Building bridges

Schools are increasingly working together, not just to share resources and cut costs but also to enrich their offer, says Jane Hughes

If we’ve learnt anything from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s the value of collaboration – and the benefits and rewards that spring from communication and sharing. Many schools are already working in partnership to achieve common goals and offer their students greater opportunities. So we’ve profiled four successful initiatives to inspire your forward planning – whether you want to generate income, save money, improve provision or raise student aspirations.

Of course, the idea of partnership is not new. As Hayley Dunn, business leadership specialist at the ASCL, says: ‘Partnerships between groups of schools and colleges are now a widespread feature of the education system, whether that’s through multi-academy trusts or other collaborations. They enable schools to share facilities, staff expertise and equipment to help relieve pressure on stretched resources – although the scale of the school funding crisis far exceeds any savings.’

Schools might share access to sports and technology centres, or pool moderation and teaching resources. Business leaders, says Hayley, also benefit, through ‘local networking groups, where they can share good practice and explore joint purchasing arrangements’.

Other types of partnerships are appearing too. The British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme provides ‘Global Learning’ grants for projects between British and international schools. And STEM Learning’s ENTHUSE initiative brings groups of schools together to develop two-year improvement programmes, which are sponsored by industry.

Many private schools (which face ongoing questions about their charitable status) have increased collaboration with the state sector. In 2019, the DfE announced £220,000 of grant funding for cross-sector partnerships that demonstrate genuine impact, and the Schools Together Group – which has more than 500 independent and state school members – has been driving good practice around sustainability, impact and tackling disadvantage.

The cross-sector partnership

Kent is one of the few counties that retains a grammar school system – a form of educational segregation that is open to charges of elitism. So it’s interesting that a partnership between non-grammar and independent schools in the county has emerged as a success story of effective collaboration.

Established three years ago, East Kent Schools Together (EKST) has attracted thousands of pounds in funding for its extra-curricular student development programme, and is saving partner schools substantial sums through shared expertise, venues, resources and online subscriptions.

‘East Kent has a diverse demographic, with a large rural and coastal community that faces many economic challenges and feels quite isolated from London,’ says Christina Astin, head of partnerships at The King’s School, an independent secondary in Canterbury. ‘We know that schools can do more when they work together, so the aim of EKST was to expand educational provision, increase social cohesion, and widen student horizons.’

Initially, she admits, some state schools, were ‘sceptical’ of a partnership with the independent sector. However, four non-selective state schools (Herne Bay High School, Dover Christ Church Academy, St Anselm’s Catholic School and Spires Academy) signed up, along with three independents (The King’s School, St Edmund’s School and St Lawrence College). The partnership was given added clout by Canterbury Christ Church University being involved.

‘Every partner school recognises that pupil experience is broadened by collaborating with young people from different backgrounds, and by experiencing an enriched education beyond the curriculum,’ says Jon Boyes, principal of Herne Bay High. ‘We all pay the same annual levy of £2000, but each school has made cost savings and received benefits-in-kind far in excess of that. The fact that we can demonstrate the different ways in which each school has benefited has enabled us to secure additional funding to expand our work.’

Part of the levy goes towards a part-time coordinator, and EKST also received £5,000 in core costs for both 2018 and 2019 from The Lawson Trust, via the Kent Community Foundation. With such foundations in place, the partnership has been able to develop a range of events and projects. The Big Explore, for instance, was an outdoor pursuits experience for young people who needed help getting back on the right track, funded by local grant provider The Cleary Foundation. In early 2020, staff from all schools worked to organise The Big Chill – a ‘getaway’ event for Year 11 and 13 students feeling exam pressures. This involved a carousel of activities, from bookbinding to relaxation techniques and life-mapping, at a wellbeing centre run by The Bay Trust in St Margaret’s Bay.

Meanwhile, local grant provider The Crown Foundation (via Kent Community Foundation) and an anonymous donor each gave £5,000 to a collaborative art project, Rearranging Deckchairs, culminating in an exhibition of student work at Turner Contemporary in Margate.

On the strength of this track record, EKST has been awarded a DfE grant of £11,500 to run wellbeing and confidence-building workshops in each partner school over 15 months. These will offer support with oracy skills, personal statements, self-care sessions, mind-mapping tool-kits and study skills.

What makes this partnership work is its clear organisational structure and focus on making things happen. The headteachers meet as a steering group, and the programme is delivered by  a management group of teacher representatives. There are teacher cluster groups for every major curriculum subject, and further groups for finance, pastoral, SEN, and exam staff. This means EKST can combine its expertise and experience to deliver CPD, rather than send staff to courses in London. The university provides undergraduate outreach ambassadors to help facilitate events, and a Student Voice group organises fundraising events for charity.

The STEM-project partnership

Successful partnerships are driven by people who share similar values and ambitions. And when David Birkenhead, STEM coordinator at Ifield Community College in Crawley, met Dr Andrew Spiers MBE, director of science and technology at Ardingly College, two years ago, there was an instant meeting of minds over the project under discussion.

Ardingly had been running an extra-curricular design challenge to build a solar-powered car and was keen to join forces with a state school partner to share resources and teacher knowledge – and to involve more students in developing technologies to combat climate change and pollution. As a focus, the challenge was to design and build a two-seater car to take part in the gruelling Australian Bridgestone World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide, where, in 2019, the team outperformed major universities, including Cambridge.

‘The project combines the ethos of reuse and recycle with new technology,’ says David Birkenhead. ‘It’s the best thing I have ever done as a teacher – our students have acquired a phenomenal range of design, build and marketing skills, and have really developed as confident young people.

‘The Year 10s have given marketing presentations to business groups, and Ardingly sponsored two of our students to join the team of drivers and passengers in Australia.’

The project is based at Ardingly’s outdoor workshop and uses 3D printing facilities at Ifield. ‘The ICC team drive their students over every Saturday – and we work together,’ says Andrew Spiers. ‘It is brilliant – we have around 30 boys and girls, from Year 9 through to sixth form, pulling apart an old solar car and using that to build new vehicles.

‘We’ve also invited around 20 representatives from industry to come in and give talks,’ The next goal for the students, he says, is to get a flatpack version of the car out to Kenya, with the idea that it doubles as a solar energy generator to provide an off-grid power supply.’

The networking partnership

The East Grinstead Groups of Schools (EGGS) is a partnership of two secondary and 14 primary state schools, which aims to raise the achievement of learners ‘through collaborative networking’. It was set up as a community interest company, initially to bid for West Sussex council funding (for SEND and counselling) that the schools could not access individually. Today, says Paul Street, deputy headteacher at Sackville School (an 11-18 secondary), EGGS supports its members professionally and financially by sharing good practice and offering training at cost.

‘We have tremendous expertise across our network and draw on this to run sessions in First Aid, positive handling and learning mentoring, as well as bursar and governor training,’ says Paul. ‘We also have professional network groups, including bursars and SENCOs, that meet regularly.’

The network is especially useful for primary school headteachers, who don’t have the leadership teams that secondary heads have, he says. ‘The heads meet regularly to discuss ongoing and emerging issues, and are able to develop greater consistency in pupil progress through moderating children’s work across schools. Communicating across schools and key stages is also a great way to support transition through a 13-year curriculum.’ The schools collaborate on community events too, including the popular EGGSFest music concert, which features a choir of more than 500 primary pupils among its acts.

Skills-building partnership

Providing specialist teaching and facilities, particularly for sports and science, is difficult for many primary schools. Yet Diarmuid Skehan, headteacher at St Aidan’s Primary in Coulsdon, has been able to scale up what his school can offer through two partnerships with secondary schools. In the first, his school has benefited from moves by the independent Trinity School to strengthen links with primaries across Croydon.

One initiative is for three Trinity PE teachers to rota the delivery of rugby and hockey coaching to primary pupils and run INSET sessions for teachers.

‘We are a one-form-entry faith school of 220 children, so we can’t offer the resources available in bigger schools and our training budget is tiny,’ says Diarmuid. ‘The input from Trinity has transformed our provision, making us more attractive to prospective pupils and parents. ‘Not only can we use the school’s pool and hockey pitch, but the standard of pupil coaching is excellent. My staff have benefited from free CPD and I’ve improved my own teaching of tag rugby by shadowing one of the Trinity team.’

The sports initiative is just one strand of a larger partnership programme being developed by Trinity, which is governed by the John Whitgift Foundation (set up in 1596 to educate the young and care for the elderly in Croydon). Today, Trinity is intent on building on that history of social responsibility, with activities including STEMlink, where hundreds of Year 5 pupils come to Trinity’s DT lab each year to design and build a model vehicle, as well as CHEMlink and COMPlink (computer) challenges.

Interestingly, it was a personal connection that led St Aidan’s to another partnership that has helped expand its science provision. ‘A parent whose child attended our school is a science teacher at Sutton Grammar and wanted to build links with us,’ says Diarmuid. ‘He has run showcase STEM lessons for Years 5 and 6, and arranged for our pupils to have regular use the grammar school science labs, which has been absolutely fantastic.’

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