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Happy families

Schools are overcoming their initial reservations about a shotgun marriage to unitary authorities. Gerald Haigh reports

Z Life in the unitary authorities, it seems, is anything but dull. Rob Calvert, head of Hob Moor Junior School in York, says: "Initiatives are sprouting up like weeds. It does seem to be full speed ahead, day in, day out. It would be nice to stop and draw breath."

To be fair, as Mr Calvert acknowledges, much of the pace is set by central government - the new authorities are having to cope with the double challenge of setting up their own policies and systems and also dealing with an avalanche of Whitehall initiatives. Compounding this is the fact that most, if not all, of the unitary authorities started, quite deliberately, with the smallest team of adminstrators that they felt they could get away with - "lean" is a word you hear a lot.

Diane Herbert, head of Burnwood County Junior in Stoke-on-Trent, says: "You do expect some initial problems, and (the authority) did start with a very lean team. Only now are they beginning to feel fully staffed."

Christine Davies, education director at Telford and Wrekin. explains: "The Government's agenda placed on a new authority, combined with our own ambitions, means we are well stretched at times, particularly as we took a conscious decision to be lean."

Telford and Wrekin's determination to go live on its first day with its authority-wide system of electronic communication and administration caused particular problems. Bill Marston, at Captain Webb County Primary in Telford, recalls: "My administrator spent the whole day trying to put through two orders on the new computerised ordering system."

Ms Davies says: "We knew that if we did it from the first day we'd have more chance of it being accepted than if we waited. Once people were using paper systems, it would have been more difficult."

The early difficulties were usually tolerated, partly because of their assumed inevitability and partly because much of the pressure was assumed to be coming from central government.

But in many places the schools were not keen to see the unitary authorities come into being at all. Generally, the relationship between a school and local authority works as a partnership, and to be faced with both a divorce and a shotgun marriage did not please many headteachers.

The emergence of Telford and Wrekin, for example, was fought hard by the affected Shropshire schools. Mr Marston says: "There was a feeling that nobody wanted it. Shropshire had served us well in education and we had loyalties." Malcolm Boulter, of the secondary Sutherland School, agrees. "The secondary heads' conference in Shropshire did oppose reorganisation. There was genuine concern about economies of scale and the impact on the advisory service."

Aware of this, the Telford and Wrekin team did a lot of talking and confidence building before reorganisation day. Mr Marston says: "There were lots of consultation groups, lots of discussions. They were clearly looking for it to be different and vibrant."

Telford and Wrekin is very distinct from the rest of Shropshire with particular challenges - a 16-plus staying on rate 8 per cent below the national average and almost twice the national average of pupils with special needs.

The advantage of reorganisation for a town like Telford is that local government becomes more local, more understanding and more accessible. Ms Davies is determined that should be the case for education. Her team has set up a programme of consultations with schools and the community and ambitious links with other services and businesses. "We set out with the aim of creating partnerships," she says, "And we have pursued that quite relentlessly."

She says that achieving the concept of a family of schools needs hard work with such a variety of secondaries in the authority - church, grammar, comprehensive, mixed, single sex and a technology college. But the message from the schools is generally positive.

Mr Boulter says: "Because there is a wide range of schools, there is a range of views, but the overwhelming feeling is that things are moving forward in a positive way. On the interpersonal side they have worked extremely hard."

Mr Marston agrees. "The authority is very supportive."

Schools usually develop good working relationships with authority advisers. The prospect of losing these familiar contacts, with so many new training requirements in the pipeline, was a serious worry for schools facing reorganisation - and not one that has always been fully resolved.

Mr Calvert feels the advisers in York are overstretched, largely because of curriculum initiatives by the Government. "It's not that the advisory team is weak, there is just so much for them to do. When I ask for support it's forthcoming, but I miss the personal contact and the pastoral care."

In Stoke-on-Trent, Ms Herbert appreciates her authority's advisory service and achievement division. "They give a personal service. They know us all, there's lots of training and there's a real effort to move us all forward together."

The key, she feels, is good leadership. "Hilary Pitts (who leads the achievement division) is excellent and very much in touch with the schools. We're lucky to have someone inspirational like that."

At Telford and Wrekin, the problem of the fragmentation of services is addressed by a cross-authority sharing system. Shropshire continues to provide an advisory and inspection, music, schools library and outdoor education service for both authorities. Telford and Wrekin provides special services for both, including education psychology and learning support. Importantly, though, each authority provides what the other needs, so the advisory service from Shropshire is to Telford and Wrekin's specification.

Funding is a continuing problem, despite some heroic efforts: Telford and Wrekin has guaranteed school funding above the Government's standard spending assessment for three years. York, says Mr Calvert, has particular problems: "It's not really an urban authority nor a rural one, and the funding formula doesn't recognise that middle ground."

Another concern is how long the lean teams can continue working at their enthusiastic pace. Driving Ms Davies is a realisation that the hi-tech future is going to make increasing demands on the education service and she is determined to promote learning across the community. "Schools are going to have to change. In the future, not all learning will take place in classrooms as we know them."

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