Cross-sector school partnerships will ultimately be improved by lockdown

Our daily ‘Zoom diet’ might seem a little gruel-like, but it does open up a hybrid model for school-to-school interactions, writes Tom Arbuthnott from Eton College

Tom Arbuthnott, deputy head, partnerships at Eton College

Ruminating on the lockdowns of the past year, the great playwright Tom Stoppard has said that it’s the life he always wanted. It’s “social distancing without social disapproval.” There’s no need to dress up (at least on our bottom halves) and no terrifying social interactions to prepare for.

While this may be misanthropic manna for some, it makes life much more difficult for those of us who put social or professional contact at the centre of our activities – especially, perhaps, for those of us who believe that children need to spend time engaging with diverse social and cultural worlds in order to help them navigate “the rules of the road”.

My friend Nicki Mattin, principal of the Spires Academy in Canterbury, defines it really effectively as our need to create children who are equally comfortable at Number 10 Downing Street and on the Number 10 bus. And she’s right.

The same necessity for “social narrowing”, of course, applies to teachers. The more closed my classroom door, the more impenetrable the “black box” within which I work, the less likely it is to be adaptive to changing circumstances and changing technology. And while Mr Chips was probably so used to teaching in his own special way that it had a certain narrative charm, one must assume that the children whom he taught learnt in spite of his efforts rather than because of them.

“Stoppard’s delight in the social dysfunction of lockdown could be seen as an existential threat for me and my colleagues in the partnership world.”

All in all, our involvement in partnership is built on a perception that we work in a commonwealth in which all teachers and all schools are engaged in the same shared purpose of national significance. It’s a growing field: the Schools Together Group of partnership professionals which I co-founded five years ago has now grown to over 600 members working in cross-sector partnerships. This growth in cross-sector partnerships is matched on the state sector side by the rise of outstanding Multi Academy Trusts which are developing blueprints for collaborative work that see partnerships as the beating heart of a “self-improving school system”.

Stoppard’s delight in the social dysfunction of lockdown could be seen as an existential threat for me and my colleagues in the partnership world. However, as we have had to cancel our workshops and seminars, our visits and symposia, our student leadership conferences and our musical extravaganzas, there has been some evidence that our adaptations might lay some long-term foundations for even better school-to-school collaboration.

In fact, I’d go so far as to state, without weasel words or over-optimism, that some aspects of partnership work have been improved by lockdown. One example is it has forced us to come up with digital solutions which are actually better than face-to-face models. A particularly strong example of this is Colet Mentoring, launched by St Paul’s and its partner schools, which has developed a completely safe model of providing homework support using an app. There will be huge benefits to this after we return to normality. This is not the only example of innovation being bred from adversity.

Another is to invest our time in developing technologies which are more than the sum of their parts. Our EtonX platform has seen more than 300,000 students from over 1,000 schools registered since the beginning of lockdown. We are really pleased that these courses have made a big difference to children across the country – leading to a nomination for a BETT award for “Best Covid Response” – but we are also pleased that this volume use has given us feedback which has supported the development of an ever-better online teaching platform. This new tech will only make us stronger after we return to normality.

“While we might now be finding the unrelenting diet of zoom a little gruel-like, it does open up a hybrid model for school-to-school interactions.”

The things we do to improve skill levels will also have lasting effects. Those of us who have seen some of our most old-fashioned friends?engaging successfully with remote teaching know that, while it might have been forced by circumstance, the teaching profession is better qualified now to take advantage of online platforms than it ever was before.

While we might now be finding the unrelenting diet of Zoom a little gruel-like, it does open up a hybrid model for school-to-school interactions that will combine virtual interaction with physical interaction. Lots of the partnership co-ordinators I know are now planning projects like that.

Fourth, lockdown has created a space where we are all really productive. One of the problems of working in partnership is the time spent on the road, especially for those of us with lots of teaching to do in our home institutions. Commonly, in order to arrange a face-to-face meeting, especially one at a distance, it would require significant amounts of cover – a privilege that can only be taken advantage of every so often.

Now, I can arrange 30-minute Zoom calls in the spaces between my teaching commitments – and I have met a lot of people in the past eight months. It will be difficult moving from a norm of 10 meetings a day back to a norm of four or five. The hybrid model (face-to-face where necessary; virtual where possible) will surely help us “in normality”.

Of course we’ve had to make compromises in the past year, and – sadly – we have been creating many fewer opportunities for kids than we normally do. But there are some signs that, in so doing, we have laid some foundations for even stronger partnership work going forward.
Perhaps we need to leave Stoppard to his introverted pursuits as we use “social distancing” to learn better how to manage “social narrowing”.