Schools together in partnership
– Julie Robinson, General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC)
Independent schools have been connected with their local communities and have been collaborating with state-funded schools for many years but only recently has data been collected to demonstrate this in any detail. The facts show that independent schools are very much part of the educational landscape and take their educational purposes seriously. Independent schools are diverse and generous supporters of education in its broadest sense.
A certain amount of political interest has been generated in connection with charitable status debates over the years. The media often berates fee-charging schools for the tax breaks that come with charitable status. In fact, we believe that the allocation of bursary awards far exceeds business rates relief enjoyed by schools that are charities. Even schools that are not charities have taken steps to improve accessibility for families who might not otherwise be able to send their children to an independent school, by providing increasing amounts of bursary assistance in recent years.
A judicial review in 2011 ruled that education is of itself a charitable activity. The trustees of schools that are charities have a duty to report to the Charity Commission their school’s work for the public benefit. This work can take the form of awarding bursaries on a means-tested basis for those in poverty, support for academies, and collaborative work which benefits under-privileged people.
A minimum requirement with respect to public benefit has not been set in England and the ISC has lobbied to hold off further legislation that might impose duties on schools to undertake particular activities demonstrating public benefit. It is important that trustees retain flexibility to fulfil a school’s public benefit activity according to local needs and in ways that are appropriate for the school. For example, some schools do not own superior facilities that can be shared with state schools and there are geographic and other barriers to be taken into account.
Encouraging partnership activities
The Independent/State School Partnership forum (ISSP) is a Department for Education (DfE) group formed of independent and state school representatives and chaired by Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE. This group answers to the Minister of State for Schools. With the DfE and the ISSP, ISC has helped to establish a website with the express purpose of encouraging, showcasing and inspiring partnership working. You can find out more at www.schoolstogether.org
The website was launched in January 2016 and although involvement is voluntary, over 1,200 projects have been displayed there already, showing a wide range of types of partnership activities. The projects are allocated categories: academic/CCF/drama/governance/music/sponsorship/sport/design technology.
They are mapped and displayed sharing increasing levels of detail. It is clear from the website that a wide range of types of collaborations are underway and different kinds of schools and sizes of schools are included. They include:
The website draws together a range of impressive and exciting educational opportunities for pupils and staff. It demonstrates what is already in place, providing insight into the value of collaboration.
Why work together?
There are economies of scale to be struck when schools join together to procure services, including the sharing of specialist teachers and training. A visiting author or speaker can be made available to a range of pupils outside the host school. Schools can share specific expertise, for instance, in fundraising or tracking. They can share and develop policies.
Not only is this an economic way to share resources, there are huge gains for participants. Pupils meeting each other might develop a new way of seeing the world. Inter-school visits might allow new subject areas, new sports and musical instruments and experiences to be shared, broadening the horizons of all involved.
Successful partnerships help to bring communities together in deeper understanding and thereby support social cohesion. The pooling of resources enhances the overall educational offer for all schools involved and merely by sharing experiences, teachers can benefit from effective professional development. Some schools are working in pairs or small clusters and others are working in large collaborative groups across an area such as York or Birmingham. These groupings allow successive years to develop the projects on offer and forge strong links across communities involved in joint projects. The projects grow according to the needs and strengths of the schools, building mutually supportive communities.
The Charity Commission will be reporting back on progress made with cross-sector school partnerships in 2016–17. We are happy to report that almost all ISC schools are already engaged in partnership activities. Most are involved in sporting and academic partnerships of some kind and around half are engaged in music and drama partnerships. This is alongside the community work and charitable giving that our schools support.
The ISC census report for 2015–16 shows that the facilities of 1,337 independent schools are shared with state schools and approximately 160,000 state school pupils benefit from these partnerships. We expect this work to continue to grow and partnerships to thrive.
Julie Robinson was Headmistress of two IAPS prep schools for 11 years, Ardingly College Junior School and Vinehall Prep School. Julie was Director of Education and Training at the IAPS for five years and has been General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council since April 2015. The ISC promotes and protects the independent education sector, representing 1,300 schools across ISC Associations and providing research, legal support, lobbying and communications from an office in central London. The ISC brings together AGBIS, GSA, HMC, IAPS, ISA, ISBA and the Society of Heads to share issues of common interest.