Making international partnerships work

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many schools engage in partnerships with other schools around the world. Here, school leader John Rutter discusses how to get the most from such initiatives

For many years UK schools have engaged with others across the world in partnership schools programmes.

Originally, relationships were set up with European partners on foreign language exchanges while, more recently, the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms has endeavoured to establish connections between UK schools and those in the developing world – often with Commonwealth countries such as Malawi, Kenya and India.

With Brexit and the departure from the European Union it may be that some of the more local partnerships fall by the wayside and there is uncertainty surrounding the well-funded joint endeavours such as Erasmus. Connecting Classrooms is also at the end of its current round of funding for partner visits and its future is under debate both in the UK and in the countries receiving British visitors.

So, while we look at a future of dwindling resources it may be time to re-evaluate the potential of partnership programmes to have meaningful and lasting effect on the learning of our pupils.

So far, much of the “evidence” presented for the success of partnership programmes has been overwhelmingly anecdotal in nature and some of the benefits presented have been a little dubious.

During research conducted for my MEd, examining how to run a successful school partnership, I came across school leaders who were convinced that the schemes they had set up had led to everything from decreased exclusion rates to improved attendance and from fewer detentions to better behaviour and increased motivation in the classroom.

In one instance there was even the suggestion that the programme had led to improved attainment in National qualifications and the all-important reduction in the attainment gap between the least and the most deprived pupils.

While the empirical nature of many of these outcomes is questionable, there is an overwhelmingly certainty among teachers that partner school programmes go a long way to increasing empathy, improving ethos and developing notions of global citizenship in many of our pupils. The awareness of other cultures, especially through face-to-face contact, has an enviable effect and can be life-changing for many of our youngsters.

The question remains of how we can best ensure the success of any initiatives we develop in our schools. I have been involved in a number of partnership programmes and have seen major success and almost abject failure.

Projects which have grown in an ad-hoc manner, based perhaps on one teacher’s engagement with a school in another country, have invariably shown fewer positive outcomes than those which have been well-thought out with clear aims and goals and a high degree of mutual co-operation between partners.

With this in mind I would like to offer some ideas for how to generate a successful partnership programme.


Think carefully about your partner school. In one example, the partner school chosen was identified by a teacher who had returned from a charity tour to Malawi with tales of great poverty and need at a rural school far from the major population centres.

While undoubtedly worthy, the initial enthusiasm for pairing with such a school was quickly tempered by the realisation that meaningful communication was going to be difficult. No internet access and a dearth of mobile phones, even as their use was taking off all over Africa, meant that weeks and months went by with little progress made. When visits took place they were a huge success but, in between, there was little opportunity to talk about curriculum connections and joint working.

In another situation a school located in an area of high deprivation in Scotland connected with an all-girls secondary school. On the surface the differences between the two schools would be seemingly unbridgeable but there is a world of nuance between an affluent school in the UK and one in Africa. The similarities – in terms of ethos as well as methods of communication by email, internet and, increasingly, Google Classroom – resulted in a worthwhile partnership taking hold. So, remember, the most needy partner may not always be the best one in the long run.

Rules, rules, rules!

Establish ground rules at an early stage. There can be a tendency, when partnerships are viewed as unequal between a rich “northern” school and a poor one in the “south”, for things to degenerate into neo-colonialism and patronage.

With media stereotypes showing Africa, in particular, as a continent full of starving, disease-ridden individuals, it is difficult for our naturally empathic children to want to do much more than fundraise and send large sums of money over to help.

But partnership programmes should be about much more than this. There are many success stories where money never changes hands and where the expectations from both partners are set out clearly at the start in terms of curriculum design and joint learning and teaching.

The important thing is to approach everything as equals and to engage in meaningful dialogue about what each partner wants before anything is established and, especially, before any visit takes place.

Make it all a team effort

Often the partnership school programme is the brainchild of one very concerned teacher who has a connection with the school, or at least the country in question. While this is an excellent way to get a partnership established it is less good for long-term sustainability. It may be that the teacher in question draws around them a team of like-minded souls who buy into their vision and that success lies that way. But what happens when the visionary moves on and leaves a vacuum in their wake?

It is important to share the responsibility and to get the whole school involved in the partnership programme. In one apparently successful scheme, for instance, questioning of the wider staff and pupil body outside of those implicitly involved showed a lack of knowledge of any connections with the school overseas.

A whole-school launch event is a good idea when the partnership is first established to ensure that all staff are on board. Make sure that all subjects are involved and refer to it in lessons, whether it be mapwork in geography, political history in modern studies, or local cuisine in home economics.

Just the beginning

Remember that the trip is not the end-point. Some partnership school programmes seem to exist solely to take a group of pupils away to a foreign land to visit their chosen school partner. While this undoubtedly leads to expanded thinking on the issues of globalisation for those involved, it is of more dubious value as an equal benefit for both partners.

The most successful example that I have seen was in reciprocal visits from Botswana based on academic achievement which saw the school in question rise from outside the top 50 to be one of the top 10 achieving schools in the country. The lure of a trip for those from the partner country may, therefore, be much greater than the benefits for those in the UK.

Here, there are many examples of trips costing upwards of £3,000 and, therefore, being hugely selective on the grounds of ability to pay. If this is the only selection criteria then any trip risks being morally questionable.

Fundraising can help equalise opportunity but achievement or willingness to work hard should also play a part in selecting those who can attend. For true equality in the partnership, both partners can discuss and agree the ways in which pupils are picked to go.


There are, without doubt, many ways in which partnership school programmes can benefit pupils from schools, both in the UK and overseas, but remember, as with most things in education there needs to be some thought at the outset as to what exactly you want to achieve and how you are going to measure that achievement.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at


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