Establish a post-pandemic culture of partnership
The pandemic has posed a serious challenge to all organizations, including independent schools. Some have had to bend or even suspend their core values in order to survive; others have clung to their beliefs and adapted within them.
It is interesting to see how one facet of school life is weathering the storm: partnerships. Inter-school partnerships have grown rapidly in number and importance in recent years, particularly since the formation of the Group Schools Together who provided professional discourse and support for partnerships, especially intersectoral relations.
But since March 2020, while some schools have pivoted their inter-school collaborations online and adapted to the new challenges facing their communities, others have curbed their offer and waited for the Covid clouds to pass.
Successful partnerships require strategic leadership that establishes a culture around community relations and then empowers those who implement that vision. But Covid has made it more difficult to maintain clarity of goals and it has been difficult to get schools to work together as relationships cannot be easily established or maintained.
A culture of partnerships
We often talk about a school’s culture or ethics, that is, its core beliefs, values and behaviors, which gives a good insight into the flavor of its inter-school and community relationships.
Take a look at the ethics or mission statement on any independent school’s website and it’s almost certain that there will be something about lifelong learning and development, kindness, or l integrity, broadening horizons or external engagement. These statements are good starting points when developing a partnership strategy.
Has the pandemic changed that?
Being honest about the challenges we have all faced and working together to find collaborative solutions might encourage some schools to be more open to working with others. In schools where the principal has nurtured a culture of humility and openness, sustained engagement becomes much easier. The language has moved from awareness to mutual help and support.
A true partnership brings benefits both ways with measurable impact. And, like other school-wide policies, a school’s strategy for partnerships and community engagement must apply to everything we do – like a message through a stone stick. – so that all stakeholders are aware, from governors and parents to staff and students. .
Encouraging high-level messages about goals and benefits is helpful, but warm words from leaders need to be backed up by real facilitation. Staff will need time and administrative support to visit their counterparts in partner schools to rebuild relationships and plan an impactful partnership program.
Relationships are the foundation of successful partnerships and ensure that activities are built on trust and planned together rather than proposed. After the break of the past year and a half, leaders can take the lead – perhaps meeting with other local and community leaders to take stock of what has happened. This can really lubricate the work of the partnership manager.
Teamwork within schools has also taken a hit as water coolers or coffee machines have been rejected for social distancing. Many partnerships operate on collegiality and goodwill, so informal communication is very important. Exchanges with teaching and non-teaching colleagues (catering, land, transport and development, for example) make it possible to find opportunities and anchor the culture of partnership. These walk-in chats will hopefully become easier again over time.
New needs and solutions
What kind of partnership activities should we prioritize post-pandemic, and organize them differently? The pandemic has given rise to new needs but also to new solutions. We still face uncertainty about the future of the exam system.
There is a gap in the curriculum for a whole generation of children. There is food poverty. Early career teachers need reassurance and support after an extraordinary start to their career. Restrictions and tests remain in place. Music, dance, theater, practical subjects and certain sports have taken a big hit and need urgent reconstruction.
Some of these problems can be solved by schools working together and this has already started with examples such as STEM lab remedial days and sports summer schools; much more will emerge in the next term if restrictions allow.
And the new technology we’ve all learned to embrace so quickly in March 2020 can help: virtual teacher group meetings, shared learning resources, remote access to subject matter experts. Travel between partner schools was once one of the biggest challenges (and costs) of collaboration, but now schools can meet more easily and even look further to make successful connections, meeting virtually rather than depend on school transport.
The challenges a school faces are likely to be similar to those of its partner schools, so we have to ask ourselves: is there a reason why we can’t open this cultural event / remedial / rehearsal class to others? School leaders can help by ensuring that the budget is allocated for the digital technology and training needed to facilitate this.
The Schools Together mission statement is to “Harness the Power of Partnerships for the Benefit of Children”. And while it might sound naively simple, that’s what it boils down to. All the children (and adults) in our communities have been affected by the pandemic and by working together, all – especially the most disadvantaged – can benefit.
Questions to ask yourself:
● Does our message on partnerships align with school ethics?
● Do all our stakeholders agree on our partnership strategy?
● What are the needs of our school that could be solved in partnership with others? And do we know what the needs of our partner schools are?
● Can we use new digital platforms to collaborate more closely?
● Does our partnership manager have the time allocated to rebuild or establish our strategy, program and partnership relationships? Do they need professional support?
Christina is founding president of Schools Together and responsible for partnerships at King’s School in Canterbury. She now provides tailored advice on leadership and partnerships in schools.