Editorial - Full federation could save small rural schools

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Pooling governors is a good start; sharing heads and budgets is the natural progression

Back in 2004 a group of plucky Welsh parents famously saw their battle to save a 50-pupil primary in Hermon, Pembrokeshire, make it all the way down the M4 to the High Court in London. While their case was defeated in the end - at a judicial review - the row went a long way towards highlighting the many issues surrounding whether or not state funding should stretch to the extra costs associated with keeping such tiny schools open.

To the many accountants in Cardiff - or, for that matter, in London, Edinburgh or Belfast - these extravagances must seem hardly worth the effort of the bean-counting. But to the local communities, they can mean everything, especially in a small country such as Wales that has set so much national store in education down the centuries.

This is not to dismiss outright the very strong arguments associated with the school closure policy in Wales; it is, of course, true that economies of scale should and would benefit very many children. Why should the majority, who live in conurbations big enough to sustain a reasonably sized primary, goes the argument, have to see their schools' coffers raided to prop up tiny village schools that often have only one class?

Of course, both sides have the emotional ammunition to tug at Welsh heart strings. And in all honesty it is very hard to come down on one side or the other.

But what is galling to discover is that there are ways of saving cash for small schools that have - until this September - been against the rules.

Enter, stage-right, the possibility of allowing schools to federate. An option open to the English since 2003 (before the aforementioned High Court battle), this strategy is not restricted to small schools. Indeed, even large comprehensives have been eyeing up the possibility.

However, according to its many advocates on the English side of the Severn Bridge - including the National Governors' Association - federation offers major benefits, including giving small rural schools the ability to share expertise, manpower and cash in a way never previously open to them.

The rules of how integrated these federations should be are far from settled (think of the philosophical disputes at the heart of the American Civil War), but it is now clear that there's little chance of the idea becoming another policy flash-in-the-pan. There are already many different models with their different supporters. There are some that share governors, others their heads. It is also not unheard of to share a senior management team and even merge school budgets.

One thing that is clear, though, is that many small schools consider federation a positive way of cost-saving as well as a good strategy for keeping civil servants off their backs. It stands to reason that this will repeat itself in Wales. It is to be hoped that the Assembly government will be brave enough to allow schools - not just governing bodies - to enter into full federations.

News editor E ed.dorrell@tes.co.uk.

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