Catching up with Dame Sue John

Dame Sue John continues to be a driving force in the UK education system, in particular with her continuing work with Challenge Partners

It’s no understatement to say it would be difficult to imagine our education system without the input of Dame Sue.

The number of roles she has had and continues to hold in the state and the charity sector of the English education system are numerous. They have included Strategic Director of the London Challenge, non-executive director of the Board of the Department for Education under Michael Gove, MP, chair of the Brilliant Club, and co-founder of Challenge Partners of which she has been a constant presence in its leadership since its formation in 2011. She is also currently the Chair of the Teacher Development Trust.

This school year there are 530 schools in the Challenge Partners Network of Excellence, the largest number so far. This innovative collaborative learning community continues to have a wide geographical spread in England.

One of Dame Sue’s main roles in Challenge Partners is to convene the senior partner meetings, one of which was held this week. This was conducted virtually due to disruption from the national rail strikes. During the meeting, Professor Sam Twistleton, Director of Sheffield Institute of Education, led a session on What Next for ITT – reflections on government policy and teacher education. Professor Twistleton was joined by Reuben Moore, Director of Star SCITT and teacher development, who talked about the launch of the National Institute for Teaching. They were followed by an interactive session led by Bain consultants focusing on the next five-to-ten year strategy for Challenge Partners.

Like us, Dame Sue said she is concerned about the impact on the schools she works with as they emerge from the restrictions placed on their activity by Covid to face significant budget difficulties. With rising energy costs, schools are forced to look elsewhere for savings and for some this means cutting the budget for staff development.

Recently, Dame Sue and the Chief Executive Officer of Challenge Partners, Kate Chhatwal OBE, were asked to assist with the launch of the Dorset Education Board, which is chaired by Steven Twigg, a former Member of Parliament, Minister of State for School Standards and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. The Board is using a multi-disciplinary approach to school improvement, bringing together members of the Education services, health, police and parental groups.

To start the process Dame Sue used the four capitals to assist the members of the Board to understand the conditions they were currently working in and to identify areas which could be improved to assist collaborative working. The document she used can be found here [http://www.georgeberwick.com/publications/papers/].

The Partnership has received some initial funding from XTX markets, a leading algorithmic trading firm.  The company is using its resources to support the development of STEM subjects. This is a jointly-funded project in collaboration with Challenge Partners and the Responsible Business Unit – investigating ways in which mathematics can be taught to a high standard, particularly for females and under-represented groups.  They are working with a number of focus groups looking at the teaching of mathematics.

Another organisation Dame Sue has been involved with is the Sutton Trust. Here she has been a member of the Education Advisory Group over the past decade.  This charity, which is at the forefront of providing evidence to highlight the plight of the socially disadvantaged, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Trust is chaired and founded by the educational philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl. Its current Chief Executive is James Turner, who previously worked with Sir Kevan Collins in establishing the Education Endowment Fund.

As well as publishing more than 150 research papers, the Sutton Trust also provides education programmes which include supporting disadvantaged pupils in early years, primary, secondary schools and at university.

Recently Dame Sue said she heard an inspirational speech by Professor Lee Elliott Major OBE about the important role the Trust’s work has played in keeping challenging social disadvantage at the forefront of the educational agenda.  Professor Lee is a former Chief Executive of the Trust and a founding Trustee of the Education Endowment Fund.

He is the first ever Professor of Social Mobility at Exeter University and author of a number of books including the influential What Works (Bloomsbury, 2019), written alongside Steven Higgins. This book studies successful teachers and what has been shown by research to be the reason for their effectiveness. Professor Lee followed this by publishing a similar guide for parents, The Good Parent Educator – What Every Parent Should Know About Their Children’s Education. (John Catt Publications, 2021).

Dame Sue added that Professor Lee’s drive to ensure that the profession is evidence-informed is critical if we are to solve the entrenched inequality in our education system which the restrictions on schooling during Covid have so harshly exposed.


Our thanks to Dame Sue for finding the time in her busy schedule to talk to us. It’s always interesting to know what she is involved in. Having had the privilege of working alongside her for many years, I can vouch for her never ending drive and determination to improve the education we provide for pupils in England.

Take care and stay safe

George

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