July 2021 edition: Achievement through Collaboration: Exploring Multi School Solutions

Achievement through Collaboration: Exploring Multi School Solutions

The landscape of inter-school collaboration is complex, encompassing a wide range of different types of collaborative activity, both formal and informal and often a combination of both, and involving schools of different phases and types. Schools collaborate for a multitude of reasons over different timelines and with varying degrees of success in terms of impact and sustainability. Whatever the state of Government policy on academisation, and whatever precise legal structure is favoured at the moment, collaboration between schools and Academy Trusts is absolutely vital and will continue to be so. There is a growing appetite amongst academy trusts to collaborate, either as a precursor to an academy joining or merging, or on a longer-term basis, and the DfE has recently announced, the “try before you buy” academy offer. Collaboration can of course take many forms and bring many benefits, and it is interesting to see the government encouraging these school collaborative partnerships.

Back in April the Government announced the "try before you buy” academy offer, essentially time-limited partnership to give schools and Trusts an opportunity to explore whether there is true alignment in their mission, vision and values before making a long-term commitment. Of course these arrangements are not new, and there are rich examples of such partnerships which have borne fruit over the years, and in many cases have led to successful mergers. What is also helpful is that the Government seems to be adopting the language of "collaboration”, which is to be welcomed, but it will be important to see how these partnerships will be viewed by the DfE (will they allow merger or academisation if the outcome of such partnerships is successful?), and how will these partnerships shape system design. It is important too that regulation is facilitative, and not prescriptive. After all, collaboration thrives on innovation and creativity which we know can be constrained by over regulation and prescription.

Whatever the state of Government policy on academisation, and whatever precise legal structure is favoured at the moment, collaboration between schools and Academy Trusts is absolutely vital and will continue to be so.

Ciara Campfield

Having advised on a significant number of school-to-school partnerships over the years, the founding stone for such partnerships is undoubtedly ensuring that they are co-created, mutually beneficial partnerships, based on the mantra of co-production, co-investment and co-delivery. As an education lawyer at Stone King I am lucky to see the full range of partnerships within the sector, and it is also worth noting too they are not always based on the design of a one-way service flow, where the bigger, more financially strong entity is providing all the support.

So how do we broker these arrangements and what makes for a successful partnership?

  • The starting point for any partnership is purpose, as purpose ultimately drives direction. Spend time getting that right.

  • Collaboration needs parity among participants, and schools and Trusts need to ultimately accept that system leadership will and does takes time to develop, and that progress will happen at the speed of trust.

  • It is important any design is implemented on the basis that behind every contract are people, and ultimately relationships matter much more than structures. Spending time on getting to properly know the other partner is vital, and at all levels of the organisation too.

  • We tend to find that some of the obstacles which prevent true collaboration are often perceived power imbalances and heavy workloads, but we find that time spent in the here and now, along with honest conversations (including addressing the ‘elephants in the room’ handled with diplomacy and respect) can achieve great outcomes and lead often to a reduction in workload.

  • We advise that a strong legal founding partnership agreement is put into place. The key factors to consider are governance, finance, metrics and impact measurement. Contracts should not be considered as a "transaction” but as a "partnership”.

  • The way a contract is negotiated can significantly contribute toward building trust between parties.

  • Approach contracting from the point of view of making an agreement between partners, not adversaries: co-create the contract, tailor it to its specific context, and ensure it is legally robust.

  • The contract should include all expectations of the parties involved, each explained with adequate detail using clear and simple language that all parties can understand, and be unambiguous about legal consequences.

It is pleasing to see schools and Trusts becoming much more recognised as civic and system leaders, serving a vital role as anchor institutions in their communities, both in how schools and trusts work in hubs to support each other, but in wider outreach partnerships. This can span across the phases of education – from early years to tertiary - to wider place-based community partnerships, involving a range of public benefit providers (LAs, Police, NHS). There is so much potential in the sector, and we certainly hope that much success comes from these trust partnerships. It is certainly the legal work I like the best!

Stone King is a CST Platinum Partner.