Jack Williams first raised the issue at a Rotary lunch. "Put your chair of governors' hat on," he said, "and tell me how you are getting on with finding a new head for St Barnaby's."
I probably pulled a face. "Not too well. It's not all that attractive a job after all - little primary, out in the sticks, 40 kids, just one full-time teacher and a bit of part time besides the head."
"Like ours," said Jack. "So the salary is..."
"Less than 25 grand."
"Couldn't what's her name do it? The young teacher who's already there?" I suppose I pulled a face again. "Miss Forward? She's really good - five years in teaching, with lots to offer, but we don't see her running the school on her own yet. In fact we're likely to lose her anyway, because she'll go off to a deputy headship in a bigger school before long."
I looked across at Jack. I knew he wasn't just making conversation. "Have you got your own Westfield Primary chairman's hat on by any chance?" "Let me float an idea," he said. "You know our head, Reg Noble?" I nodded. "Who doesn't? Grand chap. Salt of the earth, pillar of the community and all that. Plays the organ. He's not leaving is he?" "Thinking of it," said Jack. "Came to see me not long ago. Fed up with it all - local management, national curriculum, OFROT..."
"I think it's OFSTED."
"Whatever. Anyway, Reg says it's not the same job he came into 30 years ago."
"And he's...?" "Fifty-five."
"So? Let him go. He'll probably get a deal."
"Well, I don't know. He loves the kids. Standards are high. He talks about leaving, but teaching is his life. What he really wants is less faffing about with paperwork and more time in the classroom."
"So what's this to do with our vacancy?" "Well, I've been talking to Sadie Morgan, chair of governors at Thrusting Parva."
"Why them? They've got a perfectly good head - young, gung-ho sort of woman if I remember. Runs courses round the county - she came to talk to us about child protection. What's Sadie worried about?" "Nothing really, except that their school, like both ours, is very small, and they feel sure that Miss Challenger, their head, will soon go off to a bigger job."
Jack didn't say anything else. He just took up a forkful of broccoli and raised his eyebrows at me as he chewed. Somewhere, inside my head, a light flickered into life like a struck match in a deep cave.
"Now, Jack. Hang about. There's a lot to take on board here. What you are suggesting is..."
I laughed. "After all you've said?" He shook his head and smiled. "This isn't Europe. This is deepest Winkleshire, and we're talking about preserving the English village school."
"Tell me more," I said.
He put down his fork. "Our three schools already work together - there's our joint governors' committee, what's-her-name the music teacher hares around the schools, and they have joint planning meetings and so on. Perhaps it could go a lot further.
"Think about it. You can't find a head. Our head wants less work. Sadie's head is thirsting for more responsibility. Put the three problems together and they solve each other. Marjie Challenger becomes head of the federation. Reg runs his own site, but doesn't any longer have the ultimate responsibility. And you may feel that your Miss Forward could do the same as Reg on your site, even though she's not ready for headship. So - we keep good people who might otherwise leave, and we save money as well."
"I'm going to the bar," I said. "Shall I bring you a pint?" When I got back, I had some questions. I was sure there must be a snag in the salary calculations for one thing.
"Reg won't want to take a salary cut; think what it would do to his pension, " I pointed out. "Marjie Challenger will want a rise. Miss Forward will deserve one. Where's the saving coming from?" "Well, if we want to preserve quality, the savings aren't dramatic, but they are there all right. You can promote the federation head up the heads' scale - we'd have to negotiate that carefully - and also put the two assistant heads on the main teachers' scale at a point where they are getting the same as a group one head. But you still save, because each assistant head has more time to spend with the children, and you can cut down on the part-timers.
"The other big point, though, is that I think we can also give the pupils a better deal - if Reg, for example, is free to do what he does best, which is teach; if we hang on to your Miss Forward by giving her more responsibility; if we spread Marjie Challenger's talents around, then everyone will benefit.
"I bet that when we look at the details we will end up with better education in the area, a more secure future for the schools, more job satisfaction and opportunity for teachers, and a slightly lower salary bill across the three schools."
I took a sip of my tonic water. "But how will we sell it to the village folk?" I asked.
Jack took an even bigger sip of his pint. "Ah!" he said. "That's where you come in, Vicar."