Phil Revell finds out how small or isolated schools from Lancashire to Cornwall have flourished by sharing and working together
High in the Pennines on a warm spring day, what a glorious place to teach.
But all that beauty comes with a cost. The schools in the shadow on Lancashire's Pendle Hill are small and isolated, the reality of which Gill Ackroyd soon became aware. "I came from a large school and I soon realised that there are fewer opportunities for leadership development in a small school," she said. "And the pool of knowledge is smaller; you have to reach out because you don't have the expertise in school - you either do things badly or you go out to find an expert."
Ms Ackroyd is head of Salterforth primary, one of nine schools in the Pendle networked learning community, where the focus for the last three years has been on sharing and learning together.
"We were in a cluster before," said Wendy Harvey, head of the neighbouring Kelbrook primary school. "The county set up small schools' cluster groups.
We were doing a lot of things, but we were not taking them as far as we knew we could, and then the national college gave us this wonderful opportunity."
That opportunity came in the form of the networked learning community, an initiative led by the National College for School Leadership. Under the network programme, schools collaborate to share good practice and actively research new ways of working.
Network status was worth pound;150,000 over three years to the Pendle primaries (and had to be matched by the schools), more than any other initiative the nine heads had ever been involved with. "We had only ever had about pound;2,000 a year for the cluster, nothing compared with this,"
recalled Ms Harvey.
The network programme has run its course and the funding for Ms Harvey and her colleagues runs out this summer, but it has been money well spent. The schools have shared staff, appointed teachers to develop modern foreign languages, built the expertise of their support staff and developed new approaches to working with children with special needs.
A key decision was the appointment of Cherry Wilkinson as a kind of travelling special needs co-ordinator (Senco). "I'm supporting eight schools through the week at the moment," she says.
Ms Wilkinson is an expert in special needs who had worked in Lancashire's support service and for a variety of learning support agencies. "When the special needs funding was delegated to schools I continued working in the schools I had been supporting before, and Wendy asked me if I would be interested in running a dyslexia support programme," she says.
Ms Wilkinson developed a programme based on synthetic phonics allied to handwriting skills and the development of movement. She then tutored learning support staff in the approach. Classroom assistants such as Leanne Robinson became the expert staff in their schools. "My role changed, there's much more teaching and more responsibility," says Ms Robinson.
"Cherry worked with us all on the method and now we go into other schools to support teachers and children. I think we are being valued more - people are saying, 'Well, you know about this, can you help?'"
Ms Wilkinson supports the cluster in other ways. "I act as the Senco for Salterforth, and I support specific children here at Kelbrook and at St Joseph's. I act as an adviser in all of the schools," she says.
The results of the specialist input have been clear to all the schools. Ms Wilkinson's expertise has identified additional funding to support individual children. "I also assess children in schools across the network," she says. "I'm doing assessments, giving advice on IEPs (individual education plans), running Inset for staff. In a secondary school you would have a team of teachers and support staff, but in many small schools it's not possible to do the Senco job properly. It has been tremendous - we have one little boy with really challenging problems who has made real progress. Not only is his spelling incredibly better, but he is now very proud of his written work."
In the parlance of the local authority advisers, this is called building capacity: pooling resources to raise standards in teaching and learning.
As a result of the three-year programme,a number of the network's support staff are following higher education courses, with the aim of entering the profession as fully-fledged teachers.
A network priority was the development of ICT. Long-standing classroom assistant Shelley Swire had the IT skills, developed as a result of several years of support for a student with cerebral palsy. "I learned as I went along," she says. "Now I am taking full classes, and I do a lot of support for teachers."
That includes using computers to control other devices, a key element of the national curriculum that many primaries struggle to offer. Ms Swire is currently following a degree course. "I've just passed my foundation degree and been accepted on a honours course with a view to PGCE. I'm ready to move on," she says.
The networked learning communities have been one of the national college's most successful programmes. There have been more than 130 networks, and several have focused on the challenges of isolation.
In the Lake District, one network focused on adult learning and leadership development. In Devon, the Teignmouth Academic Council Networked Learning Community consists of six schools, five primaries and one college. The schools had no history of working together before the formation of the network was formed. Now they pool resources and share best practice. Pupils and teachers have made exchange visits to each other's schools, and the heads report that competition has been "stamped out" and that schools are now working "co-operatively not competitively".
In Cornwall's Penryn primary school, headteacher Robin Cowen is part of a network of 10 schools, nine primaries and the local sports college. "We have three schools sharing the same site with Penryn college, so we have always met regularly," he says.
The other primaries are feeder schools to the college, providing a natural focus and an incentive to collaborate.
"The NLC helped us work towards a much wider brief, looking at curriculum development and joint staffing; it triggered lots of projects, including joint arts productions involving music experts coming in to work with children."
The NLC funding finished last year, but the Penryn Network is not only still in being, it is expanding. This summer a primary summer camp involving 300 children took place, supported by older students from the sports college. And Falmouth schools joined the network this year.
The Penryn community were concerned about sustainability from the start.
"We put the emphasis on developing the capacity of our staff," says Mr Cowen. "There is a much higher level of skill now than there was before."
Up in the Pennines sustainability is also a key issue. "We know that we will make this sustainable; we will have to look at funding; we have to find the wherewithal to employ Cherry Wilkinson for next year. She has tremendous expertise," says Wendy Harvey. "This has been so valuable; we have done so much over the past three years and we don't want to lose any of it."