Partnerships with the state sector: Hands across the great divide

Once a cloistered group protected from their state colleagues, independent school pupils are now going out into the community to learn how the other half live. By Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Parents pay £8,200 a term for their daughters to attend Wycombe Abbey, where 540 girls board in an 18th-century mansion in 160 acres of woods and gardens in Buckinghamshire. Yet at least once a week Georgie Shryane, 17, spends precious hours not with her fellow boarders at Wycombe Abbey but with pupils from Cressex Community School.

The secondary modern is only a short five-minute drive away but it could not be more different from its privileged neighbour. A high proportion of Cressex's pupils are entitled to free school meals and more than one third join the school with reading ages below their chronological age.

Yet Georgie and her fellow students at Wycombe Abbey are queuing up to spend time with Cressex pupils. The schools have formed a partnership to work together. Once a week, 20 of Cressex's gifted and talented students attend enrichment activities, ranging from photography to rock-climbing, at Wycombe Abbey, while sixth-formers from the boarding school go to Cressex to help Year Seven pupils with their literacy.

"I love it," says Georgie, who also teaches swimming to local disabled youngsters in the Wycombe Abbey pool. "This kind of activity has made me so much stronger as a person and opened my mind to different things."

Irene Collier, the outreach activities co-ordinator at Wycombe Abbey, says the girls are genuinely enthused about the partnership. "This is not about having something to stick on the UCAS form," says Collier. "These projects can change lives. I did something similar when I was 18 and that was how I got into teaching and pastoral care."

Collier stresses, however, that the partnership is not an act of charity on behalf of the independent school. "We are not the benevolent benefactor. Our girls are learning so much more than they give."

This learning includes increased awareness of the issues in the local catchment area, improved negotiating and leadership skills as they organise the weekly enrichment activities and relationship-building with girls from very different backgrounds.

"The girls exchange views about their lives and experiences and I think both sides are finding out they have more in common than in difference," says Collier.

Cressex Community School is also reaping benefits from the relationship. The girls involved in the enrichment activities have grown in confidence and have taken on positions of responsibility with the school, surprising staff with their drive and engagement on a wide range of issues. Aspirations have also been raised, with the girls considering university and career options that they have discussed with their Wycombe Abbey friends.

The literacy project has produced some startling results. "We have seen some amazing successes in the first year," says Judith Millar, deputy head of Cressex School. "Some pupils, after two terms of input once or twice a week, have made two years' progress in their reading ages."

Millar admits that she wasn't sure what to expect given the stark differences between the schools. "If there were any preconceptions or scepticism on the part of staff at the beginning, then it has all gone," says Millar, who is now keen to extend the relationship. She wants Cressex to join the disability swimming project and there are plans for Cressex sixth-formers to join Wycombe Abbey's long-running link with the Royal Grammar School (the two schools collaborate on a business conference, academic forum and mock university interviewing).

"It's very interesting that it takes a school like Wycombe Abbey to bring us together with the local grammar school," observes Millar.

The Government was keen to foster such relationships when it launched the Independent State School Partnership (ISSP) scheme in 1997. Since then, the Department for Education and Skills has provided £8.4m for 314 projects involving some 138,000 students. However, the Wycombe Abbey-Cressex partnership was refused ISSP funding so Cressex turned to its Excellence In Cities pot to get the project under way. It is a sign of both schools' commitment that the partnership survived these funding issues.

Funding is a perennial issue for independent schools planning to build bridges with state partners, something which, given the scrutiny of the Charities Commission, is now firmly on the agenda. Eight out of 10 independent schools have charitable status, bringing valuable tax breaks, but they must prove they are of "public benefit" to maintain this status.

This is easier said than done and some schools are paying lip service to the concept. Jennifer Ball, community links co-ordinator at St Paul's, the boys' school in London, which has an extensive ISSP and community outreach programme, says this is not because schools are just ticking boxes for the charity commission but because it requires extensive time, effort and money to make these partnerships work.

She should know: over the past two years St Paul's has built links throughout its local community with students acting as mentors and classroom assistants at primary schools in Barnes, Hammersmith and Fulham. ISSP funding underpins maths mentoring at Shene School and a music project with schools across Hammersmith and Fulham.

It helps that Ball, who is also head of Citizenship, has a part-time secondment from teaching in order to drive these programmes forward. Even so, she admits it is "jolly hard work", taking up many evenings and most holidays because this is the time when the personal contacts are made that keep these multi-partner, cross-borough projects moving forward in the face of organisational or financial obstacles.

Pauline Davies, head of Wycombe Abbey School, agrees that personal contacts between senior staff members at the partner schools are vital. When the literacy project at Cressex hit a snag because of timetabling issues, a solution was forged by Davies, Collier and their Cressex counterparts over dinner. "It was a tiny problem but if you had several of them in succession it could derail a project," says Davies. "You need this ongoing dialogue and commitment."

Jennifer Ball admits St Paul's is fortunate because it is in a financial position to devote time and energy to its partnership work. "We do not have to worry about keeping our list full or commercial hire of our space," says Ball. "If we are approached for a booking for a charitable purpose, that will always come before a commercial hire. But it's difficult for some schools to see how public benefit can work without undermining their financial viability."

She adds: "There's still a perception that the independent sector has an ivory tower mentality but we're not doing this to prove anything. We're doing it because we can and we should do this."