Thinking of setting up an independent-state school partnership? These ten dos and don’ts might help.

Posted on: 24 Nov 2015

Christina Astin, Head of Partnerships at The King’s School, Canterbury, outlines some suggestions for setting up a cross-sector partnership or building on an existing one…

Cross-sector partnerships have featured widely in the press recently, and there’s a bit of a myth that independent / state school partnerships (ISSPs) are something new. In fact, most fee-paying schools have a long history of linking with the community around them for the sharing of resources and ideas. Collaborations with other schools and universities, businesses, churches and community groups have been essential for sustaining and developing our schools. The ‘island mentality’ is not only alien to independent schools but also somewhat maligning. The Independent Schools Council’s research shows that 93% of independent schools are engaged in some sort of partnership work (and I wouldn’t mind betting that the other 7% are, but they just don’t identify it as such).

Schools Together ( is a new website which is being developed: a directory of UK partnership projects organised by region or subject, uploaded by independent schools. For colleagues new to this area the website could be a valuable resource of ideas.

We partner with other organisations for many reasons, and yes – one of those is to enhance the school’s reputation locally. But there’s a very good reason why we call it partnership and not outreach: the benefits of teaming up with our colleagues in the state sector are – or should be – two-way.

If you’re looking to set up a new partnership or build up an existing one, there are a few pitfalls to avoid. Here are some suggestions, compiled from experience and not at all exhaustive or instructive, but might form a useful checklist for colleagues.

1. DO build on an existing link and keep it subject specific (at least at first). Personal contact is absolutely vital. You’ll know the people and schools involved and have a taste for whether it’s likely to work. A general partnership is less likely to succeed than one that has a subject focus. It helps to sell it and makes it more measurable. Ask colleagues in other schools where the need lies and see what matches up with what your school can offer in terms of expertise and /or facilities.

2. DON’T forget it’s partnership, not patronage. ALL schools can learn from each other, and all are aiming for the same goal of educating young people, so cross-fertilisation of ideas is vital for sharing good practice. There might be an imbalance of resources and expertise across the two sectors, but not always in the direction we might expect.

3. DO apply for funding. Few independent schools have the means to support partnership activities on top of their core business of teaching their own fee-paying pupils but are surprised to find that they might qualify for a grant. Sources of funding include certain educational charities (especially those which aim to widen access) and even local businesses or philanthropists. The funding can be spent on an extra teacher or a community building project. Some partnership groups charge a small administration fee annually to help cover the staffing necessary to co-ordinate a series of projects. This 'buy-in' can be an important factor in ensuring commitment to the successful development of a scheme.

4. DON’T underestimate the time it takes. From booking venues and checking photo permissions to analysing feedback forms and putting in catering requests – there is a lot for a manager to do. Accept all offers of help! The time spent trying to contact colleagues in other schools can be frustrating. Having an administrator take care of arranging meetings and events allows teaching staff to concentrate on delivering those partnership activities.

5. DO engage all partners at the highest level. It’s essential that headteachers and senior leaders commit to the partnership and will grant teachers’ or pupils’ time for partnership activities. A memorandum of understanding should be signed by all headteachers of the partner schools and governors should also be aware of what you are doing. It needs to be built into development plans and should be detailed in any annual return to the Charity Commission if your school is a charity.

6. DO be creative about building a network of partners beyond any of the schools involved. Local universities, education advisers and consultants, museums and other educational establishments may be able to provide useful expertise. Sometimes an independent school can simply facilitate the sharing of such resources for everyone’s benefit. Check the terms of any grants you have been allocated to see how much flexibility there is in how you go about achieving the stated aims. Keep thinking outside the box to see what else you can do to reach those aims and make sure you are in a position to take advantage of any opportunities that arise.

7. DO measure the effectiveness of your partnership, devising simple questionnaires for all teachers, pupils and senior leaders involved. Hard data is difficult to collect, but soft data showing how much people have enjoyed or learned from the experience is also valuable. Funders will expect to see this information, and it also guides planning for the future.

8. DON’T be shy! Make sure that each school in the partnership trumpets the benefits on their website and in the local press. Tell the local authority, your local MP, the council what you are doing. Ofsted love partnerships and expect outstanding schools to have made links with other schools. Other schools may draw inspiration from what you are doing.

9. DO think about the long-term sustainability of your partnership, after the funding ends. How can you enable the activities to continue, or resources to be shared (perhaps through a website)? This may be a requirement of any funding award.

10. DO enjoy all the benefits of running a partnership: meeting new people, seeing pupils’ engagement increase, learning lots!

First published November 2015 at

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