Sister school resource kit

From Term 1 2017, Victorian government and Catholic schools will use the new Victorian Curriculum F-10. Curriculum related information is currently being reviewed and may be subject to change.

For more information on the curriculum, see:
The Victorian Curriculum F–10 - VCAA

Effective sister school partnerships can contribute to preparing your students for life as active and engaged citizens with a global outlook.

This resource is aimed at supporting Victorian schools at different stages of their sister school partnerships. This includes schools who want to take the first steps to establish a partnership, those with established partnerships, as well as those with strong and effective sister school partnerships. No matter where your school is on the partnership journey, you will find this material useful for building or enhancing your partnership.

This resource is informed by research commissioned by the Department in 2012 on effective practices in sister school partnerships. It also draws upon the experience of schools that have been successful in building and maintaining meaningful and sustainable partnerships as a school improvement strategy. It includes short case studies of schools’ success stories, highlights some of the obstacles you might encounter when establishing partnerships and strategies you can employ to overcome these obstacles.

Successful sister schools

Factors for successful sister school partnerships

Research shows there are a number of factors that are important to building a successful sister school relationship. They include:

  • Link to school policy/vision: ensure your partnership is clearly linked to the school’s vision. For example, if your school aims to build the number of students studying Indonesian, then partner with an Indonesian-speaking school. Make sure any potential partner school shares your vision – in this case the school may seek to improve their students' capabilities in English. The program should be documented in your school's policy/vision framework.
  • Commitment: Ensure that you are clear about the time commitment and level of activity involved. The Department’s sister school research indicates that the best outcomes occur after partnerships are well-established, notably in the third year. Making the partnership a documented school priority helps ensure the necessary resources and long-term commitment to the partnership.
  • Shared vision: It is critical that the schools are well matched in terms of shared vision and common interest. If your goal is to improve teacher capability by having teachers engage in shared curriculum planning with the sister school, this needs to be communicated early to ensure a match with a school which is happy to share curriculum.
  • Reciprocity: Ensure the learning goals of the partner school/teachers are being met by the collaboration. Be flexible and open to learning about other ways of doing things. Reciprocity also extends to organising visits to and from a sister school, itinerary planning, cost and accommodation arrangements, etc. There should be an equal level of commitment between partner schools to ensure reciprocal benefits for both schools.
  • Involvement of a team/succession planning: Support for the sister school partnership should be a priority of the school leadership team. The school should form a working group, including a champion from the leadership team, to keep the school partnership active and vital, and advocate for the program in the school planning process. This approach allows for succession planning as team members change or take on different responsibilities.
  • Communication: Work with your sister school to determine the most flexible methods of communication that work for both parties. For example text-message exchanges with partner schools in some countries can be much more effective and timely than using email. Consider alternative communication methods such as the Chinese social media site, QQ. Regular contact is also important to maintain the momentum of your partnership. Consider scheduling contacts each term, and, ideally, face-to-face communication between school staff early on in the relationship should be arranged.
  • Involving the school community: Communicate the nature and benefits of your sister school partnership to members of your broader school community. You can do this with newsletters, the school website or Facebook, school assemblies and other events. You may find that your school community can offer assistance and expertise to the program.

How to establish a sister school

Careful consideration and planning is fundamental to developing a successful and sustained sister school partnerships.

Before sourcing a sister school partnership, it is important to think about what you want from the partnership so you have some clear objectives before you begin. Ideally you should gain consensus from the staff and school council for such a partnership before you commence these first steps.

The following charts will guide you through the four steps of initial thinking and planning, the identification of a right partner, the initial contact and the establishment of the partnership.

Step 1: Assess the need and plan

We want our staff and students to develop cultural knowledge and intercultural understanding.

A sister school partnership is great for this. Schools can start the process by auditing the school curriculum to ensure that international content and perspectives are included and embedded in their school policy and practice.

You may find that most overseas schools will have similar intentions. Ways of achieving the goals however are varied and can be the focus of the negotiation when you find the right school to partner with.

We want the sister school partnership to enhance the language learning of our students.

Looking for a sister school in the country that speaks the language that is taught in your school is the obvious choice. However, sister school partnerships shouldn't be the responsibility of languages teachers only. It needs the leadership support and a team approach.

If language is not a key outcome, you may consider the school population mix to decide on the country of the sister school. A sister school partnership can be very powerful in acknowledging the diverse cultures of the students in your school.

We want to provide our students and staff with opportunities to interact with people from other cultures.

Interactions can be virtual and actual. The opportunities are endless, ranging from classroom collaboration, such as pen pal and joint projects; to teacher collaboration through team teaching, class observation, discussion and resource sharing; to reciprocal cultural visits by both teachers and students.

Be clear about what you want to achieve first. The interactions and activities are means to achieve your goals.

We have a staff member who will lead the work.

One staff member is not enough. A team approach with support from the leadership is critical to ensure shared responsibility and sustainability.

We have funding and resources that will support the program.

Great! Funding is not essential during the establishment phase. However, limited funding will limit the range and extent of activities. Some schools budget funds for sister school related activities and engage the community in fundraising to support the program.

You may have to rely heavily on technology. Your partner's ICT capability will be an important factor.

Sister school program will be reflected in the school strategic plan and the Annual Implementation Plan (for government schools).

Excellent! Schools that have the partnership in their Strategic Plan are significantly more likely to have teacher and student activities. For more information, see: Internationalising Education in Victorian Government Schools.

The inclusion of sister school partnership in the school Strategic Plan will demonstrate you commitment to your school community and the overseas partner. Some schools acquire the school council approval at this stage too.

We have thought about what we will do if the partnership doesn't work. We also have an evaluation plan.

You need to be mindful of the fact that partnerships take time and effort to establish and maintain. When facing various issues and challenges, respect and perseverance is the answer.

Documenting and tracking the development of the partnership will make the reporting much easier. A three year stock take and evaluation of the impact of the partnership will also be helpful to reassess the objectives of the partnership.

Step 2: Find the right partner

What makes a good partner school?

Mutual expectations and objectives for the partnership are the crucial criteria. Commitment from the leadership is another key factor that will contribute to the success of a partnership.

Flexibility is required as a right school may not necessarily mean it is very similar to yours.

If your school is small, you may want to cluster with neighbouring schools to share a sister school. Experience has shown that smaller schools tend to miss out on the range of activities that bigger schools can afford.

How can I find a sister school?

Schools Connect Portal is an online platform that connects Victorian schools with school around the world for sister school partnerships or for project collaboration. Go to Schools Connect

You can also seek a sister school through:

Local councils: Some local councils have sister cities or municipalities overseas and may be able to leverage these networks to locate a partner school.

Community groups and organisations: Some community groups or organisations have ties to schools in particular regions of the world. Local cultural associations, universities and non-profit organisations may be able to connect classes or schools with a school overseas.

Internet matching sites: A wide array of internet sites is available that connect educators and students from around the world. Many of these are created by non-profit organisations and are free to use.

Professional networks: Networking with other educators at conferences and professional development workshops help to communicate an interest in a sister school partnership.

Always keep a look out for possible links that can lead to a sister school partnership. It can be from overseas travel, or friends or parents of the school community. Hosting international delegations or student study tour groups can sometimes lead to a fruitful sister school partnership. Contact International Education Division if you are interested in hosting. Participation in global projects such as ePals, or AEF's BRIDGE project can lead to sister school partnerships as well.

Refer to the AEFs website for advice on locating a school in China.

Step 3: Make contact

Who should make the first contact?

It is ultimately your judgement to decide who to make the initial contact. However, if you make the initial contact. An introductory letter from the Principal can be sent accompanied by an information package including your school profile. For a template, see: Introductory letter (doc - 53.5kb)

It is recommended that you include the contact details for your school, and ask for a contact person from your partner school, as well as clear actions and timelines.

Observe appropriate cultural protocols, including naming conventions and be courteous. Be formal rather than informal at this initial stage. For more information, see: Export Markets

Step 4: Establish the partnership

Is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) necessary?

Some schools choose to arrange a fact finding trip to the partner school before a formal agreement is negotiated, or to negotiate the formal agreement while visiting. See: Sample Itinerary (doc - 60.5kb). Others choose to reach a formal agreement first. Whether you want to start small or big, it is useful to have a written agreement or a MOU. See: MOU (docx - 55.4kb).

Importantly, schools that had an MOU with their partnership school are significantly more likely to have had teacher and student activities. For more information, see: Internationalising Education in Victorian Government Schools

The written agreement should be simple but specific, with key outcomes and timelines. It is recommended to keep the agreement to a 3-5 year life, to allow revision to accommodate changed needs and expectations.

Some schools find it useful to have a high level agreement, but develop an action plan annually.

When negotiating the agreement, make it fair and remember it is an equal partnership where each can learn and contribute.

You should also understand the relevant legal and policy requirements.

Read the Sister School Partnerships Policy on SPAG
Available in the School Policy and Advisory Guide

Do I have to have a ceremony for MOU signing?

After negotiating, consulting and drafting the agreement, it comes to a point when the final agreement is ready to be signed. In consultation with your partner school, you may wish to conduct a formal signing ceremony. The signing provides the perfect opportunity to either visit your partner school or host a visit from your partner school. The ceremony has great symbolic value and holds both parties to account. Some schools include a tree planting or other event to commemorate the occasion.

The signing ceremony can also be done via Skype or other video conferencing facilities.

How do I start organising visits to my sister school or host visits from my sister school?

As the relationship develops, you might consider reciprocal visits by students from both schools.

Considerations and implications

Thinking strategically about your sister school partnership

Participation in a sister school partnership requires a commitment of resources, (time, staff and finances), energy, enthusiasm and organisation. As the partnership has implications for resourcing at your school, it is important to approach it as strategically as you would any other program decision. This includes building in a review process to ensure the partnership is achieving goals and included in school planning in a coherent way.

The following guiding questions may be useful in ensuring that your sister school partnership is implemented in a cohesive and strategic manner:

Guiding questions

  • Why does our school want to start a sister school partnership?
  • Are we embarking on a partnership because another school has approached us? If so, does it align with our school goals? Are we doing it just because we were asked?
  • What do we hope to gain from the partnership?
  • What are our educational objectives? How will the partnership contribute to these objectives?
  • Who will form the sister school partnerships team? How often will they meet? What plans are in place for succession planning?
  • How will we ensure that our partner school's goals are also met by the partnership?
  • How will resources be allocated to the program? Over what time period? From which budget?
  • What form will our partnership take? Using ICT, visits, collaborative curriculum etc.?
  • How will both partners be involved in reviewing the program to ensure it is meeting its goals? Who will initiate this review? How often? What will success look like?

These questions can form the basis of a whole staff discussion and will highlight some of the issues to consider before initiating a sister school partnership.

For best results, ensure that the nature of the partnership supports your school's local context. It would be ideal if your partnership aligned with your school's language program and, if possible, with those of your feeder schools and of the local community. Bearing these factors in mind means that your partnership has a better chance of gaining community support and of being successful.

Managing multiple partnerships

Some schools are involved in multiple sister school partnerships and do it very successfully, however this is not always the case. Consideration must be given as to how you will allocate limited resources. You may decide that one of your partnerships is highly relevant and valuable to your school and warrants the resources required to facilitate overseas visits, while another may not add as much value to your schools' programs and only requires online collaboration to ensure it is sustainable. Decisions need to be made as to how much you can afford to resource multiple partnerships and how you will communicate these decisions to the school community.

Reciprocal visits

Reciprocal visits are a common element of a sister school partnership and can play a beneficial role in cementing the relationship between the partnered schools. However there are many factors to consider when thinking about implementing a reciprocal visiting program.

Non-government sector schools

Schools in the non-government sector should consult with the Independent Schools Victoria and or the relevant diocesan Catholic Education Office for relevant advice. Catholic Schools should consult Guidelines to Schools for Interstate and Overseas Tours, found in the Catholic Schools Operational Guide on the Catholic Education Victoria Network (CEVN). For more information, see: Guidelines to Schools for Interstate and Overseas Tours

Costs associated with sister school visits

Victorian government schools must not enter into any commercial arrangements with their sister schools. Costs involved in sister school activities should be negotiated between schools based on the principles of mutual benefit and reciprocity. It is reasonable to ask for sister schools to cover costs associated with student visits, but fees charged are only to recover actual costs incurred.

Sustainable partnerships

What the research tells us

The Department's research has identified the following factors as critical to the sustainability of sister school partnerships:

  • mutual benefits to all schools participating
  • commitment to the partnership
  • team approach to supporting the relationship (not just an individual)
  • ongoing and regular communication
  • focus on planning of activities and collaborations
  • clear goals and objectives agreed upon upfront
  • ongoing evaluation and monitoring
  • focus on student outcomes
  • emphasis on learning process
  • documenting arrangements upfront via MOU
  • staying alert to the partner school's needs, issues and priorities
  • documenting evidence of impact in different forms for different audiences
  • keeping the school community informed so they can see evidence of outcomes
  • leveraging support provided by the government, and links to Australian Curriculum
  • seeking opportunities for professional development and resource from complementary projects such as the Leading 21st Century Schools: Engaging with Asia Victoria project
  • fostering ongoing contact between schools and participants in the same intake and across intakes so that early groups stay current and later groups build on earlier learning, avoiding wasted effort
  • ongoing tracking of what works and why
  • mapping outcomes for intended and unanticipated beneficiaries
  • providing ways for schools to easily contribute their experiences to build collective knowledge
  • ensuring that contributions to any forum are systematically analysed in order to draw out conclusions that can be generalised

Showcasing your work

Once your sister school partnership is successfully established it is worth considering sharing your learning and showcasing your work. There is a number of possible options for doing this.

Local

Your school community is a good place to start when showcasing your partnership. Parents and the wider community could be engaged in an evening presentation highlighting some of the work undertaken with your partner school. This can include your students presenting on their interactions with the partner school and illustrating some of their learning.

This is a useful way to keep your parent community involved and interested in the partnership. This can form part of your promotional strategy to the school community and can be particularly useful when schools require greater support from their community. Consider using this event to promote the partnership to members of the business community who may be willing to sponsor the partnership in some way.

School cluster

Other schools in your area may be interested in knowing how you have managed the process of establishing a successful partnership. Don't limit your presentation to only the successful elements of the partnership, talk about the obstacles encountered and how you dealt with them. Sometimes this can form the most compelling part of a presentation because it highlights the fact that such ventures do not always run smoothly, but that with persistence and creative thinking, obstacles can often be managed. Your frank approach will have benefit to schools which are considering forming a partnership. Your honest appraisal of the process, including the difficulties, can serve as a guide to the 'beginner' school as to some of the possible pitfalls.

Conferences

Consider delivering a presentation about your school's partnership at relevant conferences. This can provide a wider audience for your school's story and can assist in forming useful networks to further improve your partnership. In general, teachers and principals value advice from their own colleagues so go beyond your comfort zone and get your story out to a wider audience.

Department case studies

The case studies in this resource are taken from Victorian schools with sister school partnerships. If you think your sister school partnership would be of interest to other schools please complete the following template (docx - 53.45kb) and mail it to international@edumail.vic.gov.au. A member of the International Education Division team will contact you to discuss the development of a short case study. See Case studies

Digital

Consider using digital communication as a way of sharing your sister school partnership experience with the education community. This could take the form of a blog or wikispace. Some schools use blogs when they are visiting their sister school but this practice could be extended to include other interactions. There are a number of excellent free computer applications available, including FUSE Digital Teacher Resources which your school can make use of. See Digital Learning Showcase

Mentoring

If your school has a sustainable and successful sister school partnership, why not consider being a mentor school for one which is just embarking on a partnership. Your experience can set the mentee school on the path to success and your hands-on experience will be extremely valuable to them.

FAQs

The following FAQs are largely based on the issues and challenges identified from actual sister school partnerships and cover the areas of:

  • reciprocal visits (homestay)
  • communication
  • funding
  • cultural protocol/advice
  • technology
  • sustainability
During my recent travel overseas, I was asked if my school is interested in a sister school partnership. What should I do?

Talk to your school leadership team. The leadership team should make a decision as to whether to pursue the relationship. Issues to consider include school readiness, resourcing, whether both schools have mutual objectives, and whether it is the right school for you. In most cases, further information from the overseas school is required in order to make an informed decision. You might need to act as the contact person during this phase to continue the discussion. If your leadership team supports developing a sister school relationship then the steps described in this guide can be followed to formalise the partnership. If not, get back to your contact and politely decline the offer.

My sister school is sending a group to visit our school. How do I go about hosting them?

Presumably the visit is an outcome of an extended discussion and part of the sister school agreement. If not, you need to make sure that it is discussed post visit to ensure that it is included in the agreement and that a process is in place for future visits. When hosting a visit by teachers and students from your overseas sister school, you need to ensure that the relevant Department and sectoral policies are adhered to, including areas such as risk management, emergency management, medical insurance and homestay.

For more information see the Sister School Policy
Available in the School Policy and Advisory Guide

Schools might also want to discuss with their sister school prior to the visit about meal times, type, and amount, and the frequency of calling home, so they can provide consistent information and adequately inform the host families. Some schools find it easier to provide visiting students with the same lunch from the canteen instead of asking host family to provide them.

Can we ask our sister school to help cover some of the costs of hosting visits from the school?

Sister school partnerships are reciprocal in nature. It is reasonable to ask your sister schools to assist with the costs of visits, on a not-for-profit, cost recovery basis only. Remember, whatever arrangement you put in place while hosting visits from your sister school, you would usually be expected to enter into the same arrangement when you visit your sister school overseas.

My sister school doesn't have access to reliable ICT e.g. Skype, which limits our collaboration online. What do I do?

Lack of ICT compatibility is an issue experienced by almost a third of those schools involved in the Department's sister school research. There are many other ways to conduct online collaboration. There will be trial and error using other applications. Always have a plan B. Learn from other schools in your networks. It is recommended that early in the relationship both parties agree on the media of communication and the platform for student collaboration.

What gift should we prepare for incoming visits from and outgoing visits to sister schools?

Gifts that are authentic Australian and showcase Australian culture and heritage are generally popular overseas. It helps to check labels to make sure it is Australian made. In the spirit of reciprocity, buy gifts of similar value to those you have received from your sister school.

We want to expand the sister school activities but are limited by lack of funding. Where can I get support?

Funding and costs associated with travelling is by far the biggest challenge identified by almost half of the respondents involved in the Department sister school research. The same research also discovers that schools with successful sister school partnerships very often have funds allocated in school budget for sister school purposes.

High cost is very often associated with travelling overseas to visit sister schools. Whilst face to face meeting is important in the initial stage of the relationship, if your school has limited funding, then perhaps negotiate travelling by students at a less frequent interval. Encourage students to do fundraising to raise money prior to their travel. Many schools have had the experience of being successful in finding alternative avenues of funding. Known contributors include community and service organisations, philanthropic organisations and corporations.

How do we ensure our partnership is sustained?

The Department's sister school research has identified the following factors being extremely important in maintaining sister school partnerships:

  • mutual benefit to all schools participating
  • commitment to the partnership
  • a team approach to supporting the relationship
  • ongoing and regular contact
  • a focus on planning of activities and collaborations
Our school has been contacted by a travel agent for hosting a group of overseas students. Should we agree because it might lead to a sister school partnership?

Hosting international visitors such as student study tour groups can sometimes lead to sister school partnerships. However, these requests should generally come from Department, not private travel agents. If government schools are approached by travel agents for such arrangements, please consult the School Policy and Advisory Guide for information or contact the International Education Division for advice.

Can we organise student exchanges with our sister school?

You can organise student exchanges for less than 28 days in duration. Anything beyond 28 days will need to be referred to the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) which manages a Student Exchange Program for Victorian schools. Refer to VRQA for advice.

For questions related to sister schools in China, see: AEF China sister school resource

Our sister school partnership has been dormant for a few years. What should we do to revive it?

Find out the reasons why the relationship has stalled. Try to resolve issues relating to your own school first before contacting your sister school. Below are possible causes and suggested ways of resolving them:

  • change of staff, change of principal, change of school priority - school leadership team needs to decide if they want to continue with the sister school program
  • lack of response from sister school - attempt to renew communication with sister school again, if there is no response, politely explain to sister school and move on
  • change of leadership in sister school - ascertain if the intent is still there with the change of leadership, if so, renew the agreement, with actions and timelines, building in a clause for regular review of the agreement
I am having trouble finding host families, what do I do?

It is a good practice to get a sense from your school community about willingness to host overseas visitors before agreeing to homestay arrangements with your sister school.

Twenty-six per cent of schools in the research conducted by the Department into sister schools identified that finding host families as a challenge, so you are not alone. There are many reasons: the language barrier, homestay period is too long for families to cope, or the host families are not clear about the requirements, or simply, they have just hosted another group.

Don't despair! Explain to your community that the experience of providing homestay is most valuable to their children and provide useful tips to overcome the language barrier. Most host families will try to provide the visitors with the best experience they possibly can which can cause some anxiety. Organising outings as a school, rather than expecting host families to organise everything may help ease the anxiety.

Ask your neighbouring schools if they are willing to help out. You may find yourself a strong ally to expand your sister school partnership to.

Some schools have booked a camp for the period of visit, where both Victorian and overseas students stay for a few days with classes conducted at the camp.

If all fails, negotiate with your sister school for a shorter stay, or hotel/apartment accommodation, or postpone the visit. It is important to be truthful and realistic about your capacity earlier in the discussion. It will be a lot harder to try to fix such problems when flights are booked and visas are organised.

Resources

For Catholic schools