I feel for Ernie Bevin.

On being made Lord Privy Seal, Bevin famously complained, “but I am neither a Lord, a Privy nor a Seal.”

We might say the same thing about school partnerships at the moment – lockdown, and our inability to bring kids or staff together except through the dreaded zoom, has meant that often our relationships are partnerships in name only. Those events that can go ahead, usually in the evening, have to be watched with tired eyes – and we have all got very good at getting on with our online shopping while keeping half an eye on a webinar. Partnerships aren’t delivering much of their potential.

One problem is the limited time horizon of lockdown – because we all confidently (and hopefully not overoptimistically) expect that things will be back to normal before the year is out, it doesn’t seem worth regearing all of our programmes around digital.

It’s made harder by the fact that our staffing is ‘locked in’ on an annual basis: we have deployed resources based on plans made in January 2020 – while coronavirus was still a glimmer in our minds and bats were still being sold live in Wuhan market. People are adjusting and changing what they do: but it’s hard enough within a school, with IT support and a strong sense of collegiality. Amending structures between schools is much much harder.

What we tend to do is to take something we did – or would like to do – in the real world, and then we digitise it. So we take a lecture which we might have given to a room full of absorbed children, and we turn it into a webinar; or we take a school exchange, and we turn it into a webinar; or we take our Maths mentoring programme or our partnership teaching or our museum visits or our inter-school competition… and we turn them into webinars.

We are unlike medieval alchemists, in that we turn little into gold – but we are like them in being fixated on one form of outcome for all our aspirations and hopes.

So how can we state, without weasel words or overoptimism, that partnership work is improved by lockdown?

One answer is to come up with digital models which are actually better than face to face models. A particularly strong example of this is Colet Mentoring, which has been launched by St Paul’s and their partner schools, which has developed an online, and completely safe, model of providing homework support using an app. There will be strong benefits to this after we return to normality.

Another is to invest our time in developing technologies which are more than the sum of their parts. Our EtonX platform has been adopted by more than 300,000 students from over 1,000 schools since the beginning of lockdown. We are really pleased that a significant proportion of those have completed their courses – but we are also pleased that this volume use has helped us to develop an online classroom which is ever improving – and that new tech will have benefits after we return to normality.

The things we do to improve skill levels will also have lasting effects. Those of us who have seen even the crabbiest teachers engaging with online delivery know that, while it might have been forced by circumstance, the teaching profession is better qualified now to take advantage of remote interaction than it ever was before – and while we might now be finding the unrelenting diet of zoom a little gruel-like, it does open up a hybrid model for school-to-school interactions that will match 25% physical interaction against 75% virtual interaction. Lots of the partnership co-ordinators I know are now planning projects like that. These, too, will be of benefit to us when we return to normality.

Fourth, lockdown has created a space where we are all really productive. One of the problems of working in partnership is the time spent on the road, especially for those of us with lots of teaching to do in our home institutions. Commonly, in order to arrange a face-to-face meeting, especially one at a distance, it would require significant amounts of cover – a privilege that can only be taken advantage of every so often. Now, I can arrange 30 minute zooms in the spaces between my teaching commitments – and I have met a lot of people in the past eight months. It will be difficult moving from a norm of 10 meetings a day back to a norm of 4 or 5. The hybrid model (of face to face where necessary, and virtual where possible) will help us ‘in normality’.

In sum, I think partnerships require full absorption to be fully effective – devoting only half a mind to them creates a waste of time rather than a sense of purpose and change. We need to be honest that this limits what we can do in lockdown: but we must see the work we are doing now as developmental rather than an end in themselves and look forward with optimism to a post-Covid world where digital and real-world partnership work lace together with genuine impact.