IF FEDERATION, with its educational and economic advantages, can
still be a matter of choice in urban areas, for small schools in
the countryside it is becoming a survival strategy, the sole
approved path to the future, as last autumn's Archbishops' Council
report on rural schools made plain.
In a foreword, the Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel
Genders, spelled it out: "The days of the autonomous small school
are numbered. It is only as our schools work intentionally in
structural partnerships and collaborations that they will find the
strength and resilience they need to continue to offer outstanding
education at the heart of local communities."
The majority of C of E primaries fall within the Department for
Education's definition of a Small School: that is, one that has
fewer than 210 pupils. More than half the C of E schools in England
(though a much smaller percentage of its pupils) come within this
category. Those with fewer than 110 pupils are regarded as Very
Small Schools. The Church has most of those, too.
The problems they face include managing an expanding curriculum
with a limited staff; making a small budget stretch ever further;
and - a pressing problem - attracting head teachers prepared to
take on significant managerial responsibility, along with a
teaching timetable. When small-school heads retire or move on,
advertisements for their successors attract few replies.
LICHFIELD diocese has 126 small schools, of which 59 are very
small. The dearth of applicants for two small-school headship posts
was the issue that led to the creation of the Churnet Valley
Federation, in rural east Staffordshire. When it was left without a
head teacher, St Peter's First School, in Alton, with just 52
pupils, began working with the larger 88-pupil All Saints' First
School, in Denstone, just two miles away. The collaboration worked
well. So, when the head of All Saints' moved on, and repeated
advertising failed to fill a shortlist, the two governing bodies
decided that federation was the obvious solution.
Sarah Robson, the head of another small school, St Augustine's,
at Drayton in the Clay, 16 miles away, was drafted in as acting
executive head of the federation last September, while continuing
to oversee her own school.
One year on, she has been appointed permanent executive head of
the Federation, which will become a three-school body when St
Augustine's joins in September this year.
Kickstarting the Federation has been a challenging time, Miss
Robson says. Teachers and governors from the three schools were
committed to new ways of working, but her hardest task has been
dealing with a minority of parents who, as the rural-schools report
expected, still "hanker after the status quo". Her response has
been to explain, again and again, the reasons for the initiative,
and to extol its benefits.
And, as Miss Robson describes them, the advantages of federation
seem unassailable - economies of scale not least among them. She
has been head of St Augustine's for 12 years, and says that,
throughout that time, making her school budget last out the summer
term was always a headache. But that is no longer the case. She has
even found the funds to recruit more teachers.
THE curriculum has benefited, too. Subjects are now timetabled
across the three schools, allowing for joint school trips, for
example. When the local authority provided sessions with a maths
adviser to one school, all of them benefited from the specialist
advice. The Federation has one sports co-ordinator, and one
Crucially, the Federation aids succession planning, which is
particularly important in church schools. The three participants
each have their own "Head of School". "Senior teachers have stepped
up to the role, and find they enjoy the responsibility," Miss
Robson says. And the Federation provides a wider pool of potential
Ideally, federations take place between schools that are within
five miles of each other. St Augustine's is 16 miles away from its
future partners, but Miss Robson says that "all the staff, all the
governors are on board." Her enthusiasm is shared by Terry Davies,
who chairs the Federation governing body: "It's undoubtedly secured
us a brighter future."
The biggest winners from the Federation are the three villages
that now have schools with a future, the diocesan director of
education for Lichfield, Colin Hopkins, says.
As the rural-schools report points out, many have lost their
post office, their shop, their police station - and even their pub.
"The school is one of the state's last remaining structural point
of contact with rural communities," it says.
Underpinning the Federation's achievements, Anthony Orlik says,
is growing a school community with a common purpose in a very
diverse area. Moreover, the schools retain an unashamedly Christian
ethos. The cross and the Bible are prominent throughout both
schools. There is a daily Christian assembly, at which individual
pupils can ask for prayers. All classrooms have a worship corner,
often used for "going-home prayers", and local clergy are often in
the school. There are regular school events at the parish church.
"Non-Christian parents know what our ethos is. They don't have to
send their children to us, but they choose to," he says. Even
though many pupils are Muslim, the only parents who exercise their
right of withdrawal are Jehovah's Witnesses.