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Outreach in Action: St George's Approach to Engaging Local Stakeholders

29 Apr 2024
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Making the Case for Ourselves: Building Meaningful Relationships

Article featured in Independent School Management Plus Magazine, Spring 2024

An item in many leadership team in-trays currently is, undoubtedly, how to engage their local stakeholders positively in the work of the school.

At a time when the ‘independent sector’ is commonly talked about in a monochromatic way, or in sweeping generalisations, how do we cut through the rhetoric to build meaningful relationships and show what we are really about?

Schools which have done this most successfully have prioritised actions over words, demonstrating their commitment to outreach in very tangible ways, including opening up facilities to community groups, sponsoring academies and organising festivals and community events that bring families and stakeholders together. This can be much more challenging for smaller independent schools on a tight budgets, which are less able to act with largesse. It is still possible though, and thinking about some key underlying principles might help your team in drawing up a plan of next steps.

Ensuring outreach links are genuine, meaningful and sustainable

Meaningful relationships need to last beyond the enthusiasm of a single individual’s connections or interests. Auditing where your school might have capacity or expertise not available elsewhere to the wider community and therefore be able to play a helpful role is an excellent place to start.

At St George’s in Edinburgh, we have been able to open up our provision to other local schools in areas such as preparation and administration of competitive university applications and inviting student speakers from outside the school to audition for our annual TEDx Youth event. Inviting local councillors or MPs to award prizes at events like TEDx Youth has been a very valuable way to demonstrate what is happening on the ground and engage in dialogue away from the political polemics.

The four GSA Scottish schools have recently joined forces and launched a webinar series called ‘Fearless Women’, featuring inspirational women in their fields. Opening digital events in this way to the local community and local schools is an excellent way of showcasing the values of the school whilst also sharing the resources and school offering in a cost-free way.

Being clear on your values

Outreach and the subsequent relationships that develop are far more likely to be successful and influential if they are based on shared values.

As a girls’ school Head in both Edinburgh and London, it has been helpful to be able to bring expertise in girls’ education specifically to a broader audience and to have an impact on even more girls in the community.

St George’s has focussed significantly on building partnerships that broaden and prioritise the opportunities for women and girls in sport by developing partnerships with organisations like Badminton Scotland, Edinburgh Judo and Lacrosse Scotland. Applying these principles of shared values to the prioritisation of external lettings at the school has also meant that we are bringing more and more people into the school buildings who share our principles and what we stand for and who will advocate for what we do throughout Edinburgh.

A recent conference hosted at the school focussed on inspiring girls about the opportunities offered by careers in the tech and digital world, where we know women are seriously under-represented. We found companies were exceptionally generous in sending representatives and sharing resources, once again because of our shared desire to ensure girls are not deterred by unhelpful stereotypes from pursuing an exciting and important career path. That one event has fostered lots of future collaborations and relationships with commerce. It looks set to be a regular feature of the school calendar.

Think relationships not lobbying

Given the political context and a degree of media scepticism, it is a very difficult time for independent school Heads or Governors to speak out about the valuable work done by their school without being seen as defensive or desperate. So, it’s far more effective to demonstrate this reality rather than merely describe it by welcoming stakeholders to experience and see for themselves what the school does and how well it does it. In this way, subsequent advocacy on our behalf is far more authentic. It takes time for the outcomes of outreach work to bear fruit, but these connections once established always become important further down the line and are much more long-lasting than a letter sent to an MP or to an editor working in the national press. In my experience, local community groups when they know and understand you, will do your lobbying for you. MPs, MSPs and councillors are likely to hear directly from these stakeholders about the vital support and services you offer and any recommendation in your favour will be all the more important coming from them as a result.

Don’t retreat!

At this time, it is more important than ever that we stay connected to our local communities and don’t retreat into an embattled position. Even with minimal budget, a strong belief in outreach, a robust set of values and a fierce sense of commitment can achieve much in terms of relationship-building. If we can demonstrate the genuine value and expertise we offer to the families and young people outside our campus, we make the strongest case for ourselves.

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