Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Public and Private Working Together: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Public and Private Working Together: Feature

Article excerpt

It doesn't fit the government's preferred model of an independent sponsoring an academy, but a less formal partnership between two schools in south London is highly successful, finds Irena Barker.

As you turn into Conisborough Crescent in Catford, south London, the road is lined with flags bearing images of rampant stags.

"Aspire. Believe. Succeed," passers-by are urged as they approach the imposing building of Conisborough College, perched on a modest, grassy hillside. Its minimalist style, with just a hint of Le Corbusier, gives it the look of a school with purpose; a grey beacon of learning tucked down a residential street.

And the pupils look purposeful, too. Dressed in blazers adorned with a wide variety of merit badges, they politely greet guests in the foyer, handing out visitors' passes.

On this first impression alone, it is hardly surprising that Conisborough is the most popular community school in Lewisham, a deprived inner-city borough. And the exam results - considering its very underprivileged intake - are really rather respectable, too: 55 per cent of pupils are expected to gain five good GCSEs including English and maths this month.

But it was not ever thus. Only a few years ago, when it was known as Catford Girls' School, it had a reputation problem among local families, despite reasonable Ofsted reports. The local authority tried to address the issue of falling rolls by turning it into a co-educational school called Catford High in 2006. But even as late as 2009, only 68 families put it as first choice for their child's secondary education. That number has now risen to 168.

It all sounds rather like your archetypal "academy story" - something of a political cliche. A down-at-heel school with image problems rises from the ashes in new buildings, with posh uniforms, a new head and a new mission. Parents flood forwards. Think Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, for the "fairy tale" turnaround.

But while it was one of the lucky few to secure shiny buildings under the (now cancelled) Building Schools for the Future programme, Conisborough has bucked the local academy trend.

Nationally, the number of academies has surged from 203 to 1,807 in just two years and Labour-run Lewisham now boasts three. One, Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College, is one of the most popular schools in the authority.

Conisborough has plotted an alternative route by remaining resolutely a community school. However, while it has rejected academisation or federation with higher performing schools, it is far from being a poster boy for the anti-academies movement. Indeed, its successful relaunch came with help from a unique partnership with a local independent school.

It all began in 2009, when Frankie Sulke, head of children and young people at Lewisham Council, approached Colfe's, a leading private school in Lee, south London. Sulke was keen to see if Colfe's, which is a member of the elite Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), could support school improvement in the area.

She asked the headteacher, Richard Russell, if he would be interested in running a federation of schools including Catford High and another comprehensive. Russell turned down the offer because he feared he would have no time left for his own school. But after a series of discussions, he agreed to a partnership that would allow Colfe's to nominate six people to the comprehensive's governing body. A rare Freedom to Innovate request was successfully lodged with the Department for Education to allow this to go ahead.

Sharing expertise

Russell has since taken up a place as a governor, along with two retired deputies from HMC schools and a lawyer, formerly a Colfe's scholar. They support Conisborough by offering advice in their wide-ranging areas of expertise. For example, the lawyer is an expert on construction contracts and advises on Conisborough's private finance initiative arrangements. …

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