How to be strategic in your first year as partnerships leader

Failure, they say, is good for the soul: and my soul was definitely honed and muscular by the end of my twelfth failed interview for a post in school leadership teams. By the time I came to interview for my current role, I was pretty good at turning thin (outreach and partnerships) experiences into powerful-sounding (academic or pastoral) narratives. But this was an interview with a difference (not least because it was successful). For the first time, a role had been created which suited me perfectly: as senior leader with responsibility for partnerships.

Now, in 2021, these roles are much more common. Barely a week goes by without someone contacting me, either through this blog or through linkedin, asking for advice in how to apply for a similar role, either in independent schools or in MATs. I’m always very happy to help, mindful of all the friends and colleagues who supported me through those twelve failed applications.

But it is striking how often, particularly in independent schools, a ‘partnerships’ person now sits in the Head’s inner circle.

What it enables, of course, is a much more strategic approach in many schools. Far from the virtue signalling of yore, where a school would shout loudly about a few rather fragmented initiatives, often around primary school visits or the shared use of sports facilities, now your partnerships senior leader spends time making initiatives coherent, impact-assessed and sustainable.

So what should a new senior leader in cross sector partnerships do in their first year in post?

First, it’s about developing the ‘supply’ of partnership activities. In my experience, a large proportion of independent sector colleagues – especially those whose kids are state educated, who are themselves state educated or whose spouses work in state schools – are very keen to commit to partnership work. In some departments, like music or drama, the idea of partnership is rooted in the very identity of the subject. So even in schools with limited history of partnership work, there are usually colleagues who are only too happy to help.

Second, it’s about calibrating the ‘demand’ and working out where you can make the most difference. Most local schools will be only too happy to arrange a conversation to talk about partnership, even if they don’t have the resource to really make it happen. But those exploratory conversations where you sound each other out about ways you might work together are key – and, even if your partnership starts with a small-scale initiative, it is often enough just to start that habit and that mindset of collaborative working.

Third, try to get the kids onside. You don’t want to run a partnerships programme which exists entirely at leadership level – and I would always recommend to schools that they appoint someone with teaching experience to the partnerships role, even if lots of jobs are advertised as ‘either/or’. The beating heart of any school lies with its students, and without their active engagement and support for the programme, it’ll never take off. Engaged sixth form students will come to be your strongest proponents and supporters.

Fourth, try to learn from best practice. There’s now a thriving group of us who work in this space who are only too happy to share expertise: and we are increasingly organising events and printing publications which will enable you to see what’s happening elsewhere. None of this happened until we founded the Schools Together Group in 2016 – and it’s a precious resource, so use it. This can help particularly with impact assessment, which, for me, is a key task for the second year of leadership rather than the first.

Fifth, ask your head for some dedicated resource. A cash budget is only quite useful, although it can pay for refreshments or for coach transport, both of which can be sticking points. What really helps is some teaching resource from someone like Jonathan Davies, my inspirational History guru in Birmingham, who had two mornings per week on his timetable to re-enact History (usually swordfighting) in local primary schools. But don’t forget that this teaching resource will only be as effective as the infrastructure which underlies it: you, the partnerships lead, need to be forming relationships, booking taxis and arranging visits so that your teachers can focus on what they’re really good at: teaching.

Sixth, and finally, think about sustainability. Early stage partnerships are bedevilled by short-term thinking – not surprising as two institutions learn how to rub along together. However, it all falls down based on “key person risk” – it just takes one person to move on for the partnership to founder. As partnerships lead, you should always be asking yourself how to move the partnership on to the next stage – which, to make it sustainable, is likely to involve forming a relationship which is bounded by some form of memorandum of understanding.

I’ll write about the second year in a different blog: but this six point plan should get you started.

In the meanwhile, if you’re still a triangular peg trying to fit into various different square, rectangular or arched holes – keep the faith! 

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