The following is a condensed version of a speech about the benefits of independent-state school partnerships given by Harry Chapman at the seminar on Social Mobility held by the Westminster Education Forum on 27th January. Harry is Director of Partnerships and Outreach at King’s College School, Wimbledon.
Ever since its creation by Heather McKissack MBE in 2003 as a response to the London Challenge, the Wimbledon Independent-State Schools Partnership has supported its partner schools’ sixth forms. Pupils in years 10 and 11 are invited to academic lectures and extension classes at King’s College School, while staff involved in the university applications process at the different schools are invited to an annual forum for the sharing of best practice. But it was only when Deborah Walls, Head of the Coombe Academy trust, expressed her frustration at the fact that too few of her sixth-formers were getting offers from Russell Group universities, that a member of the King’s staff was asked to run a series of weekly sessions designed to support sixth-formers at Coombe and another partner school with their Oxbridge applications. In the course of the autumn term, the applicants had their personal statements checked by subject specialists and were prepared for interviews. So you can imagine our delight on learning that five members of the Coombe and Ricards Lodge sixth forms have received Oxbridge offers this year, the first ever at those schools.
The independent school which chairs an ISSP which continues to operate in the way envisaged when it was founded is faced by a dilemma. Should the resources it invests – because King’s funds the partnership – continue to be directed towards sharing resources between the partner schools, or should we be creating opportunities for pupils to go to different types of school?
Our Junior Aspirations project – which provides weekly sessions for gifted Year 5s from four local primary schools that are designed to prepare them for Year 6 entry tests to selective senior schools – has had some success, with a few pupils gaining bursaries to enable them to attend our junior school, and over three-quarters of the others getting in to selective schools. This project complements the head master of King’s Andrew Halls’ decision to introduce Year 7 entry to our senior school in order to extend the number of bursaries the school offers to pupils.
More challenging in terms of the original goals of the partnership is the fact that the number of partner school pupils applying for sixth-form bursaries at King’s has increased slightly in recent years, and this may in part be due to the increased familiarity with the school caused by our Senior Aspirations project, in which 70 pupils on Free School Meals who will be first-generation scholars are chosen each year to experience a three-year programme of inspirational sessions and excursions at a rate of two or three a term. These include visits to theatres and universities, talks by eminent speakers, and a session about the benefits of applying to university. But the irony of this must be set against the many forms of support we offer the partner schools, which range from several of us serving as governors to the weekly GCSE reinforcement classes we provide to over 150 Year 11s after school throughout the spring term. These have coincided with an increase in the percentage of pupils gaining A*-C in five good GCSEs from an average of 49% across the seven schools in 2008 to 68% in 2015.
The core purpose of the ISSP has always been to provide the opportunity for the schools to learn from each other. It is from its partner schools, for example, that King’s has learned to be more systematic in the area of professional development – thanks to the partnership, King’s is the only independent school in the Kingston Schools Teaching Alliance, chaired by Coombe. The shared management courses run for teachers at the Coombe schools and King’s have increased the quality of middle management at those schools, while trainee teachers benefit from the opportunities for teaching practice which the partnership affords.
The partnership also enables pupils at King’s and its partner schools to work together in mutually beneficial ways. The three hundred or so of our pupils in years 10-13 who mentor younger children or engage in joint projects at our secondary partner schools and over twenty primary and special schools in timetabled time every Friday have gained invaluable experience of a sort not often available to pupils of their background. Our sixth-formers have helped to introduce Chinese and Latin at partner secondary schools – in the case of Latin in a truly exceptional way, as pupils at Coombe Girls’ who enjoy an introduction to Latin in year 7 may go on to study short course Latin GCSE and Classical Civilisation in the Coombe sixth form due to the generosity of a King’s parent. It is one of the Coombe girls who began with us in Year 7 who has an offer to read Classics at Oxford. Our twice-yearly science course for pupils in Year 8 at three of the partner schools has proved as popular with the sixth-form boys and girls who deliver it as with the Year 8 pupils who attend, while the drama and music departments at eight schools including King’s learn new skills from each other while preparing our annual community production.
The dilemma about whether to continue to support and learn from other schools or to assist gifted pupils to move out of them may provide another perspective on one of the questions facing the education system, which brings pressure to bear on schools to improve their results while opening rival schools at the same time. As the semi-privatisation of the system continues to increase the diversity of schools, perhaps the relation between King’s and its partners may be a useful model for the way different schools can continue to support each other, even when there is a degree of rivalry between them. If it is the case – as the Wimbledon ISSP demonstrates – that the difference between schools can make the collaboration between them even more exciting, perhaps the traditional Independent-State Schools Partnership is not an endangered species after all. Perhaps, in fact, it is a model that should be applied more widely?
Photograph: The schools minister, Lord Nash, with Andrew Halls and head teachers of schools in the Wimbledon ISSP.