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Spotlight On: Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership

04 June 2021, Independent Schools Council Blog

Dr Joe Spence, master of Dulwich College, explains how the Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership has adapted its collaborative work during the pandemic.

The London Borough of Southwark boasts the landmarks of Tower Bridge, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Imperial War Museum and Borough Market. It enjoys a richly diverse population of over 300,000, and is home to around 24 mainstream secondary schools.

Half of these schools, and five schools just beyond the boundary line, belong to the Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership (SSLP).

SSLP was established as a London Challenge project in 2003 and membership now numbers 13 maintained and four independent senior schools. Catherine May, head of St Saviour’s & St Olave’s, and I are privileged to be the current co-directors.

We believe our partnership work has never been so crucial. At SSLP’s heart is a commitment to connecting apparently diverse schools, students and teachers in a club that exists for the benefit of all.

What have we achieved for students this year?

While it was initially difficult to imagine how we could work in lockdown, we discovered a widespread willingness to embrace every new opportunity.

In November we held an Anti-Racism Conference attended online by 80 students and 30 teachers from 14 schools. A number of those students have continued to work together to produce four short films that will facilitate discussion of racism. They are now developing lesson plans and will premiere their films in Year 8 classes in SSLP schools. Collaboration has been a challenge, but the weekly virtual project meetings have been a highlight for those involved.

Throughout the year we have offered a new online series of after school arts, humanities and science webinars called Thinking About, of which weekly attendance has reached over 100 with different schools acting as host and pupils leading the Q&A sessions with our guests. Recent topics have included Genocide with James Smith of the Aegis Trust, Identity with David Lammy, and Sport and Apartheid with Peter Hain. This term’s talks will range from the economics of biodiversity through an introduction to dystopian fiction to an analysis of contemporary journalism (with Bloomberg).

We held 83 mock interviews for Oxbridge applicants and a series of mock mini medicine interviews. Long-standing monthly photography competitions have extended to poetry, science, art and baking.

Collaborative music projects across schools have been innovative and inspirational. To celebrate Beethoven250 we fused 87 recordings and saw the SSLP Virtual Orchestra perform the final movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

One of my favourite pre-COVID projects was 2019’s Take A Seat Challenge led by contemporary furniture designer Tom Faulkner. Young people from across the SSLP had an opportunity to learn about the process of designing a chair from rough sketches through to its manufacture. Entrants to the competition not only had huge fun, they learned new skills that for some may be career defining. I have no doubt that we’ll be hearing more of our talented Year 12 winner, Anne-Elizabeth, and her designs in the future.

And for teachers this year SSLP has delivered not just a network and opportunities to, in the words of one, ‘plug the gaps,’ but also online CPD training: notably a course for 52 middle leaders from 14 schools. Attendance levels have been at around 80%. There is no way we would have had attendance like this if the training had been in person throughout the winter months – and it’s no surprise, therefore, that 90% of attendees have said they would like future CPD sessions to run online.

How does SSLP work?

At its core, each SSLP school nominates one senior teacher to be the SSLP Link to discuss issues that are common to all our schools, such as providing access to technology, managing attendance in virtual classrooms and preparing for open days.

Behind the scenes enthusiastic individuals, led by our excellent SSLP coordinator, are busy making contacts, arranging training sessions, connecting with colleagues and students, and delivering an ever-expanding events programme.

The SSLP Link Teachers and their colleagues come together for an annual SSLP relaunch and to hear from a range of speakers and students about opportunities for the year ahead and to encourage innovation and networking.

Nothing short of a national lockdown was ever going to see us embrace virtual meetings quite as quickly as we have been inveigled to do. The use of technology has helped us to overcome some of the barriers that have hampered our partnership work in the past, and we certainly see a blended approach continuing in the future.

As we look ahead, we realise the importance of evaluating our impact. A successful application for a DfE Partnership Grant to encourage the development of Student Voice within SSLP has allowed us to enter into a three-year evaluation by ImpactEd. We are working on a Theory of Change exercise to help all partners focus on our 'reason for being' and on the value of collaboration to all our members.

Dr Joe Spence
Master of Dulwich College

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Spotlight On: Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership

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