Effective community engagement is always a two-way process

Successful and sustainable community engagement requires mutual respect, an agreed vision and shared outcomes, says Mark Mortimer, headmaster of Bryanston School

A few years ago, I took part in the ITV two-part documentary ‘School Swap – the Class Divide’, a programme that aimed to explore some of the similarities and differences between the state and independent sectors in England.

The programme was critically acclaimed and along with Jo Ward, my opposite number at The Bemrose School in Derby and two of our pupils, I was invited to the dizzy heights of the BBC Breakfast show to talk about the programme and some of its lessons.

Jo and I made the point that, although we disagreed about numerous aspects of education in Britain, what we agreed on and what united us was far greater. As I also said, we live on a small island and we believe in children.

In this shared view, Jo and I are far from unusual. In November 2019, the Independent Schools Council published Celebrating Partnerships, its annual report on cross-sector partnership work between independent and state schools.

The report highlights the many varied types of partnerships that are up and running – academic, sport, drama, music, cadet forces, career and higher education support, teacher training, academy sponsorship, governance – and refers to the fact that 1,142 ISC schools are currently involved in more than 4,500 cross-sector partnerships across the UK.

All good stuff, but why do it? Well, in her foreword, Julie Robinson, the chief executive of ISC, more articulately echoes some of the views Jo Ward and I outlined on the surprisingly comfy BBC sofa: “Working together, schools across the country can harness the talents and enthusiasm of great teachers in the state and independent sectors, promote good governance and facilitate understanding between different types of school; create wide-ranging learning opportunities… open more doors to inspiring connections and continue to improve education so that every child leaves school with a love of learning.

“We owe it to our children to work together, making the most of our combined capacity and specialisms for as many young people as possible.”

The key to great teaching is the ability to forge good relationships. It’s absolutely no different when establishing meaningful partnerships. They all start with a knock on the door and a visit to another school. As we all know, you can have the worthiest intentions in Christendom, but if you can’t talk and interact like a human being, you face an uphill struggle.

An open mind and shared goals

Successful, sustainable partnerships have to be genuine and two-way, based on mutual respect, an agreed vision and shared outcomes. In the early days, many partnerships were simply about the use of facilities, but the danger there was that the magnificent assets of many private schools fuelled a sense of imbalance.

Well, thankfully, we’re way beyond that now, and the pooling of knowledge capital – not least in the fundamental areas of teaching and learning – is at the heart of a modern, successful relationship. Much of the pedagogy, teaching and learning in the state sector is first-rate and invaluable.

The other important point to make is that an independent school does not need millions of pounds, years of experience or even a development office to forge an effective partnership. All it needs is an open-mind, curiosity, humility and a readiness to wander down the road to a local school.

I am proud to be a member of the Blandford Schools Network (BSN) of heads of the local state schools and also delighted by the close relationship Bryanston enjoys with The Blandford School. Last term, we jointly performed Les Misérables (we couldn’t have done it without them and vice-versa – a proper partnership) and many of our academic departments are collaborating often and closely. Our two schools jointly run leadership training for senior pupils, and career and mentoring programmes and visits.

Much of the pedagogy, teaching and learning in the state sector is first-rate and invaluable

We are also working with our extensive contacts and network of former pupils and parents to widen access to internships, mock interviews and work experience opportunities; this is an area where our schools can really make a difference and help encourage social mobility. Good for all of us and good for Britain.

I am also proud of the fact that Bryanston was the first independent school in the UK to sign the School Governor Champion Charter with Inspiring Governance, an organisation that aims to recruit skilled volunteers to serve as school governors in the state sector.

At the heart of a community

Bryanston School was established in 1928 by a young, visionary Australian schoolmaster, JG Jeffreys. He bought the house and land from the Portman family, who had owned the estate since the 1660s. However, before them, it was in the hands of the Rogers family for almost 250 years and in the Domesday Book, the land is in the possession of Robert, Count of Mortain (c1031-1095), the half-brother of William the Conqueror.

The point I am making is that Bryanston has been at the heart of the local community for a thousand years. That brings a responsibility as a proud member of the local Dorset community. With 620 staff, we are not only a large employer, but also a community with the spending power to make a real difference to local shops and services.

We have recently introduced a loyalty card scheme to support local independent shops and businesses, but, again, it’s in our interest too: these retailers are longstanding, steadfast supporters of the school and make the town of Blandford an even nicer place to live and work. We all benefit.

In 1942, Bryanston introduced a new scheme ‘to educate, free of charge, considerable number of boys from other walks of life’. The then headmaster of Bryanston, Thorold Coade, justified the scheme as follows: “The scheme itself is… not only the wisest thing the school can do at a time when the future of all public schools is rather dubious, but also the right thing to do in view of the inevitable shake-up of social foundations after the war. This seems to me to be one way in which Bryanston, which is essentially a pioneering school, can give the lead.”

It is striking how contemporary such language appears, almost eighty years later. Plus ça change and all that. However, the fact is that independent schools should foster and develop partnerships with the local community not as a defence mechanism but because they are mutually beneficial and, quite simply, the right thing to do. They are also a lot of fun.

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