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Breakaway heads back mergers

Ailing schools could be saved through pairing up with successful neighbours say radical allies of the chief inspector. Chris Bunting reports

A NEW teachers' union set up by supporters of chief inspector Chris Woodhead is testing a radical plan to merge successful schools with struggling neighbours.

Leading members of Primary Plus, which broke away from the National Association of Head Teachers last year, believe current solutions to school failure are inadequate.

Jim Hudson, executive president of the 500-member union and head of Two Mile Ash school, Milton Keynes, said the typical local authority response of putting extra advisory support into failing schools was just "more of the same".

"It is probably the least effective strategy to adopt in trying to turn a failing school around," he said.

Mr Hudson criticised the use of sending temporary "associate heads" from successful schools into failing neighbours.

"We have to ask serious questions as to whether it is reasonable to expect such a calamitous position to be rectified by the introduction of just one new player."

Instead, he believes successful schools should have a central role in school improvement, and in a radical manifesto, The Catalyst for Change, he calls for them partially to merge with failing neighbours.

Jean Heslop, head of Cliffe Hill junior and infants in Calderdale and a member of Primary Plus's executive board, is taking the first steps towards putting Mr Hudson's vision into practice.

Mixenden junior and infant school in Halifax - which has been on special measures for more than two years - is joining up with Cliffe Hill, which has been praised by the Office for Standards in Education.

The new partnership is not as radical as Mr Hudson's scheme which calls fora unified management under a single head, the virtual takeover of a failing school's governing body by its successful neighbour and for all advisory-support funding to be devolved to the new regime.

Instead the Calderdale partnership does not interfere with the failing school's governors and leaves LEA funding unchanged.

The local authority, although generally supportive, has insisted that each school formally appoint a separate head. Although Mrs Heslop is in practice overseeing both schools, she has formally moved to Mixenden and an acting head has been appointed at her old school.

But Mrs Heslop said:"This method provides not just one individual but a whole successful institution to work over a longer term with the school."

Working groups have been set up, bringing together the teachers of the two schools, and training is done jointly. Planning meetings pool the best practice from both schools and the partnership is about to introduce a computerised pupil-assessment system.

Staff currently work only in their original school, but Mrs Heslop looked forward to job swaps when the merger beds down. Eventually, she sees governors from each school moving onto each other's boards.

However, Anne Collins, Calderdale's senior primary adviser, said: "This is in the early stages. Any partnership will have to be very tentative and gradual." She added that the local authority had no plans to merge the schools' budgets, governors or heads.

Primary Plus was the result of a rebellion against the NAHT's atttitude to allegations about Mr Woodhead and a former pupil. The heads' union had complained to the Director of Public Prosecutions about the chief inspector.

Primary Plus's members include heads, deputy heads, teachers and teaching assistants.

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