Flinging wide the (automatic) gates
By Jeremy Taylor, Director of Arts Partnerships

Twenty years ago, I spent my 40th birthday on a staff inset day, being told by the Head of a well-known private school how unpopular public schools were. Around the same time, the government announced plans to make public schools do more to justify their charitable status, and Abingdon staff were encouraged to think of ways in which they might reach out to the wider community. A few days later, a set of automatic gates with gold-tipped spikes was installed at the main entrance to the School.

The idea of forging partnerships between independent and state schools is certainly not a new one, yet it’s fair to say that putting the idea of partnership into practice has not always been straightforward. In those early days, it sometimes felt as though many in the independent sector looked on partnerships as a box-ticking exercise whose aim was to get the Labour government off their backs. On the other hand, if governing bodies did settle for offering a few bursaries and inviting local state schools to use the swimming pool in order to avoid VAT and maintain their low business rates, who could blame them? In the increasingly commercial environment in which independent schools were having to operate, whereby Heads were re-styled as “CEOs”, teachers as “managers of learning”, parents as “consumers” and pupils as “stakeholders”, it would have been a brave CEO who opted to divert large chunks of school fee revenue to benefit state school pupils.

At Abingdon, by contrast, a bolder and more substantial vision of partnership was quick to take root, so that by 2009, on my 50th birthday, I found myself in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, with members of the School’s film unit, making a documentary that was the result of Abingdon’s already well-established links with that country. In the course of several trips, the Abingdon students showed their Moldovan peers how to use their camera, sound and editing equipment, while the Moldovans taught the AFU team their history, guided research, and conducted / translated the interviews for the film. As in all effective partnerships, this was a collaboration, an exchange, an equal sharing that brought pleasure and benefit to both parties.

Since then, Abingdon’s partnership activity has advanced in leaps and bounds. The opening of the Yang Science Centre in 2015 proved that the idea of partnership was now at the heart of the school’s thinking, courtesy of a dedicated partnerships laboratory that has already welcomed nearly 1700 children from partner schools in the last year alone. Why has there been so large and concerted an upswing in partnership activity at Abingdon?

There may be many answers to that question. It’s true that in 2016, Theresa May’s Conservative government briefly echoed its Labour predecessors by presenting a green paper proposing independent schools that did not provide sufficient public benefit should lose charitable status. However, after the last election reduced her majority, the Prime Minister’s green paper was quietly shelved. So the drive to expand partnership work at Abingdon is not solely a response to political pressure.

It could be that an enhanced “post referendum” awareness of national and regional divisions has informed much of the new thinking, both here and at other independent schools. But perhaps there is also a recognition that partnership is an idea whose time has come. At Abingdon, the Head, staff and governors understand that we are fortunate in both our resources and our facilities and it is right that we share them with others. There is also a desire to build on the School’s heritage as a place that has offered education to local boys for free not only through bursary provision but also by opening up the (automatic) gates of the School and engaging with the local community.

So where will I be, and what will I be doing when – deo volente – my 60th birthday rolls around later this year? If I’m lucky, I might be working with some of the fabulous young people I have met in the course of my new role as director of arts partnerships. The arts are surely one of the best ways of making connections between people. As one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, says:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met… And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

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