When we set up Schools Alliance for Excellence in September 2019 we did so with the belief that we are stronger together – the belief that all Surrey children are our collective responsibility and working in partnership, drawing on our collective strengths, we can support each other to do the best for every child through excellent education. A key principle of our work is that we see ourselves as the ‘glue’ supporting partnership and collaboration between schools so no school is left isolated and vulnerable regardless of phase or status. I don’t think that as we started we would have expected our beliefs to be tested quite as much as they have been during this COVID crisis.
The importance of working together
Steve Mumby reflects that ‘schools that are isolated cannot easily function well in times of crisis and that there is great power and potential in collaboration at local level.’ We are a county of 400 schools of which nearly 40% are in a multi-academy trust of various sizes. I have seen over the last six months the power of trusts to bring together their schools, provide leadership, guidance, support and a sense of community. But I have also seen how potentially lonely it is if you sit outside the ‘bubble’ of a trust – particularly if you are a small stand-alone academy or maintained school. Leadership can be, as we know, a lonely place - exacerbated at times of crisis by being outside one of the ‘MAT clubs’.
How SAfE can help
As an alliance that operates regardless of phase or status and unfettered by the politics of the local authority (although working in partnership with them) we have seen the power of local education partnerships to make a difference. From the beginning of the crisis we were able to say to all schools, ‘We are here to support you when and if you need us.’ We have provided the vehicle by which leaders and governors can communicate, share and question in a safe space; we have brokered support where needed; we have brought together schools, regardless of status, to provide guidance to others on home-learning, wider school opening, the role of governors, pupil mental health and wellbeing; where necessary we have challenged the Local Authority - we have had the ‘backs’ of our school leaders. Our schools have been magnanimous in giving time and sharing expertise and resources with others despite the pressures on their own schools.
Collaboration where place still matters
COVID-19 has shown us that there are things that are out of our control and the control of politicians and when the world tilts we need to pull together. Despite rhetoric from some quarters I think it is unlikely to be a time when academies are taken back into LA control. Conversely, despite there being many amazing MATs it is unlikely to be a time when all schools are in a highly performing MAT. We have seen the impact of the limitations of government and some local authorities. The crisis shows us that we need a different way forward. No school or group of schools should prosper at the expense of others or risk isolation.
But COVID-19 has shown how local education partnerships such as SAfE can offer a means of supporting all schools to work together. As we move through this new academic year with all its challenges we cannot afford competition and self-introversion whatever a schools status. Place matters - we have seen in our alliance a commitment to all local children and to all local schools. As we increasingly start to focus on the future let us not drift back to the old status quo but grasp the moment.
Maria Dawes is the CEO of SAfE.
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