Fusion is the future

17th February 2006 at 00:00
When two schools merge it raises all sorts of problems. Phil Revell reports

Hundreds of schools face a possible merger with a neighbour. The twin pressures of the headteacher recruitment crisis and falling rolls are forcing local authorities and governing bodies to make some hard decisions.

Lincolnshire is typical: the local authority estimates that by 2007-8 there will be 2,068 surplus places in the county's 35 separate infant and junior schools. The county's solution is to merge neighbouring infant and junior schools.

Others see merger as a way of dealing with the shortage of heads after the highest levels of job re-advertisement that education statistics expert John Howson had ever seen.

"The levels recorded show a labour market in crisis," he said.

Some schools are advertising three or four times in the search for a head.

In the meantime they make do with an acting leader.

A second report by the National Audit Office highlighted the 25 per cent of primary schools led by temporary appointments. Merger offers a solution to these problems, but staff, governors and parents alike can find it an uncomfortable experience.

"For about nine months everything we did was about getting people on board," recalled Maureen Edwards, head of Little Spring school in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, created from the merger of an infant and a middle school.

"We were Greenway infants and William Durrant middle school, which were on opposite sides of the road. I was head of the infants," said Mrs Edwards.

William Durrant had been in special measures some years previously and the negative publicity meant the school lost support. As the roll fell, the governors at Greenway suggested to the local authority that it might be good to merge the schools.

After consultation, the county appointed Mrs Edwards as designated head and work began to move the infant school on to the middle school site.

"It was important to remember that these were schools with different ways of operating. People were attached to their way of doing things, such as how the children came in from the playground," she said.

Old loyalties can be powerful. Education consultant Sarah Harris describes a difficult merger between two secondary schools in her study for the National College for School Leadership.

"Alderman Vane" and "Councillor Crosby" were medium-sized comprehensives serving an impoverished estate on the fringe of a large urban local authority. These are not their real names - some time will need to pass before these participants are ready to talk on record about the painful process they witnessed.

In October 1998 Alderman Vane went into special measures. The local authority decided to expand Councillor Crosby. An indication of the difficulties ahead was given at the first joint governors' meeting, when the chair of Alderman Vane was attacked by the chair of Councillor Crosby.

"He was rude, offensive and unprofessional," said another governor.

Challenged by those around the table about his "appalling behaviour", the Councillor Crosby chair resigned. Other governors also left.

Of the 22 management appointments made at the new secondary school, five went to teachers from Councillor Crosby and 17 to teachers from Alderman Vane. Sarah Harris describes how a "rejects club" was formed in the Councillor Crosby staffroom, with the successful few vilified by their colleagues.

The new principal set in train a series of staff conferences designed to establish priorities and "make explicit the values and behaviours that would form the moral framework of the school".

"Suddenly I started meeting people who were really nice - we'd worked in these two schools all these years and were so alike because we teach the same type of kids," said one teacher.

The difficulties were by no means over. Some staff felt that the new school, with more than 1,800 students, was too big. Elsewhere there was a sense that some of the early decisions had been taken in haste.

In Chesham, the new Little Spring school opened in 2002, with builders still on site.

"The building programme was disruptive for staff and I should have been more aware of that," said Mrs Edwards.

Ofsted's report on Little Spring congratulated staff and governors for their achievement in creating a "thriving school".

Mrs Edwards did not experience the problems described in the NCSL study, possibly because there were fewer people involved, possibly because "the two schools weren't in competition with each other".

"You have to do a good PR job," she said. "We sent out information every week to parents. We are Little Spring school now and my focus is on improving standards."

Download Sarah Harris's study 'Faith, Hope and Charity' from www.ncsl.org.uk

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