The Future of Partnership

Dr Joe Spence, Dulwich CollegeThere is concern among school leaders that politicians are so taken up with Brexit that education is being neglected. I am not sure this is the case. While Cabinet Ministers and civil service mandarins may well be so committed to dealing with Britain’s departure from the EU that they have little time to deal with other matters, behind-the-scenes, their offices are being allowed rare freedom in which to plan for the future. That is certainly one way to interpret the wealth of research being undertaken by the DfE’s Systems Partnership Unit into the question of how independent and maintained schools might work together to ensure that we have in the UK “schools that work for everyone”.

Soon after the 2017 General Election, Justin Greening, as Secretary of State for Education, acknowledged that she saw the independent sector as integral to the nation’s educational provision and that she hoped to encourage independent schools to find partners with whom to work “to lift attainment across the wider school system”. I don’t know any independent school leader who would see this as a controversial aim. Almost every independent school has formed partnerships with schools in the maintained sector. And rightly so, because sharing resources and expertise beyond those who can afford high fees is for many such schools an echo of their foundational missions.

I am also heartened that, thanks to the work of Schools Together, there is a growing understanding of what partnership should look like and how its impact can be measured, reported and built upon. Delegates at a recent Schools Together conference in York learned that Bolton School has had its Community Action programme recognised with a Queen's Award for Voluntary Service and that they use VInspired to log volunteering hours. Having staff and pupils log partnership and outreach activity is a first step towards weighing its benefit, while identifying the key strands of such work helps cut out peripheral activity. Of course, making sure that staff have time for partnership work, and that parents value a school’s place as an outward-looking part of its community, are also imperative.

Independent schools benefit from having clear statements of the purpose of their partnership work at the heart of their strategic plans. Such statements must not feel like coerced add-ons. At Dulwich College the key passage reads: “Our partnership work…has the potential to enrich not only the educational outcomes of others but also – through shared Continuing Professional Development and student interchange – the vitality of our own school”. 

The keynote to the success of any work undertaken by independent and maintained school partners is that they must belong to a partnership of equals. As the head teacher of Kingsford Community School said at an Independent State School Partnership (ISSP) meeting last November, partnering schools in both sectors must ask themselves: “What are we gaining from this?” And for the independent partner, there is an additional question: “What would we like to do better were we to enlist the partnership of the maintained sector?”.

My experience as a co-director of the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership (SSLP), which benefits, like the equally long-standing York Independent State School Partnership, from the geographical proximity of some 10 or 12 schools, is that it is with teacher development that schools can most often meet as equals. Having Chief Examiners meet Heads of Department from partner schools to discuss changes to syllabuses and examinations leads those HoDs to see that they share more problems (and creative solutions) than they may have imagined.  Similarly, the creation of hubs of subject teachers and careers advisors from state and independent schools meeting regularly and sharing best practice can be very powerful. We are also looking to encourage engagement, across and beyond SSLP, with School Centred Initial Teacher Training courses (SCITTs) in MFL, Maths and Physics because this is work which answers a national shortage and sees us sharing resources with and learning from some of the best maintained sector teaching schools in the country.

Schools in the independent sector have much to learn from state school partners. If only because they are forced to quantify almost everything they do, there is a more nuanced use of data in the state sector than in independent schools. State school partners can help us to become data sharp as well as data rich (which we already are, but often to too little purpose). And at the risk of falling victim to a gross generalization, I would suggest that while deep and secure subject knowledge is a defining characteristic of the successful independent school teacher, there is a greater interest in pedagogy in the state sector than in the independent sector, although this may be slowly changing as teachers move more frequently and successfully between the two sectors.

A partnership of equals demands that schools from each sector grow to feel as comfortable as hosts or guests at each other’s meetings. I was stung last year when one of the leading state school advocates of the SSLP told me that he felt that independent schools are always happier as hosts than as guests.  It’s not enough to simply invite state school children to attend, say, a History Society lecture that one would have held for one’s own pupils anyway and call it evidence of partnership. But it is a sign of successful partnership if the result of such an invitation is that a state school sets up its own History Society - and then has a chance to invite independent school pupils to attend one of its meetings. There’s also a danger that pupils from different schools attend an event at a given school, sit in their serried ranks and then go back to their own schools without having talked to anyone from another school. Thus, the importance of a plenary session that looks to bring pupils together to share their ideas or to work on a shared project. One of our most successful partnership initiatives was the joint hosting and organising of a modern foreign languages conference with E-ACTS City Heights Academy which has a modern language specialism. It was also important that the conference, like a recent AGM of the SSLP, was launched by our local MP, Helen Hayes (Labour).

Too many of the early partnerships between independent and state schools were one-way. There was rightly some underlying resentment felt by state school partners if the impression given was that the big independent school up the road believed it had all the answers; if it acted as a Lord or Lady Bountiful, bestowing some crumbs from its well-stocked table. Partnership at its best sees the co-hosting of events, the thorough integration of pupils from different schools at such events, and the meeting as equals of senior management teams or teachers engaged in professional development. And this sense of equality needs to extend to the realm of governance too. Much is made of independent school leaders taking up the governance of state schools, but Dulwich College is an independent school that benefits greatly from having a distinguished former head of a maintained school on its Board and chairing its Education Committee. Ensuring that partnerships are genuinely two-way and identifying how to achieve this requires nuance, time and empathy. Partnerships also need to be strong enough to withstand changes in pioneer personnel; in this area, as in others, compatible personalities matter enormously.

And finally, it must be noted that it shouldn’t surprise an independent school head if a state school partner isn’t always as eager as he or she to engage in a raft of shared activities. While for the independent head the partnership may feel essential, for the state school partner - with a torrent of targets and without any pressure to prove public benefit— the relationship might be a luxury.

Andrew Adonis was wrong to say, in a speech in the Lords last December, in which he mooted the idea of a 25% educational opportunity tax on independent school fees, that “private schools are separating themselves ever more from mainstream society” and that, in terms of partnerships and other forms of outreach work, there has been only “tinkering at the edges”, but we in independent schools do have to become more diligent in recording and measuring what we have done for the public benefit, rather than expecting everyone to take on trust that we are all committed to the causes of social mobility and social amelioration.