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Stronger Together – The Dorchester Area Schools Partnership

The Dorchester Area Schools Partnership is acknowledged as a model of constructive co-operation between schools. Andrew Headley has been finding out more.

The DASP First Schools Orchestra plays at a summer DASP Music summer concert at the Thomas Hardye School

One of Aesop’s best-known fables tells of the father who gave his sons a bundle of sticks and invited them to break it. None of them could, but when he undid the bundle and gave them a stick each, they broke the sticks with ease. The moral is that there is strength in unity, and the Dorchester Area Schools Partnership (DASP) is living proof of that principle. However, the fable is about defensive strength, whereas DASP is extremely pro-active, using the vigour that its unity gives to strive for higher standards in every aspect of its member schools’ activities.
DASP’s story goes back to 1992. Dr Iain Melvin became something of a legend during almost 23 years as Head of the Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, revered as a pioneering and effective educationalist far beyond the borders of Dorset. Perhaps his most lasting legacy, and certainly one of his outstanding achievements, dates from early in his time at Hardye’s, when he was the moving spirit behind the foundation of DASP. It was among the first of such partnerships in the country and has become one of the most successful and widely copied.
In the beginning, DASP was a fairly loose association of all the schools in the Hardye’s pyramid: three middle schools and thirteen first schools as well as Hardye’s itself. The membership of DASP has since risen to nineteen with the addition of the Dorchester Learning Centre, which caters for children excluded from mainstream education for any reason, and, most unusually, an independent school in Sunninghill Prep. It has also become a closer-knit organisation, with increased influence.
‘Our driving philosophy is a one-school model for children from the ages of three to nineteen,’ says Carl Winch, Head of St Mary’s Middle School, Puddletown, and this year’s Chairman of DASP. ‘All the member schools have signed up to a common purpose and we have a shared aim and a shared vision.’ As Mike Foley, Head of the Thomas Hardye School, puts it, ‘School-to-school support is the key, so that teachers in school A are as concerned with a pupil in school B as they would be with a pupil in their own school.’ He goes on to point out that one of the areas where schools are showing the greatest improvement in results is London, which has comparatively recently embraced the idea of grouping schools into what they call ‘families’.

James Cartwright, a year thirteen Thomas Hardye art student, painted a five-foot long mural depicting local Dorset landmarks for the children at Damers First School

But how do these high ideals and fine words translate into practical benefit? Obvious examples are the sharing of skills, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and the broadening of horizons that come from regular contact with others in the same profession. One reason DASP works is the relationship of openness and mutual respect between its member schools. They meet frequently to monitor standards and they may challenge each other, but it is in a constructive spirit with the sole aim of raising standards. Nor are the meetings just at Head level; teachers of individual subjects also come together to share experiences and plan consistent strategies, while the ultimate illustration of this aspect was a recent joint INSET day attended by some 500 teachers from all the DASP schools.
The DASP philosophy extends beyond the classroom with the creation of a set of guidelines for ‘the DASP citizen’ to which all members have signed up (on behalf of their staff as well as their pupils) so that a consistent message is delivered throughout a child’s school career. The guidelines are based on ‘the seven Cs’, which were largely identified by the children and make as concise a summary as one could find of what a good citizen should be: caring, considerate, communicative, courteous, co-operative, conscientious and confident.

By way of contrast, the same concert also featured this rock band from St Mary’s Middle School, Puddletown

How much opportunity can a 40-pupil first school give its children to play music to a high standard or to take part in team sports? Not much – unless it is a member of DASP. There is a DASP orchestra and a first schools’ orchestra as well as a jazz club and rock club, and each July the musicians from the Partnership come together for a major concert showcasing a variety of musical styles to a high standard. In sport, four PE leaders cover all the middle and first schools in the pyramid, as another example of co-operation leading to consistency and an improvement in standards. Middle school pupils, known as Sports Leaders, are part of the team introducing younger children to the benefits of sport. The DASP rugby team, drawn from the middle schools and Sunninghill, will soon be making its debut, offering a much higher standard of competition than could be achieved by one school working on its own.

Seven colourful caterpillars convey the ‘seven Cs’ citizenship message

The inclusion of an independent school in such a partnership is all but unique, but Sunninghill’s Head, Andrew Roberts-Wray, is in no doubt that it is right for his school to be involved: ‘We have as much responsibility as the other schools to create a strong community here in Dorchester. And like the other schools in DASP, we benefit because it helps to raise our standards and to give our pupils opportunities they would not otherwise have.’
The recent Independent Schools Award won by Sunninghill for the best independent-maintained school collaboration is evidence for this opinion.
All the leavers from the three middle schools go on to the Thomas Hardye School, as do about half of Sunninghill’s pupils, so it is clearly in the interests of Hardye’s to see a consistency of approach as well as a raising of standards. Not only does Hardye’s, with its 2400 pupils, sit at the top of the pyramid, it also supplies almost half of DASP’s funding, each school’s contribution being in proportion to the number on its roll. By virtue of its size, it is also by far the biggest provider of resources, human and otherwise. These factors mean that it inevitably dominates the Partnership, but the relationship is sensitively handled. ‘We see it as our responsibility to set a clear direction and expectation for DASP and to answer the question from feeder schools, “What do Thomas Hardye want?”’ says Head Mike Foley, implying that that is at far as it goes. Carl Winch confirms: ‘Thomas Hardye tell us what they want us to achieve but not how to achieve it.’ Given that Hardye’s have the pupils for only three years before they do their GCSEs whereas the first and middle schools have them for eight or nine years, this seems a logical and reasonable approach. As for the money, ‘That’s not expenditure – that’s investment,’ says Mike Foley, and Carl Winch views the resources that middle schools put into first schools in the same light.
A recent development is the establishment of a limited company with the Heads as directors and the schools as members, designed to exploit more effectively the economies of scale which the size of the Partnership brings. It is able to trade and to hire employees so, for example, a shared business manager might free up the Heads to concentrate on their primary role of education. The company might also provide to member schools services like payroll which are currently bought from outside and could even become a supplier of such services to other schools beyond DASP.
Another advantage of DASP’s size is that it increases the Partnership’s strength in dealing with outside agencies. For example, it is currently putting pressure on BT to increase the speed of rural broadband more effectively than any one school could hope to do on its own.

A pupil from Dorchester Middle School, wearing a DASP Sports Leader T-shirt, works with first school pupils. Sports Leaders from all of the middle schools have been into all of the first schools this year.

Hardye’s and all the middle schools are now academies, receiving their funding direct from the Department for Education rather than the local authority. It is possible that the logical next step would be for them to become multi-academy trusts, each responsible for its feeder first schools but still within the overall umbrella of DASP, as a way of protecting small schools in the community without compromising their independence. If more members do become academies, management of them will become another area where shared experience will be of benefit to all, with Sunninghill’s contribution particularly relevant.

Before the Olympics came to Dorset in 2012, an Olympic torch was passed around all the DASP schools, each one finding a novel way to transport it to the next. Here it is at St Mary’s First School, Charminster.

DASP is a success story of which Dorset can be proud. It works because it is so much greater than the sum of its parts and because every school sees that the benefit of belonging far outweighs the cost. The adjective that OFSTED uses for the best schools it inspects is ‘outstanding’.  When it came to inspect the Thomas Hardye School, ‘outstanding’ was inadequate and OFSTED had to come up with a new description of ‘exceptional’, an accolade which was in no small way due to the exceptional work of DASP. ◗

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