School improvement: Peer review & collaboration

Written by: Laura McPhee | Published:
In it together: Pupils and staff at Gainsborough Primary School in Hackney, which embraces peer review as part of its school improvement processes

Peer reviews have been described as a driving force for school improvement. Laura McPhee considers which approaches can lead to maximum impact

Schools nationally face a number of far-ranging barriers: funding is increasingly sparse, deprivation is high, and more pupils than ever before are experiencing mental health challenges.

Emerging evidence shows that schools can improve faster and more sustainably by working together. Schools up and down the country are overcoming barriers through collaboration, sharing best practice and facilitated peer review. But with competing priorities and increasing demands on our time, how can leaders ensure that these processes have maximum impact and drive school improvement?

In September 2019, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) published a report entitled The principles of effective school-to-school peer review. The report aimed to:

  • Raise the profile and awareness of what good peer review is and challenge misconceptions that might exist.
  • Provide insight to schools that are either constructing their own peer review approaches or are considering investing in external peer review support.
  • Enable peer review providers to assess their own programmes against the evidence available as part of on-going development and improvement.

The report includes nine principles for effective school-to-school peer review:

  • Committed to better outcomes for all: There is a shared responsibility to establish improvement across all schools and not just one’s own, including the sharing of good practice identified in reviews. The desire for mutual gain is imperative for success.
  • Action-focused: Peer review is set up with the intention of acting as a result of the review, whether to address a deficit or to get even better. Peer review provides evidence of strengths and areas for improvement but is not a standalone activity. Reviews must be part of wider processes that provide sustained support for evidence-based improvement.
  • Rigorous and objective: The team should always consist of peer leaders with the professional distance to give a truly honest appraisal of where the school is in its journey and with the experience to insightfully present evidence.
  • Structured and robust: The approach used in the review should have a clear structure so that the evidence collected is impartial, defensible and is action-focused, with all actions owned by the reviewed school.
  • Expert and evidence-led: The reviewers should be given the training and support to become experts in peer review. Their diagnosis of school performance should be rooted in evidence, as should any suggestions about potential actions.
  • Done with, not to, the school: Peer review drives more transparent and honest self-review, should engage as much of the school workforce as possible and should always be reciprocated.
  • Open and trusted: The reviewed school is able and willing to expose its vulnerabilities, in order to elicit new perspectives on the challenges it faces.
  • Builds deeper relationships: Peer reviews lead to abiding collaborative partnerships which can evolve over time to enable stronger, closer working in local clusters. There is also an opportunity to share more widely as part of a national drive for improvement.
  • Commitment to continuous improvement: Peer review itself should always be kept under review and providers of peer review programmes must have embedded structures and processes to evaluate the effectiveness of the process and commit to continuous improvement.

Horizontal accountability

Clear guidance is also provided about what a peer review is not. The focus is not to “catch leaders out” – it is not a mock inspection, a simplified learning walk, an informal conversation, or a process that involves stronger schools supporting weaker schools to improve. Rather it is a genuinely collaborative process that is rooted in horizontal accountability with a focus on improvement.

All parties will ideally be operating within an agreed framework. Peer reviews are reciprocal and inclusive in nature and can result in a written or verbal summary that has been collaboratively produced.

Implementing change

Once the peer review has taken place it can be all too easy to feel overwhelmed by outstanding actions. By taking pro-active steps to plan how change can be implemented, leaders are able to maximise impact. Consider the training and development required to ensure all involved in the process gain expertise in evidenced peer review practice and develop a shared understanding of the process and intended outcomes. Over time this will help to build trust and transparency.

Consider developing a process for following up on actions and revisiting reviews. In order to make this manageable identify how specific actions can be delegated across teams and use leaders at all levels to hold teams to account thorough supportive challenge.

Develop a wider partnership of support and challenge. This may be at a local or national level. Who can you reach out to that is able to help you achieve your school’s agreed actions and goals? These relationships will also be strengthened by engaging in a high-quality peer review.

Peer review: Pupils during a music session at Gainsborough Primary School

The primary perspective

Gainsborough Primary School is located in Hackney, east London, and is part of Primary Advantage federation. The federation comprises of a family of eight schools led by executive principal and National Leader of Education, Sian Davies.

Primary Advantage has put collaboration at the heart of school improvement and the federation has successfully developed models for peer review in line with the NAHT’s recommendations and acknowledge the need for a growth mindset.

Executive headteacher at Gainsborough Jenna Clark said: “Sharing our expertise has enabled leaders across the federation to achieve collectively what we may not have been able to achieve individually. We aspire to be outward-facing and have an impact beyond our own setting. We have a collaborative learning culture and peer reviews have supported us to develop highly effective teaching.

“If we want children to step out of their comfort zone … we also need to be prepared to do the same.”

Janet Taylor, headteacher at Morningside Primary School – another school in the federation – explained: “Each peer review has an agreed focus. Leaders at all levels are invited to take part. The process is an opportunity for teachers at all stages in their career to develop their practice.

“It’s a highly collaborative process with headteachers from across the federation and the executive principal taking part. This enables school leaders to be open about the school’s strengths and areas for development and to continue to develop outstanding practice.”

  • Laura McPhee is an experienced headteacher and education consultant. She is committed to furthering the cause of disadvantaged young people and carries out policy consultancy for national social justice charity Nacro, providers in education, housing and criminal justice. Visit and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

NAHT: The principles of effective school-to-school peer review, September 2019:

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