5 January 2021
There are as many perceived barriers to engaging with state schools as there are benefits, not least the current restrictions placed on schools because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, schools are always thinking ahead and I would argue that partnership working plays an important part in any future planning.
We know that the best cross-sector partnerships are mutually beneficial, impactful, sustainable and address disadvantage: the four features required by the DfE in its recent grant funding of independent-state school partnerships. Partnerships that manage to get close to this do require significant time and commitment: many were profiled recently in the Independent Schools Council’s annual “Celebrating Partnerships” booklet. However, smaller-scale collaborations are beneficial; indeed, many of the celebrated partnership projects started off in this way.
So let’s take a look at five common concerns schools have and see if we can help break down some of these barriers.
#1 We’ve tried it before, but there was no interest
It’s hard when you try to organise a partnership event and not a single local school takes up your offer. Perhaps the invitation has gone to the wrong person, or landed in the office@ email account and not been re-directed? Perhaps it clashed with other events or was at an inconvenient time, required too much staffing or unaffordable transport? Or perhaps the offer was simply not helpful – like the school which offered sixth-form-led Mandarin lessons to a local primary school, only to find the children were already getting Spanish tuition from one of their parents. Whatever the reason, take time to get to know your partner school(s) and listen to their needs, appreciate their capacity for collaborating with you. To avoid frustration, make sure your communication goes out to the right person at the right time with a friendly follow-up by phone.
#2 We’re worried we might come across as patronising
Good! So we should! It’s only a few years ago that independent schools were asked to ‘help’ state schools. Now, thankfully, this way of thinking has been replaced with an appreciation of the mutual benefits that can accrue to both schools in any partnership, whether same-sector or cross-sector. Working together helps everyone, as Brian Crosby, former Headteacher at a state school within the York ISSP, explained at the Schools Together Group conference in 2018: “We are ALL responsible for educating ALL the children of York. They are OUR children.”
Which of your state school partner’s strengths could help your school? Could you make the first move in the relationship by asking for help or inviting yourselves to an event they are hosting? One cross-sector partnership started when an independent school asked an academy to help with an ITT placement for one of their staff. Even if a project seems initially rather one-way (see #3), always look for the benefit to your school – it might be developing student leadership or confidence skills, or furthering staff professional development. The mutuality may take time to emerge, but it should be an expectation from the outset.
#3 We do outreach already
OK, we all know that education is not a level playing field and that the sharing of resources is not always two-way. So, if your school has a swimming pool it feels quite right to invite local schools to use it for their swimming galas. But this is not true partnership. It involves relatively little effort and the only advantage to your school is to enhance your public benefit. However, if you put on life-saving training for local teachers, your PE grads help coach young swimmers, or your students help out at the gala – and, crucially, when this collaboration is planned together – something more mutually beneficial emerges. This has far more impact for both partners and helps build trust from which more projects may emerge.
#4 We can’t afford partnerships
Yes, some independent schools have ‘Directors of Partnerships’, supported by admin staff and generous budgets. However, partnerships with state schools need not cost much, and can bring a wealth of benefits to both schools. Could you repurpose some of your activity afternoon choices and send your students into partner schools to do reading, run a chess club or help with displays? Is there a local youth club or charity shop at which students can volunteer? Invite students from a partner school to your Further Maths class or to join your students to fund-raise together for charity. If you have an external speaker or an Oxbridge medics programme, welcoming students from neighbouring schools broadens horizons for yours and costs nothing except a little admin (see #5). Sometimes grants are available to offset the costs of partnership projects, and you might find that local businesses are happy to chip in to support an event, or to cover the cost of your partners’ transport.
#5 We’re all too busy
Sure, in the examples above there will be a bit of admin involved with risk assessments and registers, but not much more than if it were just your own students involved. Start small, from connections that already exist, with colleagues who are excited by the prospect of partnership working, and with opportunities that sit comfortably within your school week. Get onto the mailing list of the Schools Together Group for more ideas to save you time so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Sow some seeds, water a little and often, and be patient.
As David Carter, the former National Schools Commissioner said: “Collaboration is the oxygen of education”. Decide what you want your school and the local community to gain from partnership, be humble, start small, be persistent, and celebrate small successes. Good luck!
By Christina Astin
Christina Astin – @ChristinaAstin [email protected] – was Founder-Chair of the Schools Together Group and Head of Partnerships at The King’s School, Canterbury and now provides leadership and partnerships consultancy in schools through Astin Consulting. Along with Margaret Hunnaball of HMCK Charity, she will run one of the forthcoming GSA training webinars on partnership working:
Partnerships: developing a multi-school partnership, 25 January 2021
Partnership through Covid and other challenging times, 16 March 2021