Friends in all the right places: cross-sector partnerships

Sibford School – a 3-18 independent day and boarding school – and Sibford Gower Endowment School – a state primary school – joined forces in an independent/state school partnership (ISSP). Marie Cahalane speaks to Edward Rossiter, assistant head at Sibford School, and explores the benefits, challenges and opportunities that cross-sector relationships offer

Located in close proximity to each other in Banbury in Oxfordshire, Sibford School and Sibford Gower Endowment Primary School have always had some links. For Edward Rossiter, assistant head of the junior school at Sibford School, embarking on an independent/state school partnership (ISSP) was an opportunity to expand on existing connections.

The priority was to give students an opportunity to work with those from another school and to give students from Sibford Gower the use of facilities that they would not otherwise have had access to. It was also a good opportunity to increase publicity.

A scientific approach

The criteria for an ISSP application stipulate that participating schools take on projects that are innovative in terms of curriculum or have an ICT focus. Science was chosen as the focus of the Sibford schools ISSP, meeting the criteria by providing the facilities – Sibford School’s state-of-the-art science labs in the senior school science department – and the specialist teachers to enhance learning and creativity for students and teachers.

Two, full-day science workshops were run at Sibford School, attended by students from both schools, one based on physics – which linked to a recent solar eclipse – and one which delved into the world of chemistry. “We wanted to have a clear science focus but we also wanted to ensure that it was about students working together, so we made sure that social, communication and leadership skills, as well as team work, were built-in,” Edward explains. Students worked in groups of two or three children from each school – participating in a variety of team-building exercises – for example, designing aerodynamic rockets that were later launched in a competition.

Mutually beneficial

“Initially we approached Sibford Gower to see if they were interested in taking part and they were as keen as we were,” Edward recalls. At that point, senior leaders from both schools, including Jane O’Sullivan, the head of Sibford Gower, and Edward, met to drill down into the details – working the idea into something that would be mutually beneficial. “This was an important part of the application process,” Edward recalls. “We were all keen to ensure it wasn’t just about us being charitable; we wanted the partnership to be something that children from both schools learned from.”

To demonstrate how the project benefitted all students a questionnaire was distributed at the beginning of the first day and again the end of the last day. “This was to look at the children’s engagement with science as a subject, whether they might consider it as a career, what they felt they were good at or not so good at, how confident they were in the subject,” Edward says. The data collected, he reports, shows that engagement increased for all students, as did the subject’s popularity. This he puts down to the fact that the projects were not only different, and the activities exciting and fun, but that students were doing them with other people and learning from them.

Successful collaboration and co-ordination

Once the initial framework for the projects was in place Jane and Edward passed it over to their science co-ordinators who came together to decide what the focus of each element would be. This was key to making the collaboration successful. “It wasn’t a case of the independent school running everything and the Sibford Gower pupils coming along. It was senior leaders working with the science teachers and subject specialists from both schools to design an innovative educational programme,” Edward stresses.

Another crucial factor in the success of the partnership is that it was recognised from the outset that, while the facilities were Sibford School’s, it was a joint venture and the content was driven by teachers from both schools working together and looking at what could be done to the benefit of all students and both schools.

A learning curve shared

As with any collaboration, challenges were encountered along the way. “Both Jane and I are very positive about the partnership but I’m conscious that it’s not easy for a state school to drop everything to co-ordinate a new project,” Edward explains. For example, there are practical challenges that state schools face due to limited funding, such as moving students from A to B. “I’m lucky, in that I have a fleet of minibuses I can call on,” he says, “so, it’s factoring in that this isn’t often the case for state schools.” There were also timetabling constraints that needed to be considered – most often, state schools are under external pressure to produce fast results, something that independent schools have more control over.

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In terms of making things happen, one thing that Edward is acutely aware of is that if you ask someone to do something you must ensure that they have the time to do it. It’s about being able to give teachers the time to make sure that it’s beneficial to everyone and not just another thing they must do.

Maintaining relations

The schools still maintain a good relationship outside the ISSP. As Edward says, “We didn’t want to stop there.” Both schools are involved in a local schools sports partnership and meet regularly through that. In fact the schools, similar in size, have had lots of sports fixtures and are, reportedly, quite competitive. Further, Sibford School has had the same Sibford Gower students over for an orienteering day on their 50-acre campus and when events, such as author talks for world book day, are hosted an invite will always go out to Sibford Gower as well as other schools in the area. For Edward, it is about giving students the opportunity to use the facilities Sibford School has, to share educational resources and to provide all students with an opportunity to work with others.

Edward concedes, however, that they haven’t done as much together as they’d like to – something that is, in part, down to busy timetables. The project wrapped up in April 2014 and, although the paperwork was completed, the ISSP has not continued. “From my point of view, and I think that Jane would agree, we’d love to carry on, but confusion about funding and the subsequent change in government, has meant that everything was put on hold.” While the spirit is still willing, without funding it is difficult to proceed; for example, the funding meant that both Jane and Edward could organise supply cover to release staff to focus on the projects.

As the government turns its attention to independent-state school collaboration, as outlined in September’s education green paper, it’s important that both sectors are supported. The worry is that with governmental pressure such partnerships might boil down to box-ticking, losing sight of the mutual benefits that can be gleaned from true collaboration. Speaking from experience, Edward says, “It’s really important that it doesn’t come across as the rich independent schools supporting the poorer state schools – because it isn’t that and it shouldn’t be that. I think that we learned as much from each other; yes, we’ve got the facilities, but actually the link is bigger and stronger than that.”

Considering embarking on an ISSP? Edward shares some advice

I’d say do it; it’s mutually beneficial. It is hard work because it takes quite a lot of planning – particularly because we’re linked to the senior school – but, for us, it has been useful to work with children from another setting. It’s given our children – who are accustomed to smaller class sizes – the opportunity to work with other children, to get to understand working with other children and the skills involved.

In terms of advice, be clear about the task and the roles involved from the beginning and be realistic about what you hope to achieve; start with a small project that works with one class each from the two schools and build on that. Be clear about your objectives – as it’s easier to build the rest of the project framework around these.

Evaluate throughout the process. We used a questionnaire to evaluate how effective the partnership was for the children – this was part of the ISSP paperwork. However, we could probably have done more to consider how we could continue in the future.

To learn more about Independent State Schools Partnerships (ISSP) visit: http://www.schoolstogether.org/

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