On ‘partnerships’ and ‘outreach’

I have never thought that I particularly resemble the great Rodney Trotter.

That didn’t stop the first Year 8 class I ever taught as an NQT. In a school which set by behaviour, the eight surliest reprobates in a sleepy Surrey town were mine to teach: and they were convinced that Rodney Trotter and I were separated at birth.

‘Ro-o-o-dney’ I’d hear yelled at me on the baked bean aisle at Tesco or during an amble down the river.

Judge for yourselves if the resemblance is there… but I certainly haven’t changed in looks much – apart from the inevitable wrinkles and saggier chin – since those early days of teaching.

I certainly didn’t change when I moved from the state sector to the independent sector in 2010, drawn by the opportunity to continue teaching the International Baccalaureate.

Teachers in the state sector do exactly the same job as teachers in the independent sector – sometimes harder, sometimes easier. But cramming the thrill of knowledge into young minds, some more receptive than others, is the same enterprise on either side of the ‘green baize door’.

This is why my friends, colleagues and partners in the state sector resent it so furiously when I am told, usually by the government, that it is my job to ‘support’ them or to ‘sponsor’ them. This terminology suggests a difference in status which simply doesn’t exist. I want to work together with others, irrespective of sector, in the great shared enterprise of teaching better and learning better, especially in reaching those kids who find it hard to learn – whether that be an effect of socio-economic situation or personal (in)aptitude.

The lexicon of ‘partnership’ and of ‘mutuality’, therefore, is of critical importance in this work that we do. No one wants to be patronised: and no one in their right mind wants to patronise. We need to surround our activities with intimations and confirmations of mutual respect and shared benefit.

Indeed, independent schools gain just as much, if not more, from these relationships than their state counterparts. Our partner schools have extraordinary strengths that we are only too keen to take advantage of – in data analysis, impact assessment, in HR and IT systems and structures, in teaching and learning or in community relations.

That’s why, when we started the Thames Valley Learning Partnership, we insisted that all schools in the partnership were equal. All eight schools – six state, two independent – pay the same ‘dues’ to be members. Together, we employ a co-ordinator, the brilliant Clare Matheson, who visits all schools equally and derives ideas for partnership activity from everyone. And all schools are united by the concept that we are stronger when we work together.

But “hold on!”, I hear you say. “Surely independent schools have more resource than state schools, given their ability to charge fees that are almost always higher, per pupil, than government funding? Surely that means that independent schools have more to give – and surely that makes ‘support’ the right word to use?”

And in some ways, of course, this is true. I could have started this blog at the other end by talking about my school’s three museums, filled with interesting artefacts – whether natural history, ancient history or scholastic history – which we make available to local junior schools, or the multifarious other programmes that enable us to aim to be in meaningful contact with every single state junior school in our local towns in the next five years. There’s not much mutualistic about that: we are sharing cultural capital in relationships that mostly go one way.

Or I could have talked about our primary school programme in Birmingham, where we provided a ‘training hub’ for over 190 state schools, and offered courses – at cost price – to around 600 primary school teachers per year. Again – this is not really terribly mutualistic. It’s a service provided either at a discount or for free.

Depending on which end of this particular spectrum we start from, we either term our cross-sector relationships as ‘partnerships’ or as ‘outreach’ – and many of my colleagues have both terms in their job description. I was a Director of Outreach in Birmingham – I’m a Deputy Head (Partnerships) in Berkshire? So which is it? What’s the right word to use?

And the answer, of course, is ‘both’. One of the most common questions from new partnership co-ordinators is whether to focus on one or the other, driven, as above, often by the fear of being clunkily and unintentionally patronising.

But it doesn’t really matter if relationships between schools are precisely equal – what matters is that they start from a position of mutual respect and appreciation. Often a relationship which starts firmly in the ‘outreach’ space becomes in time one which is studiedly equal and defined by ‘partnership’.

As my ‘stages of partnership activity’ structure shows (and I’m working on it all the time), often really powerful, sustainable, two way relationships start from the smallest acorns. And it may be that something very ‘outreachy’, like lending a swimming pool or inviting a local school to a Careers Fair, provides the bridge that will enable all sorts of two way co-designed activity in the end. I’d say to any partnership co-ordinator not to get hung up on this question: crack on with work which shares resource, whatever the balance of that relationship. But choose a lexicon for the relationship which starts very firmly at the ‘partnership’ end of the spectrum.

That’s why I’m ‘Mr Partnerships’ in my job title. Not ‘Mr Outreach.’ And certainly not ‘Mr Rodney Trotter.’

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