In the months since the coronavirus pandemic struck, journalists have developed a new lockdown lexicon to report – and interpret – these exceptional times. Whether recalling ‘unprecedented’ events or pondering ‘the new normal’, the stories that have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic are dotted with these sombre terms.
But there is one phrase that sticks out: ‘the great leveller’. We know that no two children or two schools are the same – and we know the effects of the pandemic have served to highlight society’s inequalities, not diminish them.
But, equally, as one headteacher of an independent school told me, state and private schools are held apart in political discourse. He grumpily recalled for me a story of a journalist who told him that state and independent schools are “worlds apart from each other”.
That headteacher, Bryanston’s Mark Mortimer, believes recent months have proved quite the opposite. “We’re not worlds apart; we’re all schools on a small island and we all believe in children.”
If there’s a story to tell about state and independent school partnerships, “I don’t think it is about independent schools handing out lots of resources,” he continues.
“Yes, we’re providing some resources. But from my experience it’s more than that. It’s about staff working together. It’s about relationships.”
Bryanston School, near Blandford Forum, has dispatched some spare laptops to nearby state providers to support them with distance learning, but it’s through a local schools’ association that Mortimer feels the cooperation between sectors can be witnessed best.
The Blandford Schools’ Network (BSN) comprises the heads of 11 primary and secondary schools from the independent and state sectors.
Since school closures were announced, their meetings have become more frequent – from twice a term, to once a week.
Mortimer stresses the common challenges he shares with the heads of the other schools: “The clothes that the problem is dressed in may be slightly different, but the issues we face are exactly the same.”
The clothes that the problem is dressed in may be slightly different, but the issues we face are exactly the same
Sally Wilson, head of The Blandford School, says the state school she runs has enjoyed a strong relationship with Bryanston for a long time, but the virtual BSN meetings have “strengthened further” the camaraderie between the leaders.
“The more you hear about other leader’s approaches really helps you reflect and make good decisions,” she adds.
Although the debate around reopening classrooms rages on, Mortimer and Wilson report that they, and the other members of the BSN, are quietly, diligently discussing how that might be achieved when the directive comes.
With the support of Dorset Council – which Mortimer repeatedly credits for their professionalism – the schools are coordinating what would be needed and what could be shared, from thermometers to cleaners.
In the interim, as Bryanston remains largely empty, staff and cleaners have visited BSN member schools that are open for the children of key workers in order to teach and pitch in.
But most of all, both heads credit the moral support they’ve offered each other.
Mortimer adds that in the early days of his career, cooperation between state and independent schools was “not a relationship of equals” and was characterised by loaning out facilities, like swimming pools and games fields, for an afternoon.
“It’s about more than that now, the cooperation is about development, training, values, pedagogy and sharing of best practice.
“We at Bryanston can learn as much from the smallest state primary in the BSN network as, hopefully, they can learn from us.”
Wilson adds: “Subject leaders from our schools have linked up to support each other. I do honestly believe that that is the way forward. There’s such an enormous amount of crossover and so many ways that we can help each other.”
Call for creativity
Sharing resources is one dimension of the work in state and independent school partnerships.
Support staff at the City of London School for Girls have packed up 43 laptops to send to Highbury Fields School, a local state school. Others are choosing to offer support in the form of time and expertise.
Two year 12 pupils at St Augustine’s Priory have shown their aptitude for website design by creating a new online learning resource platform for primary school pupils. Jasmine and Angela together designed the site, Priory Purpose: Creativity Counts, because the pair were worried under 11s may miss out on their creative education as schools slim down their teaching.
Guided by the school’s deputy head for co-curriculum, community and development, Faith Haggerty, the industrious duo uploaded website links to activities, puzzles and quizzes onto the platform to guide study in art, drama, creative thinking, digital arts, languages and music.
With the help of the school’s subject teachers, who contributed new resources and adapted existing materials from the junior school, Jasmine and Angela launched their platform in April.
Collaborative projects have sprung from several state-independent school partnerships. The Abingdon Science Partnership (ASP) – a STEM project led by Jeremy Thomas at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire – has long-helped develop learning opportunities for state pupils in the county, but self-isolation prompted a re-think.
Thomas worked with Holly Irving, a year two teacher and science coordinator at Caldecott Primary School, and Ruth Barnett, a year one/two teacher and science co-ordinator at Sunningwell Primary School, to produce remote learning resources for use both in schools supporting key worker children and for parents and children at home.
The ASP came into contact with Oundle School’s OPEN Learning Partnership via the Schools Together campaign. OPEN’s Steve Adams has developed home science resources for local state and private schools with partners at Imperial College and is now using the ASP webpage to help increase their availability for a wider audience.
“We may not be able to offer any hands-on workshops or activities,” Thomas says, “but we are determined that all the valuable work and expertise built up over the past five years is instantly put to use in supporting anything science-related that we can do remotely with our partners.”
He extended special thanks to Holly, Ruth and Steve, four teachers from the state and independent sectors that he credited as “true partners in science education”.
Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), says the ease of which online resources can be shared has helped school partnerships quickly scale up accessibility.
Another state-independent schools partnership, East Kent Schools Together, is collating resources for its seven member institutions.
The website also features useful safeguarding information and professional development guidance for teachers. The resources include general and subject-specific materials, as well as free virtual museum tours and educational challenges.
Based on the conversations she’s having with ISC heads, Robinson predicts what she describes as “a cascading of expertise” across the sectors – she singles out one school in London, West Lodge School in Sidcup, that is sharing its IT teacher with neighbouring Orchard Primary, with the aim to install a home learning system at the state school that all children can access.
West Lodge has committed to providing two hours help a day for every year group for as long as schools are closed. Another independent school has discussed with Robinson its plan for a summer catch-up programme, with places for local students from state schools.
Although returning to the normal routine might be some months away yet, Robinson says schools would be wise to start sharing what they’ve learned “in case of future pandemics”.
She says the return to classrooms could well be staggered, with year groups gradually returned to school grounds one by one. Considering the practicalities of social distancing, timetables and staff shortfalls could well demand new ways of working – all challenges that the ISC chief says schools could be well placed to consider together.
The best mutual relationships spring out of necessity, Robinson continues, but there is one area she is particularly keen to promote – particularly as it is an area that often flies beneath the radar.
“We know that nationally there’s a requirement for more school governors. Independent school governors can also be state school governors and vice versa. I’m a governor in a state school and an independent school in London.
“In fact, on my independent school governance body, we have a principal from a local state school. Those relationships create opportunities to talk about partnerships. What better way is there to strengthen these bonds in the post-Covid era?”
Those relationships create opportunities to talk about partnerships. What better way is there to strengthen these bonds in the post-Covid era?
As well as serving as head of Blandford School, Sally Wilson is also a governor at Clayesmore School, a nearby independent prep. One of Wilson’s governors is a retired teacher from Bryanston. This shows the links between state and independent schools often run deep – despite what the political discourse might infer.
Bryanston’s head says he hopes the recent weeks have “sped up massively” relationships between the BSN schools. “It’s not just about independent schools necessarily having more stuff that we can give. It’s about people giving their time, sharing ideas and offering moral support. We need to look out for one another.”
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