Call for one school, one head
Phil and Catriona Williamson are the living, loving proof that federations can work: the two headteachers met when their schools "got together" in the early 1990s. Now they are married.
But while their personal federation remains strong, they have grave concerns about the way schools in the East Riding of Yorkshire are being forced to amalgamate to address the issue of a shortage of heads.
Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leaders, told heads at last weekend's conference of the National Association of Head Teachers that they must be ready to merge their schools into federations in order to share the workload.
He announced that Jim Knight, schools minister, has asked him to report by July on primary leadership, especially how primary heads can work in groups of schools.
Mr Munby also warned heads that officials and parents saw them as all-knowing, all-controlling figures like John Cleese's bumbling headteacher in the film Clockwise.
Worse, he said they were partly to blame for trying to do everything themselves and refusing to admit their weaknesses.
His blunt message was not welcomed. Delegates voted to make "one school, one head" a non-negotiable premise of their relationship with the Government.
The association, which represents 30,000 predominantly primary school leaders, passed a motion of no confidence in the Government's education policies.
Their demand that every school should have its own, qualified, headteacher was an overt challenge to government moves towards groupings of schools headed by a single chief executive.
But Mr Munby told The TES that the Government needed change because the "hero head" who tried to do everything was no longer viable.
Catriona Williamson, headteacher of the 207-pupil Sproatley endowed school in Hull, met her husband when they were heads of two linked primary schools in an era when officials frowned on sharing staff and resources.
Now, she said, the under-funded East Riding council had asked all its primary schools to consider forming federations under the ambit of the authority's 17 secondary schools. The first, Hessle high school, will subsume a nearby primary in September.
She said: "The East Riding is having problems recruiting heads, so it recommends reducing the number by combining schools. That doesn't address the real problem of why teachers don't want the responsibility of headship."
Phil Williamson, her husband and headteacher of the 460-pupil All Saints CofE junior school, said: "I believe federation should be based on trust between the staff of two schools," he said. "Instead, people won't be called heads, won't be paid as heads, but will still be expected to shoulder a head's responsibilities."
But Christine Gough, headteacher of Witnesham school in Ipswich, said heads should not be so quick to write off federations. She was joining with another primary school that would allow them to share resources. Each school would have a deputy head, where they previously did not.
She said: "If the alternative is for small schools to close for want of a head, I think we should see this as a realistic alternative."