Career development at a small rural school with fewer than six teachers might sound impossible, but the schools of the Colne Valley consortium, buried in a beautiful but isolated area on the borders of Suffolk and Essex, have found just the opposite.
"A small school brings on young teachers very quickly professionally," says Ron Murray, head of St Andrew's C of E School, Bulmer, one of 12 schools in the group.
"Because there are so few of us, we all have to weartwo or three hats, so new teachers have to build up experience in different curriculum areas and with different age groups. They have opportunities they wouldn't get in a larger school."
None of the schools has more than five teachers. But excellent training and support linking staff at all 12 schools, means newly qualified teachers do not seem to find the extra challenges too daunting.
Mr Murray's current newly qualified teacher (NQT) has been administering the key stage 1 national tests, and will take on the role of maths co-oordinator in September.
The NQT at De Vere primary in Castle Hedingham, another consortium member, is directing the dance work in a joint drama production involving about 250 pupils from four schools.
And after only four years at St Andrew's, her first post, Ruth Condon has become deputy head at a much larger primary. "My experience in a small school has definitely helped me," she says. "There is much more of a hierarchy in larger schools and a first-year teacher wouldn't get the responsibility of managing a subject. In a small school, you have to be prepared to share the load."
During her time at St Andrew's, Mrs Condon was in charge of science, and design and technology. At her new school, Layer-de-la-Haye primary, she is curriculum leader.
While some new teachers might find their first year stressful enough without extra responsibilities, Ruth Condon thrived. She says that the friendly atmosphere at St Andrew's helped.
"When there are fewer of you, people are more prepared to listen to each other and it is easier to speak out," she says. Mrs Condon also appreciated the support of regular meetings with teachers from other schools in the group.
Links between the 12 schools started 12 years ago, when Ron Murray and Peter Scull, head of De Vere School, were both new heads. "When it's four or five miles to the next school, you can feel very isolated," says Mr Scull. Heads in the consortium now meet every term to discuss mutual concerns, such as the implementation of literacy and numeracy strategies which seem to have made little allowance for the mixed-age classes which are the norm in small schools.
There are also termly meetings for science, English and maths co-ordinators, and support groups for staff teaching at key stages 1 and 2. Teachers can pool ideas and agree a common approach instead of re-inventing the wheel every time a new Government initiative thuds on to the mat.
The Colne Valley schools also have a joint in-service training programme -which not only avoids a 40-mile round trip along tortuous country lanes to attend local authority courses, but provides top-quality speakers. Six schools have now opted out of LEA training, which gives the consortium extra financial clout when it is planning training.
The current programme will include days on science, maths and on children's thinking processes. "The idea that small schools are very parochial has gone," says Mr Murray. "In fact, our size and our geographical isolation force us to offer more to staff."