“What do we get out of this?” is a question that may be asked fairly by an independent school when any form of structured relationship with a state school is proposed. The potential benefits to state schools from such contacts have been well rehearsed – including use of facilities, access to subject expertise for sixth form and extension, guidance on university applications – especially to the most competitive institutions, and shared participation in a broad range of activities. But the case for the benefits to be gained by independent schools from these relationships needs re-affirmation.
All good teachers, whatever the context of their school, want to deliver the best outcomes for their pupils, both in fostering a love of learning and in delivering measurable progress. Independent school teachers have much to learn from collaboration with colleagues from maintained schools, especially (but far from exclusively) in areas such as differentiation, classroom management, and the effective use of data and monitoring. However, independent schools can also benefit from significant subject and leadership expertise located in maintained-sector schools, especially those that are Teaching Schools, which can deploy Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) as a form of visiting consultant. Perhaps independent schools could be more open to looking beyond their own gates when looking to solve issues in particular subject areas.
Secondly, at a time of significant curriculum reform across a range of subjects, independent school teachers can benefit from an exchange of ideas and resources with other teachers from their locality, whether through teach meets or other more formal arrangements. Teachers in independent schools should also contribute to, and benefit from, the professional learning programmes of their maintained sector colleagues. A third area where independent schools can strongly benefit from such links lies in SEN teaching. While many independent schools do have very effective provision in this area, the awareness of non-specialist teachers can sometimes be limited to the less challenging end of the spectrum of pupil need. Access to the concentrations of professional knowledge in SEN and behaviour to be found in those state schools with expertise in these areas, would be of real benefit to many independent school teachers. All independent schools should consider joining a Teaching School Alliance, which can open access to a range of opportunities for professional development and collaborative work.
One of the most compelling arguments for independent-state collaboration lies in the imperative of locality. Of necessity, independent school strategic plans tend to focus on the essentials of pupil numbers, curriculum change, and investment in future plant and buildings. However, structured contact with local state schools can help an independent school to contextualise its strategy in relation to a whole range of local educational, economic, social, infrastructural and environmental considerations. A school that is in sustained contact with local partners is a better-informed school, in which decisions and actions can be more alert to local trends. Here altruism and self-interest meet, as all schools rely on the goodwill and understanding of overlapping spheres of local interest, including the parental body, staff of all types, local contractors and suppliers, residents and municipal authorities.
The achievements of a growing number independent schools in areas such as Academy sponsorship and the leadership of Independent-State School Partnerships (ISSPs) and Teaching School Alliances is beginning to gain more recognition – notably through the Schools Together website. Independent schools come in all shapes and sizes, and many will have only limited capacity and resources to engage with the state sector. In such cases we should be understanding of the constraints that limit engagement to sharing access to pitches or pools. But all independent schools can learn from state schools in various ways, and often teacher-teacher contact can be low-cost, sustainable and highly impactful.