The pandemic has posed a serious challenge to all organisations, independent schools included. Some have needed to bend or even suspend their core values in order to survive; others have held fast to their beliefs and adapted within them.
It is interesting to see how one facet of school life is weathering the storm: partnerships. Inter-school partnerships have grown rapidly in number and prominence in recent years, especially since the formation of the Schools Together Group which has brought professional discourse and support to partnerships, especially cross-sector relationships.
But since March 2020, while some schools have pivoted their inter-school collaborations online and adapted to the new challenges faced by their communities, others have reined in their provision and waited for the Covid clouds to pass.
Successful partnerships require strategic leadership which establishes a culture around community relations and then empowers those enacting that vision. But Covid has made it harder to maintain any clarity of purpose and getting schools to work together has been tough since relationships cannot be easily built or maintained.
A culture for partnerships
We often talk about the culture or ethos of a school, meaning its core beliefs, values and behaviours and this gives a good guide to the flavour of its inter-school and community relations.
Take a look at the stated ethos or mission statement on the website of any independent school and there is almost certain to be something about continuous learning and development, kindness or integrity, broadening horizons or outward engagement. These statements make for good starting points when developing a partnerships strategy.
Has the pandemic changed this?
Being honest about the challenges we have all faced and looking for collaborative solutions together might encourage some schools to be more open to working with others. In schools where the head has nurtured a culture of humility and openness, sustained engagement becomes much easier. The language has moved on from outreach to mutual help and support.
True partnership brings two-way benefits with measurable impact. And, like other whole-school policies, a school’s strategy for partnerships and community engagement should run through everything we do – like a message through a stick of rock – so that all stakeholders are in the loop, from governors and parents to staff and students.
Encouraging top-line messages of aims and benefits is helpful, but leaders’ warm words must be underpinned by genuine facilitation. Staff will require time and administrative help to visit their counterparts in partner schools to rebuild relationships and plan an impactful partnerships programme.
Relationships are the bedrock of successful partnerships and ensure that activities are founded on trust and planned together rather than offered out. After the hiatus of the last year and a half, heads can take a lead – perhaps meeting with other local heads and community leaders to take stock of what has happened. This can really lubricate the work of the head of partnerships.
Teamwork within schools has also taken a hit since the watercoolers or coffee machines have been spurned for social distancing. Many partnerships operate on collegiality and goodwill, so informal communication is really important. Conversations with teaching and non-teaching colleagues (catering, grounds, transport and development, for example) unearth opportunities and help to embed the culture for partnerships. These drop-in chats will hopefully become easier again with time.
New needs and solutions
What sort of partnership activities will we need to prioritise post-pandemic, and will we organise them differently? The pandemic has thrown up new needs but also new solutions. We are still facing uncertainty over the future of the examination system.
There is a curriculum gap for a whole generation of children. There is food poverty. Early-career teachers need reassurance and support after an extraordinary start to their careers. Restrictions and testing remain in place. Music, dance, drama, practical subjects and some sports have taken a real hit and need urgent reconstruction.
Some of these problems can be solved by schools working together and this has already begun with examples such as lab-based STEM catch-up days and sports summer schools; much more will emerge in the coming term as restrictions allow.
And the new technology that we all learned to adopt so rapidly in March 2020 can help: virtual teacher cluster meetings, shared learning resources, remote access to subject experts. Travel between partner schools used to be one of the biggest challenges (and costs) of collaboration, but now schools are able to meet more easily and even look further afield to make successful connections, convening virtually rather than relying on school transport.
The challenges one school is facing are likely to be similar to those of its partner schools, so we need to ask: is there any reason we cannot open up this cultural event/catch-up class/rehearsal to others? Heads can help by ensuring that budget is allocated to the necessary digital technology and training to facilitate this.
The mission statement of the Schools Together Group is “harnessing the power of partnerships for the benefit of children”. And although it might sound naively simple, that is what it boils down to. All children (and adults) in our communities have been affected by the pandemic and by working together all – especially the most disadvantaged – can benefit.
Questions to think about:
● Does our messaging around partnerships align with the school’s ethos?
● Are all our stakeholders on the same page about our strategy for partnerships?
● What needs does our school have which could be solved in partnership with others? And do we know what needs our partner schools have?
● Can we make use of new digital platforms to collaborate more closely?
● Does our head of partnerships have the time allocated to rebuild or establish our partnership strategy, programme and relationships? Do they need any professional support?
Christina is founder-chair of the Schools Together Group and was head of partnerships at The King’s School, Canterbury. She now provides bespoke leadership and partnerships consultancy in schools.