The news that Justine Greening was to be replaced as education secretary was no great surprise. Her efforts at building bridges with the teaching profession did not go unnoticed, and her departure has been lamented by commentators who are not slow to remind education ministers of their failings. I would like to congratulate our constituency MP, Damian Hinds, on his appointment and urge him not to neglect the good work done by his predecessor.
I have a specific reason for feeling disappointed that Ms Greening is moving on: quietly, but firmly, she and her officials oversaw a much-needed change in the ways in which schools might understand partnerships.
In recent years discussion of school partnerships has been fractious. Notably, the government’s education Green Paper – Schools that work for everyone – proposed that independent sector expertise should be spread through the state sector, via the sponsorship of academies by larger schools and the setting up of free schools, in order to justify the advantages conferred by charitable status. Critics were not slow to see problems with the idea that improvement lies in this simple transference of "educational DNA" in this way, and problems with such arrangements have been well documented.
However, there are reasons to be cheerful. As new head of partnerships at Bedales, I spent the Autumn 2017 term consulting with receptive Department for Education officials, auditing current projects, and making new connections with local schools, spurred on by Justine Greening’s desire that many independent schools could do more. This has been no small task. How could I create something meaningful? Weren’t schools in the area already doing a fantastic job? What should we bring to the equation? It was a real epiphany when I realised what a great school partnership should look like. Firstly, the word "partnership" is a misnomer when understood as a relationship between two separate entities. Secondly, we need to stop thinking only in terms of "independent/state school" partnerships.
Instead, I have been thinking about networks. To make "more good school places", we need to think about collaboration as an essential, not just a desirable, characteristic of excellent schools. Great teachers already look outwards in terms of sharing resources with local colleagues, writing blogs or attending conferences. The best way to thrive as a school is to share expertise, to share resources and to share energy and enthusiasm. All schools have areas in which they could improve, as well as areas of great strength, and we need to share both to create genuine reciprocal learning experiences.
The formal constitution of a school is irrelevant. What matters is that needs are articulated and help is given, and this can come from whoever is able to provide it based on local circumstances. Such networks will become self-sustaining when the mutual benefit is made manifest. I have seen this being done to brilliant effect in Leeds, where a network of six schools – two independent, two state-maintained and two academies – made long-term commitments to collaboration on strategy. They each took aspiring leaders and gave them a problem to research and solve, and a year to do it. The groups were given access to the SMTs of all participating schools, and six days out of school for collaboration. Recommendations for school improvement were produced, connections were made and partnerships were strengthened. The results were very positive, and most graduates of the process have gone on to senior management positions with inter-school collaboration high on their personal agendas – good for the schools, then, and for the participants themselves.
Collaboration between local schools could and should be the future of education in Britain. As educators in our various settings, there is far more that unites us than divides us, and we have much to learn from each other. In recent months, shielded from the polarising influence of headline-friendly policy announcements, school staff and government officials have together given careful thought to the kinds of relationships that might give us all what we want to see in our schools. And there are some hopeful initiatives emerging; for example, new collaborations for us around pupil wellbeing and initial teacher training. It is my great hope that the new secretary of state for education will see the merit in allowing us to continue this valuable work, and to foster an environment in which accepting a need to improve invites praise rather than censure. Over to you, minister...
Alice McNeill is the head of partnerships and teacher of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School, an independent school in Hampshire