How we make our state-independent partnership work

What are the challenges involved in a state-independent school partnership? Two heads in a joint initiative offer advice

How to make a state-independent school partnership work

Andreas Schleicher, the man behind the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) global education study, has said in a Tes interview that England’s scores are being held back by a lack of trust in teachers.

He’s also said that teachers’ workload is increased substantially by the bureaucracy demanded by the need for control. 

This gives us cause to pause and think about how things might be different – how the secretary of state could build on existing models of success, rather than making schools accountable to an imposed ideology.

Harris Westminster Sixth Form is the result of an award-winning partnership between two centres of educational innovation: the Harris Federation and Westminster School.

Among the lessons of the enterprise have been the need for trust and the benefits of informal – rather than bureaucratic – management.

State-independent school partnership

Serving two masters is proverbially impossible, and the danger of such an enterprise is that the school in the middle would be micromanaged in contradictory directions. 

Having two advisers, however, is energising, and from the two halves of the partnership we have been able to forge a model that works for the students – mostly from ordinary and disadvantaged backgrounds – who come to the school.

The two communities, separated by a five-minute walk and a busy pedestrian crossing, have grown together in ways that enrich the experience of both staff and students. 

For students, the advantages of meeting people from a wide a range of cultures and backgrounds are incalculable, as they then make decisions about the kind of people they want to be and the kind of future they are working for. 

For staff, a vibrant professional life, with opportunities to discuss subject content and pedagogical approaches, is both a developmental opportunity and a pleasure. 

Two schools working together

Although state and independent schools are working towards the same goal of educating young people, they often approach the challenge from different directions and different assumptions, some of which may be justified or necessary, but all of which can illuminate practice.

There is a wide range of models for state-independent partnerships and some have been more effective than others. 

Identifying a single best-practice straitjacket into which to force partnerships would be counterproductive.

But there is certainly scope for us to learn from each other. In that spirit, we offer three decisions that have contributed to success, and three challenges that have had to be overcome:

The decisions

1. Geographical proximity

This is not possible for every partnership, but has been hugely valuable for us. The five-minute separation has enabled us to pop over to sort things out face to face, rather than waiting for a scheduled meeting or dealing with things via email. 

It has also enabled the student bodies to grow into collaboration, rather than being restricted by the need for adults to facilitate travel.

2. Clear purpose

Harris Westminster exists to provide academic education to bright students from ordinary and disadvantaged backgrounds across London.

This lies at the heart of everything we do, and means that we can trust each other, because we share this common goal.

3. Two different schools

We decided early on that it was OK for the two schools to make different decisions, rather than trying to align everything that we do.

This has enabled the relationship to be flexible: we go our own ways for some things, and come together again when our plans align.

The challenges

1. Students and staff looking enviously across the road

This has been less of a problem than one might expect. We all know which school we are at and why: the question “Why don’t we do what they’re doing?” has been constructively interesting more often than it has been divisive.

2. Different cultures have different expectations

Sometimes you can get so caught up in your own world that you can’t imagine that there is another way. Sometimes the other partner is happily caught up in their own other way and nobody recognises the misunderstanding until too late. 

A few years and a few apologies later, I think we’re closer to understanding each other, although I suspect there are a few hidden surprises still to come.

3. Two staffs comprise a lot of people

The potential for a misunderstanding, or a misstep, is magnified by the number of people working on the partnership.

Sometimes a problem that you had thought you’d ironed out comes back to bite you when somebody who didn’t get – or didn’t read – the memo gets involved. 

Good communications within and between the schools is key.


The Harris Westminster partnership, and others like it, has flourished over the past few years. It is hoped that teachers and school leaders will be given an environment of trust in which to make decisions on the ground.

They should be allowed to be answerable for the wellbeing and life chances of young people, and not for details of process, micromanaged targets or political agendas.

James Handscombe is headteacher of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in London. He tweets as @JamesHandscombe. Patrick Derham OBE is headmaster of Westminster School. He tweets as @PatrickDerham

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