A major heads' union has scrapped its long-standing policy that every school should have its own dedicated headteacher in a bid to reflect "the changing landscape".
Around three quarters of delegates at this year's annual conference of the NAHT voted to axe the association's "one head, one school" policy as more and more primaries are absorbed by federations overseen by executive heads. The association has previously argued that having a dedicated head for each school was the best way to ensure standards and safeguard senior jobs.
Many heads had been suspicious that consolidating groups of schools under one head has been a way for local authorities to buy leadership "on the cheap". But in a U-turn, the union now says new models of leadership can prevent the closure of small rural schools, improve educational standards and solve recruitment issues.
A motion at this year's annual conference stressed that it is "vital" that those taking on devolved headships - in roles such as head of school or head of teaching and learning - should have their role formally recognised.
The motion said "every school needs a single individual clearly identified as its headteacher, but, where appropriate, this person could be head of more than one school".
NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said the policy change was not a "licence to experiment with all sorts of novel forms of headship", but would help to ensure new structures were put in place fairly, with appropriate pay for post holders.
The National College, responsible for training school leaders, estimates that there are about 210 primary federations, many of them in rural areas.
According to NAHT figures, around 1,600 school leaders are now working in "alternative" management structures, including partnerships, federations and all-through schools.
Bernadette Hunter, head of William Shrewsbury School in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, who proposed the policy-change motion, told the conference that the union had to "move with the times".
She said: "The time is now right to ask whether our policy position should reflect the reality of what is happening and the future direction of travel for education.
Ms Hunter said new models of leadership had saved small rural schools from closure, retaining the "lifeblood and heart of their local community".
"Many schools are increasingly looking to organise themselves into different partnerships for educational reasons, including building capacity for raising standards and securing effective governance," she said.
But she added that the union should retain its insistence that schools should be led by staff with qualified teacher status.
The conference motion followed a national consultation with members after the national executive was unable to reach a decision.