Mutual Friendships

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2022

Partnerships between different types of schools enable the sharing of good practice and expertise, and can be mutually beneficial says Headteacher Evelyn Forde. Here, Evelyn shines a light on how her state-funded school works closely with its neighbouring independent school.

With lots of conversations at the moment about ‘families of schools’ and all schools becoming part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), I’m keen to shine a light on how beneficial non-traditional partnerships can be. I’d like to think that if the main driver for partnerships is to share good practice and expertise then why would a partnership between a state-funded school and an independent school not be seen favourably? 

When I took up the headship at Copthall School in 2016, it had just received a ‘Requires Improvement’ judgement from Ofsted. Copthall is a girls’ comprehensive school for students aged 11 to 18, located in the Mill Hill area of the London Borough of Barnet, one of the top performing boroughs in London. In addition to this, it is nestled among several faith schools and private schools. 

Bringing communities together 
Its close proximity to several other schools led me to believe that as well as improving standards it would be good to explore other possibilities such as partnership working, in order to bring a different dimension to Copthall. 

I also knew that Copthall had a lot to offer other schools, in terms of teaching expertise, and I wanted my students to have opportunities that are not always afforded to young people in a state school. I wanted to be able to bring two very different school communities together, to break down potential misconceptions and to have the opportunity to learn from each other. 

We found this in our unique partnership with Mill Hill School, an independent school within 20 minutes walking distance, and one whose ethos and values resonated with ours at Copthall. 

With the unwavering support of both schools’ governing boards, in 2018, Copthall School signed a memorandum of understanding with Mill Hill School with an overriding purpose of bringing the two school communities together to benefit staff and students from both schools. 

Jane Sanchez, Head at Mill Hill, and I were resolute that the partnership would never be a ‘done to’ model but rather one that was sincerely a collaborative and joint venture and, since then, it has gone from strength to strength. 

We started our partnership by teaming up curriculum leaders from both schools to see what collaborative work we could undertake, and we then teamed up the schools’ deputies to focus on a teaching and learning partnership. 

From this, we have been able to co-host Teach First participants for their school placement, have had numerous sporting competitions and our GCSE students have been given access to Mill Hill’s swimming pool to enable them to complete parts of their PE requirements. 

Support with moderation across both schools is now commonplace, joint professional development has been a regular feature and includes a middle leader programme that took place at Copthall in 2020. Copthall is fortunate to have Jane as one of our governors, something that we have found to be invaluable, especially as it has brought about more diversity of thought and perspective to our way of thinking. I have since done the same, and I am now a governor on another independent school’s governing board, where I know that what I bring to their table is equally invaluable.

Jane believes the partnership has been even more important throughout the pandemic and is a vital source of support. She said, “What better illustration of our joint vision for the partnership than to have shared the stage in September at Mill Hill’s annual speech day with Evelyn, whose address to parents and pupils made clear how closely aligned our ethos and values really are. 

“The keynote of resilience, which she applied to young people through the pandemic, also extends to the partnership itself, which has not only survived the challenges of the past two years but is now coming back stronger than ever. 

“Looking ahead, our forthcoming wellbeing conference, shared academic and co-curricular activities and careers guidance opportunities, combine to make the next twelve months very exciting indeed.” 

Deeper understanding 
Our partnership with Mill Hill runs deep. It gives students from both schools an opportunity to meet and reflect on what it means to be a young person growing up in London today. Lecture series and guest speakers bring about rich and diverse conversations that may not have been possible without the partnership, and for us as headteachers, we think those opportunities are priceless. 

In 2020, we were successful with a DfE partnership bid to deliver a mental health and wellbeing conference across both schools, and while it has been put on pause due to the pandemic, both schools are planning for this to happen later in 2022. The successful bid, we feel, is testament to the value of our partnership and all that it brings to both schools and their communities. 

The collaboration between Copthall School and Mill Hill School is not unique, as more and more schools realise the benefits of what such a partnership can bring. 

The Schools Partnership Alliance (SPA), for which I have just become a trustee, is building a national network of partnerships and will be working towards an industry-wide Kitemark. The SPA will focus on promoting the best partnership practice across both state and independent education sectors, working closely with schools and other stakeholders to build a national network, drawing on the very best examples of sustainable and impactful partnerships. A new SPA website is being developed, but you can see more information on this holding site: 

It seems to me there is an appetite for 'out of the box thinking' on how schools work together that isn't necessarily rooted in the finances of education, but rather putting young people, regardless of their school context, at the heart of the decision making. Evelyn Forde

Evelyn Forde
Headteacher at Copthall School in London and ASCL President 2022/23

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