Creating effective partnerships by Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE, Chair of the Independent State School Partnership Forum (ISSP)

Many educational leaders will have been engaged in cross sector collaboration with schools in their locality and in some instances much further afield; including overseas. We know that pupils and staff benefit from the opportunity to work with schools different to their own and most of us are clear that aspirations can be raised and social mobility impacted upon. Nevertheless what many school leaders often ask is: “How we make it happen and if we are successful, what needs to be done to sustain the relationship, so that it becomes embedded into school life?”

In February members of the ISSP forum met with the secretary of State, Nicky Morgan and Lord Nash, to discuss ways of generating partnerships but also how to sustain them, whilst ensuring that they are effective. The first word that arose was reciprocity-like any relationship there needs to be mutual respect, as well as mutual benefit, otherwise one member of the relationship eventually becomes resentful as to the amount of selfless giving and the partnership breaks down.

We agreed that ISSPs are often created by like-minded people who meet at professional events and realise that they share a vision and have met someone with a capacity to work collaboratively in the pursuit of empowering young people. It is inaccurate to imagine that ISSPs evolve solely through links between headteachers, as many are initiated by governors and teaching staff, but what is clear is that the Heads have to buy in to the concept, otherwise they will inevitably fail due to being placed as a low strategic priority in terms of resources, human and financial.

Time allocation is critical to shaping a vision for how the partnership will evolve and therefore a memorandum of understanding is a good starting point for any new collaboration. A frank discussion regarding expenditure, staffing, transport, venue, lines of accountability and the means and criteria for evaluation are also major factors in collaborative success. If you leave these things to chance it is likely that misunderstanding, or occasionally, resentment can surface and then the trust could be lost. Once that occurs it is unlikely that any future initiatives will be shared between the two schools. Therefore an ISSP needs to be structured, rigorous and purposeful. It is not about the combined parties feeling good about what they are doing but rather that a specific need has been identified at the outset and critical success factors pertinent to each establishment have been agreed, which place children’s needs at their core.

Successful partnerships possess the freedom to innovate, they focus on particular strengths being offered to support pupils from other schools, who in turn, bring new things to the table and in that way any obstacles can be creatively overcome. They should not be dependent upon one individual but embedded into the school system. When ISSPs fail it is often because they were driven by a highly motivated, resourceful leader who then leaves the school and because of a lack of collaboration in the early stages of the partnership, others are often daunted by the workload that they perceive they will have to undertake, and the partnership inevitably becomes too much of a challenge.

Therefore if ISSPs are focused on the exchange of best practice, along with critical success factors and embedded into the school’s strategic development plan, they are far more likely to have the support of the head teacher and leadership team because they will be focusing attention on measurable benefit.

It is also vital to include parents, for long term impact. A pupil may engage in an aspirational experience but if they are not encouraged by their parents, then they are less likely to pursue their dreams. Equally there may be fee paying parents who resent staff being allocated to non-fee paying pupils. Providing parents with the opportunity to observe the benefits of their child engaging in an interschool physics activity, performing in a concert, or sports event, with pupils from other schools, mentoring physically challenged pupils, or staff and pupils speaking in public about the benefits they perceive that such a partnership brings, will undoubtedly provide greater insight to sceptical parents from both sectors. We live in a world where expectations need to be consistently high for all children; in all schools, and ISSPs are an economical and creative way of furthering that aim.

This article was first published in The Times.

About the author

Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE is Chair of the Independent State School Partnership Forum (ISSP) and Director of DLB Leadership Associates Ltd.