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Autonomy rules, OK?

Delegating more control to clusters of schools is already underway, writes Gerald Haigh.

Like many counties, Surrey has its identifiable community areas: a group of villages bounded by a river and a main road, or a clearly defined section of a big town. Could a local authority base school provision on such areas, delegating services and funds to natural groups of schools which would, in effect, look after themselves?

Certainly, that is what Surrey will try to do - albeit gradually. There will be three pilot schemes, lots of consultation and a good deal of pragmatism about which areas want to go forward.

The idea isn't new. There are many pyramids of primaries with their partner secondary and, in some counties, the small schools come together in search of economies of scale. In a few places, the cluster has considerable status, with its own administrator.

But Surrey proposes to go even further: ultimately, each school could become a fully fledged, self-governing foundation - "a legal entity", as the county's deputy education officer, Steve Clarke, puts it. He sees a whole raft of advantages such as primary schools sharing ICT technicians or specialist teachers. Perhaps the biggest gain is that support services, now based centrally, would be devolved. Immediacy of response and access would improve. The struggle, familiar to heads, to convene a case conference would be made easier.

Ten schools - a secondary and eight primaries - around Ash in south-west Surrey are embarking on an ambitious programme of shared resources.

"We discovered it would be possible for us to put together all the child support services in our locality and deploy them in our own way," says Bob Linnell, head of Ash Manor school. "We have an agreement with Surrey that we will receive the required number of hours from the educational psychologist, educational welfare, behaviour support, disabled support and other services."

The service to schools has improved dramatically. Mr Linnell speaks of "coherence, immediacy and accessibility. We've been operational since April, and we find we're able to deliver services much more rapidly."

It is a long-term project: Steve Clarke speaks in terms of five years. Nobody is hurrying to push schools together, especially in areas in which natural groupings are hard to define. Nobody wants to tell schools how to run their clusters when they are formed.

Clearly, Steve Clarke looks towards a time when more services - including health and police - would be part of a system that might begin to put some of the missing community spirit back into parts of Surrey.

"It's the sort of county where people live individual lives," he says. "People don't meet each other naturally or sociallyI Schools are now the important medium for people to meet, and clusters of schools could provide the glue for keeping the community together."

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