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More united than divided

There are three primary schools in our village, and most of our parents are discerning consumers with cars. They feel they are selling their children short if they simply elect to send them to the school in whose catchment area they happen to live, without investigating the alternatives.

Some of them, of course, accept the opinions of friends and neighbours. These are often out of date, and always subjective, but rumour and reputation often lag behind reality.

Others do the sensible thing and visit all three schools before reaching a decision. They often find - to their surprise - that the way the children are actually taught differs little between the schools. They were all built at different periods, and there is a strong presumption that the traditional building with long corridors and closed classrooms will offer a "traditional" education - in other words, one that reminds them reassuringly of their own schools days.

The media has taught them to view teachers with suspicion and educational innovation with hostility. Significantly, the most enthusiastic advocates of our "progressive" school are those parents who come in to help, and see for themselves the careful planning and meticulous record-keeping that underpin the system.

Nevertheless, while we, as a new school, gradually build up our numbers and our reputation, we are under-funded for the size of our building, while the school down the road is comparatively rich, but overcrowded.

Strangely enough, it is the parents who have taken up the idea of competition, not the staff or the governors. Parents are often fiercely partisan; the professionals, and we governors are strongly aware that much more unites us than divides us.

Local management has made us all budget conscious, and an inordinate amount of headteachers' time can be spent on penny-pinching. We pass on useful advice on how we can get our electrical testing done more cheaply, share ideas on the common problems of clerking and cleaning.

The appointment of link governors to co-ordinate training and foster contacts between schools has been helpful. Our school hosted an information evening on OFSTED inspections for all three schools. We were able to share the cost of the speakers, and it also provided an excellent opportunity for governors to meet. With very little money to spend on governor training, pooling our resources is essential.

Similarly with our special needs provision. Our school's training and support budget for this year contains an allowance for implementing the new special needs code of practice. Small schools cannot afford to buy in specialised resources for a particular child that might not be used again for years. We are planning a communal bank of resources and equipment, and a sharing of expertise and experience.

None of us can afford to subscribe to the privatised schools library service and we are building up our own stocks with help from parent-teacher association fundraising. We are exploring the possibilities of circulating our joint fiction stock and planning project work so that resources could be rotated.

But I feel we are only beginning to explore the possibilities of co-operation. All small primaries suffer to some extent from skills shortages. But if we pooled our expertise, we have music specialists, swimming instructors, gymnastic and athletic coaches, science experts, drama teachers, a rich and varied experience of all aspects of primary education.

It would benefit the children enormously to have access to all these skills, either by teacher exchanges or joint after-school clubs.

It might even help the parents to see us all as partners in education instead of rivals for their children's Pounds 1,000-plus education vouchers.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands.

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