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Primary Education News
News Inside federated schools: joining forces to raise standards
What are the perks of being a federated school? Nick Morrison talks to the heads joining forces to tackle challenges and raise standards
Amid the mosaic of structures now adorning the educational establishment, even at just 10 years old the federation is a comparative veteran. The power to create a single or joint governing body across two or more schools was introduced in September 2003, as collaboration was embraced as a route to raising standards.
But while relative upstarts such as teaching school alliances, self-improving clusters and academy chains garner attention, federations still have their adherents.
One is Nicola Shipman. She was head of Monteney Primary in Sheffield when she was asked by her local authority to support a school that was in difficulties. When that school's headteacher left, closer ties between the two was the obvious solution. After two years as a learning partnership, Monteney and Foxhill http://www.foxhillprimary.com/index.html primaries federated, with Shipman as executive headteacher.
Despite making improvements, Foxhill was given a notice to improve by Ofsted during the learning partnership phase. "For the staff and community, what was important was stability, and by formalising the partnership, federation gave us that," Shipman says. It also made it easier to recruit staff. A pre-federation advert for a teacher at Foxhill got only three applicants, but adverts to work in the federation now attract upwards of 20 responses.
Federation also meant Shipman could create new roles across the two schools. They now share an early reading champion, an early maths champion, a sports specialist and a modern foreign languages teacher. "We were able to be really creative about roles like that," Shipman says. Existing staff also had the opportunity to move between schools as a way of developing their careers.
Ofsted claims that federation is an effective way of raising standards. The Impact of Federations report published in 2011 found improved outcomes in all 29 of the federations visited as part of the study, covering 61 schools, with effective leadership the single most important factor.
The report highlighted three key reasons for federating cited by school leaders: helping a struggling school, strengthening education in the wider community, and protecting small schools.
The latter was a prime motivation in the federation of Monks' Dyke Technology College and Mablethorpe Tennyson High School in Lincolnshire. Dr Chris Rolph, then principal at Monks' Dyke, started working with Tennyson in 2008. With just 300 pupils, Tennyson was in danger of closing, and by 2010 an informal partnership had evolved into a federation.
Initially at least, the federation was very much focused on one individual, Rolph regularly making the 15 mile journey along winding roads between the two schools. He was keen to keep governors at both schools on side, but admits that this led to the governing body becoming too large and unwieldy. "It meant quite a lot of meetings," he says. "If I was doing it again I would say we need to keep the governing body workable."
For Monks' Dyke and Tennyson, federation proved to be a stepping stone, and the schools merged last year. "It was never going to be sustainable to keep the smaller school open," Rolph says.
Federation can be one solution to a shortage of school leaders, according to Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, London. But he warns against seeing them as a quick fix.
"Federations can be effective but it is just a structure," he says. "What matters is what you put into that structure. They provide a mechanism for schools to innovate, but it is a mistake to think it is a recipe for improving education on its own."
Protecting small schools also featured in the federation of Lord Scudamore, King's Caple and Sutton primaries in Herefordshire. While Lord Scudamore has around 620 pupils, Sutton has 90 and King's Caple just 28. The federation was subsequently joined by two partner schools, Canon Pyon and Llangrove primaries, and has also led to an unusual leadership arrangement, with three joint headteachers across the five schools.
Peter Box, one of the headteachers, says the benefits include sharing staff, such as a special needs co-ordinator and an asset manager, as well as the heads themselves. "When you have fewer than 100 children, cost effectiveness is very difficult and a lot of schools feel vulnerable," he says.
"Federation meant we could build capacity across the schools, and for rural schools, one of the biggest benefits is the loss of isolation. We have lots of sharing of learning." The federation offers opportunities both for staff development and for children to take part in joint activities, he adds.
The five schools have since formed an academy trust, and Box believes this is the sort of route schools could go down as they create their own response to the new educational landscape, where local authorities play an ever-diminishing role. "Everybody will find different solutions," he says. "People evolve at different rates and you have to think laterally and be flexible."
Improving transition was a central plank in the federation between Chulmleigh Community College and Chulmleigh Primary in Devon. Linda Lindley, headteacher of the primary school, says an informal partnership created opportunities to work together, but it was only through federation that this approach was cemented. Not only did it improve movement of both staff and pupils between the two schools, but it also integrated strategic planning across the two phases.
"It means senior staff get together regularly and look at where we need to improve, and where there is expertise in one school that could help the other," Lindley says.
Although the federation has been joined by three more primary schools and now become an academy trust, Mike Johnson, executive headteacher, says the input of governors was crucial to the success of the initial collaboration. "The biggest benefit was that the governing body could work across two schools," he says. "It meant they could challenge, support and probe with regard to the educational deal all the children were getting,"
In Sheffield, Nicola Shipman is also going down the academy route, albeit reluctantly in her case. On 1 April, Monteney converted to become a sponsor academy to Foxhill, as well as another partner school, Mansel Primary. Shipman says that with Foxhill and Mansel both below or near floor standards, forming an academy trust was a way of pre-empting their possible takeover by another academy chain. "If we had been able to stay as a federation we would have done so," she adds.