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David Carter: Universities and independent schools can prove successful partners in the MAT system

Across England there are many fine examples of universities and independent schools working with academies to drive forward improvement, writes the national schools commissioner

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Across England there are many fine examples of universities and independent schools working with academies to drive forward improvement, writes the national schools commissioner

I am convinced that greater collaboration across the education system can help us to not only improve standards but sustain them as well. Our ambition of creating a more socially just society, ensuring that children get the best start in life, can only be delivered by us working better together.

I see many strong examples of different parts of the sector working together in partnership: whether that is secondary schools with their partner primary schools working closely together, or those specialising in SEND working with mainstream schools. Equally, higher education institutions (HEIs) and independent schools working alongside state schools can – and do – play a valuable role in driving up standards in the wider system. My point is that we must view every leader and every teacher who works in education being part of the system-wide school improvement “brain” irrespective of the type of school that they work in.

I am hugely encouraged by the breadth of collaborative working in the sector already. Across the country schools are coming together to achieve a shared goal, be that a broader curriculum offer for students, enriched subject teaching or strengthened leadership. There are many excellent examples to choose from, but I would like to share a couple that have led to a real improvement in standards and the quality of education that pupils receive.

High-quality partnership

The University of Chichester Multi-Academy Trust (UCMAT) is made up of 12 academies in West Sussex, Hampshire and Portsmouth. It is sponsored by the University of Chichester, which has a legacy of more than 150 years of teacher education. The trust has a robust school improvement model, supported by experts from the university’s Institute of Education. The trust also provides high-quality support to its schools in HR, finance, estates and communication, other areas where the university adds significant capacity. A recent focused Ofsted review of the UCMAT’s work found the university to be fully committed to the trust with a close alignment between the values of aspiration, inclusion and collaboration – and those of the wider university. The report concluded that this high-quality partnership is leading to improvement in the quality of teaching with faster rates of pupil progress across the schools. As a result of this, the quality of education in the trust's schools is improving rapidly. This is at the heart of what partnership working across the system should seek to achieve: the establishment of a deep successful working relationship between a university and local schools to improve outcomes and enhance social mobility.

There are also some great examples of partnerships between independent and state schools. The London Academy of Excellence (LAE) Tottenham is an academically selective 16-19 free school catering for 113 students this year, with plans to increase its offer to 700 places across Year 12 and Year 13. It has two sponsors – Highgate School, as the lead education sponsor, and a well-known business partner, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. The school is accommodated within a new building alongside the new Spurs football ground and is part of the regeneration of this community. Alongside the two main sponsors are nine additional partners, each contributing their skills and expertise in key areas that a brand new school is likely to need. These include curriculum development, teaching expertise and secondments, CPD for staff, governance and leadership and financial support. The partnership has been formalised through a memorandum of understanding in which the sponsors and partner schools have agreed to target available resources at the academy’s teaching and support needs, with an emphasis on reciprocity.

Leading initiatives

I would also like to mention another emerging partnership in the Oldham Opportunity Area. Oldham Hulme Grammar, an independent school, already has well-established links to the community and local schools and is keen to do more across this priority area. It is currently in partnership with a MAT and several other schools, leading training initiatives and providing governance support. This has enabled it to deliver a number of targeted interventions, such as maths learning initiatives with local primary school pupils, and reading partnerships with sixth-form students to improve literacy. The school has strong English and maths programmes and is keen to use these strengths to support more of Oldham’s pupils to engage on these crucial subjects.

These examples show the breadth of benefits that can come from these partnerships, from leadership and financial support, to curriculum and CPD. We are encouraging more institutions to look into this rich opportunity. Indeed, the benefits that come from partnership working do not just flow in one direction: genuine partnerships benefit all involved and both universities and independent schools currently working with nearby state schools have told me how much they have learned. But what is most important is that these partnership activities have a measurable impact on the schools and the children in them. They are not just sharing best practice and good ideas: they are accountable partnerships driven by improving standards.

I am especially interested to hear directly from schools who are interested in partnership working with a particular emphasis on working with higher education and independent providers. You can contact the Department for Education’s newly-formed System Partnerships Unit, which exists to facilitate the right support for the early stages of new partnerships, share lessons from existing practice and establish strong peer-to-peer support networks. If you are interested in finding out more about how you can contribute to this work, please contact Alternatively, you can find out more at

Sir David Carter is the national schools commissioner

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