It's the first morning of your Ofsted inspection and you find yourself a teacher down due to sickness. Being a small primary, there is no one to step in. Call the head of another local school and you might get a few sympathetic noises, but you'd hardly expect them to drop everything and come to the rescue. But if you're part of a network of small schools in Pendle, Lancashire, that's exactly what happens.
John Connelly, head of Holy Trinity school, says: "Two heads from our network have volunteered to come and teach lessons themselves in this eventuality. Because heads have lighter teaching commitments, they're able to come at short notice.
"Lessons covered by supply teachers are subject to the same scrutiny as any other lesson, and it gives us a great sense of security to know that there will be a highly experienced teacher in front of the class in this sort of emergency."
Behind this comradeship is the Pendle small schools initiative, a networked learning community linking nine small primaries, set up in 2003 with funding from the National College for School Leadership. Under the NLC programme, groups of schools exchange good practice and work collaboratively to raise standards.
Mr Connelly believes such networks are the way ahead for small schools.
"Bigger schools don't have such a need to reach out, but in schools like ours you often feel you're working in isolation. You can achieve so much more by co-operation."
The network has come to the rescue in many crises. Gill Ackroyd, head of Salterforth primary, says: "We don't have a male member of staff, and sometimes we need one for a trip or activity. All we need to do is send out a message saying, 'Help, we need a man over here,' and somebody will lend us one."
Salterforth once came to the rescue when another primary faced cancelling a trip the next day because it had no first-aider.
Small schools often lack breadth of expertise, so the network has an inter-school programme of staff shadowing and links between subject co-ordinators. NLC funding has enabled the Pendle network to develop far beyond the usual clustering arrangements.
"Network is the operative word," says Ms Ackroyd. "It's more than just clustering. In the past, the schools found projects hard to sustain, and when the heads got together it was sometimes just out of a need to offload about problems they were facing. But with the NLC, we have a much clearer focus - it's about learning and moving on together."
One example of a scheme that needed the NLC funding is the highly successful reading and writing recovery programme, which is run across the schools and involved training teaching assistants in intervention strategies and the development of dyslexia-friendly schools. Those involved now have access to expert teachers they would not otherwise have been able to afford.
Another focus is on gifted and talented pupils. A specialist teacher is now shared among five schools, and small groups of very able children work with her one afternoon a week. Another teacher has developed a French teaching programme and teaches non-specialists how to use it.
The schools are flexible about how the shared teachers are used. "We recently lent the special needs teacher to another school on the days when she should have been with us so that she could talk to the Ofsted team about provision in another school she works in," says Ms Ackroyd. "In the past, we would have been asking for that time back. Now, if another school has a need the answer is 'yes' with no questions asked - because we know the other school is prepared to do the same for us."
Ancillary staff, such as secretaries and caretakers are also involved. A recent meeting was for site management staff to share expertise.
"We hired a room in a pub and there was food provided. It was the first time they'd ever had such a meeting. It's important that they feel valued as part of the team," says Mr Connelly.
The initial funding has now ended, but the schools hope to keep the network active with funds from the Department for Education and Skills' primary strategy network.
Keeping regular contact is one of the most most important features, says Ms Ackroyd. The schools send out a news email every Friday. It's also about being adventurous and taking risks: "So often, there are things you'd like to do but they seem too ambitious, but with the network there's always someone who says, 'Just go for it,'" she says.
On the network
The primary strategy's learning network programme is being developed jointly by the National College for School Leadership and the Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit. Successful applications will receive an initial grant of pound;5,000 and a further pound;12,000 following the approval of their action plan. The strategy's aim is for most primary schools to able to join a network by 2008. See www.standards.dfes.gov.ukprimarywholeschoollearningnetworks.
NCSL no longer funds networks, but advice can be downloaded from www.ncsl.org.uknlc. Click on "Join LNE" to take part in an online conference for networked schools.