The high street is one head's source of inspiration. Phil Revell reports
For most headteachers, the dog-eat-dog world of the market economy has little to offer. Chris Gerry begs to differ. The Kent head has just launched an education experiment that could offer a model for other schools - and his template is Tesco.
"People shop in supermarkets because they provide a wide range of choice and quality products under one roof," he says.
"But when it comes to education, we demand a bespoke approach. It works for the more advantaged, but the least advantaged are left with the 'one-size-fits-all' local school."
His answer is to emulate the high street and move to a model where schools join together in groups, offering a "brand".
"For the past couple of years I've been talking about chains of schools and hoping that someone will say, 'OK, here are two or three schools'," he says.
Dr Gerry's ideas are not a million miles away from the plans outlined this month by Prime Minister Tony Blair, in this week's White Paper, that schools will be able to join together as education brands, with the best heads encouraged to take over whole groups.
Dr Gerry never really expected the idea to get off the ground, but Kent county council has been examining different models of collaboration for some time. And, in the summer, he was appointed head of the South Maidstone federation - a joining together of Maidstone's Cornwallis, Senacre and Oldborough secondary schools, which will see the individual school identities disappear.
Like all good high street names, the new federation has a brand - NewLineLearning. Dr Gerry believed it was vital that the exercise should not be seen as a takeover. There will be a single governing body and a new uniform, and the federation will have a single leadership team led by him.
The advantages of federation lie in the economies of scale. Everyone benefits from pooled resources - the three schools can share staff, and departments can share ideas and expertise.
"We are doing those deals already, and we have made appointments which go across the schools as well," says Dr Gerry. "The key thing is change everyone's perception, to persuade people that they are in this group together no matter which site they're on.
"We're all trying to get a better deal for the kids."
To kickstart the school improvement process, Dr Gerry plans to invest Pounds 1.7 million in ICT, finding most of the money from within the school budgets, which highlights another advantage of federation.
"It's given us the opportunity to look at costs and ask some key questions," he says.
The answers threw up some surprising anomalies. The three schools were spending wildly different amounts (see box), with one spending 3.83 per cent of its budget on administration support staff, while another spent 6.6 per cent on the same budget heading.
"We wanted to know why," he says. The answer, in many cases, was simply that the school had always spent that amount on that particular area.
Driving down costs to release funding for staffing and the curriculum had been a feature of Dr Gerry's previous headship at Kent's Hugh Christie technology college, and he saw the potential for savings as soon as he examined the federation's budget.
The first beneficiaries of those economies of scale are this year's new entrants. All Year 7 pupils are being given Tablet personal computers, which underpins another aspect of the brand Dr Gerry is trying to develop.
He argues that the teaching model used in most schools is outdated.
"Twenty to 30 children in a room with a single teacher - that was the system invented in the 19th century," he says. "But today, unless the teachers are geniuses, they cannot hope to compete with modern media."
The answer is to move to larger classrooms, with an ICT-rich environment.
Teachers work alongside support staff to help children learn.
"I'm saying 'do the work in larger spaces'. Use a teacher if you can, but every adult does not have to be a teacher," he says.
The new federation will use the Royal Society of Arts Opening Minds model for its humanities curriculum, and key stage 3 will be shortened, with national tests being taken at the end of Y8.
"This is a trust curriculum," says Dr Gerry. "The kids need to be taught to be independent learners from day one."
He believes that the federal model offers the best of both worlds. The organisation has critical mass without having to become a huge and impersonal institution on one site.
The bigger school can offer more choice to students, especially post-16.
Crucially the federal school offers a way out of the shortage of inspirational heads. "That's one of the things that is driving this, plus the issue of the quality of leadership," says Dr Gerry. "This model isn't so dependent on the individual site leader."
But he realised that the spread of the new model is likely to be slow. Few governing bodies appear willing to vote themselves out of existence, and potential partnerships face the issue of what to do with the existing heads. In South Maidstone that hurdle was avoided because there were two vacant posts.
Heads' associations gave the model a cautious welcome. "If standards can be raised then that's to be applauded, but there are other solutions to the recruitment crisis for headship," said Mick Brookes, newly-appointed general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
"There are settings where soft federations raise the achievement in a single area," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.
The distinction between soft and hard federations is drawn by the Government. Soft federations are partnerships in which schools work together on a single project.
Hard federations were made possible by the 2002 Education Act, which allowed up to five schools to share a single governing body.
Each individual school within the federation is subject to a separate Ofsted inspection, and results for each one are still published separately, though Dr Gerry is planning to publish results for the whole federation.
"There are entrenched opinions on this," he says.
"People know the benefits of a larger organisation, but they can't think beyond the individual school."
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