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Collaboration and partnerships - the current DfE preferred route is for multi-academy trusts

Schools are wise to be aware of the current push by the government for all schools to become academies by 2020, and to consider whether or which partnerships could be appropriate. It is likely that some partnerships will be forced; it is therefore more positive to be in control of the school’s destiny and partner in a considered and productive way.

A large numbers of academies are forming multi-academy trusts, and community schools are forming federations (formal and informal). Teaching schools form teaching alliances amongst groups of schools and have a shared agenda for school improvement.

The rationale for schools coming together is to raise educational standards, to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and to make effective use of funding, expertise and leadership.

The following points highlight potential benefits of partnership:

  • Strong collaboration, with shared accountability, can lead to better progress and attainment for pupils and help schools meet rising expectations
  • School leaders and teachers can share thinking and planning, to spread expertise and tackle challenges together
  • Governors can come together to share strategic thinking, combine skills and to support each other during challenging times
  • School leaders, teachers and other staff can be shared across more than one school, enabling schools to find different solutions to recruitment challenges, retain staff by providing new opportunities within the group, and plan succession more effectively
  • Groups of schools can find it easier to find and fund specialist expertise (specialist teachers, as well as specialists in data analysis, finance, health and safety), and to provide richer curricular and extra-curricular activities
  • Shared professional development can more easily be arranged, led either by staff from one of the partner schools or by an outside body
  • The economies of scale and collective purchasing made possible within larger groups help schools cope better with shrinking budgets

More information on the evidence behind these statements is in Appendix 1 of the document Forming or Joining a Group of Schools, published in partnership between ACSL, NGA and Browne Jacobson. This document is below and provides a set of models and a comprehensive explanation of how these operate.

Association of School and College Leaders, Brownejacobson Education Lawyers, National Governors' Association, (September 2015)

This is a system change that some have embraced, others are watching developments, and others have imposed upon them.

Schools are advised to exercise caution – some partnerships cost a great deal, take up large amounts of time, and have no positive impact on learners or the quality of their experience.

It is important to consider the reasons for a lack of positive impact, when the current move is for schools to partner, make efficiencies and improve learners’ outcomes.

If the purpose of the partnership, along with joint values and expectations, is not established at the start, the partnership will suffer. Partnership leads to changed roles, as well as the movement and development of accountabilities and, in many cases, power. If everyone tries to carry on as before but with an extra layer of accountability, there will be a rise in cost, frustration levels, and wasted time that could have been focused on learners and their needs. A key and challenging aspect of true partnership is change management.

Where there is clarity, a shared moral purpose and a brave approach, partnerships of all types are working. Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner has developed a document, Characteristics of successful multi-academy trusts, which is available below plots stages of development and positive characteristics of groups of schools working together. 

Sir David Carter, South West Regional Schools Commissioner, (July 2015)

The web link below takes you to a research document by Dr Paul Armstrong, Effective school partnerships and collaboration for school improvement: a review of the evidence. Armstrong reviews partnerships between schools and explores the beneficial aspects, but also highlights the recurring concerns expressed by those schools involved in partnership work.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some factors that contribute to the success of any collaborative partnership:

  • A sense of shared identity between schools, which could be through physical proximity or a sense of belonging to an inclusive community
  • A sense of common purpose and a joint vision for continuous improvement of the attainment, achievement and progression of all the young people within the partnership
  • Strong cohesive leadership that looks to develop and sustain leadership at all levels in all the partnership schools
  • A strong management structure
  • Trust – schools need to share a sense of openness and a willingness to operate in a joined-up way
  • A system of review to monitor the effectiveness of the partnership
  • Commitment to the partnership, which may at times be in conflict with loyalty to individual schools

Small schools face particularly challenging times as current income will prove less and less adequate to fund increases in staffing and running costs, plus the impact of the national funding formula is not yet known.

Options are:

Continue as is for the moment, with the hope that funding picks up.

Bear in mind deficits are very difficult to pay down, and affect pupils who are yet to come to the school, as reduced resource impacts on the schools ongoing ability to provide an appropriate educational experience. There is a tipping point and if a school is to develop an every growing deficit viability will quickly be an issue.


Seek collaboration, partnership and restructure with other school/s, with a view to maintaining the education settings, whilst benefiting from shared expertise and a reduction of overall cost to remain viable. This approach is a sensitive area for schools – it requires a courageous and farsighted approach and is likely to unsettle the status quo, but is better than the closure of a school due to lack of affordability. HfL can provide help, support and advice to any school considering this option.

The ASCL / NGA / Browne Jacobson document will be a helpful resource in considering implications and possible ways forward.

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