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One size fits all

The trailblazing trend for unified, all-age schools is posing complex leadership challenges. Martin Whittaker reports

From November, Dame Dela Smith will no longer be head of Beaumont Hill special school. She will be chief executive of Darlington Education Village. Her old school will join a nearby secondary and primary school under one - very large - roof.

Over the summer, builders were putting the finishing touches to a stunning pound;36 million campus that will serve 1,400 pupils aged from two to 19.

The existing governing bodies of Beaumont Hill, neighbouring Haughton community college and Springfield primary have been dissolved, and a new single board of governors convened on September 1, while all three schools have pooled their budgets.

The education village aims to be much more than a federation of schools. It is rewriting the concept of a school and sets those running it some challenges.

Dame Dela says it also presents the opportunity to test some key issues of concern to the Government, such as the dip in performance between key stages 2 and 3. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be able to review things without having the barriers there," she says. "We can begin to develop a context and do things differently."

This new style of all-age school is a growing phenomenon, but it is not government-driven. The impetus for forming all-age schools comes from the schools and their education authorities.

"It has quite surprised me the groundswell coming to me around all-age schools, and the enthusiasm and the sheer passion that I'm finding coming from the schools that are either embarking on that route or considering it," says a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills innovation unit.

There are no national figures on how many schools are moving in this direction, because there is no requirement to report it to the DfES.

Schools are forming different models of all-through education, in some cases going from nursery provision right through to further education.

Some have amalgamated as a single all-through school with a unified budget, while others are forming a federation of primary and secondary, remaining separate schools but overseen by an executive principal.

The most obvious benefit is in the transition from KS2 to 3, which should become seamless. All-through schools are also shifting the age boundaries, with some melding Years 5, 6 and 7 into one phase.

Primaries and secondaries can pool resources and staff. But how do you manage that transition and run an all-through school? Those doing so say that they are having to rewrite the rule book on school leadership.

Dame Dela Smith and her colleagues in Darlington have been working with management consultants to develop an integrated leadership team from all three schools to run the education village. She says that although none of the schools has been in danger of failing, all have recognised the need to improve standards.

Getting together in a new environment and sharing state-of-the-art facilities with a single management team will allow them to start again with a blank canvas, she says.

"We are restructuring fit-for-purpose teams who will then be able to lead I think what will be incredible new challenges and certainly get things rather better. We want to raise achievement, raise standards, and also support the very difficult areas that schools are facing, such as young people with behavioural difficulties. There's a great deal of expertise and support in there."

Since the start of this term, David Harris has been principal of Serlby Park in Nottinghamshire - a merger of his old school, Bircotes and Harworth community school with nearby North Border infants, North Border juniors and two nursery schools. The new incarnation is called "a 3-18 business and enterprise learning community", and a new building is planned for 2008.

All three heads have been collaborating closely for several years - they were part of the DfES extended schools pilot. Mr Harris says it was a logical step for the three to become one. His role is now strategic and his deputy becomes head of the secondary phase. The heads of the infants and junior schools become heads of infant and junior phases. The secondary has run down its own governing body, adding members from the other two schools.

Mr Harris says the transition has gone smoothly because all three heads get on so well, and because it has been done on educational grounds rather than to save money or to federate a failing school. How did he reassure the staff?

"We were able to say from day one that no one loses a job. And once you say that, suddenly everyone becomes more positive. Now people are seeing the opportunity side. You suddenly realise you can have a dabble at experiencing things outside the age group you originally trained for."

The school aims to begin by blurring the edges between primary and secondary, and have specialist language teaching from Year 3 onwards. A new KS1 dance teacher will also teach performing arts to Year 12 students.

A new all-age school in Kent is even more ambitious. Last April Canterbury high federated with Beauherne primary to create the Canterbury Campus. The new school also has a nursery, and an adult education centre is being built on site.

"The vision for the site has always been that we should have cradle-to-grave education, and be a centre for the local community," says executive head Keith Hargrave. "That has been the vision I and the governing body have had for a very long time.

"There was a coincidence of circumstances that made the primary link-up and then the nursery possible, and then another set of coincidences that made the adult education a possibility."

Mr Hargrave says the only drawback is that the school has been charting unknown territory. "We're somewhat ahead of the game. The DfES has been writing the regulations after we've been doing it. It's ploughing a new furrow, so there are always issues. But they have not been of the school's making."

Kelvin Peel, a specialist consultant on all-through schools, agrees that the DfES is having to run to keep pace with the change.

"Statutory instruments regarding governance or the power of a headteacher are all laid down and have been established for years," he says. "In these federations you have an executive principal who effectively has power over the heads. Higher salary, greater scale of responsibility, yet statutorily there's no protection for that person - they haven't even got a place on the governing body."

But such issues are insignificant compared with the benefits, says Mr Peel.

He compares the process of setting up an all-through school with a roller-coaster ride.

"There might be downsides. Will there be redundancy? Will I have to teach cross-phase if I don't want to? All manner of questions. But once those things are ironed out, then it gains a new enthusiasm.

"And the overarching thing that always happens is that if there have been challenging circumstances, low morale or recruitment difficulties, schools turn a corner and suddenly there's a new energy and excitement released. It really does motivate staff afresh."

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