The Importance of Place in effective and sustainable school partnerships
By Rob Southwell-Sander, Assistant Head and Director of Partnerships

As an avid Guardian reader I came across a headline that I was not expecting a few weeks ago, ‘Spare a thought for the new persecuted minority: The privately educated’. The gist of the story was looking at redressing the imbalance in education through policies such as the removal of tax breaks for independent schools and the growing number of Oxbridge places going to state educated students. As a teacher who has worked in, and enjoyed teaching, across both sectors and in different countries I am reluctant to stir the political hornets nest around such policies but it did make me reflect on the challenge of curating transformative educational policy from the top down. As a geographer this made me immediately reflect on the ‘Power of Place’ in helping to drive educational change. According to the National Geographic, place refers to “an area having unique physical and human characteristics interconnected with other places.” Having an understanding of one’s place, with its past and present connections and physical and human features, helps one grasp the reasons why disparities in educational outcomes exist. In turn it can help one to establish what can be done about it….

In September 2019 I wrote a blog asking the question ‘Is the time right for an Abingdon Town Learning Partnership?’ Much has been achieved since then and as I pen this article in June 2023 the OX14 Learning Partnership is becoming increasingly embedded within each of our 6 member schools and continues to go from strength to strength. Since November 2021 when this partnership in and around the OX14 postcode formally decided to work together for mutual benefit, we have organised over 100 separate activities involving over 8,000 hours of student participation. At the very heart of this partnership is the notion of ‘place’. The unique features of Abingdon and the surrounding OX14 area have evolved over time. The historic importance of industries such as brewing and car making have made way, like so many similar towns and cities across the country, for a more service and knowledge based economy. This can bring opportunities for some who can take advantage of higher skilled employment, but challenges for others who perhaps miss out. This, in turn, can lead to inequality of opportunities. Uneven access to transformational educational opportunities or the latest pedagogical research does not sit comfortably with teachers regardless of sector or stage and this is where place based educational partnerships can play an invaluable role in addressing local educational imbalance. This was at the very heart of why the School Heads, partnership champions and partnership coordinator from Abingdon, Fitzharrys, John Mason, Larkmead, Radley and St Helen and St Katherine decided to sign up to a formal Memorandum of Understanding in November 2021 based on 3 key aims:

Challenge – Provide opportunities for aspiration and challenge through widening horizons for all stakeholders.

Inspire – Use extra-curricular activities to develop character, promote cultural engagement and support civic pride.

Support – Support the mental health and wellbeing of students, staff and parents using a whole school/partnership approach.

These core values act as a rudder to help steer our direction as a partnership of schools. As educational institutions, pupils and families continue to recover from the impact of covid on lost learning and day to day habits working as a collective group of schools create enormous ‘economies of scale’ in areas such as shared lectures, staff professional development and numerous enrichment opportunities around STEM, performing arts, leadership and support.

Activities, such as our Oxford Academy of Broadcast Journalism, are designed to expose a broader diversity of young people to the skills associated with blogging, presenting or podcasting – all of which are transferable into the workplace. Leadership programs, such as our Academic coaching, helps older students develop their communication and active listening skills before supporting the learning of younger peers. In addition, we are seeing growth in areas such as shared preparation for university including a medic program, Oxbridge preparation club and a futures fair – all of which allow students from across the town access to admissions from a broad range of universities. Finally, it is clear that a residual impact of covid is the toll it has taken on the mental health and wellbeing of many people. Having a shared focus on support has allowed our schools to develop a number of strategies to help deal with these pressures including staff professional development, parental webinars and student support. Our flagship Peer Support Lead program brings 6th Formers from across the partnership together to be trained in wellbeing support and safeguarding, before supporting younger peers experiencing challenges. This helps foster a culture of support and understanding regardless of the educational setting.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that if ever the term ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is applicable it is within the realm of educational partnerships. As schools and students collaborate with one another they create an open dialogue and a greater understanding of each school’s strengths along with their respective pressures. An added and important benefit of working collaboratively is the creation and development of genuine sense of civic pride and community cohesion. Our annual OX14 student survey has seen a 15% growth in students who say they feel part of a community and from a professional perspective it is genuinely exciting to work with colleagues who bring different experiences and viewpoints to the table.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the road to embedding a sustainable school partnership is smooth. Challenges arise on an almost weekly basis in terms of logistics, communications, budgeting and getting the balance between the strategic and the operational. But when you have a core group of people who share a common set of values and beliefs, along with a coordinator who can help align the systems with the culture then challenges can be both overcome but more importantly are formative.

So while politicians at the national scale spend their time looking for political point scoring while trying to create policies that fit within their historic voting parameters, here at Abingdon and within the OX14 Learning Partnership we are busy trying to enhance local provision through educational opportunities, sharing best practice, widening access to resources and fostering social cohesion.  Most importantly, and excitingly, there are similar examples of successful and sustainable school partnerships emerging in all corners of the country. Long may it continue….

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