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State and independent schools must meet as equals

2 July 2017, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

Much has changed politically since June 8, not least with reference to schools. Since the general election it has been Labour rather than the Conservative Party that has been shouting about education. The Tories have gone very quiet.

Nick Timothy’s disappearance from Downing Street has stalled plans for more grammar schools, but people have been left wondering where the prime minister and her education secretary now stand on the encouragement of independent schools to sponsor or partner free schools and academies. 

The first clue as to what might happen next appeared last week in the secretary of state’s written answer to a question on whether the findings of the Schools That Work for Everyone consultation will be acted upon. Her reply hinted at an openness to independent schools finding creative ways to work in partnership with the state sector — and suggested that there might be less pressure on them to formally sponsor new schools. It was also revealing that, unlike many of her predecessors, Justine Greening wrote in a way that revealed that she sees the independent sector as integral to the nation’s educational provision. Her aim is to encourage independent schools to find partners with whom to work “to lift attainment across the wider school system”. I see this as uncontroversial.

Almost every independent school has formed some sort of partnership, formal or informal, with schools in the maintained sector. And rightly so. Firstly, because sharing resources and expertise beyond those who can afford their fees is for many of them an echo of their foundational missions. Many schools that cannot afford to offer as many places to the children of families on low incomes as they might wish look back to charters that committed them to seek to extend learning to those who could not afford it.

Secondly, it is the duty of everyone engaged in education to ensure that its benefits are spread as widely as possible. Education is the best engine for social mobility we have and is of its nature an organ of social change for good. The more children of diverse backgrounds who can be brought together by their schools, the more likelihood there will be that the potential for misunderstanding between creeds, race, class or gender will be overcome.

Thirdly, in spite of the difficulties faced by a maintained sector that has being asked to do more with less, the independent sector has much to learn from state school partners. If only because they are forced to quantify everything, there is a sharper and more nuanced use of data in the state sector than in independent schools. There is a greater interest in teaching techniques in the state sector than in the independent sector, although this may be slowly changing as more teachers move between the two.

However, while I believe the independent sector is dedicated to the forging of better and deeper partnerships, I don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms by any state school head until I’ve explained what I believe my school will acquire from the partnership and what the state school will gain and give, in equal measure.

As the head teacher of Kingsford Community School said at an Independent State School Partnership meeting in November, partnering schools in both sectors must ask themselves, “What are we gaining from this?” 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?” Best practice flows both ways.

Too many of the early partnerships between independent and state schools were one-way. There was rightly some underlying resentment felt by potential 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. 

To extend this last point further, 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 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 is the master of Dulwich College in south London and co-director of the Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership

The Sunday Times Education Blog

State and independent schools must meet as equals 

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