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'Hold the phone: I'm working for 10 schools'

Meinir Lewis, administrative assistant, sits just inside the entrance to Tregaron secondary school, behind a sliding glass window. But she may not be able to attend straightaway to a visitor standing in front of her because she is telephonist and clerk for nine other schools as well. Her post is one innovation introduced by the "family" of schools in Tregaron to make life easier for its hard-pressed heads.

Tregaron, like most small towns in Ceredigion, lies in the middle of a rural area. Its secondary school has only 350 pupils and its nine feeder primaries range from 12 to 80 pupils. The heads of those small schools spend most or all of their week in the classroom. Telephone calls are an interruption they can do without. So when the authority consulted them on the measures that would reduce their administrative burden, a central telephone answering service was top of the list.

The schools pooled the money they had received from the Welsh Assembly for reducing workload to pay for an area administrative officer who would act as telephonist and clerk, responsible for communication between the schools and organising buses and social events.

This is one example of the way Ceredigion is working to overcome the problems of small schools in rural areas. The authority has set its face against closures because of the damage they do to rural communities. Only one school has closed since it was created in 1996.

It has opted instead to group schools throughout the county into collaborative "families", with the aim of creating multi-site community learning centres. The aim is not so much to save money (although the cost of small schools is very high) as to make schools work better for both staff and pupils.

The director of education, Roger Williams, dreams of uniting these families under one management structure - a single governing body. But legislation to permit that is not yet in force and there is strong local resistance to such a move anyway. Many small villages see the loss of a separate governing body as an axe hovering over their school.

The Tregaron family, meanwhile, is showing what can be done, with strong links to create consistency in reading practice and standards, to bring pupils together for sport and leisure activities and to ease the transition from primary to secondary school (see next page). It was the first primary school cluster in Wales to receive training for a pilot of Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (Case). All staff meet regularly for social events.

In the Llandysul family, a project called the Learning Link unites four rural primaries within five miles of each other. Two schools share a headteacher, while video links enable teachers of mixed age classes to focus on a specific group while others are taught via the video link.

Ceredigion's determination to keep up with the vanguard on teaching and learning - especially in the area of thinking skills - helps reduce the isolation of its schools. Outside experts are constantly visiting, whether to train primary teachers in the Activating Children's Thinking Skills (Acts) programme directed by Professor Carol McGuinness of Queen's University, Belfast, or primary and secondary teachers in the Case programme run from King's College London.

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