaders to really make sure we're bringing our thinking together and to agree the norms under which we'll debate and do business. At school level I was happy to see teachers working together to create resources and to share tips for online learning. Google Classroom was new to nearly all of us and there was a real feeling of mutual support to find ways to make the most of it. There seems to me to be a real sense of collaboration at DMAT - in services it's obvious at our daily morning meeting where we feel comfortable to ask each other for support with a job or to ask for advice. It's obvious amongst our school leadership team who seem very comfortable giving each other support, challenging where necessary and giving each other a real sense of collegiality. And I think it's there between schools and teachers, especially when I see resources and planning passing between schools and teams.
It seems to me that as we grow in confidence and influence as an organisation that we will see far more learning across borders. We'll see teachers working together to improve our curriculum offer and to ensure every child gets the best deal. We'll see schools working together in appreciative enquiry to discover and build on what good practice looks like in different settings. We'll see secondary teachers learning from primary teachers and primary teachers learning from secondary teachers in a spirit of openness that benefits all. After all, our cooperative values of Solidarity, Self-Help, Self Responsibility, Equality, Equity and Democracy all speak to the power of the collective. You wouldn't be the sort of teacher I'd want teaching my son if you weren't ready to use your professional judgement to do the right thing - and, very often, it seems to me that the right thing is to reach out - to take support, advice and guidance from the collective to quality assure our own work and make sure every child and every young person is getting the very best we can give them. It is certainly true that every school, every class and every pupil is different and unique. It is even more true that every school, every class and every pupil has commonalities and that we work most effectively when we work together.
That's not wooly. As a primary school, if we have excellent practice in the teaching of Phonics in Early Years, and it's patchy - for whatever reason - in Year One, we look to share best practice across, to challenge where necessary, to build capacity. Similarly then, as a trust, if we know we have strength in one area - whether it is behaviour management, communication of values, science teaching, HR, data management, sports coaching, whatever - we would be doing our pupils a disservice if we didn't find a way to share and celebrate areas of good practice to strengthen the whole. Talk about alignment and values is one thing, it means nothing until it results in practical action to improve pupil outcomes.
So - what do we really need to do to make this happen? What can we do, as a Trust, to work towards a time when every teacher feels just as much a part of DMAT as they do a part of the school they work at? What are the barriers that need lifted and what are the bridges that need built? Do please comment below with your thoughts, opinions, challenges and queries - we would love to hear from you.