Not many people admit to feeling envy. It isn’t pleasant or constructive. I confess to the feeling however, every time I visit a major public independent school.
The luxury of space and often the beauty of their buildings – the sheer sense of “no expenses spared” facilities – never fail to disturb my emotions, as I wish I could wave a magic wand and conjure up the same surroundings for pupils and teachers at all state-maintained schools.
So it was a pleasant surprise last month to visit The Charter Academy, a truly comprehensive and highly successful school which was hosting the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership (SSLP), an alliance of a dozen or so state and three leading independent secondary schools (Dulwich, Alleyns and James Allen’s Girls’ – or JAGS).
Formed through the energy of two school leaders – Marion Gibbs, SecEd columnist and head of JAGs and Irene Bishop, a SecEd editorial advisor and recently retired headteacher of St Saviour’s and St Olave’s – the SSLP started when the false god of school autonomy was at its zenith and before the profound benefits of well-run and clearly focused school partnerships had become widely recognised. What a revelation of mutual advantage the occasion at The Charter provided.
We were regaled with a brilliant impromptu performance of three pieces, including the world premiere of one, all sung by a 50-strong Glee Club formed earlier that afternoon from students across the state-independent divide. It stood as proxy for the many occasions of art, music, drama, sport, home and foreign trips, joint research and enquiry Southwark’s state and independent students have enjoyed together over the last decade.
The same cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge has involved more than 1,000 teachers from the two sectors, as the CPD offered by each school has so often been enhanced by sharing. Subject faculties have shared scarce expert teaching and heads of 6th forms have made sure all are alerted to the visits of distinguished speakers so that others benefit, if there is spare.
They have also compared notes about their respective opportunities for year 12s to complete their expectation of action in and for the benefit of the community. Not just the schools’ staff and students have benefited but the whole wider Southwark community.
When the idea of the SSLP was floated during a conversation over a meal in a Chinese restaurant in 2002, nobody could have foreseen that it would have flourished as it has. Of course there have been things that did not go to plan; for example, bizarrely, one annual inter-school sports day was cancelled because of swine fever.
But there have been unexpected bonuses too, mainly as teachers and staff have realised what unites them whether in a love of subject or in the very skill, craft, science and art of teaching. The “energy creators” in the various staffrooms have asked not why, but why not.
Of course they have enjoyed a culture of encouragement in the various schools and the partnership owed much in the early years to a stalwart London educator Shirley Hase who acted as organiser until the Department for Education pump-priming grant ended in 2009 (it is worth commenting in parenthesis about how the DfE is at its rare best when it funds open-ended teacher CPD).
What impresses is how the partnership has been clear about aims, budgets and in-school organisational factors, such as ensuring that a joining school should ensure that it is in the job description of an senior leader to lead on SSLP matters.
There have been school leavers and school joiners but the partnership’s strength is clear in its many activities involving staff and students.
It has just won a grant from the Greater London Authority to carry out a thorough research/evaluation and to pursue research into developing teaching resources for chemistry, physics, French and English at key stages 3 and 4.
As I left the celebration of this remarkable Southwark partnership, it was just a few days after chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s “no-holds-barred” speech to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference about the need for the independent sector to sponsor more academies.
While I recognise the good intentions of those few schools – including Dulwich, a member of SSLP – who do just that, I couldn’t help thinking that what I had witnessed offered a much more practical, immediate and less bureaucratic first step.
After all, we are all in the business of social engineering; we all want our students to be fulfilled and in doing so to contribute to the fulfilment of others by learning, as one state school, Cheney in Oxford, expresses through its motto, “to think for themselves and act for others”.
We do not want them to preserve the status quo but make the world a better and fairer place. That’s exactly what the state and independent schools in Southwark aim to do.
Professor Sir Tim Brighouse is credited with being the progenitor of the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership, having been London Schools’ Commissioner at the time the London Challenge was established and a key supporter of the independent-state learning partnerships across the city. Among his many roles now, Sir Tim is a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance.
CAPTIONS: Better together: A team-building event hosted by the SSLP as part of the Inspire programme focused on making choices for careers and developing soft skills (top); a ‘silly sports’ event hosted by the SSLP (above); and Sir Tim Brighouse speaks during the SSLP’s 10th anniversary celebrations (middle)
- To find out more about the achievements of the SSLP, send for Cross Sector Collaboration: Excellence for all from Marion Gibbs at JAGS or Irene Bishop via St Saviour’s and St Olave’s.
- The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners, government agencies and industry which stimulates improvement and change through expert, evidence-based challenge and advice. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org