Last reviewed 3 December 2014

Independent/State School Partnerships (ISSPs) are self-funded collaborations between schools in the maintained and independent sectors. As Labour sets out proposals to remove tax breaks from independent schools if they don’t work closely enough with their state counterparts, this article looks at how ISSPs can be used to spread best practice in areas like continuing professional development, raise standards, and widen the opportunities available to pupils.

Why collaborate?

These benefits include:

  • access to shared expertise

  • better use of the available resources

  • the availability of new funding systems

  • improved purchasing power via economies of scale

  • support for school improvement initiatives, leading to raised standards and expectations

  • improvements in pupil attainment

  • a greater awareness and understanding of other schools and their communities

  • new opportunities for staff development

  • improved transfer arrangements between schools

  • opportunities for cross-phase learning.

Sharing teaching expertise

All teachers build up an enormous bank of personal knowledge, but opportunities to share it with their peers are rare. Co-operative ventures between schools give teachers the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and to share their knowledge and experience. This is particularly useful for subject co-ordinators who are able to establish valuable links with colleagues from different schools.

Opportunities include:

  • sharing INSET days

  • combining resources to cut down on the costs of external support

  • seconding teachers between schools to improve individual knowledge and understanding

  • allowing teachers to share best practice at workshops and seminars

  • providing a peer-support network for teachers, to help break down the feelings of isolation that many of them experience.

Partnership models

There are no hard and fast rules for partnerships. Successful ones come in a variety of sizes and forms. Some are informal, with a few local schools opting in or out of the activities that suit them, while others are highly organised and cover a wider area.

Here are some models that have worked for existing partnerships:

  • Projects to support academically more able pupils (particularly in areas where there are traditionally low expectations), raising aspirations and encouraging more disadvantaged pupils to apply for university places.

  • Shared PE and sports opportunities for young people, particularly through the School Sport Partnerships scheme.

  • Collaborative musical activities, where groups of pupils from widely different backgrounds work together towards joint public performances.

  • Opportunities for pupils to gain an awareness and understanding of pupils from other communities and backgrounds.

  • Saturday schools, which can be regular events for able or less able pupils or can be devoted to specific subject areas such as a science day or “maths is fun” day.

  • Joint professional development opportunities for staff.

Case studies

In one successful partnership between a London inner city maintained school and an independent school from the Home Counties, the pupils travelled to each other's schools to make music. This included work that was written specially for them. Teachers worked closely together to develop the pupils' skills.

The project culminated in two performances by the combined orchestra, choir and percussionists of both schools. One took place in the chapel of the independent school and the other in the comprehensive school's local town hall. Both events were well supported, and the pupils demonstrated a high level of achievement.

In another example, the manager of a local authority (LA) with responsibility for academically more able pupils spearheaded a partnership between all of the LA's secondary schools and two local independent schools. After a series of meetings, a range of projects was developed that included:

  • science workshops for girls

  • a “moving on to college” day for less able pupils

  • a Cambridge trip for potential Oxbridge entrants.

This was a very flexible arrangement, with schools able to sign up to activities that they considered to be the most appropriate for their pupils.

In a third example, a partnership was set up between a number of maintained secondary schools in a large conurbation and a major independent school in a nearby town. Although many of the Heads of the maintained schools were initially sceptical about the partnership, they found most of their concerns to be completely unwarranted. The positive outcomes of the partnership included:

  • shared involvement in the debating society run at one of the maintained schools

  • a positive impact on staff development

  • a successful Saturday school for academically more able pupils that was run at the independent school.

Building a good working relationship

There is sometimes a deep divide between independent and maintained schools. There can be deeply entrenched views on both sides, about competitiveness, perceived inequality and cultural differences. For the partnership to be successful, it is essential that these are overcome. From the outset, there needs to be an atmosphere of openness, trust and shared purpose.

To achieve this, the schools should:

  • tackle any issues relating to competitiveness head-on

  • distribute leadership so that all staff and stakeholders are involved in the project

  • underpin the project with shared and mutually beneficial aims

  • plan some quick wins so that staff can see the practical benefits of the collaboration.

This job of persuasion can be a major task, but skilled management can achieve a great deal in building a sense of common purpose.

The importance of effective leadership

In order for any co-operative venture between schools to be successful, there needs to be enthusiasm for the proposal, and firm leadership from the top. Senior management must make it clear from the outset that an element of give and take is essential if the project is to be successful. They should also make clear how the benefits to the school far outweigh any drawbacks.

At planning meetings with colleagues from the partner schools, it is vital to form clear aims and objectives for the project. This means that everyone involved has a complete understanding of what they are trying to achieve. Although there will be a firm structure, there should also be a degree of flexibility built in. No two projects will be the same, so plans should not be prescriptive. Local people are best placed to understand, and plan for, local needs.

A plan of action should be drawn up, covering important timescales and areas of responsibility for key personnel. The cost implications must be considered carefully by senior managers and all financial matters should be fully approved by the governing body.

Most importantly, although the driving force behind the project might be a governor, the Head, or a member of the senior leadership team, the partnership must have the backing of all these people and all other members of staff. Without this, it simply will not work.