Small schools should form "federations" to survive, the executive of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers will recommend to members at its annual conference in Glasgow next week.
The executive has accepted the findings of a report it commissioned from Coopers and Lybrand, Safety in Numbers which looked at ways of helping to preserve some 3,500 schools with fewer than 100 pupils and improve career progression for teachers.
NASUWT commissioned the report because of concerns about the increased workload caused by local management of schools, and a salary blockage resulting from the tradition of not awarding an assistant teacher more than the head of the smallest school.
Small schools have been under twin pressures of finance and the curriculum which has led education authorities to consider closing them. This pressure has been reinforced by the Audit Commission with its report on excess places, notes the report.
Federated schools already exist in Clywd, Dorset, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. They operate on separate sites, but have one governing body, one head and shared management and administration which reduces costs and allows headteachers more time in class. Gloucestershire pioneered the scheme with a federation of two primary schools in 1981.
The union says this model is most likely to protect jobs, provide better value for money and keep schools as part of their communities. The report looked at other models including a cluster, where schools collaborate on tasks and a pyramid where schools buy into services provided by their local secondary school.
Joint committees of governing bodies could lead to a confederation of schools. While falling short of the federal model, it would have benefits, says the report. The committee could audit the specialist skills of staff to show the gaps in the national curriculum, draw up common work programmes and exchange art and music staff. Schools could buy and share equipment and in-service training. They could employ a shared bursar to monitor expenditure. Although this would not cut the amount of administration, it could make it more efficient. The report said federation would be more successful if governing bodies rather than education authorities promoted it.
NASUWT was encouraged by the favourable response to federation, especially as many saw it as a way of improving career prospects. A spokesman for the union said this was in line with members' collegiate approach to teachers' salary structure. "Teaching is a co-operative job and given the limited amount of money available it is sensible to flatten the hierarchical nature of the structure."
The Church of England Board of Education welcomed the report because about half of the 4,636 primary schools it runs are small.
Further details about Safety in Numbers from NASUWT, Hillscourt Education Centre, Rose Hill, Rednal, Birmingham B45 8RS.