Stronger together?

Tuesday 13 August 2019

In May 2018, the then education secretary, Damian Hinds MP, and the ISC announced a joint understanding on school partnerships. The document notes that ISC schools “are an integral part of the national education system”, but that the ISC schools in England should form partnerships which should include “supporting academies, MATS and new free schools according to their individual circumstances and capacity”.  

The government’s current approach to (charitable) independent schools in England is to encourage partnerships with the state sector to justify public benefit. As previously covered in other editions of Independent Insight, there are other threats to this part of the sector, but this is currently the chief active approach demanded as part of official government policy. The other is via the Boarding Schools Partnership service that will see pupils from troubled homes attending boarding schools.

Already doing it

While the sector can assert that it has already been active in partnerships of this kind (the ISC has noted that there were 1,137 such partnerships in ISC schools in its most recent census in May last year), and has been vocal about its boarding schools supporting troubled children, the government thinks that there is more to do.

The government’s approach is typified by the education secretary’s announcement in October last year that those independent schools with swimming pools should share them with the state sector. The ISC responded by saying that it too supported this initiative while many schools responded, including Reigate Grammar School, to say that they have been doing this for some time. And another, The Old Vicarage, stated that it shared the swimming pool of a state school. Partnerships are happening across the country but are not always readily acknowledged in Whitehall.

But while the numbers of schools participating in partnerships with the state sector is impressive, how effective are they really? What impact are they having on the schools that take part (both state and independent) and on pupils and teachers?

The ISC acknowledges that there is a dearth of impact evaluation material currently, but is working to remedy this. Its Toolkit for Impact Evaluation is the starting point in helping measure partnership activities. It is intended to help clarify inputs, outputs and outcomes so that ISC schools can report more effectively on its partnership activities. Current projects can be found at

What’s the value?

In this special report we will see what evidence is currently available and profile a current partnership.

In Mike Bourne’s 2017 study for the DfE, Independent State School Partnerships – impact and lessons learnt, he identifies the key benefits of sharing resources and ideas between the sectors.

He reveals that, in 2014, the DfE awarded a little over £175k to 18 partnership projects between independent schools and state primary schools. The aim was to “increase collaboration, share expertise and good practice, widen educational opportunities and raise standards in key subjects such as modern languages, science and maths”.

Funding for the projects ranged from £1,000 to £32,500 and began at different times during 2015-2016 and ran for varying lengths of time. The eighteen projects involved over 230 staff from across 112 schools and approximately 4,220 pupils.

The report states that staff who took part in the partnerships commented on positive changes in achievement, attitude and confidence for the subjects pupils were learning.

Eighty-five per cent of lead schools said that they were “extremely confident” or “very confident” that the projects would improve attainment of pupils in all schools involved in the partnership.

The report’s author, however, conceded that “due to the predominantly qualitative data obtained, it is not possible to quantify how effective the partnerships are in contributing to the raising of standards, however, signs are encouraging”. But, the report concludes, the partnerships “were a cost-effective means of developing relationships between the two school sectors”.

During evaluation interviews, the teachers involved in the partnerships highlighted the value of the projects in keeping abreast of changes and improving their teaching competency, while allowing networking opportunities and sharing of good practice.

Key “quantitative” findings from the report

  •         More than 230 staff and approximately 4,220 pupils from 112 schools were involved in the 18 partnerships.
  •         At one maths partnership (Bolton): in the first year, 52 per cent of the participating children achieved level 6 at KS2 in maths; with 60 per cent in the second year.
  •         All pupils attending Latin lessons at the Thomas Kensington partnership went on to pass their level 2 Latin certificates. All partner school pupils also went on to obtain level 6 in maths and high level 5s in reading: better grades than predicted for them.
  •         Seventy-five per cent of lead schools were "extremely" or "very confident" that the projects would raise standards of teaching in all schools involved in partnership.
  •         Eighty-five per cent of lead schools were "extremely" or "very confident" that the projects would improve attainment of pupils in all schools involved in the partnership.
  •         Three partnerships had to limit the number of schools involved with them, following an increase in demand to take part in the projects.
  •         Fourteen of the 18 partnerships planned to continue in some form (either in the same subject area or different).

Key “qualitative” findings from the report

It wasn’t possible to quantify how effective the partnerships were in contributing to raising standards. But:

  •         Staff consistently commented on positive changes in achievement, attitude and confidence for the subjects pupils were learning.
  •         The majority of children completed their learning and wanted to do more.
  •         Funding allowed partnerships to carry out more substantial programmes of activities than would otherwise have been possible.
  •         The strongest partnerships shared the same ethos of outreach work, while not seeing the projects as temporary ventures.
  •         Relationships were strengthened through project work. In particular, through reciprocal use of facilities or other resources increasing the likelihood of partnerships becoming self-sustaining.
  •         Schools saw their profiles in the local community positively raised.
  •         Where older children at independent schools were involved in delivery or facilitation, partnerships reported improved leadership skills.

It is unlikely that these projects would not have taken place without the funding, yet there is little prospect of new funding to develop more projects. In this initial round, the Department was relatively dictatorial in what it saw as valid projects. But, taken in the round, they only represent a subset of the sorts of partnerships that are taking place today.

Case study

An exemplar of a current partnership is that between Eton College and Holyport College. We visited both institutions to discover the benefits to both participants.

Eton College has a unique relationship with a free school not far from its doors. It is not just the fact that the free school is not in a usually requisite deprived area, it is in the depths of its relationships at many levels within that school.

Holyport College was set up in 2014 with £15 million of government money and sponsorship from Eton. It is a state day and boarding school. Admissions to Holyport give priority places to pupils from deprived areas (20 per cent are on the pupil premium), then it is for pupils with special educational needs, before places are offered elsewhere. Boarding fees are £3,850 a term and with no other fees, it's a very affordable boarding option.

When the school opened, the intake, an approximate 50-50 mix of girls and boys, included a small number of expat and service children, and around 20 were previously independently educated.

More than half of the governing body is from the Eton college community and Eton masters have sat in on job interview panels. Old Etonians have paid £140,000 for Holyport's Astroturf; Eton has loaned a Latin and art teacher free of charge and has opened up its rowing facilities at Eton Dorney.

Ben McCarey is the acting headmaster at Holyport. For him the key benefits of the very close relationship with Eton are manifold. “Our pupils from deprived backgrounds on average have improved their GCSE results by nearly one grade, and our other pupils by half a grade. In our sixth form, 12 of our 88 students have applied for Oxbridge. When you consider the social make-up of our community, this is extraordinary.”

These impressive results, he believes, are driven, in part, by the greater aspiration that having access to Eton’s facilities, staff and pupils have given to Holyport pupils. “We have wonderful teachers, but most schools have! Aspiration is a mindset. And it would be impossible without Eton. It energises our pupils and their parents.” There is a big emphasis on trying to get pupils from both schools to mix, for instance in the cadet force and in year group socials.

There was an initial nervousness, he concedes, when the school first opened, but confidence has grown year on year. Several schools have since visited to view first hand the work that is going on and to assess whether similar projects might work in schools in their area.

Altogether, there are 200 different activities that exist between the schools that are tracked. Now that Holyport is established, its pupils no longer feel in awe of their Etonian counterparts.

He spoke to us in the headmaster’s office, a new build but with wood-panelled walls. “The design is all part of it – it lends gravitas and feels like it’s been here a long time.”

The counterpart

Eton’s director of outreach and partnership is Tom Arbuthnott. He shares enthusiasm for, not just this ground-breaking project, but for Eton’s other relationships with 80-100 state schools.

“The last inspection for Holyport was outstanding. However, we can’t really export the DNA of this project until we have properly evidenced our assessments,” says Arbuthnott, who was chair last year of the schoolstogether group. He believes that finding a model or models of assessing the impact of school partnerships is as elusive as finding the Holy Grail. “No partnership is like any other, just like every school is different, so finding a one-size-fits-all tool is so difficult.” Also, music partnerships are different to science partnerships and CPD initiatives.

He believes, however, that the best approach is to start with small, replicable projects before working up to bigger initiatives.

Another school that Eton works with closely, but nowhere on the same scale as Holyport, is Eden Girls’ School, a nearby Muslim school. Eton boys provide mentoring for Year 9 girls, and the two schools jointly run a disability respite club for other young people. But, as Arbuthnott says, since the latter is social, it is hard to measure the value. However, the mentoring has improved the girls’ school results.

So, how can more school partnerships be encouraged elsewhere? Apart from via the schoolstogether website, it “must not be run out of the head’s office. There need to be more partnership co-ordinators. But state schools lack resources to engage,” says Arbuthnott.

Another problem for school partnerships is that “every two years, people within the DfE move on, and we have to re-engage with the new civil servants. However, institutional knowledge within the Department is improving,” says Arbuthnott.

Music to the ears

In the publication All Together Now, edited by Tom Arbuthnott and Peter Hatch, the latter from King’s College School, Wimbledon, they report on music partnership projects and identified 10 insights into what makes them work:

  •          Music is a great starting point in partnership activity.
  •          The more complex the partnership, the more complex the possible project (but simple projects need to be enacted first before the complex ones are considered).
  •          Simple projects arise from epiphanic moments; complex projects do something extraordinary with it.
  •          Music is an agent of school improvement.
  •          It is important to lobby for dedicated partnership time within your school.
  •          Start with choral music – and think about the repertoire.
  •          Don’t see impact assessment as an afterthought, but weave it into your project from the start.
  •          ISSPs are only part of the spectrum of possible partnerships. Tie your partnership design to the local musical context.
  •          Don’t forget to fundraise.
  •          Good relationships are crucial: and a wider outreach strategy is needed.

Andrew Maiden is editor of Independent Insight.