State schools are increasingly being told that there are many benefits to forming links with their private sector counterparts.
In recent months, ministers have argued that these collaborations can improve core teaching and attainment, as well as providing help with “frills” such as extra-curricular activities. Last year, the government stumped up “seed funding” to establish 17 partnerships, involving 100 schools, in order identify the approaches that work best.
Meanwhile, private schools are feeling more political pressure to get involved and, in doing so, to justify the tax breaks that they receive by dint of their charitable status.
Indeed, many are still smarting, three years on, from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s claim that they were merely feeding state schools “the crumbs off their tables”.
But for state schools eager to make the first step towards linking with a private school, it can be a confusing landscape. The possibilities are so broad it is hard to know where to begin. There is, however, help available.
First off, the new Schools Together website showcases the partnerships taking place and acts as a kind of “matchmaking” service to help link schools together.
The joint project between the government, the Independent/State Schools Partnership (ISSP) and the Independent Schools Council has gathered 1,055 examples of collaboration, from Latin lessons in primaries to professional development. Schools can enter their details, and their area of interest, and will be put in touch with schools in their area willing to help.
The growing number of academy chains could also impact on the opportunities for schools to become involved in partnerships, said Deborah Leek-Bailey, chair of the Independent/State Schools Partnership forum – a government-backed initiative to promote cross-sector links.
She told TES that the growth of academy chains and teaching school alliances could be the key to a more “strategic and cohesive” approach to partnerships that could – in theory – lead to every school being involved in one. The chief executives of two academy chains – Ormiston Academies Trust and the CfBT Schools Trust – already sit on the forum and others are expected to announce their involvement.
Ms Leek-Bailey said: “I do not have a crystal ball, but I would like to think that [the growth of academy chains] could and should help.”
Jon Coles, chief executive of United Learning, a multi-academy trust with 43 state academies and 14 independent schools, said that the “critical mass” of large groups could be an advantage. But he added that making partnerships happen still involved a lot of hard work.
“People are working with quite different assumptions and come at issues quite differently. The real learning comes with that but you have to invest time and effort,” he said.
Harry Chapman, director of partnerships at the private King’s College School in Wimbledon, said schools looking at starting collaborations should go for a “quick win” initially, such as getting older pupils at the independent school to mentor primary pupils. Schools should then embed the link in governance and timetables.
In the Wimbledon partnership, the head of the Coombe Academy Trust – a core group of state schools that King’s works with – now sits on the governing body at the independent school. In exchange, a senior teacher at King’s sits on the governing body at Coombe.
“It’s a unique arrangement and the final piece of the jigsaw,” said Mr Chapman.
Bob Ellis, the outgoing head of Conisborough College in Catford, south London, also pointed out that good partnerships do not depend on one individual “personality”. If the school did not continue to drive the partnership after his departure, pupils and parents “would want to know why not”, he said.
The dos and don’ts
Some expert advice for schools that are setting up state/private sector partnerships:
1 Do build on an existing link and keep it subject specific (at least at first). Personal contact is absolutely vital.
2 Don’t forget that it’s a partnership, not patronage. All schools can learn from each other.
3 Do apply for funding as grants are available. Some partnership groups also charge a small administration fee annually to help cover the staffing necessary to coordinate a series of projects.
4 Don’t underestimate the time it takes.
5 Do engage all partners at the highest level. It’s essential that headteachers and senior leaders commit to the partnership.
6 Do measure the effectiveness of your partnership by devising simple questionnaires for all the teachers, pupils and senior leaders involved with the project.
7 Do think about the longterm sustainability of your partnership, after the funding ends.
Source: Schools Together website, www.schoolstogether.org – adapted from a blog post by Christina Astin, head of partnerships at The King’s School, Canterbury
1,073: the number of ISC private schools in partnerships with state schools
592: ISC schools in academic partnerships
604: ISC schools in music partnerships
908: ISC schools in sport partnerships
55: ISC schools that have a partnership where the head serves as a governor of a state school
£140 million: reported tax breaks given to independent schools with charitable status
Source: ISC Census 2015