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Partnerships in a time of coronavirus

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Christina Astin, founder-chair of the Schools Together Group, offers support for partnerships coordinators ahead of the return to school.

This blog was first published on the ISC website on 28 Aug 2020. 

What are school partnerships going to look like this term? Most partnership projects necessitate students and staff coming together from different schools; this movement will be very restricted for a while yet. As a partnership coordinator you probably have both school-wide responsibility and classes to teach. So your priorities for the term ahead will probably be focused on staffing pressures and curriculum redesigns, one-way systems and hand sanitiser. Does this mean that partnerships are on hold?

The urge to collaborate with partner schools to help each other get through this crisis will be strong. In recent years partnerships have risen up the agenda to become an integral and valued part of school life. There is a deep belief now amongst heads and governors that partnerships are essential for school excellence, supported as they are by the work of the Schools Together Group and encouragement from the ISC and DfE.

Many independent schools will be facing financial pressures right now and partnership coordinators will look admiringly (or enviously) at the ambitious Eton2020 project, which aims to spend £100 million on closing the gap in education. The near future will be about survival while we get used to being back at school and coping with all the Covid restrictions. So, what can partnership coordinators be thinking about until we can resume face-to-face events? Here are five thoughts I'd like to share:

1. Technology

Lockdown forced us to innovate. We've had to learn to teach students remotely (and safely) and connect with colleagues virtually. Can we use these platforms to keep in touch with our partner schools? Or even use the technology to explore new ways of collaborating, through shared CPD, online TeachMeets or talks from external speakers? Not being physically present may not be ideal but the advantages of cutting out travel are immense.

2. Student-led projects

Many partnership projects rely on colleagues' goodwill, something which could be in short supply as we all negotiate the constantly shifting sands of Covid safety guidance and exam grading. In the meantime, let's shine a spotlight on our students for their ideas, initiative and volunteering. While schools were closed there were heroic stories of students making PPE, raising money for laptops, sending activity packs to primary schools, writing letters to care home residents and giving their time to help others. The ISC's Community Action Group has championed some fantastic projects. With appropriate training, can our students connect with peers in partner schools for wellbeing support, academic mentoring or UCAS buddying? Older students can read to younger ones online or help with their maths. Let’s encourage the students themselves to identify ways to assist the vulnerable in our community (being mindful of safeguarding). However challenging it is for them right now, it's a good lesson in life to know that there is someone else worse off than themselves.

3. Closing the gap

We all know that home-schooling and the uneven access to online learning has widened the gap in academic attainment, but we are yet to learn how big the gap is. Some schools have organised summer schools or are planning future catch-up sessions for local students, while others are looking to share learning resources virtually with partner schools. Through teacher cluster groups, colleagues are able to discuss the guidance on reopening, centre assessed grades, wellbeing and other issues.

4. Time to organise

While 'live' events remain off-limits, this might be a good time to do some 'partnerships housekeeping', and put structures in place to support future partnerships work, looking at areas such as:

  • impact evaluation - designing a system to measure the effectiveness of your partnerships, or analysing the data you have already collected but have not had a chance to crunch
  • sustainability - how can you ensure the longevity of your partnership projects? Is it appropriate to secure a relationship now with a written partnership agreement or memorandum of understanding?
  • recording student involvement - many partnership projects involve an element of student volunteering. Finding a way to record this can improve student engagement and help them to appreciate the skills they are developing and the benefits to all

5. Time to reflect

As we negotiate an uncertain path through the autumn term the best option may be to zoom out, helicopter above and look at the big picture. It is definitely time to be kind to ourselves as we get used to being back at school.

Where are the priorities this term – partnerships, teaching, leadership? Which are the partners and projects we value most and want to hold on to? Should we call time on those elements which are less impactful? As leadership guru Peter Drucker said: "If you want something new, you have to stop something old". Perhaps there are fresh directions to explore in the current climate. With the seismic shift in society and education, it makes sense to re-evaluate your partnerships portfolio along with everything else.

Good luck with the term and year ahead! And don’t forget: the Schools Together Group is a network for all involved in school partnerships and a great support to call on in these challenging times.