Lindy Hardcastle on the benefits of belonging to a development group.
Laurelie Packer is a teacher without a single school - instead she encourages, organises, facilitates, monitors and reports collaboration at every level of life in 20 schools.
The Hinckley Development Group in south-west Leicestershire is one of several established by the local education authority some years ago, but the extent to which the schools within them liaise and work together varies. For the Hinckley group, geographically remote from County Hall and serving a reasonably prosperous,settled community, co-operation has become a way of life.
The John Cleveland Community College in Hinckley is the largest in the county with 1,700 pupils aged from 14 to 18. It is fed by four 11 to 14 high schools, which take pupils from 14 primaries ranging from a two-and-a-half teacher village school to one which has nearly 600 on roll. There is also a special school.
The first moves towards co-operation came in 1991, initiated by the secondary schools. The spectre of key stage 3 league tables, coupled with local management, the privatisation of LEA services and threatened budget cuts, all pointed one way - the four high schools would have to compete with each other for pupils and funding. But as in many other areas, the pressures which could have been divisive instead forced schools to look at the benefits of collaboration.
Barbara Vann, head of Mount Grace High School and chair of the development group, explains their anti-competitive philosophy in terms of "celebrating the differences" between the schools, encouraging parents and pupils to choose the one most suited to them, while emphasising the common teaching and assessment policies they now all pursue.
Admissions policies, special needs and in-service training were the first areas identified for collaboration. As the educational and financial benefits became clear, so did the need to extend this to other areas and across the age range.
In 1992 Laurelie Packer was appointed networking manager. An IT co-ordinator was also appointed to provide training and support for bursars, and for computers used across the curriculum, for administrative purposes and records of achievement.
A successful bid for funding from the National Council for Educational Technology has quickened the introduction to all schools of common computerised personal statements which are flexible enough to cater for all ages and abilities.
Schools contribute to the network budget on the basis of pupil numbers. Headteachers meet monthly and representatives of the four key stages meet at least termly, as do support groups covering every area of the curriculum and special needs. These groups promote continuity and progression across the phases and establish common criteria for identifying special needs. There are also liaison and support groups for deputy heads and newly-qualified teachers. Teacher exchanges, job shadowing and skills-sharing are encouraged.
Sharing resources presents more logistical problems, but is seen to be a key issue as budgets shrink.
Training and workshops on OFSTED for heads, deputies and chairs of governors have been held, and staff training is a priority. Courses are arranged at times and places to suit the participants, and are closely fitted to the needs of the group. Economies of scale make it possible to provide training for ancillary staff, who also meet and liaise regularly.
Twenty schools in the group creates a convenient user base for staff and governor training, with each school being offered a "free" place on every course. This means that the larger schools who contribute more to the group budget are subsidising the training of small schools, but the upper and high schools regard the investment in the primary education of their future pupils as a cost-effective measure. Small schools benefit from access - through the curriculum support groups - to a wider range of expertise than would otherwise be available to a small staff.
The trust and confidence created by frequent meetings at every level make tackling common problems possible without feelings of one phase of education being a scapegoat - for example, the whole group recently focused on raising standards of literacy. The establishment of common methods of assessment is important, but so to is the ability of the group to speak with a united voice to parents and the community.
Laurelie Packer produces a termly newsletter and an annual group development plan. She gives one day's teaching each term to every school to free a teacher for INSET or planning.
So does all this self-help and autonomy lead towards a mass opt-out of the Hinckley group? Barbara Vann thinks not. The LEA has been an enthusiastic supporter and continues to provide much of the training and advice that it buys in. The ethos of the group mirrors that of the LEA at its best: progressive and developmental, but at the same time responsive to the needs of the community and recognising its accountability. Parents and governors have been informed about the pros and cons of grant-maintained status, but there is no doubt that the professionals in the group are committed to a continuing partnership with the LEA.