The recent Green Paper, sets out proposals to increase selection in the maintained sector. It aims, through increasing selection, to make more good school places available, improving choice , driving up attainment which in turn will improve social mobility. It proposes that those independent schools with charity status, either set up, or sponsor, a state school. But that’s not all. Ministers want an increase in the number of bursaries available and, also, suggest other measures, which are listed, that schools ought   to be undertaking   more of, to deliver public benefit.  (One wonders how much time they will have left for their core business.)  If schools don’t jump through the hoops, they may have to forfeit their charitable status. While acknowledging that many independent schools are small, and that most members of the ISC are currently involved in some form of partnership arrangement or activity, (87% of ISC schools are ‘in mutually beneficial partnerships with state schools and local communities, sharing expertise, best practice and facilities to the benefit of children in all the schools involved’) the government insists that while this is good, as far as it goes, it is simply  not enough.

The assumption, on the government’s part, is that that because most of these selective  schools achieve good results then they can help non-selective  state schools achieve better results driving up attainment which will have a transformative effect across the maintained sector, delivering more good places. Maybe they can. But evidence suggests that this assumption is, at the very least, debateable. It does not necessarily follow that a good selective school will  ensure that any non-selective school it runs will be good or  outstanding particularly if they take on schools in the most disadvantaged areas, which are often the most challenging .  Rather obviously it’s a different context, and a different challenge.

There is also  a belief in the sector that the government has an unnecessarily narrow and overly prescriptive view of what public benefit looks like.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s threats, combined with the accompanying possible sanctions, have not gone down well with the independent sector. If you want transformative outcomes, from any institution, as a rule, it’s probably not a good opening gambit to threaten them. Incentivise them, yes. Threaten them, no. This Green paper is heavy on sticks, light on carrots.

The Independent sector is used to being a whipping boy for Labour governments. But for a Conservative government to attack them in this way, well, it’s almost unprecedented (mind you it’s also attacking the business community so the sector shouldn’t feel totally alone on that score) and arguably counter-productive. The sector argues that both in scale and scope there are many on-going, effective partnership   arrangements that help deliver public benefit between the sectors, although rarely are these given publicity by the media, or indeed historically at least  by the DFE.  The sector also complains that many of its attempts to forge relationships with the maintained sector are rebuffed.

It does accept, though, that more could be done by some schools, with the requisite capacity, to work more closely with the maintained sector to bridge the divide and to improve outcomes, crucially, through partnership working and active collaboration.

A new organisation has been formed, with the support of the ISC and DFE- ‘The Schools Together Group’ chaired by Christina Astin (Kings School Canterbury) It  held its inaugural meeting last week in Westminster. Lord Nash, the education Minister was among the speakers.  The Groups mission statement is’ Harnessing the power of partnerships for the benefit of children’

It has three aims:

to highlight the projects and partnerships which currently exist between independent schools and maintained schools or community groups

to provide a selection of case studies and best practice guides which add more detail about specific types of existing projects and partnerships so that others interested in setting up similar activities have the support they need

to encourage and enable more collaboration between schools and within local communities by putting people in touch

The official launch was timely. With the Green Paper pushing the sector to do more, here   was proof positive that the sector had got this message, without any prompting,  some time ago, with over 1400 projects and cross sector partnerships, already up and running.(see web site)

The audience, from the outset, was reminded of Frederick Douglass’ dictum  ‘ It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’.

It seems to be accepted, at least at one level, by the government, that the basis of a good, self-improving school system is effective partnership working, although that message is all but lost in the Green paper.  Lord Nash, however, for his part, understands the value of collaboration and partnership working based on his own  experience with Multi Academy Trusts. At this meeting he accepted that there were many good partnerships between the sectors but reminded the audience that social mobility was not improving and much more needed to be done.

Social mobility is a difficult, stubborn issue, of course, which won’t go away. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse, at least if you look at the latest Social Mobility Commission report.  That concludes that, if anything, the rungs of the mobility ladder are getting further apart.  Intractable problems, though, rarely have simple solutions. And the Green paper proposals, which are designed apparently to ease social mobility, look very unlikely in the view of the Social Mobility Commission at least, to do any such thing. (Indeed, they might make matters worse) The Minister, while understanding concerns being expressed about the Green Paper, said that the government wants more from the sector, but added that it genuinely welcomes feedback on its proposals and is in listening mode. We shall see. (the autumn statements allocation of  capital funding for grammar schools expansion suggests to some   that the governments mind is made up, before the consultation has closed)

Deborah Leek Bailey, who chaired the launch, claimed that there was a massive appetite in the independent sector for more engagement with the state sector. There is much scope for working across the sectors, in particular, in Primary schools where much subject specific work is  already being done to enrich the curriculum-in science, languages, maths, technology Latin and in particular  the minority subjects. This all looks promising.

Martin Robinson whose book the Trivium has influenced approaches in the state and independent sectors, particularly in promoting the liberal arts,  believes that the independent sector can offer support in two main areas -Culture and Curriculum. He added though that this has to be two way, and involve reciprocity mutual support and respect. In many areas, the curriculum is being narrowed. He singled out Art History, Classics and Latin as areas where support could be given. On the Cultural side independent schools are often strong in Sports, Arts, Drama and Music, Debates, Cadets, Conferences and so on. He mentioned the idea of ‘Uber’ teachers (not to be confused with taxis or Nietzsche for that matter), excellent specialist  teachers who can move  between sectors  and give support where required . There is much more scope for bringing together staff from both sectors, professional voices to start conversations, to bridge the sector divide, on a sustained basis.

The work of Newhams London Academy of Excellence was mentioned several times as a very successful model for cross sector partnerships (Sixth Form) which has a   higher success rate at getting pupils into Oxbridge than many independent schools.

Jonathan Taylor mentioned mutual learning and respect as important and geography(ie location) could be too, it was  certainly important  in  the York partnership,  He said that there has to be an operational steering group and don’t forget a  paid co-ordinator for partnerships if you are serious about wanting results.

Alex Galvin, senior education lead SSAT, outlined her organisations approach (the largest state school network) and gave some pointers on partnership working and collaboration. SSAT is experienced at helping to facilitate partnership working, of putting potential partners in touch with each other, acting as a facilitator ensuring that partnerships become   a community of shared practice and research. For partnerships to be successful there is a role for brokerage.  You can’t impose partnerships on schools. They must be based on trust. There is scope too for introducing schools to new partners they don’t   already know. Partnerships must have a clear aim and purpose, of course. And the right partner has got to be chosen for the right purpose. And, the same message repeated time and again at this meeting, the   benefits must be seen be going both ways. Good partnerships mean   you are raising attainment together, with dignity.

The Headteacher of Kingsland Community School, Newham, Joan Deslandes has worked closely with Richard Cairns of Brighton College, following their chance meeting in China.  Big things can come from these small conversations, between professionals. She said that partnerships must be integral to the school development plan. Her partnership with Brighton College has resulted, amongst other things, she says, in her school in a disadvantaged area, having some of the best science teaching and results in London,


What are the key messages from this meeting?

Take a look at the web site – there is an awful lot happening that you don’t know about on partnerships with information/case studies that could help you forge your own partnerships.

The state sector is quite often reluctant to engage and may need incentives

Professional to professional contact and engagement, can break down barriers. From small beginnings, good partnerships can grow

Effective partnerships must be organised professionally and have a clear purpose and objectives, but also depth. It’s not just about the Heads.  At their core often is a community of shared good practice   and research.

To be sustainable the relationship must be reciprocal, with a clear understanding of the mutual benefits that can be gained, by all parties, based on trust and respect.

These partnerships, if well-structured and run, can offer a diversity of shared activities and outcomes which can significantly enrich the curriculum offer, particularly but not exclusively at Primary schools, as well as offering potentially big cultural dividends.

The Green paper is a deep worry to many in  the sector, partly because of its tone-based  seemingly on threats and potential sanctions but also its apparent  lack of acknowledgement for the importance of partnerships (rather than simply bi-lateral relationships) and specifically for the real progress being made in partnership development between the sectors .(surely if you are involved in a partnership this  could be as  good as running or sponsoring a school in terms of delivering  public  benefit )

Those attending were urged to contribute to the Green Paper Consultation

Schools Together is supported and maintained by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) in collaboration with the Department for Education and the Independent/State Schools Partnership (ISSP). It is chaired by Christina Astin with a Steering Committee Tom Arbuthnott (Eton College) Sarah Butterworth(Highgate School) Harry Chapman (Kings College Wimbledon)


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