At the recent VWV Independent School’s Conference, Julie Robinson, the General Secretary of the Independent School Council suggested that independent/state partnerships constituted a better chance than ever to showcase the both the contribution and value of the sector to education in England. In the current uncertain political climate, proving ‘public benefit’ was not only vital but an important piece of the ISC’s armoury to win the hearts and minds of the voting public. She encouraged all schools present, not only to engage in partnerships but more importantly to publicise them, even to the extent of mentioning them in the mandatory Charity Commission returns. She also encouraged schools to benchmark their contributions on a regular basis to ensure their contributions were cost-effective and worthwhile.
The essence of any partnership, of course, is reciprocity. There are currently some concerns that independent/state partnerships are largely a one-way street. However, as true as this may be, it would be well to reflect that Bill Gates recently stated, that ‘the super-successful must be held to a higher standard.’ As education should contain more than a fair amount of altruism, this point is well made but not all independent schools have the resource for partnerships. In this regard, the ISC has worked hard to ensure the Department for Education understands that independent schools can give only to their individual capabilities.
Partnerships therefore can come in all shapes and sizes. They can be major schooling collaborations, sharing of facility, teaching resources, staff, etc. As an erstwhile Head of a none too financially well blessed northern boarding school, I had an interesting foray into the world of partnerships more than a decade ago. With admissions reduced to two-form entry we were failing to live up to our sports fixture list, particularly in terms of rugby. I decided to make my way 400 metres from the front gate to the local Roman Catholic High School, to see if any of their boys would like to play in our matches. It was not a poaching exercise, as the High School did not have any rugby teams: although they had a strong tradition of their boys playing for local clubs. Thankfully, my opposite number thought this was a great boon and it was the beginning of a relationship that later covered many other areas. As we know in these things, perhaps the first step is the hardest. There was also a delicious irony in the situation; as an Anglican Foundation we were sitting on the estate, that might best be euphemistically referred to as having been ‘appropriated’, from a leading local Catholic family in the time of Good Queen Bess!
Beyond partnerships, however, there must be a realisation that independent education is as equally community-based as its state counterpart. In many cases and especially in rural areas, independent schools are often not only a major employer but also the provider of business to local services and suppliers. One valuable, and often overlooked, exercise for schools seeking to justify their worth, is to commission an ‘economic impact survey’ showings its real financial value to the local community. The results are often astounding, and it quickly produces a whole crop of potential new allies, from the local council through to the taxi driver whose business is dependent on the school run. Many of the benefits a school brings to a locality are not always as obvious as might be first thought.
Partnerships are a good thing. However, some would do well to remember that schools, independent or state, are by their very existence, a vital partnership in every community.