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Growing together

by
05 June 2015

Margaret Holness investigates two schools that have found a new vision through partnership

 

 

Support: school language ambassadors such as Adam, Zuzanna, and Nathon help children who are new to English

Support: school language ambassadors such as Adam, Zuzanna, and Nathon help children who are new to English

FOR the past five years, the education world has been coming to terms with the fact that the days of the tradtional stand-alone school are numbered. Instead, the three Cs - co-operation, collaboration, and clusters - are no longer an experiment, but rapidly becoming an expectation. 

This is especially true of primary schools. They have greater financial independence, and the pools of advice and resources once provided by local authorities have long since dried up. Head teachers and governors, with whom responsibility for standards now rests, have to provide staff training and curriculum development in-house. 

The same is true of administration. A decade ago, the idea of even a medium-sized primary school's employing a business manager would have seemed unlikely, at best. 

More primary-school governors are taking a step further and going for federation. This is what the separate governing bodies of the C of E Blue Coat Infants School and the Blue Coat Junior School, Walsall, decided three years ago. 

The schools, part of a centuries-old foundation, are possibly the oldest in Walsall, and now serve a predominantly economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse area. In the Infants School, one third of 300 children receive free school meals - well above the national average; and, for 43 per cent of them, English is not their first language. In the 350-pupil Junior School, the figures rise to 45 per cent and 46 per cent respectively.

The latter, moreover, is affected by unusually high pupil turnover. Only about 60 per cent of this year's leavers have progressed right through the school.

 

IN 2011, the heads of both schools were close to retirement, and the two sets of governors, some serving both schools, were considering the way ahead.

Dorothy Buchanan, who was then chair of the Infants School, says: "We thought over the options. We didn't want to merge the two schools, but we did want closer co-operation, and the best for the children. We took advice on our options from the diocese and chose federation."

Now a member of the joint governing body, she says that the choice was the right one. "Federation has proved to be all we hoped for."

When Anthony Orlik, who had already successfully led two other C of E schools in Walsall, arrived as executive head of the new federation in 2012, the Infant School's OFSTED rating was Good; but the inspectors had judged that the Junior School, struggling with many pupils arriving and leaving mid-term, was in need of improvement. It was upgraded last month, and both schools are now aiming for the top rating.

The improvement has been achieved by carefully thought-out steps, Mr Orlik says. Although recruits to the Federation may be required to work in either school, teachers already in post have not been required to do so. 

 

MUCH time has been given to joint discussions with staff to develop a shared vision, while celebrating the existing strengths of both schools, such as success in teaching English as a second language, reading through phonics, and expertise in working with diversity. 

Intensive monitoring and support has ensured consistent practice and standards across the two schools. At the end of each year, all pupils add a piece of writing in a work book that follows them up the age range. "At any time, I can look at a child's work from Nursery to Year 6 and see what progress they have made," Mr Orlik says. 

Children's behaviour is good, overall, but both schools have a small, intensively staffed "nurture class", where pupils with difficult social and developmental problems receive the constant attention that cannot be provided in a general classroom. The initiative is successful, prevents exclusions, and is very much worth the considerable expense, Mr Orlik says. 

Parents, who get a regular newsletter covering the activities of the two schools, like the continuity that the Federation provides. Increasingly, they want their children to progress from one school to the other. "Because we're a Federation, not a merger, government rules don't allow automatic transfer between our schools, but we make sure that as many Infant School leavers as possible go up to the Junior School, Mr Orlik explains.

The two schools have a close relationship with the Blue Coat Academy. Like its sister schools, the Academy has recently made rapid improvement, and has achieved the same Good OFSTED rating. "Our shared aim", Mr Orlik says, "is to provide a fantastic education for our children from the Nursery up to 18."

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