Colleagues or competitors? Heads and local authority leaders reading the Government's proposals for education contained in the autumn white paper may have experienced a sense of dej... vu. Once again the emphasis seems to be on school autonomy, with a reduced role for the local education authority. Once again the Government seems to assume that heads are desperate to escape their local authority shackles.
Alan Kelly, head of Derbyshire's Buxton community school, was invited to the Department for Education and Skills to hear about the new agenda. "They were talking about the design principles for school collaboration, asking how a group of schools would work out its relationship with the LEA," he says.
The assumption seemed to be that the two would be in competition, or that schools embarking on a partnership would have to battle with the local authority. This may be true in some areas; many schools chose to become grant-maintained in the 1990s because they had so little confidence in their LEA.
"But we don't have to do that - our LEA is part of the partnership," said Mr Kelly.
Alan Kelly is one of 11 heads in Peak 11, a consortium of Derbyshire schools who have been working together since 1997. In 2004 the schools launched a formal federation, creating Peak 11 as a legal entity, with a constitutional link between the governing bodies. "That allowed us to bid for funding as a group," says Jesse Elms, head of New Mills school and sixth-form centre, in the north-east of the county.
Earlier this year Peak 11 became one of the first education improvement partnerships, the latest DfES project encouraging schools to work more closely together. Unlike its predecessor schemes, such as action zones and leading-edge partnerships, the EIPs get no additional government funding.
Deputy education director Donald Rae sees that as no bad thing.
"Externally-funded projects aren't sustainable," he says. "Our partnership arrangements are about asking heads and governing bodies to sign up to the long term, because the result will be good for their communities."
Mr Elms recalls how Peak 11 started in 1997 when local heads in Derbyshire's High Peak and Dales became frustrated with meetings following an agenda that "wasn't our own". He says: "In the end we locked ourselves away in a hotel, and discussed the key things that were addressing our schools."
At the time the issue was vocational provision in key stage 4. Along with many other schools the Peak 11 secondaries were encountering disaffection as frustrated students reacted against a curriculum that appeared to offer them very little chance of success. The answer was to club together with a further education college to offer pre-national vocational qualification courses for young people experiencing difficulties at school. The Peak 11 "offer" has expanded since then; with work-based training providers and packages of work placement.
The group has also set up a pastoral panel, to advise on behaviour support for individual students and to provide a forum for discussion about "difficult to place" students, often those who have been excluded or who are at risk of exclusion.
"Management of behaviour in the area was by headteacher representation on an area panel; we were simply following the same old names over and over again," says Mr Elms. The LEA stepped in and offered to delegate behaviour support funding, worth pound;180,000 this year, to the 11 schools. "We took a gamble," says Mr Elms. "We could have spread the money across the schools, instead we developed inclusion centres on four sites; the rest of us received much less."
The centres developed a wealth of good practice, and the pastoral panel became a way to feed that knowledge back into all 11 schools.
"I often go to the panel to talk about a particular child," says Michelle Simms, the school inclusion manager at New Mills. "We talk about the strategies that we have tried and other people say 'Well have you tried this?'"
The panel also considers "managed moves" between the schools in Peak 11.
Children who are moving schools after facing a problem are placed in the school best able to cope with their needs.
"The managed move is to give kids a fresh start; if we honestly thought a child would not cope in another school then we would consider other things, including permanent exclusion," says Mr Elms.
Peak 11's pastoral panel also considers applications for places at the local pupil-referral unit, a process which eases the pressure on places at the unit, because heads have a better understanding of the demand from all the schools in the area.
In the future it is possible that Peak 11 might take over the management of the unit itself: Derbyshire would be quite prepared to see that happen. "I have no doubt that that is the way it will end up going," says Jesse Elms.
"But we are conscious that we need to walk before we can run."
Donald Rae says: "Because of the success of the managed moves project, we would be happy to discuss that with them."
The county sees the process as a logical development, arising from the need to establish local provision managed by local partnerships. "Our whole vision is based on that model, with groups of schools taking on responsibility for young people in their areas," says Mr Rae. "No single school can offer the full curriculum that young people are entitled to."
But the heads see limits to this process. "Working together is better than working in isolation," says Alan Kelly.
"There are certain key things that the LEA provides that I would dread to take on," says Jesse Elms. "We are very conscious as heads of the amount of time we spend outside school; when I became a head it was to be involved in the teaching and delivery of the curriculum, not to run local authority services."
More information about Peak 11 can be found on: www.peak11.co.uk.
Information about the DfES education improvement partnerships programme can be found at www.standards.dfes.gov.uksiesieducationimprovementpartnerships