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'Academy sponsorship is not the only route for private schools to work with the state sector'

Matthew Burgess, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, writes: 

Today’s coverage of the Education Select Committee’s report on school partnerships has, perhaps understandably, focused on its findings relating to academies and academy chains.

But the committee also says something valuable and long overdue about the positive effects of partnerships between state and independent schools: “Independent schools and state schools have much they can do for and usefully learn from one another. We welcome the government's steps to promote closer links between the independent and maintained education sectors, but consider that academy sponsorship is not always the right engagement model for such partnerships.

"We recommend that the government re-introduce targeted seed corn funding to encourage the establishment of sustainable Independent State School Partnerships.”

As the Academies Commission report emphasised earlier this year, school-to-school collaboration is, alongside excellent teaching, a key strand in raising standards. The Commission expressed concerns about the apparent tension brought about by the newly-minted independence of the state academies clashing with the desire to ensure that they remain effective partners in a national school system.

Independent schools, the charitable foundations and institutions from which they emanate, and the partnerships they support, demonstrate that competition and collaboration need not be at odds.

Take St Peter’s School at the heart of the City of York Independent State School Partnership, praised in the report. The school, in partnership with other local state schools, offers GCSE courses in Latin to pupils who would otherwise have no opportunity to study it.

It supports partner schools to help them prepare A-level students for entry to higher education, provides GCSE revision classes and works in partnership to develop best teaching practice across all schools.

The collaborations extend beyond the classroom and there is sharing of classes, teachers and facilities in all manner of music, drama, sport and aspirational workshops.

As the head, Leo Winkley, says: “The City of York Partnership is a healthy mix of genuine moral commitment and pragmatism.”

And it is but one of the schemes running today across 1,000 independent schools who already heed the Education Select Committee’s call to “look beyond their own school gates”.

The Independent State School Partnership scheme, funded between 1998 and 2010, encouraged the development of many such partnerships. We estimate that, with total funding of around £1m for each year that the scheme ran, more than 350 projects were initiated involving around 1,500 schools and countless children.

No less than five separate external evaluations of the scheme highlighted the high quality projects selected, a result of the rigorous nature of the application process; the value for money represented by individual partnerships and the effectiveness of the partnerships in promoting good practice, sharing expertise and extending provision among the partners.

And the benefits accrue to all participants, state and independent, with Ofsted noting, in relation to one particular partnership: “The sharing of facilities has been a two-way process. There is a widespread conception that independent schools are better equipped than their state counterparts, but this is not always the case. An independent school on the south coast, for example, was able to offer outstanding outdoor sports facilities, while its partner state school could offer outstanding indoor provision in return.”

The external reviews also emphasised the importance of funding as part of the framework for collaboration. So it was indeed regrettable that funding was removed for these worthwhile initiatives in 2010, with focus shifted to the sponsorship by independent schools of academies.

There are numerous examples of independent schools taking up this challenge but there is a vocal element decrying the apparent reluctance of the independent sector to engage. Not only does this fly in the face of the evidence but, of greater concern, it serves to diminish the real benefits delivered, and capable of being delivered, through cross-sector partnerships.

So Lord Adonis who, as schools minister in 2008, announced “a new era for independent/state schools partnerships [which] have been a success to date, helping provide thousands of children with academic and pastoral opportunities” and reaffirmed that “these partnerships are part of the wider vision” to equip highly educated people to lead the country in the fields of science, maths and languages, dismissed these same partnerships in 2012 as “ad hoc and pretty minor”.

The change of heart appears driven solely by a need to play down partnerships in favour of a single preferred model of engagement, that of sponsored academy.

So we are delighted that the Education Select Committee, so often the voice of reason in a contentious world of education politics, has once again identified common ground that we can all support.

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