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The perfect partnership

Three independent schools share their enriching experiences of working in partnership with other schools

Posted by Hannah Vickers | March 07, 2017 | School life

When did your school start working in partnership with other schools?

Valerie Dunsford (VD), Headmistress at Sheffield High School: We started our first partnership at Sheffield High when I joined the school in 2004 and have increased the number of schools and projects every year since then. Our first project was funded by the ISSP initiative.

Sue Hincks (SH), Headmistress at Bolton School Girls’ Division: Bolton School has a long-standing interest in partnerships with other schools. Our founder, Lord Leverhulme, wanted to make a Bolton School education available to everyone who would benefit from it, regardless of means. We try to get there with our Bursary Scheme, which supports one in five pupils in the two senior schools (the Boys’ and Girls’ Divisions) but we know we can’t meet the demand so working in collaboration with other schools to share staff expertise and our facilities is the next best thing. 

Charlotte Avery (CA), Headmistress at St Mary’s, Cambridge: I was a founding member of the Cambridge City Faith Schools’ Group (CCFSG) 10 years ago along with Joe McCrossan, Head of St Alban’s Catholic Primary School, and a previous Head of St Bede’s Inter-Church School, the highly successful Christian state school in Cambridge. The mutual cooperation and goodwill of the three Heads led to us setting up partnership work between the schools. Essentially we all wanted to create new links between like-minded schools. In the past we have offered our facilities for state schools’ use, including our hall, food technology room, dedicated art centre and our mini-buses. Once we have upgraded our Long Road sports facilities, a project which is currently awaiting planning approval, we intend to share these state-of-the-art facilities with our neighbouring maintained schools. 

What were the initial challenges and what worked well? 

VD: The initial challenge was trying to get state schools to engage with us as they were initially suspicious about our motives. We are very fortunate to have had a supportive children’s services department at the local council and over the years have built up the trust of schools. We now have state schools who approach us wanting to be involved.

How has the school responded to the partnership?

VD: Our staff have always been very keen to be involved. We ask that all our subject departments include an outreach target in their annual development plans and most are very proactive in coming up with great ideas for new projects. Our own students, particularly in the Sixth Form, also come up with ideas and offer to help run projects. All of our Sixth Form and most of our Y10 and Y11 students complete voluntary service and our partnerships are always over-subscribed; sixth formers want to assist because they gain so much from working with the children.

SH: Our staff, parents and pupils all value what we do – it is part of our DNA!

How has the partnership been impacted by recent political developments?

VD: Recent political developments have not had any impact at all. We will continue to seek out opportunities to extend the partnership work we do because we benefit from these projects just as much as the schools we work with.

CA: It hasn’t been impacted at all. Politics will not hinder what we already do nor negatively impact the relationships we have developed with local schools. We welcome the government’s Green Paper, in so far as it might encourage and enable more inter-school relationships to be fostered and more to be done to improve access to a quality education for all young people. 

SH: We do fear that recent political developments may force us to go down a particular ‘route’ – for example, sponsoring an academy – which would inevitably have an impact on all that we do here.

What advice would you give to independent schools who are thinking about starting a partnership?

VD: It is important to build the trust of the schools and the staff you want to work with. It is also vital that you are clear from the very beginning about the benefits to all partners involved, and that you have a clear, agreed set of aims.

SH: My key advice is to work with people who are as enthusiastic about what you are doing as you are: it is all about relationships. Each side of the partnership needs to play to its strengths. 

CA: Find a school which is geographically close enough for regular and long-term initiatives to be practically workable. It’s also essential to ensure the school is aligned in its ethos to your own school. St Bede’s is a co-educational school catering for students aged 11 to 18, and ours is an all-girls’ school providing education to girls aged four to 18 – but in terms of values, ethos and our aims, we are well aligned.

What’s next? What does the future hold for partnerships? 

VD: Most of our partnerships focus on working with schools in areas of high deprivation and I strongly believe this is where our focus should be.

CA: We want to continue to explore the links between the two schools as much as possible. As I am a Governor at St Bede’s I have met with the school’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and our own SLT will also be meeting with the team so we can continue to learn from each other

SH: I think that, as long as a top down approach doesn’t force a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to independent/state partnerships, collaboration will continue to grow as we all have so much to learn from each other. 

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