Five years ago, Christ Church CoE Primary School in south London was in bad shape. The headteacher had left on sick leave and the two acting heads were struggling to cope. A new head was appointed, but lasted just seven weeks.
"The school was in disarray," says Wendy Jacobs, who is now executive head of the school. "The behaviour was terrible and attainment was poor on all levels. It is a Christian school, but it felt like the most un-Christian place I had ever been to."
At the time, Mrs Jacobs was headteacher of nearby Rosendale Primary School. After a successful Ofsted inspection in 2005, Lambeth local authority asked her to become an executive head at Christ Church for a couple of months. She is still in the role today.
"It was quite obvious that it was going to take more than a few months to change the culture of the school," she says. "That first year, I spent 80 per cent of my time at Christ Church and the remainder at Rosendale."
Executive headships of this type - where a single head leads two or more schools, usually in a federation or partnership - are becoming increasingly common.
Although there are no records of how many schools have joined or established federations, the Government expects numbers to grow as schools become more aware of the benefits.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, is particularly keen to promote them. In September, he suggested that sharing heads and deputies was central to his plans to cut England's schools budget by pound;2 billion. In addition, it is thought that increasing the number of executive heads could help ease the national shortage of headteachers (see box overleaf).
But a lack of suitable applicants is just one of many reasons why schools turn to executive heads, says Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Secondary schools usually have a healthier crop of candidates to choose from, but could still benefit from an additional head.
"They may be appointed in response to a desire to work more closely together," says Mr Ward. "Sometimes it is to build on success, sometimes to allow a strong school help one that is struggling."
For Ravenscroft Primary School in east London it was because the headteacher resigned unexpectedly. Rather than rush a new appointment, the governing body decided to take its time to find the right candidate.
Tom Canning, headteacher at Tollgate Primary School in nearby Plaistow and a regional winner of a Teaching Award for headship, filled the role of executive head for a year, before a new appointment was made this August.
"The school needed breathing space to pause, take stock and think about succession planning," he says. "I wanted to work very closely with the governing body, staff, parents and children. You can't do that overnight."
Many people, including Mr Canning himself, were initially concerned that he was spreading himself too thinly, or that one school would suffer. But by building a strong senior management team at both settings, this has not been the case.
"You have got to go about things very differently and make sure both schools work really well when you are not there," Mr Canning says. "I had to be far more strategic than the traditional hands-on way of working."
He also made a point of being highly visible and accessible at whichever school he was at. Having a strong, capable team at Tollgate gave him the confidence to be off-site for half the week.
Mr Canning is now set to be a short-term "drifting" executive head for local schools in crisis. "It ultimately empowers others to build capacity in their own schools," he says. "I have found that very enjoyable."
The collaboration has been a success in Lambeth as well. After a painful start - only six of Christ Church's original teachers are still on the staff - teaching, behaviour, standards and the school's relationship with parents have all improved.
Teachers from both schools worked, planned and trained together. Teachers observed each other's lessons and Rosendale staff provided demo lessons. "There was some resentment at first and a lot of Christ Church staff left," admits Mrs Jacobs. "But we were due an Ofsted (inspection) and we couldn't mess around. We needed to get on a firm footing or the school would be placed in special measures."
Today, both schools and pupils benefit from the partnership, says Mrs Jacobs, who now shares her time evenly between the schools. Rosendale staff have broadened their skills through working in a different, more challenging setting, pupils enjoy going on trips and workshop days together, while teaching and learning has improved dramatically at Christ Church.
"We had got good things happening at Rosendale and felt confident about helping another," says Mrs Jacobs. "Now Christ Church helps us by sharing their expertise. It is very much a two-way process."
It is not unusual for both the provider and the receiving school to benefit like this, says Mark Pattison, executive director for succession planning at the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services.
"Governors may ask questions about what's in it for them," he says. "But there is an increasing amount of evidence which shows that teachers who work in other schools learn from the process and take back new skills to their original school."
This not only raises attainment in both schools, it also contributes to staff development, especially those who are given the opportunity to try their hand at headship, perhaps on a part-time basis.
"It can be daunting to step up to headship, but this is a way deputy heads can try it in a phased, safe way," Mr Pattison says. "They learn about the job but still feel supported by the executive head. A very high proportion of acting heads will then go on to become heads."
A report published in September by the Eastern Leadership Centre (ELC) for the Department for Children, Schools and Families also points out the benefits to smaller schools. It argues that sharing staff, headteachers or governors can help small schools survive in the face of falling roles and rising costs.
The report says that despite practical difficulties - for example, collaborations between faith and secular schools - executive headships are mainly beneficial. They can alleviate recruitment problems, share costs across more than one school, widen access to resources and improve leadership, professional development and specialist support.
Heads in small schools may spend up to 80 per cent of the week teaching, it adds. Having an executive head helps free up their time so that they can concentrate more on leadership and management.
"Small rural primary schools traditionally receive little attention until they are threatened with closure or fail an Ofsted inspection," says Dr Grant Bage, ELC chief executive.
"There are ways of ensuring a thriving small school sector in the future - but these will certainly not mean carrying on as we are."
Mr Ward agrees that federations can work, not least when heads, deputies or even business managers share their strengths. Sharing the cost of an expert between schools creates economies of scale, he adds, and schools with federations can all benefit from the strength of one brand.
But there are potential pitfalls. "There is a danger of overloading school leaders and a sense of distance between the students and staff," he says. "It is important that each school has a site leader to whom they can easily and quickly refer."
June Foster, then headteacher of Moorside Community Primary School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, became executive head at nearby Westgate Hill Primary School in September 2007, as part of the National College's National Leaders of Education programme, which aims to pair outstanding heads with schools in challenging circumstances.
Last January, they decided to firm up the arrangement and federate the two schools. Now Ms Foster is executive head across both schools and there is a head of school at each primary (one former deputy head at Moorside was promoted to headship at Westgate).
The two schools are still separate but are part of one federation and have a single governing body. Apart from minor variations in the logo, they share the same uniform; the school development plans are separate but similar.
"If you have the capacity to help and share expertise, I feel very passionately that you have a responsibility to do so," says Ms Foster.
Moorside is now judged to be an "outstanding" school and Westgate came out of special measures this April. Both schools have very high levels of English as an additional language (EAL), so having an EAL specialist from Moorside working across both schools is mutually beneficial.
"We were keen to avoid the `here comes the cavalry' mindset," says Ms Foster. "We're not arrogant enough to think we can march into a new school and turn it around. We had to look at the existing expertise and think about how we would share best practice."
Joint training and "visioning" days help to iron out any lingering concerns or problems. Staff were initially anxious that they would be forced to work in the partner school or that there may be redundancies - neither of which was the case. Meanwhile, Moorside parents wanted to know why Ms Foster was still receiving full-time pay when she was only on-site for half the week.
"You can't be dismissive of people's comments or of existing practice," adds Ms Foster. "Teachers from both schools have the opportunity to express what they want their schools to be." Some people thought Ms Foster was crazy to take on a school in special measures. Moorside scraped through an Ofsted inspection when she joined 15 years ago, when the school's behaviour had to be "addressed as a matter of urgency".
Having come so far with one school, and having devoted 22 years to headship already, colleagues and friends said she deserved to put her feet up.
But Ms Foster thought differently. "It's so exciting and positive to be able to share expertise with another school that is struggling. If you have the facility and capacity to do it, you should go for it."
Personal enthusiasm from individual headteachers can go a long way in overcoming reservations, the ELC report confirms. But sharing heads won't be right for everyone.
"I am convinced of the benefits of executive heads, but it's very context specific," says Mr Pattison. "In the early days, these models were very reactive - for instance, responding to schools in difficulties. Now, schools are coming together in proactive ways. They are asking: `What can we do better together that we currently do separately?'"
Finding the right type of collaboration - be it informally working with local schools, sharing an executive head or becoming a trust or federation - could be the difference between a failing and an improving school. And it may just make a good school even better.
UNFILLED HEADTEACHER VACANCIES
- Percentage of positions unfilled
Spec. schools 26
- Average no of applications per vacancy
Spec. schools: 5.5
Source: 15th annual survey into headteacher vacancies in England and Wales, conducted by Education Data Surveys for the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers. September 2009.