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School effectiveness

Case study: A tale of two schools in a partnership agreement

A tale of two schools in partnership
Many schools are looking at different ways of collaborating and working together to benefit the pupils in their own and neighbouring schools. David Santillo, Chair of Governors at Stoke Canon C of E Primary School writes of the board’s experiences in exploring different ways of working:
In recent years, the pressure has been building for schools, particularly smaller primary schools, to come together under some form of formal partnership. In common with other Devon primary schools, governors at both Stoke Canon and Clyst St Mary had been exploring the possibilities, potential benefits and drawbacks of joining a federation or academy chain for some time. Our discussions were set against a backdrop of tightening budgets, the decline of the Local Learning Community alongside increasing fears of isolation and a potential lack of sustainability. Despite those separate investigations, neither of our schools had found an opportunity that felt right, for the children in our schools.
Stoke Canon is a small school, currently with 109 pupils on roll and has always maintained a unique identity and valued its independence highly. It is also a very happy and successful school, with a long history of ‘good’ judgments from OFSTED. In February this year, after 10 years of strong leadership and school development our headteacher, Richard Somerwill, decided to step down; our unanimous first preference as a governing board was to try to appoint a new permanent headteacher to replace him. Time was short to recruit and have a new headteacher in place for September as we were fast approaching Easter and much of the advice we received was to look instead at partnership arrangements. We also received a number of ‘enthusiastic’ approaches from existing academies, keen to take on another school and offering a ready-made model for engagement. Despite the pressure we felt, we stuck to our plans, met the deadlines and ran the interviews. It was a whirlwind process, but one which we felt had brought the whole school community together.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we did not find the right candidate. With Easter then passed and the clock steadily ticking, it was clear that we needed to explore other options in order to have a sound management structure in place in time for the start of the autumn term. The idea of a management partnership, completely unfamiliar to us at the time, was discussed in depth at a series of governor meetings. We began to draw upon the support and experience of both the Devon Governance Consultancy Team and the Diocese in order to understand clearly what would be involved, how we would go about it and what the safeguards were to ensure that we didn’t lose our identity along with our headteacher.
A great many emails and telephone calls followed, along with meetings with headteachers and governors at a number of local schools in our search for a suitable partnership. Coming hot on the heels of headteacher interviews, it was, in all honesty, an intense and uncertain time, with governors already feeling understandably weary and disheartened. However, as we began to explore what a partnership could mean in practice, and what it could bring to both schools in terms of shared expertise, insights and ideas, something that was initially born out of necessity quickly began to feel like an opportunity, and then as a positive choice.
Even during our first exploratory meeting with governors at Clyst St Mary, the ‘fit’ felt right. Our two schools had worked together in the past through learning community initiatives, but very much as separate entities. There was no existing model of partnership in place, nor a burning ambition on either part to expand or federate, but there was clearly a common understanding, a mutual enthusiasm and a willingness to explore the possibilities to the benefit of pupils at both schools. A partnership not only offered Stoke Canon a solution for leadership, but also offered both schools a chance to work more closely together under one experienced headteacher and to learn from each other in the process. The decision to enter into a partnership with another school was not one that governors at either school took lightly. At Stoke Canon, there were many more hours of discussion, looking in critical detail at all the options and their implications, before we came to a consensus that this was the right way forward.
Drafting the partnership agreement itself was a somewhat daunting prospect and one in which governors initially feared hidden complexities and pitfalls. In the event the process was clear and straightforward, and we felt throughout that we were in control of our own destiny rather than feeling managed towards a certain end-point. Experienced staff from the Governance Team and the Diocese were available to come to key meetings to advise on what we needed to get done and what our options were, but did not drive our decision-making. They were very much on tap, but not on top.
Through discussions both within and between our governing bodies, we dealt first with the essentials that are needed to make any such agreement work, and then moved on to add those more personal elements that make sense of our particular partnership and what it is for. From our initial decision in early May to explore management partnerships, to drafting and signing the partnership documents, only took around two months in total and was concluded well before the end of the summer term. It was busy, for sure (especially as it ended up coinciding with both OFSTED and SIAMS inspections), but did not feel rushed.
Stoke Canon and Clyst St Mary are individual schools each with their own distinct identities and characters, and will remain so throughout the partnership, whether that continues for the year currently agreed or longer. We share many similarities including our ways of working, our approaches to teaching and learning, our inclusive ethos and the external challenges we face. Stoke Canon is a church school, Clyst St Mary a community school, with a strong and long-standing relationship with the village’s church community. Stoke Canon has its own governor-run preschool on site, whilst Clyst St Mary works very closely with an adjacent independent preschool provider. Although technically we have an Executive Head across the partnership, Louise Herbert is determined to work as, and be seen as, the headteacher at both schools, supported by two very experienced and able senior members of staff as deputy heads, as well as by two dedicated teams of governors.
We are still in the early days of the partnership, and no doubt there will be issues to discuss and resolve both within individual schools and through the Joint Management Committee. It feels, nonetheless, that we are on a journey together and that both schools are committed to making the partnership work in the interests of all our children. Let’s see where it leads us…