Building bridges

Absolutely Education, Autumn - Winter 2017

Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College and Co-Director of the Southwark Schools' Learning Partnership, reflects on the benefits of forging partnerships between maintained and independent schools

No independent school should wait for the next Charity Commission offensive before engaging in partnership with a maintained school. In fact, few such schools need such advice; contrary to what one might believe from media or government reports,most independent schools are already engaged in some form of partnership, formal or informal, with neighbouring state school(s).

The commitment to such projects by partner schools is impressive. In Southwark alone, over the course of the last academic year this has included: shared lectures for pupils and conferences for teachers (such as the one organised by E-ACT's City Heights Academy and hosted at Dulwich College last July), co-curricular drama and music productions, Saturday-school courses to support gifted and talented pupils, and art shows and science trips.

"Independent schools are keener to host events than to be guests but this must be a partnership of equals"

It is right and fitting that these and other sorts of engagements are growing in number. Why?

Firstly, because for many independent schools to be able to share their resources and expertise beyond those who can afford their fees is, in part, to return to their foundational missions. Many schools which cannot afford to offer as many places to the children of families on low incomes as they would wish look back to charters which commit them to extending learning to those who cannot afford it.

Secondly, it is the duty of everyone engaged in education to ensure that its benefits are spread widely. Education is not only an engine of social mobility, but also an organ of social amelioration. The more children of diverse backgrounds who can be brought together by their schools the more likely it will be that the potential for misunderstanding of creed for creed, or race for race, or class for class, will be overcome.

Thirdly, independent schools have much to learn from state schools. There is a more nuanced use of teaching and learning data in the state sector. There is also a greater interest in pedagogy, although this may be slowly changing - because of independent school exposure to the best practices of an improving state sector and because there are more teachers moving between the sectors.

If the school your son or daughter attends is in some form of partnership with a state school I believe there are certain questions you should ask of it.

The first thing to ask is whether the partnership in which your son or daughter's school engages is a partnership of equals. Potential state school partners are rightly resentful if the impression given is that the big independent school up the road believes that it has all the answers; if it is perceived as a Lord or Lady Bountiful, bestowing 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, the meeting as equals of senior management teams or teachers engaged in professional development.

Joan Deslandes, head of Kingsford Community School, said at a recent Independent/State School Partnership meeting that partnering schools must ask themselves, 'What are we gaining from this?' And that for the independent partner there was an additional question, 'What would we like to do better were we to enlist the partnership of the maintained sector?' Best practice flows both ways.

The value of meeting as equals and of knowing what one wants to gain from association with the state sector was evident when Dulwich College's senior management team had a joint meeting with the leadership team of our closest partner school, E-ACT's City Heights Academy, a mile up the road in Tulse Hill. We received a presentation from the assistant head in charge of inclusion and special educational needs which made clear to us that this is an area in which we might improve our own practice by drawing upon the expertise of a first-class practitioner operating in a different context.

Two things have struck me of late as weaknesses in my own school's approach to partnership and in that of the multi-school partnership I co-direct, the Southwark Schools' Learning Partnership (SSLP). I've realised that independent schools are keener to host events than to be guests, albeit that one probably learns more from being a good guest than from working in the comfort of one's own school. And I've come to believe that one must ensure that children from different schools are given time to meet and work (and play) together at partnership events. Too often I've seen a row of children visiting a school and listening to a lecture and then leaving, without having had any engagement with the pupils of the school visited.

Educational partnerships benefit from the sponsorship of important public figures from beyond the schools involved. The SSLP has been blessed in being celebrated by local MP Helen Hayes (Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood) As it has matured, it has attracted the attention of renowned educationalists, a number of whom have addressed the partnership's annual re-launch. That in turn has given member schools a sense of pride in what they are engaging in.

In the busy world of schools, partnerships will always depend on the good will of teachers, but it's essential to ensure that those running the partnership have time to conduct its business. A breakthrough for the SSLP has been the appointment of a coordinator with the time to ensure that information is imparted swiftly and clearly as to events and educational news in a way that school leaders, however dedicated to their partnerships, can only fit into the crevices of their timetables.

One final observation: while the independent sector is dedicated to the forging of better and deeper partnerships, independent school heads shouldn't be offended if a state school partner isn't always as eager as he or she to engage in a raft of sh are d activities. While for the independent head the partnership may feel essential,for the state school partner - with the torrent of targets they have to reach and without the pressure to prove their charitable status - the relationship might be a luxury, not a necessity.

Dr Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College

Absolutely Education, Autumn - Winter 2017


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