In his excellent contribution to the September 2018 issue of HMC Insight Magazine, Dr Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College, highlighted recent developments in cross-sector partnerships and (rightly) repudiated the charge that the independent sector has only tinkered in this area.  Across the country and over many years schools have been engaged in various types of cross-sector partnership, benefiting thousands of pupils and building important and durable links between teachers and leaders. Independent State School Partnerships (ISSPs) have been at the forefront of this critically important work, but also much has been achieved through bilateral arrangements and other forms of collaboration.

In recent years much partnership work has focused on pupil-facing activities, such as gifted and talented programmes, the provision of additional twilight courses at GCSE, and the raising and channelling of aspiration for post-18 study, and especially towards the most competitive courses and universities, where widening access remains an imperative.  There are, of course, brilliant opportunities for these hugely important activities to be further developed and embedded, especially in localities where such work is still in its infancy.  The important work Schools Together in promoting partnership work, and the welcome increase in interest and support from the DfE, as well as the ever growing appetite for collaboration among schools of schools of all types, bodes well for the future of cross-sector collaboration.

Joe Spence hits the nail on the head in arguing that independent schools have a great deal to learn from the state sector in areas such as data ‘sharpness’ – to which I would also add the effective support of pupils of diverse ability ranges within the classroom, among several other areas.  While Joe rightly cautions us against excessive generalisation, the enduring differences he notes in teaching cultures between the independent and state sectors underscores the importance of a two way flow of best practice.

His article also notes the work of Teaching Schools, which have considerably expanded opportunities for initial teacher training and continuing professional learning.  Teaching School Alliances, which have the networks, know-how and infrastructure to facilitate exchange, could play a key role in brokering mutually beneficial cross-sector work.  I would like to see more Teaching School Alliances becoming facilitators of exchanges between the independent and state sectors, as is already the case in those led by King Edward VI High School for Girls and by Wellington College, among others.

If partnership work is to be based – as of course it should be – on parities of esteem between the capabilities of the independent and state sectors, we therefore need to leverage some of the state sector systems that have emerged over the last two decades to benefit as many pupils as possible – including those in independent schools.  While many independent schools are privileged in their access to resources and staffing, this state of affairs is far from universal, and all institutions could benefit considerably from access to research-informed practices and to the networks supporting areas such as leadership, pedagogy and assessment that have emerged over the last decade principally within the state sector, for example through Research Schools.

Cross-sector partnerships also need to embrace those self-forming teacher communities woven by the filaments of social media. Twitter has proven to be an impressively disruptive force in educational discourse and professional learning, defeating constraints of geography and resource to link teachers with other communities, such as academic neuroscience, resulting in significantly enhanced understanding in areas such as memory, cognition and retrieval practice.  Those of us involved in cross sector partnership work can learn much from the accelerated evolution of movements such as ResearchEd, which function independently of institutional hierarchies (and are doubtless much more effective as a result).

A further priority for cross-sector partnership must now be to support deep subject understanding in teacher learning, not just in initial training, or in shortage areas, but across the curriculum. The fostering of a sense of sense of ownership and excitement around a subject, where extension work and pupil independent reading and research can flourish, is an ever more urgent priority in an age where domain-specific knowledge is regaining its status in educational discourse. Christine Counsell’s recent and welcome calls for curriculum to be a school leadership priority surely presents opportunities for collaborative construction across the sectors.

However, shared professional learning should not be confined to the sectoral axis of  independent and state in secondary education. One of the crucial challenges for teaching and learning across the coming decades is better vertical integration of subject understanding between schools, universities, professional bodies and learned institutions such as museums and libraries. This has long been recognised in STEM subjects, in part driven by the historic convergence of university and employer concerns over student numbers and the fragility of graduate supply (and more recently by governmental economic priorities), which has resulted in exciting activity in areas such as teacher subject knowledge enhancement, and summer taster courses for pupils, especially focusing on those from less advantaged backgrounds.

A similar re-engagement is now urgently needed in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Languages. Teachers in these disciplines need structured and supported opportunities to engage with academics to understand how their subjects are conceptualised,  researched and taught at university level.  As well as supporting teacher development, this engagement could also help schools in framing study opportunities in these subject areas to pupils from backgrounds where access is less of an expectation.

The interesting work of Will Bailey-Watson and Charlotte Crouch at the University of Reading to connect trainee History teachers and History PhD students offers a model for such professional dialogue, which surely has the potential for broader replication. Therefore, at a national level there is surely an opportunity for partnership work to be aligned not only horizontally across the sectors, but also vertically between the tiers. (Could there be some form of national academic library membership scheme to enable all teachers to access resources, both digitally and in print forms ?)

Accountability pressures relating to school partnership work are unlikely to diminish. While the political pressures are felt most strongly by the independent sector, leaders in all schools are confronted by tough and constraining choices over the commitment of both pupil and staff time to partnership work, and the imperative of demonstrating measurable impact.  While the need to reconcile investment to impact is a fact of life in a world of sharply limited resources, I hope that partnership work will always hedge its activities between those that deliver measurable outcomes (such as additional GCSESs for example) with more open-ended exposure to those intellectual and cultural experiences that are typically available to pupils in the best resourced settings.

Partnership activity throws up as many questions as it answers. But all state and independent schools leaders whom I know to be engaged in partnership such work do so because they believe that there will be real benefit to the pupils involved, ever mindful of the scarce resources of time and money committed.  Pupil benefit should always be the prime motivation, and evaluation of outcome should emphasise the formative experience and access to knowledge and cultural capital, as well as qualifications gained and offers received.  However, we also need to ask broad questions about the future direction of partnership work.

Greater opportunities for education professionals to work together, whether in person or via online communities, across the educational sectors and tiers, could build on and complement existing activities, creating sustainable collaborative models, and thus hopefully enhancing the life chances and outcomes of even more young people.

Dr Alastair Dunn
Senior Deputy Headmaster, St Peter’s School