Birmingham education authority was in a fix. Waverley school's head had quit, the comprehensive was already struggling. They needed to find a new leader fast.
"We were faced with either the usual application process and its usual delays or asking another person to take over," former advisory service head Mick Waters recalls."I came up with the idea of Christine Quinn who was already on the circuit for appointments."
Ms Quinn was then deputy at the successful Ninestiles city technology college in Acocks Green, three miles away. The two schools agreed to federate.
Dexter Hutt, Ninestiles' principal, became executive head of Waverley "responsible for strategic oversight", while Christine Quinn runs the school on a day-to-day basis. After the first 18 months the Waverley and Ninestiles governing bodies began working together.
The Department for Education and Skills sees it as a model of collaboration. Officials have kept a close eye on Waverley, and under the 2002 Education Act a further four "hard federations" (see box below) were launched this term, including the failing Manor Farm school in Walsall which reopened last month as Rushall community college in partnership with nearby Shelfield sports college.
Some view the strategy as successful schools taking over failing ones, but it is nevertheless welcomed by the Secondary Heads Association as a public, rather than private-sector, solution to school improvement.
They are a natural step on from LEAs' long-standing practice of seconding successful heads for short periods to see struggling schools through turbulent times.
Some authorities are also experimenting with less formal "soft federations" (see box). These might include shared staffing, curriculum development or staff training.
The Ninestiles-Waverley federation has Mr Hutt as Ms Quinn's line manager and mentor. Ms Quinn, an "associate head" at her old school, works on a three-year fixed-term contract at Waverley.
Ninestiles was an obvious choice, Mr Waters, now chief education officer at Manchester, says."It had a strong head, lots of credibility, and high standards."
It also had a reputation for collaboration and innovation, leading a mini-network of four schools and running courses for private consultancy Head Support. Its 15 advanced skills teachers work with schools across the country.
Ninestiles had been struggling when Mr Hutt arrived there in the 1980s. Ms Quinn's clear agenda is to replicate or adapt his success and to work quickly. She talks of the dangers in such a tough school of simply reacting to events. His overview helps her stay pro-active. Ms Quinn says: "We set ourselves quite stringent qualitative targets. We planned on a half-termly basis. From day one it was about changing things considerably."
First came a strict behaviour code, based on Mr Hutt's model at Ninestiles."Things happened the minute Christine walked through the door," he says.
Federation proper didn't really begin until late last year when the 18-month experiment culminated in the signing of a three-year contract between the schools. By then, the DfES was pushing federation and the money started flowing. The leadership incentive grant (LiG), which went live this term, gives pound;125,000 a year over three years to eligible secondary schools, on condition that they collaborate with other schools. Each collaboration must include successful schools and at least one with problems. The grant is topped up by almost pound;100,000 from the LEA and DfES.
Three governors from each school sit on the other's board and all six form a steering group with the two heads and an LEA adviser.
The cash funds an extra deputy at each school and pays for middle management training. All Waverley staff have a chance to observe lessons at Ninestiles. Teams from the two schools jointly plan schemes of work, and Waverley's deputy spent six weeks at Ninestiles where he was given free rein to wander the school and see what resources his staff could tap into.
Challenging schools are full of opportunities for aspiring heads, Ms Quinn believes. Few experienced heads are prepared to take them on. First-time heads are the very people who need extra support which federation provides.
Jonathan Boyack, chair of Waverley governors, says: "I've been involved in public-sector mergers over the years, and these things can be seen as a takeover."
But most doubts were dispelled by the "fantastic" GCSE results. Waverley has already exceeded its three-year target. Its results jumped from 18 per cent five A*-Cs to 49 per cent.
Teachers have mostly relished the opportunities. "The partnership has helped teachers unlock their own potential," Mr Boyack says."It has given this small school an input of new ideas and energy."
Few teachers have left and several have been promoted.
Governors and parents were perhaps more cautious. An added complication is that Waverley is largely Asian, while Ninestiles is mostly white.
A few governors questioned the need for partnership. Mr Boyack says: "There will always be a view that local schools should be run by governors from their own community." In the long run, a different structure would be needed to ensure parents and community were involved. But, he adds: "For the life of the contract, this is an excellent solution."
Mr Hutt has such a long history of working with other schools that Ninestiles governors took the federation in their stride. Pete Bennett, Ninestiles' chair, says it was a compliment to be invited to help by Birmingham.
"It's a feather in our cap. Our teachers have recognised that what they do here can work elsewhere. And it's been a challenge for them to work with youngsters from different cultures."
Birmingham, which is also experimenting with looser groupings of collaborating schools, also seems pleased. But chief education officer Tony Howells hints he'd like to see something more formal: the issue of merger is never far away.
"We're not going to push them in this direction," Mr Howells says, but formal ties would mean "one party can't take the bat home if they don't like it".
But that's the nub. John Dunford, general secretary of SHA, says: "The number of governing bodies that are going to be willing to commit hara-kiri is quite small."
However, he still welcomes federations as "the public-sector model of school improvement".
"We don't need the private sector coming in telling us what to do," he says. "All the expertise we need is in the public sector."
In Walsall federation goes even further. The two schools' budgets are pooled, and older Rushall pupils will be taught at Shelfield. The two schools will be run by Shelfield head Bernard Dickenson, with an associate head at Manor Farm.
In Brighton, a hard federation of Varndean and East Brighton College of Media Arts was mooted but has been dropped as the council plans to close the latter. Instead, Varndean is providing day-to-day support, including taking in half of Year 10 for English GCSE and information technology GNVQ lessons.
Back in Birmingham, though, Mr Hutt sees the Waverley model working for much larger groups. "I could see federations of five or eight schools," he says, "their heads meeting weekly to share what's been happening in their schools and help each other solve problems, under an executive head. The day of the stand-alone school is over."