Independent schools are increasingly making use of strategic partnerships to boost their brands, but also to exchange expertise, use of facilities or some other commodity, to the mutual benefit of both, reports MTM’s Head of Business Development, Daniel Cohen.

The tentacles of strategic partnership have been weaving their way through the majority of business sectors in recent years, from the music industry to manufacturing, banking to brewing, so it’s no surprise that they have eventually begun to infiltrate independent education.

As a method of developing a network of ‘friends’ they are second to none, but strategic partnerships are also an excellent way for schools to share their assets with each other – whether it be teaching expertise in a niche subject, use of the climbing wall or swimming pool, or even joining forces to stage an event – and forge links with other organisations and suppliers while saving money and building relationships in the process.

With such an emphasis these days on return on investment, bursars and other senior leaders responsible for innovation and development in schools are looking for smarter alternatives to the straight shelling out of income from fees – with the hearty support of the parents who pay them.

With such an emphasis these days on return on investment, bursars and other senior leaders responsible for innovation and development in schools are looking for smarter alternatives to the straight shelling out of income from fees – with the hearty support of the parents who pay them.

Educational edge

Before entering into a strategic partnership there are several key points to bear in mind, but the most important is to ensure that the partnership will bring a genuine benefit to both parties. In the case of schools, the benefit is usually seen in the educational offer – as always, it is the pupils who should profit the most. So, joining forces with one or more local schools to offer Japanese lessons by splitting the bill for the teacher and bussing students to a central classroom is a cost-effective way to add another language to the choice on offer at all of the schools involved, for a fraction of the usual price. Arranging for your school’s specialist art teacher to give two lessons a week at a local prep school in return for the loan of that school’s outdoor classroom for a few days a term is another great example. Why build a new facility that will be under-used when there is already an under-used facility around the corner?

Business benefits

But strategic partnerships don’t always have to be exclusively between schools. Business benefits are a benefit for all in the long run – the less spent on operational costs, the more available to fund education. Your school might allow a local architects’ practice to exhibit plans or hold events in the school hall or auditorium in return for a reduction in fees when it comes to designing the next new school facility. Or it could just come down to putting in a good word for your suppliers – perhaps offering to write a case study for your caterers or recommending the company you chose to resurface the tennis courts – in return for a  mention of your school on the supplier’s website or in their brochure. If the company is highly-regarded, then all the better – the endorsement works both ways.

Choose partners carefully

It can’t be understated how important it is for any strategic partner – school or other organisation – to share your values and ethics, and to be squeaky clean and reputable. Once your relationship is known, any slip-ups reflect badly on your partner, but doubly so on you for having endorsed them. This will not only damage relations with those people most important to your school but will drive a fairly large and awkward wedge into your future relationship with the partner, which could inevitably lead to an acrimonious split.

Nurture relationships

Regular communication is important if the partnership is to last. Rather than just setting up the reciprocal arrangement and letting it run, a representative from the school should check in  with the partner regularly, to make sure all is going well and find out how the relationship could be developed further in future. Social media is also very useful for reciprocal communication – like and share your partner’s posts in the expectation of the same in return.

Is it working?

At the outset it is crucial to define the expectations of the partnership and what its success will look like for all parties involved. Regular analysis of the outcomes using agreed metrics means there can be no dispute. If the partnership is not delivering, then new goals can be set going forward. If there have been shifts in the school’s or the partner’s focus then the partnership can evolve. No interest in Japanese lessons this academic year, then how about offering another  subject instead?

Partnerships should not be allowed to languish, but by taking a strategic approach, they can be an excellent way to stretch school funds while developing friendships and alliances, and building trust among your fellow organisations. Done well and with the right parties, the benefits of strategic partnerships to your school – and in turn pupils, families, staff and wider  stakeholders – can be significant.