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Double trouble for the chiefs?

Overlap between primary schools and the new children's centres raises serious questions about shared management. Phil Revell reports

Every neighbourhood will have a children's centre by 2010, and many will be in or near the local primary school. But how will the two rub along together? And how do heads see the current arrangements for management and accountability?

John Rogers is head of the Greenside primary school and children's centre, in Tameside, just outside Manchester.

"We have a nursery, medical rooms, a drop-in centre - it's all part of the main school," he said. "I manage the whole thing and it's all under the same governing body."

Greenside was an early excellence centre before it changed into a children's centre last year. There is a long history of family services at the school.

"We believe in the education of the whole child," said Mr Rogers. "It doesn't matter how good the teaching is if we don't get these things right."

In 2003, the Government announced plans to develop children's centres in every neighbourhood. They must provide daycare integrated with early education, child and family health services. They must also serve as a base for childminder networks and have links with Jobcentres and children's information services.

By March this year, ministers expected the scheme to have reached 650,000 pre-school children. Some centres were like Greenside and already existed as early excellence centres. Others were re-badged as Sure Start centres, and many are new.

Given that schools and children's centres share facilities, Ofsted said it would "try to ensure that the two cycles of inspection coincide so a single inspection visit takes place". But shared facilities do not necessarily mean shared management.

In St Helens, Legh Vale primary school was designatedas an early excellence centre in 2001, and became a combined primary and children's centre in April. Like most school leaders who have been involved with either early excellence or Sure Start, head Mike Hewitt is positive about the benefits.

"We have seen tremendous differences - some have been quantifiable, others haven't," he said. "Our free school meals figures dropped by about 10 per cent because more of the parents are in work. We had a committee of governors that looked after the management of the early excellence centre.

There was a wide range of people on it, but it was ad hoc, not elected."

But control transferred to the local authority in April.

"Our preferred model would be for me to manage the centre directly," he said. "If you have two different management systems, it creates tensions that need not exist. But the local authority manages children's centres and sees things strategically."

A quick TES phone survey found that the most common model was for the two organisations to be separate. Heads said they worked closely with children's centre colleagues, and few reported any major problems. But all the heads agreed on the question of management and governance: they wanted one system, not two.

Heads had good relationships with their colleagues and would not say anything critical on record about their partner organisations, but one head explained a typical problem. "When we controlled the nursery, we were able to ease transition by allowing the staff to follow children through," the head said. "We don't do that any more. The two sets of staff work closely, but have different conditions of service and management systems. That limits the benefits of sharing a site."

Other heads reported difficulties when a maintained nursery at the school was in competition with a nursery at the children's centre. There were other potential problems with social events, site security and parking. One primary-based children's centre in the Midlands was planned as a single organisation, only to be split from the school at the last moment.

The head said: "My vision was that I would be director of the site. It's a bit unsettling to think that I don't have any influence over the children's centre."

But a children's centre manager in the North-east put the opposing view.

She said: "Schools focus on the children on their roll, but a children's centre has to cater for an entire neighbourhood, and some of those children may go to other schools. We have a different relationship with our families."

But John Rogers believes those issues can be overcome. "Being head of the whole thing doesn't mean I want to do everything or be in charge," he said.

"You have to be able to walk away and leave people to get on with their jobs. And it's not about prescribing services - it's about what the community wants."

Greenside is now advertising for a deputy head. Mr Rogers intends that the successful applicant will take on the school management role while an assistant head runs the children's centre. Mr Rogers will oversee the whole operation in the kind of system leadership role being being advocated by the National College for School Leadership.

"This is hard work but it's the concept of ownership that is key," he said.

"Someone has to have the bigger picture."

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