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Building partnerships | International Teaching Magazine


Service and outreach

Kathy O’Donnell, Director of the Institute of Service and Partnerships at Sevenoaks School, looks at the key elements of a modern service and outreach programme.

Historical ethos

At Sevenoaks School, our Service and Partnerships work is a cornerstone of our educational philosophy and purpose. The vision of our founder, William Sevenoke, was to establish a school that would transform his community by providing access to education, and this very much remains at the heart of the school’s objectives today, as we approach our 600th anniversary. Sevenoaks School established its service programme more than 180 years ago and, each week, over 1,080 hours are given to voluntary service that benefits not just our local, but also the global, community. Service is also a key component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, which the school has been teaching for more than 40 years.

Partnerships and sharing

Our Service and Partnerships work focuses on forming meaningful, equitable partnerships to make the greatest impact and provide young people from all backgrounds with the knowledge, skills and confidence to pursue their ambitions. Our reach is wide, and we have developed strong links with schools both on our doorstep and across Kent, as well as internationally through charitable organisations that promote education and opportunity.

Working with other schools

Our staff and students work with hundreds of children from the 31 schools in the Sevenoaks Primary Partnership each week. Activities are either held on-site where we run interactive workshops with technical equipment and led by students and specialist teaching staff, or at partner schools to run both student and teacher led sessions that enhance and supplement the primary curriculum. Open and regular dialogue between teachers is key for success. This develops sessions that build on what the pupils have already learnt or introduce a topic that cannot otherwise  be covered given time and resource constraints. Our programme is constantly being updated and tweaked to ensure it is as relevant and impactful as possible.

In March 2024, we hosted over 2000 primary pupils and teachers onsite for our annual STEAM week. This is always a highlight of the school calendar, and it is privilege to be able to share the kind of resources that  might not be available within the confines of a regular classroom.

Education box of fossils

The enthusiasm and excitement generated by large, one off events are great, but to make a real impact, sharing is extended into regular lessons by means of Education Boxes which contain both specialist equipment and teaching resources so subjects such as coding and robotics can be delivered anywhere. Several of our Sevenoaks staff work collaboratively with other local teachers to share knowledge and foster professional development. It is important to us that all schools can engage with our programme, even if they are constrained by practical barriers such as transport.

International initiatives

Whilst we are rooted in our local community, Sevenoaks School is truly global in its outlook, with 76 different nationalities represented in our student body. Since joining at the start of this academic year, it has been fantastic to work with ambitious, socially minded, tech-savvy and proactive students to foster new links and further widen our reach.

Recently, a Sixth Form student proposed a pen pal scheme to link our students with those of a similar age based in Indonesia who were looking to practise their written English skills, creating an opportunity for cultural exchange. We ran a pilot scheme this year in one of our boys’ boarding houses and it will be embedded into our formal Thursday afternoon programme next academic year. Navigating the process of establishing these new programmes, considering the practicalities and overcoming the inevitable challenges as they do so, gives our students an excellent opportunity to experience real-world problem solving and develop an appreciation of the thought and time required to take an idea from concept to reality.

Giving students voice and agency

Many strands of our Service and Partnerships programme are student-led, which we prioritise as it generates strong engagement and greater impact for all. As well as focusing on educational opportunity, we run several student-led projects that focus on environmental sustainability education and promote equity, diversity and inclusion. In a time of global turmoil and uncertainty, we work to empower our students to face these challenges from a place of action rather than anxiety.

Recent initiatives have spanned a pre-loved clothes swap-shop, a second-hand ski and Duke of Edinburgh equipment sale, the introduction of a carbon-offsetting scheme for school trips and a range of highly successful awareness and fundraising initiatives in response to global conflicts and local challenges. Staff guide and prompt from the sidelines, but we have found that ensuring these programmes are truly student-led is an excellent tool to build their resilience and positive mental health.

 Measuring the impact of service on wellbeing

Since 2021, Sevenoaks has worked with Research Schools International (RSI) and researchers from the Harvard Human Flourishing Programme to explore student flourishing. The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University defines flourishing as a state of complete wellbeing, characterised by happiness and life satisfaction, a sense of meaning and purpose, good character and virtue, physical and mental health, and close social relationships (VanderWeele, 2020). It identifies volunteering as key to wellbeing and helps us to develop initiatives that promote philanthropy and measure student-flourishing. One example is a student-led project that uses rap music to teach refugees English, which was documented in our academic journal, Innovate.

There is always a particular buzz on campus on a Thursday afternoon when students from Year 10 to 13 are timetabled for Service and Partnership activities. A current student recently commented that her placement, working at Valence School (a local school that caters for children and young people with physical disabilities and complex medical needs) is “a unique and rewarding moment in the school week”.

Service and career prospects

Alumni career choices reflect how our education encourages changemakers. Former students including human-rights lawyer, Dexter Dias, and Amjad Saleem from the Red Cross regularly return to give talks to inspire current students. Old Sennockians often remark that their work with the community helped them become more outward-looking, built their confidence and gave them an opportunity to develop responsibility and leadership skills at a young age.

All these skills of course prove invaluable when entering the workplace but are also fundamental to ensure our students leave school as socially engaged and responsible young people who are set up to flourish in adulthood.


Kathy O’Donnell is Director of the Institute of Service and Partnerships at Sevenoaks School. Find out more about the school’s philanthropic programmes here.

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