A NEW type of headteacher appointment is offering a lifeline to small schools that are struggling to survive.
In Sandwell, in the west Midlands, two primary schools have just advertised for a single head at a starting salary of pound;50,000, which is around pound;10,000 more than either school would be able to offer on its own.
The hope is that this salary, together with the opportunity to run two schools, will attract a head who can secure the future of both.
Locarno and Princes End schools serve Sandwell's Tibbington estate and surrounding areas, and are described in the job advertisement as "challenging". Both have seen their rolls fall in recent years. Princes End now has 160 pupils, including those in its nursery, while Locarno, which is in special measures, has 372. The new head will have the support of an assistant head on each site, one with responsibility for key stage 1 in both schools, and the other for KS2. The schools will share the salary costs for this management structure. Princes End, unlike Locarno, has not in the past had a deputy head, so the new arrangements will increase the size of its management team, and will not cut costs.
But Peter Coles, chair of governors at Princes End, believes there will be other benefits. "We are convinced that this will secure a quality education for youngsters on the Tibbington estate and secure the future employment of staff in both schools," he said.
However, he stressed that the model the two schools are developing would not be easy to transplant. It was possible to put in place in this case because the two headteacher posts were vacant at the same time.
Locarno and Princes End have also been working closely together for more than two years in what is known locally as a federation.
"This is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, although it is radical," said Mr Coles.
In the very different surroundings of rural Rutland, Empingham and Great Casterton Church of England primary schools have also recently advertised for a joint head. The two small village schools are just a five-minute drive apart and both have surplus places. So when the local education authority suggested that they might share a head, the governors, after consulting parents and staff, agreed to give it a go.
"We thought that in these days of staff recruitment and retention problems, this would be a good way of attracting a super head who is looking for a challenge," said Judith Roberts, chair of governors at Empingham.
Describing the response to the advertisement as good, she added: "We are expecting a cross between superman and Mary Poppins."
Until now the heads of Empingham and Great Casterton have had a heavy teaching commitment. But the holder of the new post will be able to concentrate on running the two schools, while additional staff will pick up the existing heads' teaching load.
While the details of the new arrangement have still to be worked out, the two schools have started discussing the possibility of sharing curriculum co-ordinators, as well as a headteacher.
"There could be expertise in each school which could contribute to the other school, but we are still retaining separate budgets, our separate governing bodies and our independence as schools," said Margaret Markey, chair of governors at Great Casterton, which has been in special measures for the past 18 months.
Continuing recruitment problems in the primary sector, coupled with cost pressures, could well prompt other schools to appoint joint heads, according to John Howson of Education Data Surveys. His latest analysis of senior management job advertisements shows that in the first two months of 2003, the readvertisement rate for primary headships in England and Wales was 24 per cent. This compares to 34 per cent for the same period last year.
"But bear in mind that we haven't seen them all yet, and some people will wait until September before readvertising. What I suspect may be happening is that in some cases they are thinking about federating," Professor Howson said.
However, federations in the form of joint headships are not a solution to the headteacher recruitment crisis, according to David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
"The solution lies in making sure that the workload of heads is reduced, in getting away from the top-down target-setting agenda which is enormously stressful ... and in getting decent salaries in place so that people want to take on headship," he said.
Mr Hart warned that while it might be possible for one head to answer to two governing bodies in the short term, eventually he or she could get caught up in a clash between two conflicting styles of governance.