CEO Focus: Rebekah Iiyambo, CEO of Eko Trust

PAG StaffCEO, COVID-19, Interview


Personal Profile: Rebekah Iiyambo

Rebekah was appointed as CEO of Eko in November 2016. Rebekah is also a National Leader of Education. Prior to being appointed as CEO of Eko, Rebekah has been a Headteacher, Co-Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, an advisor for Science, Early Years and English as an additional language in two local authorities before becoming a senior advisor for continuing professional development (CPD). This role included specific responsibility for developing leadership capacity across primary, secondary and special schools.  She has taught in schools in Britain and Namibia.

Trust Profile: Eko Trust

Eko Trust is a MAT comprising of Good and Outstanding schools based in Newham, Barking & Dagenham and Hackney. It currently consists of six schools, four primary and two all-through Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) schools. The Trust has its own teaching school and is a partner in a Research School. It is nationally recognised for its ability to improve education standards, for school improvement and the support it provides to develop governance. The Trust has seven nationally recognised specialist leaders in education and is working to develop more across all its schools.

As a MAT CEO, how is life under Covid-19?

As ever, it’s been a process of learning and developing. It’s a roller coaster because of the uncertainty. You are dealing with many different things. Every day you have to be absolutely prepared for the plethora of information you will find out and then deal with the impact this has on the team. However, the values of our trust have driven our work through this time. They have been the bedrock to our approach through it all. This has meant that we have been able to come together well as a virtual team. Nurturing, growing and developing staff is key to who we are. Collaboration with every member of staff across the whole school workforce helps to make sure that we give our best in the situation (such as in more normal times).

Our staff have really stepped up during this time and I have seen people go above and beyond. Even our lunchtime supervisors are using technology now. The opportunity to come together as a team has been significant. This team spirit has helped support colleagues when things get really tough.

As an extrovert leader, [I have found that] you have to be really aware of how you present yourself in this virtual world so you are seen to be consistent and establish high levels of trust for your team during an uncertain time. It has been really important to ensure that the trust moves in the right direction. Carefully listening to and enabling leaders to express differences helps to formulate the plans necessary to move forwards.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since the start of the pandemic?

It has been about making sure that our students with EHCPs have access to the learning that they need to. That learning gap will be huge when we all return. [How has e-learning gone for you?] We have taken a blended approach to e-learning. Some students have been receiving paper packs of work delivered to their homes and others have got right on with the online offer. A lot of our work is monitoring and adjusting our offer to parents/carers. We have sent out surveys to find out what the challenges are, what they have liked, and what they think needs to be changed. The phase that we’re in at the moment is about adapting, changing and improving as we go. There’s no way that we can be a finished product. What might work for one family might not work for others. [The question has been] how do we have that customisation and ensure that the right staff are supporting students, for instance if children need individual phone calls.

Our value of equity is so important. We will do whatever we can to remove the barriers and not everyone is going to get the same thing; how we organise that has been a challenge and we’re continually evolving, as these unprecedented times mean that we’re not always going to get it right the first time.

Have all your schools remained open? Did you have the take-up of open places that you were expecting?

Schools that could be in hubs were put into a hub model; for instance, the Newham schools are operating in a hub model and the schools in Hackney and  Barking and Dagenham are operating individually. Getting the right staff on the rota was a challenge to begin with. There were limited staff available because of shielding and illness; for instance, it was difficult to find paediatric first-aiders.

The take up of places has been lower than we thought it would be. Vulnerable children have been attending rather than the children of key workers. The feedback we have received from parents  is that they are really valuing the support they receive from the Trust and their teachers, whether that has been via phone calls or video messages and we are always thinking of their emotional mental health and wellbeing.

How have teachers been feeling?

It’s interesting because before the requirement for schools to close, some teachers expressed to their heads they were glad that they had stayed open to help keep a sense of normality. We’ve had a massive emphasis on staff wellbeing alongside safeguarding and safety for the children.

I think that the teachers feel well supported and well communicated with. Lots of teachers value the routine of the school day. In terms of communication, everyone got up to speed quickly to keep leaders connected in with groups of staff. The team is working incredibly hard to do as much as possible. I have been telling them that although we have loads to do at the moment we need to also be filling up our reserves right now; take this period of time to re-charge because, when schools re-open, it will be incredibly demanding. We also need to make sure that they have other things going on, like taking their daily exercise, reading books, spending time with the people they live with and things that they might not have time to do in a regular working week.

It will be interesting when we eventually return to a new normal working practice because, while the school building will look the same, everything will be different; people will probably not be able to meet as groups of adults; teachers will probably not be able to have daily meetings like they used to; they will not be able to use the staffroom like before; how teachers work with other teachers, support staff as well as parents will all be different.

Has the situation presented any safeguarding challenges? How have your team tackled these?

The trust has a really effective safeguarding team with members from each of the schools within it. They have led, supported and developed protocols and ways of working to meet the challenge. Their work is about making sure that vulnerable children as well as those children who have fallen into the vulnerable category are supported. We have worked to keep those children in touch with their teacher or support worker and challenges that appear are worked through. If they are not in regular contact, we are being relentless with social care to make sure that they are doing what they can and not letting anything go. However, we know it’s not just about the children that are vulnerable, these unusual circumstances present difficulties for many parents and we are supporting them so it does not lead to a rise in safeguarding concerns. Our work with the third sector has also been strengthened during these times and we are working with them to support families and make sure that families know that they are there.

How have your pupils and parents found transitioning to learning from home? Can you tell us more about your online school?

With six schools, we wanted each school to be able to set learning programmes that would meet their individual communities needs as well as enable us to assess the effectiveness and learn from each other about what is working well. We are generally using Google Classroom and are becoming more adept at that.

Our online schools include morning videos from teachers and a range of activities covering varying topics. We provide links to other resources that would be useful as well as providing feedback on children’s work. The children are also set homework with the facility for parents and children to email and call their teachers. Teachers regularly call their pupils to check in on their learning as well as their emotional health and wellbeing. The children are doing well and are enjoying the contact with their teacher.

What do you believe to be the biggest challenge you will face when schools officially re-open to all pupils?

 Part of the return-phase planning is making sure that everyone is trained to the highest level. This is because our hypothesis is that we will still have to have children learning outside of the classroom when we return back. Our work right now is to make sure that there is a blended approach in place for children. We have a good idea of what the planned curriculum is when the children come back to school and I am optimistic that we will be able to develop a high-quality online offer. Working with other partners we will address the learning gap that will have developed. This is especially the case for those children with EHCPs, in order to make sure that the things that are on the plans [the EHCPs] are delivered and we know what we need to do to support them.

Parents have fed back to say that they have actually really enjoyed the time with their children at home. We have had lovely emails from parents saying thank you to our staff who are working so hard to be in constant communication with them. We have high levels of trust between ourselves and parents, and we want to continue to build on this.

There are high levels of trust within Eko. This is an opportunity to develop better relationships between organisations like ours and maintained and academy schools. I think that we will all need to work together and be prepared to compromise – not on standards or safeguarding – to get what needs to be done for our pupils.  I think there are real opportunities for our sector to continue to push the boundaries on the great work we all do.