The importance of state partners for independent schools

Posted on: 08 Sept 2023

Dr Margaret Hunnaball, researcher in residence at the School Partnerships Alliance, draws from her own research findings to reflect on the value of cross-sector partnerships.

One of the greatest strengths of cross-sector partnership working is the opportunity it gives schools to share their areas of expertise, and to enhance any aspects of their work that they are looking to develop. Having worked in both state and independent schools as a teacher and senior leader, I firmly believe that by working together in equitable partnerships, schools are stronger and can deliver education of the highest possible standard.  

When I worked at King’s College School, I met Heather McKissack MBE, co-founder of the Wimbledon Independent State School Partnership. Working with others to secure the best possible outcomes for all young people was Heather’s mission and her passion was infectious: I was captivated by this collaborative approach and wanted to delve into it more deeply. This eventually led me to study cross-sector partnership enactment, meeting more than eighty people from both sectors involved in partnership working, from headteachers to sixth formers. Here I share some of my research findings, highlighting the benefits for all schools.

Some headteachers told me that their schools standing in the community had been enhanced through local partnership working. One independent school principal said that their collaborations had “positively changed the school’s reputation locally”. A state school head from a different partnership said that he publicly celebrated his school’s partnership involvement, saying “to be able to link in to [the local independent school] is very much a conscious thing, because we have to say we do things differently, we work with very established, successful schools”.

School staff reported benefitting from shared CPD opportunities from joint teaching to training courses for technicians. It is also not uncommon for staff to take on governance roles in nearby schools. In one case, the CEO of a multi-academy trust was on the governing body of an independent school. The independent school head told me that he had invited her because “she’s a fantastic head and I can learn from her”. The governor found that the move needed “quite an adjustment, and some of the KPIs were hugely different given the context and nature of the school”. Looking back, both parties agreed that the CEO’s input was hugely beneficial for the independent school.

You may not be surprised to hear that it was my interviews with sixth form students that made some of the deepest impressions on me. Independent school students talked about seeing beyond their “bubble” and forming strong friendships with people from a wide range of backgrounds, in activities that enriched the social and cultural capital of pupils from both sectors, as well as augmenting their academic experiences. 

Whatever its focus, every partnership benefits from commitment and input from all partner schools, each giving according to its strengths. As one of my research participants made clear about their partnership: “All schools play an *equal* role in it…it's the idea that we're all learning from each other that I think just works.”

As independent schools face an uncertain future, perhaps this is a fitting time to reflect on what students, staff and schools from both sectors can gain from working together in equitable partnership.

If you are interested in reading more of Margaret’s PhD findings, you can access her thesis here.


About Dr Margaret Hunnaball

Dr Margaret Hunnaball is researcher in residence for the School Partnerships Alliance, and a trustee of the HMCK Charity.