Schools and colleges that work in partnership provide a better offer to their students, make faster progress and improve their performance, says Robert Hill

Schools and colleges that work in partnership provide a better offer to their students, make faster progress and improve their performance. That is the core message of my study for the Association of School and College Leaders on collaborative working in the secondary school sector.

Achieving more together: adding value through partnerships describes how the vast majority of secondary schools in England are involved in partnership activity with other schools and colleges. The evidence from a wide range of independent studies indicates clearly and conclusively the benefits of collaborative working – as the box below shows.

The benefits of partnership working Partnerships between schools yield benefits on three important measures.

  • They improve the inputs into a school’s work – the quality of teaching, professional development and leadership is demonstrably more effective when teachers and school leaders from different schools work together to share their practice and develop their expertise.
  • They increase outputs – students enjoy a greater choice of subjects and increased access to specialist teachers and facilities, health and pastoral services, after-school activities, work-related learning and sporting opportunities when schools and colleges pool their resources. This in turn boosts motivation, attendance and staying on rates. Partnership is also increasingly providing a more effective and efficient basis for organising ICT facilities and other support services.
  • They deliver better outcomes – schools and colleges that work together in a structured and disciplined way achieve faster rates of improvement in attainment. For example, two highly regarded independent studies and an Ofsted report have all concluded that the Excellence in Cities policy resulted in pupils in EiC schools making more progress than similar pupils in non-EiC schools.

However, partnership is not a panacea. The benefits from school-to-school and school-to-college collaboration take time to come through. Not all schools in a partnership necessarily benefit to the same extent. Some partnership programmes are more effective than others. In some cases the value of partnerships may be being under rather than over estimated as the added value of a significant proportion of collaborative activity is not being monitored or captured. Despite these caveats there is more than enough evidence to conclude that partnership working between schools is at least as effective in promoting improvement as competition between schools – and in many cases it is providing a much faster and more sustainable route to school improvement. There are, however, a number of important factors to be addressed if partnerships are to be successful. One of those factors is having effective governance arrangements.

The role of governors
The role of governors is important right from the start of considering whether and how to partner with other schools.

For example, the evaluation of 37 federation pilots (School federations pilot study: 2003-07, Lindsay et al, DCSF November 2007) found that four out of five chairs of governors were involved in the decision to federate. And, as the table alongside shows, chairs of governors broadly shared the same aims and objectives as their headteachers in forming federations – though heads placed more of an emphasis on inclusion than did chairs of governors and heads of years.

However, although chairs of governors were very much involved in the decision to federate, both they and their governing bodies were less involved in the development of federations. In part this may be because partnerships are not giving enough thought to the type of governance system that is right for their particular circumstances. There is a wide spectrum of governance models available to partnerships – from relatively informal collaborations, through joint committees of governors, or using limited companies for joint activities to having hard federations and executive heads responsible for more than one school. A good principle to bear in mind when considering the right model is that ‘form should follow function’. That is to say, the form of governance should reflect the purpose, scope and intensity of the partnership working. The broader the nature of the partnership’s activities, the larger the budget and the greater the number of staff employed, the more partnerships should consider moving to having more formal governance arrangements. This is not an iron rule. There are successful partnerships engaging in a wide range of collaborative activities that feel most comfortable with softer governance arrangements. Sometimes they may keep the governance towards the soft end of the spectrum but set up a company under the Schools Act 2002 and use that to manage the scope of their joint activity more formally. What is important is that schools and colleges do not stumble into a system of governance, but consider carefully the governance structure that is appropriate to their local situation. Sometimes, for example, partnerships want to future-proof their collaboration against changes of headteachers – they don’t want to risk all their good work being undermined by a new person coming in to a particular institution who does not want to play the partnership game. That might lead them to devise joint governance arrangements that anybody thinking of applying for a headteacher post in the partnership would understand they were committed to if they were offered the job. It is also important to understand that governance of partnerships covers more than the powers and organisation of governors across the schools that are collaborating. It is also essential to establish governance at other levels of the partnership as well – as the panel on the right illustrates.

A tiered approach toward governing, leading and managing The case study visits for Achieving more together showed how many partnerships had put into place governance arrangements characterised by three strands.

  • First, partnerships had strong and clear strategic arrangements for overseeing the overall direction and development of the partnership. The exact membership and formation depended on the local circumstances but invariably governors, headteachers and principals were key players. It is at this level that the aims and objectives of the partnership are agreed, the priorities and budget set and overall performance and progress reviewed. In larger collaborations or partnerships with harder management structures this strategic role body may be split between two groups: a body with an overarching governance responsibility and an executive group to provide the drive and support for the governance group.
  • Second, there is a tier of management tasked with turning strategy into action. They are in effect the ‘engine room’ of a partnership. Classically the group is comprised of deputy or assistant heads. They are like chiefs of staff who, for example, take a strategic decision to deliver an e-prospectus by a certain date and ensure that the machinery and resources are put in place to achieve that outcome – perhaps by designating a particular school or college as the lead partner.
  • Third, there are cross-partnership operational groups tasked with sorting out policy, procedures and practices for areas as diverse as professional development, quality assurance, common timetabling, course development and inclusion, pastoral care, out-of-school activities and engagement with parents.

Whatever the exact form of governance and management, partnerships need additional capacity if existing school leaders are not to suffer from overload. They need a senior director or project co-ordinator dedicated to making the partnership function effectively – even if such a post is not full-time. The post may be for two, three or four days a week, depending on the scope of partnership activity. Without such support the pressures on existing senior staff take their toll and hold back a partnership’s progress.

Developments in the governance of partnerships

A key learning point from federations is that governance arrangements are not fixed. As schools build up trust they often decide to move their joint working into new areas. This in turn means reviewing their governance. For example, the West Wiltshire federation of 10 schools started life with a soft federation overseen by a joint chairs’ and heads’ group. After three years the federation decided it wanted to move to a much harder form of governance – in part because it wanted to create a structure that could work more strategically with external partners such as the local FE college, the LSC, work-based learning providers and local authority children’s services. The schools wanted the ability to use their collective muscle to be involved in planning and shaping services. So, as the panel above shows, they have moved to a more formalised governance system. Another development that governors of schools working together will increasingly need to consider is the selection process when appointing a new head. They are in effect choosing someone not only to be the leader of a particular institution but also to be a co-leader of a broader partnership. Some partnerships have recognised the implications of this by inviting at least one representative from one of the other schools or colleges in the partnership to be part of the selection panel that makes the appointment. As extended schools are rolled out across the country, partnerships involving external agencies, such as children’s social services, leisure services, local sports clubs, after school providers and primary care trusts, are becoming commonplace. Partnerships should ensure that the governance arrangements are clear about their mutual commitments to each other. Funding and management agreements should be formalised and set down in writing. Similarly, schools forming trusts need to be clear about the commitment they are gaining from each of their partners. In short, partnership working is of immense value. But for governors it requires a lot of thought to take on board all the practical consequences.

Powers of West Wiltshire federation since May 2007 The governing bodies of the schools in the West Wiltshire federation have agreed to delegate the following powers to the federation:

  • employ a project manager and other staff required to fulfil the objectives of the federation, as agreed annually by the heads and chairs group
  • apply for funding and grants in order to fulfil the federation’s objectives as agreed by the heads and chairs group
  • sign contracts with external organisations either in order for the federation to deliver services to those organisations or to enable the federation to gain best value in the delivery of services to its schools – all contracts have to be in line with the objectives set by the heads and chairs group
  • issue service level agreements to each federation school in accordance with the services required by that particular school
  • hold a bank account subject to presenting an annual financial report to the heads and chairs group

Robert Hill is a former adviser to Tony Blair and to Charles Clarke and now works with a range of organisations, including ASCL, on public policy issues