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Merger in the cathedral

That blockbuster concert is beyond the means of your small school. What you need is a cluster manager, reports Jill Parkin

Ambitious school projects often fail to get off the ground because of a lack of money, manpower or facilities. But some schools are finding a co-operative way around the problem: they form a cluster and appoint a project manager.

"It's a fantastic way of making big projects work," says Kathie Neal, whose cluster projects have included a 10-school performance in Ely Cathedral. "Schools that band together find that between them they can afford to create a post with responsibility for making these complex things work."

Following the cathedral tour de force, Dr Neal recently became "circle link manager" for a group of 12 primary schools and their beacon secondary school, Bottisham Village College in Cambridgeshire. The circle's main aims are to make the best use of resources in all schools; to undertake regular special projects; to improve continuity between approaches to the curriculum; to access funds available for cluster schools; and to swap expertise among the staff.

Her two-days-a-week post is funded by the cluster schools and will be reviewed after three years. "The idea is to do the jobs the schools have too little time, money or energy to do. There are huge advantages in having an outsider to do all the networking and organising," she says.

"Last year, we had 378 Fenland primary and secondary children performing African song and dance to a packed cathedral. The pride and joy on their faces - and on the faces of their parents - was overwhelming. Cluster project leaders can give children a voice and an opportunity to expand their horizons with events dedicated to creativity and exploration. It's great for small rural schools low on resources, but also for city schools where staff are too busy to take time out for a special project."

Dr Neal, whose projects integrate arts and sciences, believes such enterprises - properly managed - restore contextual learning to schools, something that has been edged out by the national curriculum and "the narrowing effect of the literacy and numeracy strategies". She says:"Some superteachers are able to provide integrated learning and still tick all the requirement boxes, but it's a massive task. Given the opportunity, kids can be interested in life, the universe, everything. They need to have something that inspires them. It's difficult to do that if you have 100 other teaching duties. Children need to have creativity back on the timetable."

She adds that the old-fashioned approach, based on topics and projects, "had the benefit of being holistic rather than compartmentalised. My projects fill in the gaps and link parts of the curriculum."

Dr Neal is a former immunologist who has taught in higher and community education. She spent 10 years in technology consultancy managing product development, experience that has proved valuable in her role as a project manager. "The same principles apply to working with any team of people, be they engineers or heads. The needs of each member school must be recognised, prioritised and addressed. Then we can plan the projects for the year.

"Many schools are interested in creating similar jobs. My appointment may herald a wave of such posts to address the problems schools have in dealing with the national curriculum while trying to maintain creative opportunities for teachers and pupils."

School clusters can be informal and ad hoc, or formal with special funding arrangements as in the Excellence in Cities scheme. Cluster performances are not always teacher-led. Bigfoot Theatre Company in London has run several schools projects, including a recent one for the Lambeth EiC (North Lambeth Cluster of Schools) which involved three secondary schools - London Nautical, Charles Edward Brook and Lilian Baylis. Dreams was a drama, song and dance production that ran for five nights at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. Bigfoot is working on a similar project in Lewisham.

Nor do cluster projects have to be performances, as shown by a 10-school ICT project in and around Arkholme in Lancashire, where the cluster employed an ICT teacher to visit each school for two and a half hours a week, with each school contributing pound;1,100 to the project. Apart from the improvement in curriculum coverage and work on the website, the ICT teacher set up internet links between pupils in the cluster.

From choirs to computers, it's all about getting connected.

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