Independent schools need to tell their wider communities how they helped during the Covid crisis, says Zoe MacDougall
In the non-teaching weeks of the summer months, the independent schools sector has two important tasks to do. The first task is about ourselves: we should celebrate our efficient and innovative responses to the national crisis during lockdown. The second task is about other people: we need to tell our wider communities what we did. Our celebrations aren’t vain, they’re valid. It’s important to boost the sector’s energy after a term of hugely hard work.
Our schools re-labelled lockdown’s challenges as opportunities, through re-inventing teaching and learning and responding with innovation to ever-changing circumstances and guidelines. However, our success had its critics, and whilst their views may seem outdated to some, their voices are loud, of late. The closure of schools during lockdown has seen the disparity between independent and state sector education increase. Fanned by the media and other commentators, resentment is in the air, and independent schools would do well to avoid breathing it in. Rather, we should be singing out, making sure that the positive, can-do contributions we made to our wider communities are the subject of public discussion.
“Resentment is in the air, and independent schools would do well to avoid breathing it in.”
Here’s what to celebrate about the summer term. As a sector, we expected our schools to rise to the lockdown challenge, and they did, creating opportunities for innovation, generosity and collaboration. Supporting our wider communities, we provided Covid-19 testing sites, made PPE, wrote to lonely care home residents, distributed food bank parcels, streamed music and drama performances and even invented new protective visors, to name but some of our many contributions.
Then there was also our schools partnership work. Perhaps the independent sector’s headline support for state schools in the summer term was seen at Eton College, where state schools across the country were invited to access the online learning resource EtonX, which offered self-study courses for Year 11 and Year 13 students. It is such examples of public benefit that we, the sector, need to champion on our social media platforms and in the wider press.
As we look towards the autumn term, we have a unique opportunity, precisely because of the unprecedented challenges of our time. Lockdown reinforced our awareness that state schools have much less room for manoeuvre. Devoid of the independence which helps to define our sector, our state colleagues were trapped in the ever-decreasing circle of new and novel national guidelines. When these guidelines are about keeping staff and students safe, it seems paramount for us all to keep up with them, however demanding that challenge may be.
“Whilst state schools agonise over disparity, independent schools need to be wary of attack.”
So, in the face of these demands, now is the time to build a bridge of mutual benefits between state and independent sectors, and to get everyone safely over it. And that’s everyone: our staff, students, parents, governors – and our critics. We all need to feel safe in the current climate. Whilst state schools agonise over disparity, independent schools need to be wary of attack. Last September, at the Labour Party Conference, we heard proposals to withdraw independent schools’ charitable status and other tax privileges, and to redistribute our schools’ assets across national educational institutions. This was a very real threat and one which we may see again if we experience parliamentary change. Now is the time to market our public benefit to state education, in order to refute some of the arguments of our critics.
Partnerships must result in tangible benefits, for both sectors, if they are to be relevant. Through local partnerships, an independent school will gain a stronger local identity, a very useful commodity when defining its USP. Independent schools’ recruitment, especially in economic recession, is an ever-present issue; aspirational parents will be as invigorated as they are reassured by closer contact between the sectors. Moreover, partnership work will give our sector an efficient pathway out of our own school gates, through the front doors of our local state schools, and into the garden of the wider community. Through knowing our local schools, we get to know our locality’s needs; we learn where and how and when we can contribute effectively; we can offer respectful support rather than parachuting in with a bag of inappropriate treats. We can also get our story out to the public and create a positive press.
Through such partnerships, state schools will gain access to more resources, at a time when IT and outdoor accommodation may become essential to daily operations in the post-lockdown school world. Resources might include sharing accommodation, minibuses, administration of a mutual project, online learning materials and a clutch of re-worded policies that have become necessary revisions in a world still gripped by a global pandemic. These benefits are recognised by the valuable work of The Sutton Trust. Supporting social mobility through education in Britain since 1997, the Sutton Trust claims that “Building and strengthening independent-state school partnerships can help break down the barriers between the two sectors and improve opportunities for pupils to access specialist teachers, good university links and first class sports facilities.”
“We can offer respectful support rather than parachuting in with a bag of inappropriate treats.”
Many independent schools already invest in a plethora of community outreach projects, not least through state school partnerships. The Independent Schools Council reports that 85 per cent of ISC schools are in partnerships with state schools, with information about what these partnerships look like published in the ISC Celebrating Partnerships booklets and on the website schoolstogether.org. DfE grant funding is available for partnerships which demonstrate depth of purpose, high impact, sustainability and mutual benefits.
Last year, Highgate School was named Independent School Parent’s School of the Year, in part for their Chrysallis Partnership Programme which, since 2008, has worked on projects with over 50 partner schools and enjoys a close relationship with London Academy of Excellence Tottenham. In the last academic year, Nottingham High School reached out to 2,467 children and teachers in the state sector through hosting sports festivals, chemistry murder mystery investigations, Harry Potter themed biology experiments, author visits, languages days, teacher training, Oxbridge application advice sessions, history days, child psychology talks, Big Band tours, and much more.
Tonbridge School can account for 24,000 hours of volunteering time given by pupils and staff annually, through listing voluntary work as a weekly extra-curricular option. Demonstrating partnerships of real depth and purpose, over the last decade, Norfolk Boarding School Partnerships have assisted 52 vulnerable children who would otherwise have gone into, or stayed in, care by placing them in supportive boarding school environments. These examples of partnerships are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are certainly an inspiration to us all.
New partnerships, like any new relationships, will take time. So tread softly and start small. Suggest a joint venture to undertake a simple national initiative, such as taking part in the Carnegie Award book shadowing, or pairing up with another school to form a UKMT Maths Challenge team. This way, neither school is leading nor following. Similarly, neither go to your partner school nor expect them to come to you – being out of one’s comfort zone leads to nervousness, which leads to well-meant mistakes being made.
Coronavirus makes having visitors in school inappropriate anyway, so use this as a leveller and meet at a local outdoor venue to get children and teachers together on safe ground. In the Summer Term we learnt the advantages of meeting over Zoom, and this would be an efficient way of conducting partnership collaborations. A mutual background choice on your video links would be a small but effective step towards promoting equality over disparity – in any relationship, the devil is in the detail. Then, with a partnership project underway, it’s time to blow your trumpet, wave your flag, sound your horn, stand up and be counted in a round of good publicity for the sector.
Over the summer, school leaders will be looking September in the eye and blinking rapidly – preparations for the post-lockdown re-opening of schools are eye-wateringly challenging. Full lockdown is over; but the Autumn Term heralds decisions about localised closures, blended learning, staggered classroom time, re-appropriated accommodation, and, no doubt, a budget overhaul to address some or all of the above. So bring it on – because this next set of challenges could be re-labelled as opportunities, after all. Let us celebrate our success. Let us update, evaluate and instigate partnership projects. Let us be generous, relevant partners in education. Let us go public. Let us seize the day.