When I was appointed to the newly-created role of head of partnerships, at the King’s School in Canterbury in 2014, some colleagues wondered if it had something to do with marriage guidance counselling.
Partnerships are still a relatively new concept for some independent schools. Many are charities and look to fulfil their status through bursaries and outreach yet need to survive as businesses.
Partnerships are different from outreach: co-designing educational projects with other schools can enable everyone to thrive; education is not a zero-sum game but a social endeavour which lifts the whole community.
“Where resources are tight, why wouldn’t we look to our neighbours to share the education of children?”
Since 2016 when the Schools Together Group (now the School Partnerships Alliance) was established, the principles of effective partnership (mutual, impactful, sustainable and addressing disadvantage) have been embraced by many schools and regional partnerships.
Neighbours in terraced houses sometimes club together to buy a jointly-owned lawnmower and share the job of mowing a small patch of lawn. One neighbour might contribute more money, another might take on a greater share of the mowing if their stripes are straighter.
Where resources are constrained (and that is certainly true in education) why wouldn’t we look to our neighbours to share the education of the children in our community? Everyone benefits ultimately, especially those that are more disadvantaged or under-represented.
“The language has been slow to shift from independent schools being called on to ‘help’ state schools.”
As David Carter, former National Schools Commissioner, said: “Collaboration is the oxygen of the education system”. We forget at our peril, however, that state schools have been collaborating with each other through local authorities and now multi-academy trusts for decades.
Independent schools too have been engines of the community (the “public” responsibility of the ancient public schools) yet educate only 7 per cent of the nation’s children. The language of cooperation has been slow to shift from independent schools being called on to “help” state schools, to acknowledging that both sectors can learn from each other through mutually beneficial partnerships.
It’s not easy to form trusting cross-sector relationships when independent schools are, on the one hand, busy trying to justify their charitable status, and on the other looking to set up partnerships for mutual benefit, thus suggesting they want to get something back.
Big academy sponsorship projects with wide benefit are one thing; a small rural prep school trying to convince a neighbouring primary that they wish to partner when their financial accounts clearly indicate that they need to recruit more pupils is quite another. Suspicions and stereotypes persist.
“It’s not easy to form trusting cross-sector relationships when independent schools are busy trying to justify their charitable status.”
Right now, all schools are battling challenges on a number of fronts: a growing children’s mental health crisis, worries about teacher retention and budgets, concerns about AI and its impact on assessment and curriculum.
This is surely the right time – more than ever – to get those shared lawnmowers out. In an effort to help more independent schools co-design effective partnerships with their state school colleagues, I have written a Partnerships WorkBook – a manual of shared lawnmower ownership, if you like.
The WorkBook, designed for independent schools (prep, senior or all-through) who would like to work more closely with state schools, especially those in their local neighbourhood, helps to disentangle motives, prioritise resources, address needs and put impact centre stage.
“A clear strategy can address the previous scattergun portfolio approach of partnership projects.”
Building a clear and sustainable strategy for partnerships with state schools which should withstand scrutiny, helps to address the previous scattergun portfolio approach of partnership projects, accumulated from years of goodwill and personal passions.
I am optimistic that with the help of the WorkBook and the efforts of the School Partnerships Alliance and others, we will see more schools move along the continuum from an outreach or transactional model to one based on reciprocal professional collaborations where projects are co-designed for the benefit of all.
Such partnerships are usually more sustainable and they demonstrate greater impact on young people. And that is what education is all about. If not marriage.
This article first appeared in the Eton Journal 2023 and is reproduced here with kind permission.