Laurence Pollock reports on the rise of a Roman Catholic school federation
Better use of resources and help with long-term planning are among the pluses of working together. Good practice spreads further and brings greater diversity and more opportunities for professional development.
But scale might also be the key to survival. Faith-based education is spreading in some areas. Bedford's five Roman Catholic schools in a three-tier system (upper, two middles and two lower) have been looking to the future and thinking hard.
Falling rolls and the difficulty of finding Catholic heads focused minds.
The uneven geographical location of the town's schools has not helped. Now, teachers and governors have launched the St Francis federation, with 2,000 pupils and 300 staff in a bid to steady the rudder.
There are already some three dozen federations in England. But St Francis is one of the few that self-started. Most have been identified and led by the Department for Education and Skills, but Bedford's was able to buy in expertise with the help of the DfES's innovations unit.
Bedfordshire education authority offered support. Assistant director of learning strategy John Goldsmith said: "The authority recognises that schools wanted to explore federation and was happy to work with them. They obviously feel this will benefit Catholic education in Bedford."
Chairman Jim McGivern said: "I was a governor at St Thomas More upper school when we considered a consultation paper to look at the profound issues that the Roman Catholic pyramid faced. I persuaded people this was the way to go. We have many concerns, especially at middle-school level, about quality, which is not as good as it might be."
Steve Watts, temporary part-time head of St Bede's and a federation co-ordinator, reflects one of the problems. St Bede's is on its third temporary head since July 2004 because it has not been able to recruit a suitable Roman Catholic. There is a similar shortage of RE teachers, who must also be Roman Catholic.
Mr Watts recalls a meeting among heads and deputies some years ago in which "everyone was struggling, we found it hard to arrange a meeting and heads were having to teach".
He praises the contribution of members of former individual boards, now called "associate governors", serving on working groups. "They are expected to step down eventually, but they have stayed on and worked with enormous dedication and commitment," he said.
He is not sure where the federation will be in five years, but insists that flexibility is key as Bedfordshire reviews its three-tier system and the 14-19 agenda is unrolled. He also realises the need to win hearts and minds among parents and staff.
But the process has raised questions. The transfer of undertakingsprotection of employment law (TUPE) requires protection of conditions of service for staff who are being moved - legally - from one employer to another.
Glen Williams, divisional secretary for the National Union of Teachers in Bedfordshire, believes federation governors and management did not fully appreciate the impact of TUPE.
"We have a meeting scheduled at which we will ask them to confirm that conditions of service will remain the same," he said.
"Governors must also look at the implications of awarding teaching and learning responsibility payments (TLRs) across all five schools, with parity."
Yet Mr Williams acknowledges an "absence of rumblings" from members about implications on the ground.
"My perception of Roman Catholic schools is that they are a bit laid back.
They think of themselves as part of the Catholic family, then ask: 'What's all this about conditions of service?'
"We will continue to push ahead and get undertakings on contractual arrangements."
The family ethos drives governors and senior managers. Margaret Rooney, former chair of St Bede's middle school and now a federation governor, sees federation as "an act of faith", but she is already feeling benefits.
She said: "It's about sharing the governance burden - for instance, work with TLRs, admissions, monitoring of standards. We have had five boards duplicating these discussions and it was difficult to recruit a full complement of governors (for individual boards).
"I think of St Bede's as a specific entity in the federation, but I believe we will move from a geographical basis to a functional one much quicker than we think."
In the short-term, federation promises solutions in terms of governance and management, but in the longer term it may have to grapple with tougher questions, such as asset rationalisation.
Its ultimate test, however, is whether Roman Catholic education in Bedford will have a secure future.