Working together across the sectors

Marion Gibbs CBE, former headmistress at James Allen Girls' School in Dulwich, writes about the benefits of cross-sector partnerships and how schools can get involved.

No school is an island and working with others is a very natural activity, despite the media hype about “Berlin walls” between state and independent schools or the government encouragement of a climate of competition between state schools.  I have been actively involved in independent-state school partnerships for the past 21 years and have found this stimulating and exciting, as have our teachers and students. The underlying philosophy of partnerships is that we all have things that we can learn from one another.  We want to share good practice and explore innovative ideas together to benefit our staff and our students.  It is too easy for specialist staff to become isolated from others working in their own area; the era of the local teachers’ centre has long gone.  As for our students, we need to break down any barriers which may exist and to help young people learn to work together with others from different schools and backgrounds. 

So, how do you start and what will help you to build a strong and lasting relationship?

  • It is all about collaboration and learning from and with one another
  • Take time to get to know your would–be partners before setting up a major project
  • Establish what each one of you needs or would value and what you might offer
  • Start small and grow
  • Inviting students from other schools to events where there is space is a good place to start e.g. visiting speakers for A level subjects where numbers from individual schools may be small
  • Sharing school-based CPD with others is also a good opener, be it subject specialists, pastoral speakers, first aid or manual handling; all benefit from economies of scale
  • Benefits should be for all participating schools and for both students and teachers, although some projects may involve one group more than another
  • Identify key staff to maintain the links with partner schools, but make sure all staff know about the partnership
  • Try not to let any partnership rely on just one individual from any school; aim to imbed it more widely, as key staff may move schools
  • Be prepared for failures – not everything will work – be ready to keep trying
  • Think carefully about potential “blockers” such as timetabling conflicts or travelling issues
  • Be open with parents and governors about what you are doing – there is nothing to be ashamed of and much to be celebrated
  • Don’t allow partnerships to be used to talent-spot and poach staff or pupils from other schools
  • If you have no close neighbours to work with, think about collaborating over the internet
  • Contact other schools which have successful experience in this area and ask for advice
  • Make sure that you monitor progress and evaluate the outcomes – this is vital if any sort of external funding is involved but is also very good practice
  • Keep an open mind and be ready to persevere! Just as in any partnership, things may not always run smoothly, but it is definitely worth making the effort. 

At James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS), where I was headmistress for 21 years until retiring in summer 2015, we were involved in many partnerships over the years.  A few had start-up funding, most did not; some involved one other school, others a group of schools; some were formal and others informal.  Once you have begun to form links, things grow and develop quite organically.   We undertook a huge range of activities ranging from a Year 2 partnership between our pre-prep and a local state primary, focusing on gifted mathematicians and involving weekly exchange visits by pupils and staff, to eco-activities and pond dipping and sixth form conferences in subjects such as philosophy and modern languages, to mention only a few.

Our major and longest existing partnership started in 2003 and is still carrying on.  The Southwark Schools’ Learning Partnership (SSLP) was set up jointly by me and a state school colleague, Irene Bishop from St Saviour’s & St Olave’s CE School – we had started as heads together in Southwark in 1994 and knew each other well. The SSLP was set up under the auspices of Tim Brighouse’s London Challenge and the (then) DfES and received an initial grant from the Independent-State School Partnership Fund.  We had funding for the first few years and employed a part-time co-ordinator, but since then we have all paid a subscription of £1,000 pa from CPD budgets and a senior member of staff from each school is a named LINK.  It initially comprised 3 Southwark independent schools and 6 state secondary schools.  Over the years, the state schools have changed, some have become academies, some have dropped out and new ones have joined, but we have always had 9 or 10 members.  Our mains aims have always been:

  • For staff and students from schools in both sectors to work together to develop innovative practice and to share and broaden their experience in order to improve teaching and learning in the SSLP schools
  • To raise student achievement by enhancing students’ involvement in their own learning and by helping teachers to develop models of highly effective teaching

Each year since its inception, our partnership has tried to encompass a wide range of activities in pursuit of our aims.  We have had a main theme or focus each year (e.g. “what helps students learn well” or “bridging the gap, helping less advantaged students to access HE courses”), but we have also included partnership-wide music, drama, art and sporting major events, subject specific events for groups of students from different schools working together, schools working in pairs or trios with staff and students on particular projects and staff learning together and from one another. 

Examples of our activities include:

  • Regular links between departments across our schools, sharing good practice, visiting one another’s schools, observing lessons and sharing resources
  • Automatically inviting staff and students from all other SSLP schools to any lectures, conferences or special events for particular subjects or CPD which any of us are organising, thus increasing the quality and range of activities available to all
  • NQTs working on QTS or school-based GTP spending part of their time in another SSLP school (ranging from a day or two to 6 weeks), sometimes exchanging roles
  • Providing specialist teaching to aid another partner school, for example, Classics or Music
  • Using one another’s staff and resources to offer mock university interviews and university preparation to students from all our schools and sharing expertise in UCAS and HE knowledge, including preparation for BMAT and LNAT

  • Organising joint presentations for all SSLP students by speakers from universities both UK and overseas

  • Community Action partnerships
  • Student-led enquiries on what helps them to learn well, run over 4 successive years with an annual conference each summer in the Executive Suite at Millwall Football Stadium
  • A series of CSI-type investigation days, with pairings from different schools, to explore and promote different aspects of science
  • A joint trip to CERN for 6th form Physicists and a week at an Arvon Creative Writing Centre for 6th form English students
  • A continuing series of philosophy lectures for students in Year 10 and Year 12
  • Debate training workshop
  • Modern languages days for students from all the schools and joint trips
  • Eco-days where students from all our schools shared their experience of becoming environmentally-friendly schools and worked with experts on team challenges
  • “Glee” days and jazz band days where students from each of our schools work together on producing a high quality musical performance in a day
  • Two major concerts at Southwark Cathedral, where students from all the different partner schools played together in orchestras and bands and sung in combined choirs, working together not competing
  • Drama days where students from all the schools have worked together to produce a play in a day or to learn about specific backstage and dramatic techniques
  • “Make a film in a day”, teams of students with representatives from all the different schools in each competed in a film festival to make a short film in a day under the guidance of professional film makers
  • Alternative sports day – involving non-traditional sports and games and “silly sports”, with mixed teams with representatives from all the different schools in each
  • A major partnership with Inspiring Futures, who delivered with us a series of workshops in our different schools, each attended by students from all, about access to different HE and career options  – making best use of our combined resources
  • A sixth form library link between two schools to enable students to use library and specialist resources for A-level and EPQ research and to avail themselves of membership of the London Library
  • In autumn 2013 SSLP was awarded a grant for a 2 year project as part of the London Schools Excellence Fund (LSEF) scheme.  Our project was called “Inspiring and Sharing teaching Excellence”.  Through working initially with the Prince's Teaching Institute and through peer collaboration, teachers enhanced their subject knowledge and explore innovative and effective pedagogy. They produced and trialled resources and lessons promoting excellent teaching, learning and achievement in English, Chemistry, Physics and MFL (French and Spanish).  The project expanded to a number of other local state schools in Southwark, Lewisham, Greenwich and Lambeth and the project eventually involved at first-hand 54 teachers and almost 1,000 pupils. The materials were submitted for dissemination throughout London secondary schools via the LSEF and the Mayor’s Fund.

We all gain a huge amount from working together - there is a great spirit of collegiality and mutual respect.  I thoroughly recommend it.

Marion Gibbs CBE (recently retired Headmistress)



About the author

Former Headmistress at James Allen Girls' School