Federations remain something of a black box. "There are so many kinds, it is difficult to give a typical example," says Toby Salt who, as strategic director for school leadership development, oversees "field trials" for the National College for School Leadership.
On top of that, no one even knows how many there are. "We are aware of at least 150 schools that are in federations, but there is no requirement for schools to inform us when they start collaborating, and many don't," says a spokes- person for the Department for Children, Schools and Families. "Up to one-third of schools are involved in some sort of collaboration," says Mr Salt.
What are federations?
Aficionados talk of a "continuum" - from "hard" to "soft". A hard federation is the sort given legal status in the Education Act of 2002, in which groups of schools have a formal agreement to work together and change the structure of their leadership and management. This might mean having a single governing body for all the member schools - for example, in rural Somerset three Church of England schools and a children's centre now have one governing body under which they function as a 0-13 federation.
Or it might mean that while each school retains its own governing body, there is a formalised commitment to work together, as in West Wiltshire, where nine secondaries, one special school and a pupil referral unit are setting up a limited company to run their 14-19 diplomas.
Local authority-initiated federations are also usually "hard" - typically when the head of a successful school takes on an executive role to lead a failing neighbour out of trouble (see story, right).
Any type of school can agree to work formally or informally with another, including FE institutions, independent schools, academies and city technology colleges. But the Act stipulates that only maintained schools can federate under a single governing body.
At the softer end, arrangements are looser. Schools collaborate without any legal agreement. West Wiltshire had already worked together in this way for some years to teach A-levels and to raise standards overall. With the renewed emphasis on collaboration extending even to newly formed academies, it is likely that such soft federations far outnumber their harder counterparts.
To appreciate fully the amazing diversity of what federations are up to, take a look at the NCSL website. Its "field trials" range from a brand-name federation of academies in south London, through schools working together in Oldham to enable white and Asian pupils to mix, to a PFI-built "education village" in Darlington that incorporates a special school, primary and community secondary school at one site - and more.
"The key thing," says Toby Salt, "is that it is all consensual, not something that is imposed."
Are their advantages?
Brendan Wall, head of St Augustine's Catholic College in Trowbridge, academically the highest-achieving school within the West Wiltshire group, says: "Our philosophy is to work for the greater good of the community and pupils - we wanted to be responsible for all children in the area, not working at the expense of others."
The University of Warwick, which is evaluating federations for the DCSF, has found such altruism to be typical within many of them - but no more so than self-interest. One of the biggest gains is in teacher development. Being part of a federation provides opportunities for staff that would not have been available in their own school - as the fast track teacher and deputies at Rosendale and Christchurch in Lambeth found (see above). It can "help to grow skills and build leadership expertise", says Toby Salt.
This in turn can help a school to keep staff who otherwise would have had to move elsewhere to further their experience.
The pupils stand to gain through the improved teaching, richer curriculum and wider opportunities a successful federation can offer. West Wiltshire reduced its exclusion rates through a joint behaviour policy, which included offering a "fresh start" at another school within the federation to pupils at risk of exclusion before things reached crisis point. Collectively, results have risen steadily.
But there are external factors, too, that provide a strong incentive to federate - not least the need to provide extended school services, meet the demands of Every Child Matters and establish the 14-19 diplomas - all of which can be difficult for a school to deliver in isolation.
It is these smaller schools which perhaps feel the strongest pressure to federate. "Small schools - not just in Somerset - are potentially becoming non-viable. The difference in cost per pupil is now becoming an issue of real concern," says Ian Bradbury, head of Danesfield Cof E School in Williton, one of the schools within the 0-13 federation in Somerset.
The staff and governors of the three schools felt strongly that federation would lead to higher standards because they would be able to "maximise resources". They have saved money by negotiating services collectively and by not replacing the head of their smallest school (93 pupils).
"We feel strongly that in a rural situation you don't need a head in every school," says Mr Bradbury. "The evidence suggests you need a leader who is responsible for that school who can be paid anywhere on the leadership spine."
Some fear that federation may be pushed inappropriately - to cut costs, to sort out a failing school. There are fears too that it may be used to solve the much-heralded shortage of headteachers.
As well as the possibility that we will need fewer heads, various documents from the NCSL are enthusiastic about the hands-on experience that deputies will gain. While their bosses think strategic thoughts about the future of their federation, the deputies' anxieties about becoming heads themselves could be alleviated.
There are concerns too that the central bureaucracy has failed to keep up with the needs of federations. "The speed at which partnership working has grown has outstripped the statutory framework," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
"This means that there are not the mechanisms to pay school leaders for work outside their own school and each arrangement has to be negotiated on a separate basis."
Ian Bradbury says his federation still lacks the systems to enable it to maximise its benefits. For example, there is no mechanism for the schools to pool their budgets, and their respective IT systems "don't talk to each other", with no funding available to replace them.
Are they the future?
The DCSF, while emphatically in favour of collaboration, is laissez-faire about federations:
A DCSF spokesperson said: "The decision to form a federation, either a hard governance federation or a looser, softer federation model, will be made by schools locally and that will depend upon local circumstances."
For Toby Salt, the future of federations depends in large part on competing developments. "In three to five years' time, what will the policy agenda be?" he says.
"Where do trusts and other forms of governance fit in? It won't just be federations which are changing the landscape.
"One head, one school will persist as a dominant and effective model, but more innovative forms of leadership will grow."
What you can do
You can federate formally with any other maintained school, or informally with any other education institution. Don't expect funding or even much help from your local authority unless it thought of the idea first and it solves something it thinks is a problem. There's no specific funding available from central government either.
To succeed you will need:
- Shared aims and objectives.
- Clear remits for those involved.
- Trust between different partners.
- Strong and effective leadership.
- Motivated staff whom you can inspire to share your belief that federation is a good idea.
- Effective quality assurance.
- Procedures for measuring a partnership's achievement.
- Helpful geography - it's important that distance between participating institutions isn't too great.
One head with two success stories
Two geographical miles but a world apart, Rosendale Primary in West Dulwich and Christchurch C of E Primary in Brixton, both in south London, have been formally federated since June 2006. They have retained separate governing bodies but share Wendy Jacobs as executive head, with three deputies at Rosendale (670 pupils, 85 staff) and one at Christchurch (170 pupils, 23 staff). The initial push came from the local authority.
"Lambeth approached me to ask if I would also manage Christchurch, which was in difficulties," says Ms Jacobs. "Their head had been off sick, the children's attainment was low and there were personnel issues."
Ms Jacobs' appointment, initially temporary, became permanent when the schools agreed to federate. Each school pays half her salary and, like those of her deputies, it is at a higher rate than pre-federation.
Given extra funding by Lambeth, Ms Jacobs appointed a federation co-ordinator - a fast-track teacher from Rosendale, where she spends four days with the fifth day spent at Christchurch. By July 2006, Ofsted reported that Christchurch was "rapidly improving"; its percentages of level 4s in Sats have sky-rocketed from 30s and 40s to 80s and 90s.
Ms Jacobs (above) says her approach has been "to bring the schools together more as one large school on two sites. Teachers from both schools plan lessons together weekly. Yet each school retains a separate identity: Christchurch is proud of its CofE ethos while Rosendale is still a community school.