How can we sustain school partnerships?

Christina Astin

As we move into the second year of our work at the Foundation for Education Development (FED) and following the launch of the FED National Education Consultation Report, we hosted a roundtable discussion focussed on ‘Partnership working : Art or science? How to develop and manage long term, effective partnerships for education’.

We asked Christina Astin, an education consultant working with schools and businesses to build impactful partnerships, to share her insights following her input into this roundtable discussion. Christina talks about the features of ‘good partnerships’, how school partnerships fizzle out and shares a case study where partnership working has been successful. Christina reminds us that you need a ‘people-orientated approach coupled with the objectivity of the scientific method for success’.

How can we sustain school partnerships?

When schools work together they can achieve more than they could on their own. But are there features of school partnerships which make them more likely to be effective and thrive in the long-term?

In 2019 the Department for Education identified four features of ‘good partnerships’ when they launched a grant funding window for ISSP (independent-state school partnership) projects. Applications had to show that the planned-for partnership projects would be:

  • Impactful – making a quantifiable difference
  • Sustainable – long-lasting, able to outlast any one staff member
  • Mutually beneficial – measurable benefit to all parties
  • Addressing disadvantage – the project was meeting an identified need

In my work as head of partnerships of an independent school and now advising schools on partnership working, I have seen a shift in language from outreach to partnership, reflecting a shift from a model of patronage to collaborations that are more effective and sustainable because they are built on mutually trusting and respectful relationships.  Partnership activities are co-created rather than “offered out”, they meet the needs of the collective community and flex as necessary to adapt to the changing landscape.

School partnerships fizzle out for a number of reasons:

  1. Little support from senior leaders – warm words are not enough
  2. Lack of awareness among stakeholders – communications are vital
  3. Resources too stretched, both funding and time
  4. People move on – leadership needs to be distributed

At the FEDSpace Round Table I illustrated these points in the context of Canterbury Primary Science Partnership which we launched in 2014 to meet the urgent need for primary science support, which I’d seen at first hand in my previous role as head of science.  We listened to needs of the ten founding schools and planned activities in response to those, with clear buy-in from the Headteachers and strong communications.  Impact evaluation was in place from the outset to steer the partnership and report to all stakeholders, and the DfE (who seed-funded the ISSP) wrote about lessons learned in this case study.  At the close of one Saturday Smarties (science master class) session Ben, aged 9, reminded us why we do this – and melted all our hearts – when he declared: “This is the day I became a scientist”!

I’m often asked if a Memorandum of Understanding is appropriate.  Yes, it helps gain commitment and aids planning, and is essential for mitigating risk if the partnership has employment obligations.  But if the partnership is in its pilot phase and relationships are still evolving it’s sometimes better to wait.  These tips on sustaining school partnerships give more detail.

So, is effective, sustainable partnership working an art or a science?  Writing as a musical physicist, I’d have to say both!  You need a creative and people-oriented approach coupled with the objectivity of the scientific method for success.


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