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Education: Joined-up educational thinking

13 June 2012

by Pat Ashworth

“Idyllic landscape”: Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island, in the diocese of Newcastle SHUTTERSTOCK

“Idyllic landscape”: Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island, in the diocese of Newcastle SHUTTERSTOCK

THE dioceses of Durham and Newcastle represent between them a whole region with a strong identity. This is a real bonus when it comes to joint working, says Jeremy Fitt, a former local-authority director of education, now director of edu­cation for both dioceses.

It is a patch that runs from the Tees to the Tweed, and from the Pennines to the North Sea. “The north-east is probably the smallest region in terms of population, but it knows itself,” he says. “Both dioceses are characterised by huge internal contrasts, in that the traditional smokestack identities and images of Teesside and Sunderland in Dur­ham, and Tyneside in Newcastle, both have a large rural hinterland.

“So our mix of schools, in both cases, is extremely varied, from tiny village schools in idyllic landscapes to a city academy of 2400 pupils.”

The 105 church schools are scattered over the 100 miles from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Darlington, and, on a practical level, Mr Fitt’s life has been transformed by the opening, six months ago, of a second Tyne Tunnel. “We try to organise our days so that we kill three birds with one stone,” he says.

Based at the diocesan head­quarters in Newcastle, he is “just a stone’s throw” from the Tyne, the river that marks the boundary between the two dioceses. Among the informal ground rules of the joint working is that, when it comes to allocating capital for aided school buildings, “the mantra is that capital will not cross the Tyne,” he says cheerfully.

It all comes down to trust, he suggests. Durham’s education board is unincorporated, and operates, in effect, as a committee of the diocesan board of finance (DBF); Newcastle’s is incorporated, a separate legal entity within the diocese. It would be difficult to work jointly if the views of both boards were very different in policy terms, he says. “There has to be an acceptance that we can make this work only on the basis of trust between the dioceses, and trust between the boards and myself.

“But I think there is a very large measure of agreement about where we want to go: we are passionate about the future of Church of England schools, and their place in the system and the inclusive but distinctive role they fulfil. I don’t think you could put a playing card between the two in terms of how they approach that.

“But, equally, you need a bit of fancy footwork occasionally in the politics, dealing with two different organisations and two different hierarchies.”

SO, IN the matter of school reorganisation, for example, where the individual boards properly make the decisions, the trick, he says, is to try to generate common frame­works that use the same structure for meetings. It has helped that his two predecessors were used to working in the context of the regional network of diocesan directors of education, which brings together counterparts in York, Wakefield, Sheffield, Leeds, and Bradford and Ripon (which also work jointly). It has been more tedious, he acknowledges, to try to align the administrative systems, where the two dioceses have different ways of managing the administration, and the finances, for example.

“I’ve got a smashing team of colleagues,” Mr Fitt says. “It’s been a real challenge for them, but I think we’ve managed to dovetail our systems in such a way that they are now recognisably on similar, though not identical, lines. Over time, that will certainly come together.” He looks with interest to Winchester diocese, which works jointly with Portsmouth, and where there is now a single board of education, and consequently no administrative duplication in servicing it.

The Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham & Newcastle extends over almost exactly the area covered by the two Church of England dioceses, which means that they are coterminous at officer level. That really does help, Mr Fitt says. “The serendipity factor is that their diocesan director of education used to be a head teacher in the authority where I was director of education. We go back a long way, and we work very well together.”

ON WHAT is acknowledged to be the huge organisational issue of academies, the two C of E dioceses are able to put out a single message — the presentation to heads and governors, which Mr Fitt was due to make in Durham, will be exactly the same as he will make in Newcastle. “It’s the only way we can do it, really,” he says. “What decisions they make on that basis, of course, may be different, and, indeed, so far as converter academies are concerned, we have six in one diocese, and none in the other.”

ON WHAT is acknowledged to be the huge organisational issue of academies, the two C of E dioceses are able to put out a single message — the presentation to heads and governors, which Mr Fitt was due to make in Durham, will be exactly the same as he will make in Newcastle. “It’s the only way we can do it, really,” he says. “What decisions they make on that basis, of course, may be different, and, indeed, so far as converter academies are concerned, we have six in one diocese, and none in the other.”

The reason is partly to do with the part played by the local author­ities — four of the six schools that have converted are in the same small authority, where the move to academy status has been very marked.

“All this is going to move over time, of course,” Mr Fitt says. “Our common policy is that these are decisions for governing bodies to take, but we will support them and facilitate their decision-making in any way we can.”

What he calls the “educational heavy lifting” in the urban areas of both dioceses — “places where both our bishops want us to be, very much part of the mission” — saw the creation, under his predecessors, of an academy in each diocese. Both serve deprived communities in Darlington and Ashington.

Mr Fitt works with ten local authorities, and, having been either chief education officer or deputy to two of them for 15 years, and Department for Education (DfE) consultant to a further three, feels that he has an advantage in know­ing them well. Another area where he finds his previous experience very helpful is in his relationship with the DfE.

“They’re certainly going to be crucial for all dioceses, I think, especially with the current emphasis on underperforming schools. I find it encouraging that they do talk to the local authority which is respons­ible for maintaining those schools, but, increasingly, I’m finding that they also want to come and talk to me where they are C of E schools.

“We are proving ourselves in that relationship. And if we can satisfy them that they can trust the diocesan organisation with those schools, and ensuring that they deliver, in educational as well as distinctiveness terms, then that really cements our place in the bigger picture very securely — which is just what Jan Ainsworth and her team in the National Society want to achieve.”

VERY few of the schools in Durham and Newcastle have reserved church places — something that Mr Fitt considers an advantage, compared with his counterparts elsewhere in the country. The tensions associated with trying to manage admissions are much reduced here, and the workload is less. “I give thanks for that, because I imagine that that could be an enormous distraction for us.

“It goes in tandem with the inclusive notion that we are there for the whole community. Most of our rural schools are the only school in a community, and our urban schools again tend to serve a catch­ment area.”

Capacity is a real issue on the organisational front, he acknow­ledges, because of the changing policy-context nationally. “The part of my job description that says ‘Plan and deliver an appropriate school organisational strategy against a fast-moving landscape of change’ isn’t just the day job — it’s the evening job as well.”

It is in the day job of matters such as site inspections and the development of RE that the benefits of joint working are becoming apparent: a conference next month for more than 100 primary RE teachers, half from each diocese; the scrapping of the existing timescales for review of diocesan RE syllabuses in each diocese, so that there can be a common syllabus with joint funding of the review costs; and production of the new syllabus. Succession-planning for head teachers, also done in co-ordination with RC colleagues, is also bearing fruit.

THERE are challenges, of course. “A lot of things I’d like us to do more of,” he says. “Governor training is a big issue. We’d like to do more work with clergy, too — certainly in one of the boards here, the chair and I have been doing the rounds of deanery synods to try and interpret this national educational picture for clergy colleagues locally.

“Part of our mission, our role, as we see it, goes beyond C of E schools, and we are desperately keen that our incumbents should be working with other schools in their parish, whether or not they are church schools.

“In terms of organisation, if you take one of our gorgeous river valleys up into the Pennines, there might be five little First Schools, strung out along the river, and they will be alternately Church of Eng­land and community schools; but, in terms of a natural grouping, and how they like to work together, that’s the group they want to belong to.

“Our job is really about trying to figure out ways of facilitating that sort of federation, so that they can work with those partners while, at the same time, securing their C of E identity.”

Mr Fitt remains upbeat, despite acknowledging that his team is considerably stretched. “Ask any diocesan director, and they would say the same: we are struggling for capacity within the team. Chadwick correctly identified that as a major issue for the Church,” he says.

“Equally, we recognise the pressures on diocesan finances generally, and, to use the business mantra, we will continue to work harder, but we also need to work smarter. In future, our schools will have to recognise that they will have to contribute financially to the support system which every diocese wants to offer to its church-schools family.

“Chadwick also pointed out the potential advantages of dioceses working together, and we are an example — as are the other two pairs — of doing that in a formal way. But, equally, we work regionally. And that’s enormously helpful.”

Trio of appointments

THREE dioceses have announced the appointment of new directors of education. Dave Channon, who will take up his post at Derby in September, is currently head of St Giles C of E Primary School, Killa­marsh, and an additional inspector for OFSTED. Mr Channon is a graduate of the University of Exeter. He will lead the team responsible for the diocese’s 110 schools.

Huw Thomas, who will oversee Sheffield diocese’s 38 schools, has been head of Emmaus joint RC/C of E school, on the city’s Wybourn estate, for 12 years. An occasional contributor to the Church Times and The Times Educational Supplement, Mr Thomas has also been a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. He was educated at Sheffield, and at the former Roehampton Institute.

Tess Gale is taking over at Bath & Wells, where she is currently co-ordinator of schools services.

The three will take up their posts in September.

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