The best of both worlds

Who benefits most when a state school forms a partnership with a private one? Hilary Wilce visits Somerset to find out
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The Independent Online

The two worlds couldn't be more different. Writhlington School, in Radstock, Somerset, is the epitome of today's successful state secondary school, shaking off a mediocre past to become a thrusting business and enterprise college. The building is shabby, but the school is full of plans and energy. There's a world-class orchid-breeding project, students run hi-tech businesses, it's a centre of excellence for cricket and exam results are soaring.

Fifteen minutes up the road you are in a different universe. Downside School is a Catholic boys' boarding school, smaller and less academically high-flying than it once was, but still imposing with its Oxbridge-style courtyard and spreading acres. Here, alongside a Benedictine monastery, education revolves around traditional subjects (Greek and Latin are still on the curriculum), and aims to promote "a growth in moral awareness, a love of truth, and a proper use of the imagination".

Writhlington pupils come from the local villages, wear jeans and trainers, and are as likely to leave school to go into a job as to aspire to higher education. Downside pupils come from all over the globe, wear suits and waistcoats, and are almost certain to aim for a place at a top university.

Yet despite this huge gulf, the two schools have started to work together closely - far more closely, in fact, than most of the recent, heavily publicised public-private school partnerships, the majority of which have focused on small, specialist collaborations.

For the past five years, minibuses and cars have trundled up and down the lanes taking Downside sixth-formers to lessons at Writhlington, and vice versa. Numbers have varied, but in the past school year, a dozen Writhlington students went to Downside to study modern languages, geography, chemistry, maths and history, while a similar number of Downside boys did the return journey to study physical education or information technology.

And this isn't as straightforward as it sounds. The two schools, with their very different school days, have to work at co-ordinating sixth-form timetables. The state-school pupils have to be willing to go to classes late in the day and on Saturday mornings, and the teachers who are involved have to turn out to two sets of parents' evenings. Plus, money needs to change hands if the student numbers become unbalanced, at the Learning and Skills Council rate of just over £500 an A-level.

"But this is a partnership that really works, unlike those that mainly seem to exist on paper," says Ken James, a Downside maths teacher and housemaster. "I've had three students in my maths class and it's been fine. No problems at all."

No one is pretending that this is anything more than a practical arrangement. The swap allows Writhlington to offer cost-effective post-16 courses and to free up more of its sixth-form timetable for the vocational A-levels it has decided to specialise in, while Downside gets help with PE and is able to demonstrate a thriving link with its local community - important for private schools, as hard questions continue to be asked about their charitable status. But students go to lessons, then leave. By all accounts, crossing the Writhlington campus can be daunting for some Downside students, while Writhlington ones find Downside pupils less outgoing and likely to "hang out" than pupils at their own school. "We had a field trip to Minehead and made friends while we were there," says Aaron Pickford, 17, who goes to Downside for five geography lessons a week. But the friendships fizzled out back at school. There is little difference in the lessons, however, says Katie Fielden, 17, who studies German at Downside. "They aren't stricter or more formal, and most of the students are down to earth."

The partnership sprang into being when Marie Getheridge, the energetic head of Writhlington, who is "always looking for an angle", picked up the telephone to Dom Anthony Sutch, then the charismatic and outspoken head of Downside. She knew what she wanted for her school, but he immediately saw what the partnership could bring to his. "We got on like a house on fire," says Getheridge. "You need the structures and the processes, but it's people who make things like this happen." A two-year grant from the Department for Education and Skills, which is working to break down barriers between state and private schools, helped get it off the ground, although now it is underwritten by the schools themselves.

Since those early days the schools' heads of music have worked closely together, and joint musicals and concerts have become routine - Writhlington has brass players, and girls; Downside has string players, and a theatre (although it will also have girls from next year). A 50-strong Combined Cadet Force has got going at Writhlington, in tandem with Downside's - something almost unheard of in a state school - and, last year, six competitors took part in the Ten Tours competition on Dartmoor, normally an entirely private-school event. Students deemed gifted and talented at Writhlington have studied at Downside, and next year Writhlington A-level performing-arts students will use Downside's theatre, with Downside boys joining in their classes as an extracurricular activity - and maybe even taking a module or two if they want. "Why not?" says Getheridge. "Points mean prizes."

It is clear that the partnership is currently more useful to Writhlington than it is to Downside, although Downside does get educational benefits. Its PE teachers have been trained in marking, moderating and recording by ones from Writhlington. It gets computer-technician help from its partner school, and is interested in starting to use the school's new online learning programme. Future plans may also include co-operating on developing music technology.

"But, for a lot for us, [the advantage] is the extracurricular side of it," says James Moretti, Downside's director of studies. "It's quite nice to be able to share ideas with people who are coming at them from a different angle and, as much as anything, it keeps everybody's feet on the ground and gives us an idea of what is going on in, well, what I suppose I daren't call 'the real world'. We all lead busy lives in term time. It can be quite insular, and this keeps us in touch with what is going on in state schools."

Downside has already finished for the year as he says this. His gown hangs on the back of his study door awaiting next September, classrooms stand empty and the main courtyard is tranquilly deserted. Meanwhile, Writhlington is still going at full pelt, holding assemblies, hosting visiting American teachers, and fielding The Independent photographer's request for more and yet more pictures.

No one on either side of the partnership is anything but as nice as pie about each other, but differences in educational pace, focus and culture are clearly visible.

The secret of rising above them appears to lie in confidence. Writhlington knows that when it comes to "adding value" to pupils' performance, it can give any school a run for its money. It knows it is good at teacher accountability, performance management, data analysis and monitoring pupils' progress, and that it is comfortable with change and innovation. Downside is secure in its long-standing Catholic values, educational standards and culture.

"What it's all about is compromise," says Phil Steele, Writhlington's deputy head. "They've got to serve their customers and we've got to serve ours, and neither of us can afford to damage our core business. But we're both out to do the best for our students, and we're both completely confident we can deliver good courses."

Getheridge is much pithier. "I'm a great believer in equal partnerships. True collaboration has to be a win:win situation - and that's what we've got here."


The Writhlington/Downside partnership is one of a tiny number in which schools teach each other's pupils on a regular basis, according to the Independent Schools Council. But almost 300 partnerships have been funded by the DfES since Labour came to power in 1997 and set out to break down barriers between the public and state sectors.

Nearly £6m has been pumped into these projects, which have involved 1,100 schools and 80,000 pupils. Still more independent schools have done it without government aid, aware they need to show that their communities can benefit from their charitable-status tax advantages.

Projects include private schools giving maths and science masterclasses to comprehensive-school pupils, gifted and talented state-school pupils taking enrichment classes at private schools, private schools opening up their sports facilities to local children in the holidays, and private-school pupils acting as mentors in deprived schools. Four programmes in East Anglia, announced this year, will involve music teaching, technology work with 14-year-olds, teaching the creative arts and early special needs education.

A recent report by James Turner, a Sunderland primary head, for the National College for School Leadership, found that partnerships were successfully removing misconceptions and breaking down barriers, although they needed full commitment from both schools to work properly.

But not everything in the partnership garden is rosy. Some in the independent sector feel that existing arrangements are too piecemeal, and only benefit state schools. They say that collaborative teaching must be put on a proper, long-term commercial footing, with state-school users paying for private-school expertise. On the other side of the fence, critics accuse some private schools of only being interested in window-dressing, and not taking their work with state schools and their local community seriously.