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Strength in unity

A group of remote moor schools is determined to hang on to its cluster, with or without a grant, Jill Parkin reports

The A170 hugs the edge of the North York Moors, running by a succession of villages, each with its church and small Victorian school. Along a seven-mile stretch there are four schools, each with around 50 pupils and two-and-a-half teachers.

"If you put all four together we'd have around 200 pupils and still just about count as one small school," says Steve Clothier, head of Snainton school. "So a few years ago we realised that it made educational and economic sense for us to do some things together."

So the collaboration known as the A170 cluster was born. It may not be a poetic name for a group that includes the village of Brompton where William Wordsworth married local girl Mary Hutchinson, but this is about efficiency, not romance.

For three years the cluster, thought to be the first in the country to be awarded the status of Investor in People, has been working at full strength. Its results speak for themselves:

* Funding for shared resources is effectively quadrupled.

* Production of policies and planning is shared, so workload is quartered.

* Children meet regularly and go on to secondary school knowing more peers.

* Parents see their children taking part in activities that would probably be beyond the capacity of each school.

* Staffs feel that their opportunities for professional development have grown and are more accessible.

The cluster, which embraces Brompton, Sawdon primary and Hackness, Snainton and Wykeham CofE schools, began in a humble way in the mid-Nineties, with joint buying of reading books. Some years later the cluster was awarded an LEA Department for Education and Skills rural support grant for collaborative and innovative practice.

"The pound;9,000 grant has come to an end, as these things do," says Mr Clothier. "But the work continues, with each school contributing pound;500 to a central account. Each governing body has a nominated governor who meets the headteachers to discuss and review developments. Governors are keen to ensure that any future headteacher vacancy must include a commitment to cluster development.

"We're not so much a federation as a co-operative or mini LEA."

Belonging to a cluster can mitigate some of the drawbacks of mixed year groups, says Mr Clothier, who recently hosted a KS2 science day at his school for all the Year 6 children in the four schools.

"We hire a coach - that's actually the biggest cost the cluster has - and get them together once a term. It's a chance to work with their peers and be stretched. It means we can have authors, poets and subject experts to lead the teaching.

"We've had days for science, literacy, design, sport, geography, poetry and maths. The older children had a residential together and Year 2 has also had special subject sessions.

"We plan around two and four-year cycles, so one school can use the resources of the whole cluster for a topic. We share expertise too and have joint subject planning groups," says Mr Clothier.

Rob Tyson, a Snainton parent-governor, says he has seen the good educational and social effects of the cluster days, and supports the schools' determination to keep the scheme going.

"My son gained in confidence with his peers and in his ability to undertake projects when taught by the specialists available in the cluster," he said.

"I would also like to explore how we might persuade the local authority to find additional funding for this important educational resource."

The schools are hoping to use the cluster principle, though not the pot, to employ a full-time teacher, working across the group. "We still need to have definitive funding proposals to make a decision," says Mr Clothier. " But a specialist would be ideal, bringing their expertise in, for example, music or computers to our children and also allow staff time to plan and assess.

"An appointed teacher would become a recognised member of staff in all four schools and would know the children and routines to follow."

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