Back in February 2014, Rod Mackinnon, Head of Bristol Grammar School and Anne Burrell, Principal of the Merchants’ Academy wrote a piece in The Telegraph on independent-state school partnerships. Here is the article in full, in which they make the case for a meeting of minds, rather than money, and the sharing of excellent practice wherever it may be found. Credit: The Telegraph.
It is a challenge commonly posed to independent schools that they should do more to share their riches with counterparts in the state-funded sector; Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, picked up the refrain most noticeably in October last 2013 at the HMC conference. Last week, Secretary of State, Michael Gove, reignited the debate from a slightly different perspective, championing the raising of the bar in the state sector and setting out his vision for an educational landscape in which schools of all types are indistinguishable on the basis of their funding streams.
Two Bristol head teachers who have forged a very successful partnership across the funding divide, agree that reducing the debate to a stark financial equation of rich vs poor is at best inaccurate and, at worst, unambitious, patronising and politicised.
Rod Mackinnon, Head of Bristol Grammar School
“As independent schools, we are used to, albeit weary of, responding to accusations of elitism and hoarding of wealth. What is often forgotten, however, is that, for us, our very existence rests on meeting the expectations of those who pay the fees.
"Whilst state schools would no doubt argue the same, the sanctions imposed if they fail to please their paymasters are rarely as stark or as immediate as ours. In fact, state schools that are failing have money thrown at them; for us it is the opposite as parents quickly withdraw.
“So, yes, the business models are very different but, in my experience of teaching in both independent and state funded schools, I have rarely found that it is money but rather attitude that hampers flourishing partnerships between schools.
“The assumption is that it is the tight fisted independents unwilling to share what they have, however, I have come up against more than one state schoolteacher who is simply unwilling in principle to engage with colleagues in the independent sector. The politicised mindset of many means it can never be a two-way conversation.
“It’s encouraging that, rather than bashing independent schools again, the Secretary of State has this week laid down the gauntlet to those state schools that are not willing to engage with what’s on offer and ask them why.
“Of course, we in the independent sector are not blind to our privileges: there is no doubt that we are shielded from routine political changes and have more freedom to chart a course that suits our aims and ethos.
"It would be absurd to suggest we didn’t want to see that same freedom available to colleagues in the state-funded sector, but that scenario is reliant on the depoliticisation of state education such that Government is empowered to set strategic goals and professional educators, not Ministers, enabled to focus on the details of execution in a particular context.
“In my view, Michael Gove could still do more to change conditions for state schools to make that possible.”
Anne Burrell, Principal of the Merchants’ Academy
“I agree that attitude is central and we have made it a cornerstone of our strategy here to reach out to the best sources of expertise and resource wherever they may be found – and that may mean other schools, businesses, charities and higher education establishments.
“The key to making it work is not simply forcing a school deemed to be rich to marry up with one deemed to be struggling and leave them to get on with it. One needs to identify the need in a school (and it is not the case that the only need exists in the ‘poor relation’) and find the right partner to help them meet that need.
“It may be surprising for some state-funded schools or academies to know that they have something to offer the independents – and for the independents to consider accepting it.
“Big Government changes seem to dominate the agenda for many state school teachers nowadays and there is not the space there was when I started out in teaching for discussion of the detail and sharing of experience at a local or regional level.
"The demise of the LEA has also meant the disappearance of those natural networks of support, advice and encouragement among teachers in similar fields. Schools are having to forge those relationships more intentionally now and seek out the support that’s right for them.
“In our case, that manifests itself in links with schools such as BGS but also with the University of Bristol, businesses in the city and charities including our own sponsoring body, the Society of Merchant Venturers. But those relationships haven’t appeared overnight, nor are they arbitrary.
"The organisations we partner with are the ones where we find examples of the excellence we want to promote, or where just the very process of talking and sharing bears fruit for both parties.
“As in all things, relationship is crucial. No one wants to be seen as the poor relation – but if it’s presented as a two-way exchange, who wouldn’t want to sign up?”.