'Partnerships are the next revolution in the educational commonwealth '
Tom Arbuthnott, chair of the Schools Together Group, argues that schools should use partnerships to learn from each other and identify strengths and weaknesses.
Schools are often bad at change. We work on an annual cycle of events, concerts, dates and exams, some imposed externally, others generated from within. Often the easiest way of doing things is to follow the blueprint that was set last year. Mindsets can become fixed easily – especially, perhaps, in the independent sector which is freer from changing priorities within government.
But changeability – or at least a positive attitude to change, a ‘changeativeness’ – has to be one of our main priorities. Education is changing with new technology almost as quickly as our workforce, our communities and the political milieu in which we sit. Just as every teacher learns to reflect on the pillars and foundations of their lessons in that formative first year in the classroom, so school leaders need to find ways of injecting responsiveness and reflectiveness into their school structures.
How do we do it, though? How do we reflect on the design of the curriculum? Or the nature of a 21st century boarding house? Or the best design of a community use agreement for the new hockey pitch?
Institutions are stronger when they compare notes and where they adapt to changing realities. By using partnerships to generate comparisons, we can inform ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, and give ourselves grist for a lot of thought and ideas. We may not choose to directly adopt what another organisation does – but we can certainly be informed by it. One independent / state partnership I am involved in sees entrepreneurial schools of both types learning from each other’s strengths in pedagogy, subject knowledge or use of data. The partnership is reciprocal, and excellent for both sides.
Partnerships are the next revolution in the educational commonwealth – especially partnerships that cross sectors and school types. This revolution, though, is happening piecemeal, in individual, small, fragmented projects that rarely learn from each other. Just look at the Schools Together website. Over 1700 cross-sector projects are there, many of them very similar to each other – but all are dogged by the same problems. They’re reliant on personalities and individuals who give their time freely because they really care, they’re extraneous to the core of school life, they’re not impact assessed. They’re wonderful – but they’re not strategic.
While the independent sector has come a long way, and has sponsored a plethora of projects, many of which are detailed, impressive and impactful, we have to accept that the expectations of government are growing. We need to be really careful, especially in project design, to demonstrate that partnerships really are making a difference.
By the time of the next election in 2022, we need to have a much more powerful story to tell about partnerships. Not partnerships which are counted in numbers, but partnerships which are calibrated by their effect. Not partnerships which are centred in certain wealthy schools, but partnerships which all schools know how to play a part in, from the smallest prep school to the large public schools. Not partnerships which have to be peddled to the state sector like snake oil in a souk, but partnerships which are welcomed across sectors – and which fit into wider government priorities such as MATs and TSAs.
We need to raise our eyes from the ground, and be ambitious for cross-sector partnerships. All of our schools are in different places on the continuum below:In other words, we must create a vision of a commonwealth of schools across the state and independent sectors that work together on the things they do best, and which dedicate the right amount of resource to self-improvement as organisations.
How are we going to get there? Here are some thoughts.
- Schools need to have a consistent structure for partnership work – ideally, someone responsible on the senior team. This person needs to take responsibility not just for ‘outreach’ work, but also for ‘inreach’ – by making sure that partnerships challenge and disrupt ossified working practices. This is the senior leader who has licence to ‘move fast and break things.’
- We need to establish support networks for those people, so we aren’t engaged in a frantic process of reinventing the wheel
- We need to look at the way partnership structures are evolving in the state sector, and seek to add ourselves to those in constructive ways. For example, the advent of MATs gives lots of structural ways that independent schools can be involved in the commonwealth of schools without having either to take on too big a financial commitment or to have to do stuff that they’re not very good at.
- We need to compare notes on impact assessment – which needs to be bottom up rather than top down.
- We need to be making big, open and generous offers to those around us, and not be put off by small impediments. For example – some areas where schools are competitive – do not allow these to ‘set the weather for collaboration’. We must not take it personally when schools in the other sector reject our advances – instead, we must solve problems, build trust and try again.
Tom Arbuthnott is chair of the Schools Together Group 2017-18 and writes this blog in a personal capacity.