How can public sector bodies make partnership working more than just a soundbite?


Shouldn’t some of this stuff be happening anyway? And what to do when you find out that it isn’t? A local perspective in Cambridge

I went along to a gathering with some people from Education Society Cambridge (ESC) earlier, to get an idea of what students there have planned for 2014. I was there with my school governors hat on – heart inside my school with my eyes looking outward.

In my neighbourhood are Homerton College – historically a teacher training college, and the Faculty of Education, both on Hills Road. One of the comments that struck me from the students was how there was a lack of interaction between Homerton & the Faculty with local schools in Cambridge. In particular, I was surprised to find that as part of their education, they did not get to see first hand what a meeting of a board of governors was like, or perhaps a meeting of a school parents and teachers association. Shouldn’t these be a core part of their course?

The fragmentation of the public sector

With the rise of academies, the education sector has become increasingly fragmented at one end, and centralised at the other. My issue with academies is that they are a policy response that takes education away from local education authorities & puts them into the hands of ‘someone else’ rather than dealing with the bigger problem of poor performing local councils. I’m also opposed to faith schools as a matter of principle as I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts. Academies as a policy is understandable if you are a policy-maker in the Department for Education. Basically you get to take closer control of the public service your organisation is responsible for – and take it out of the hands of local government. From a ministerial perspective, this may also make sense given that many councils will not be under the political control of your party. Therefore perhaps less responsive to policy guidance that comes from the ministry. But it avoids the more difficult question of sorting out local government – but that’s someone else’s problem.

One of the things that came up  in conversation was how many of the things that impact on a child’s education are sometimes outside of the powers that teachers have. For example whether a child has had enough sleep, or had breakfast that morning. Teachers can often be the first people that see the impact of economic downturns on children. Think of when parents on low incomes ask their children’s teachers to ensure their children have lunch because it might be the only hot meal they get that day.

Improving the vertical and horizontal links

This is something I’m exploring with a number of people at a local level (South Cambridge) from an institutional perspective. Helping young people doesn’t always have to involve directly going into classes as a volunteer teaching assistant. I know I’m not cut out to be a secondary school teacher anyway. The bit I’m interested in is how the institutions work with each other. It’s something that public and voluntary sector managers discuss all the time but all too often struggle to turn it into something of substance. Here’s an example of where this happened locally. From that conference there was no follow-up to the priority of ‘improving working relationships’ that everyone else in my workshop breakout group agreed to. (I dissented because it was a meaningless statement which you could not hold anyone to).

When I mentioned the links that Homerton College used to have with my primary school, the students from the ESC asked why such links no longer existed. Good question. What I’ve noticed from a number of student societies at both Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University is that they are increasingly aware of the need for their institutions to engage with the local resident community. They are also increasingly dissatisfied with lack of progress on this front too. I’d say the same is also true with the further education students too. Students at schools, colleges and universities want to make a difference locally. It’s the adults in the institutions – in particular the senior managers, that are failing them. Collectively, the latter need to be doing far better than they currently are.

The bit that I’m focusing on over the next year or so are the institutions in my neighbourhood – the ones that are within walking distance from each other. When you have nurseries, primary schools, secondary schools, and sixth form colleges all within walking distance from higher education establishments – ones that ***specialise*** in education, you have to ask serious questions as to why interaction between the communities in and around these institutions doesn’t happen as a matter of course. Really really basic things such as Christmas fairs, summer fetes, art/drama/music performances and community workshops should be advertised across the institutions. For example when one of the local schools has a summer fair, should it not be cross-advertised in the local secondary school, sixth form college and Homerton College?

Bringing the managers together, then overcoming the administrative blockages

The Cambridge Area Partnership is one of the partnerships that has the potential to do both. I’ve assisted the partnership on a couple of things of late – including as a panellist at their inaugural conference in December 2013. But problems remain – not least in terms of political leadership and the interaction between local institutions and local councillors. I’ve mentioned Hills Road Sixth Form College in previous blogposts as being a particular ‘offender’ in this regard – councillors from both Labour and Liberal Democrats having told me that their correspondence and attempts at outreach have been ignored by the college. It’s why, as mentioned in my last blogpost I completely bypassed the college’s administrative set up and went in to speak to the subject teachers directly to promote a number of events and local community groups that students might be interested in.

The lack of very visible engagement by elected holders of local public office is something that continues to concern me. This is a city-wide problem as far as I’m concerned. In particular the likes of Hills Road and Long Road Sixth Form Colleges, and Homerton College with the Faculty of Education, these are major institutions in South Cambridge. Accordingly, I think it’s essential that there is a strong and positive relationship between local councillors and those institutions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that councillors have to sit on the board of the institutions – note the huge workload being a councillor involves – but I’d like to think that a formal regular conversation is happening between the institutions and local councillors as well as the councils themselves.

Making stuff happen – that community action summit again

Some of the things I’ve mentioned above are the sorts of things I’d like to see explored at a possible community action summit (see here). On the other hand, there are some things that the ESC may want to start working on themselves. Gathering information is the first thing – a list of all of the schools and further education colleges, along with finding out who the relevant contacts are within each of the institutions. The larger the institution, the less likely it is that it will be the head teacher. What about the boards of governors, or the parents and teacher associations?

Conspicuous by their absence in the ESC was representation from Anglia Ruskin University and from Cambridge Regional College – both of whom run teacher training courses. Who’s going to reach out to Anglia Ruskin Students? (See contacts here – hint: Give them a phone call). Ditto the course leaders for teacher training at CRC? (Contacts here).

In terms of what ESC members can do, as those this evening came up with themselves is to find out what the Faculty of Education & Homerton College are already doing, and ask how successful it has been. This is similar to what the CUSU living wage campaign did before they hit the national headlines: They did their essential research before pressuring the institutions. (When the latter didn’t budge, then they went to the media – not that I’m recommending that course of action here!)

Letting local councillors know you’re on the case

It’s fortunate that the next South Area Committee meeting of councillors is taking place opposite Homerton College and the Faculty of Education (see details here). Hardly anyone turned up to the one held at Homerton College in late 2013, which was a shame. But then it was never advertised to the students. Can this one be different? After all, engaging with young people is likely to be a topic of discussion in the open forum given what happened at the last meeting (This…followed by this). At the same time, there are a handful of councillors (including Cllr Sue Birtles and Cllr Amanda Taylor) who have been trying to encourage more young people & students to engage in local government. Hence more students turning up & contributing would greatly help.

“Partnership working sounds…complicated”

It is – and it’s also something that ESC students can get some experience of. The biggest learning point is discovering that it’s not just your university college or academic faculty that are the institutions you have a relationship with or can influence. Things to look at include:

  • Who are the people within which institutions that you need to bring together?
  • Are there other groups within the community that can help you? (Have a look through here).
  • Who in your group/society is available to turn up to which meetings?
  • How will this be fed back? (A formal report? A blogpost? A facebook update even?)

Food for thought?


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