Stand together to lift the whole community
When I first became a governor at a community special school, I was intimidated by the range of responsibilities. The school works with pupils who have severe behavioural and emotional difficulties. Some children need constant one-to-one support, aren't always able to contain their anger and struggle to maintain focus in class. Keeping them safe and improving their attainment while scrutinising funding streams, overseeing relationships with external agencies and being mindful of the needs of families and carers is a hugely complicated task.
Thankfully the school is managed well and the staff share a sense of purpose in helping young people, many of whom have been failed by other institutions. One thing I have learned after seven years as a governor is that schools are not alone: there is real value in working across the community to deliver the best outcomes for young people. Ofsted praised our school earlier this year for the variety and quality of its partnerships and the contribution these made to students' success. So how did we get it right?
The challenge is to identify, manage and sustain the right partnerships. Many young people with complex needs and their families will already be being supported by other agencies. These might include youth offending teams or education welfare officers. But sometimes these statutory partners, for all the good work they do, may not get to the heart of a young person's requirements.
For example, to help children with anger management issues, our staff identified a local voluntary youth organisation that provides therapeutic counselling. So we now give students the opportunity to mix learning in school with participation in community activities.
There is also an overlap between my role as a governor and my day job at the charity London Youth, a network of 400 community-based youth organisations. Earlier this year, we brought three schools with youth clubs together and explored how they could work collaboratively in a strong and effective way. From this, and my experience as a governor, I have determined six key ingredients of good partnerships, which I share below.
1 Discuss outcomes
Agreeing on outcomes will ensure that everyone pulls together. For example, an arts-based youth organisation and a neighbouring special school quickly identified a shared need to support young women with learning difficulties around sexual health. Both felt this would lead to better behaviour and more engagement in learning, thereby supporting higher attainment.
2 Define roles
Although schools offer broad curriculum support inside the classroom, community organisations have expertise in engaging young people and supporting them outside school hours. Utilise each partner's strengths instead of forcing them into areas where they are not comfortable.
3 Highlight mutual benefits
If a partnership can help to boost engagement and raise attainment - for example, by offering broader connections with families through trusted community organisations - then everyone involved will get real value from the work.
4 Choose the right partner
It can be difficult to know which partners will deliver, and whether to go for a national brand that might be able to achieve impressive results from working at scale. But local organisations can add value because they know the community. A youth club leader in South London told me about a boy who was having trouble coping with his role as his mother's carer. The youth club leader spoke to the school, which then made adjustments and offered support.
Quality is paramount, however. As a governor, I would sanction partnering only with organisations that have achieved a recognised standard.
5 Find the right place
Although most youth centres don't have the facilities of modern schools, they do have skilled staff and environments designed to engage and relax young people. Many pupil referral units in London speak highly of the partnerships they have with youth clubs and the value of working in a different space.
6 Give young people a say
Finally, a high-quality partnership will give young people the chance to design and lead aspects of their own learning. Good youth clubs and good schools both do this, and it is certainly in line with the importance Ofsted attaches to pupil voice.
Partnership is an overused word, but I genuinely believe that creating the best outcomes for young people involves seeing them as part of the wider community. Engaging organisations from that community is a fundamental responsibility of a great school. And it should be something that governing bodies actively support and encourage.
Jim Minton is a governor at a special school in London and director of communications and membership at charity London Youth