When collaboration comes before competition, everyone's a winner. Jill Parkin discovers two schools that made a unique joint bid for technology specialist status
Distances are great in Lincolnshire, the biggest county in the land. Towns are scattered across wolds and fens. The schools are divided into selective and non-selective areas: grammar schools and secondary moderns; oversubscribed comprehensives with undersubscribed neighbours.
But things are stirring these days as heads talk to heads. Money is bringing together schools usually divided by competition and status, and the leadership incentive grant is proving a force for friendship among all the rural tensions, selection and patches of economic deprivation.
Even so, it is startling to find two schools quite as matey as Boston grammar school, a boys' selective, and Haven high technology college, an 11-16 secondary, also in Boston. The schools gained joint specialist technology status last September - a perfect example of the collaboration Lincolnshire is promoting through the leadership grant.
John Neal, head of Boston, believes the joint bid was an excellent way of serving the town's children across the ability range.
"Ours was an innovative bid that had at its core the need to raise aspirations of not only the young people of the town but their families also," he says. "Boston suffers from a high level of rural deprivation. An often-overlooked fact is that this affects grammar school pupils who, although selected by ability, come from the same wide range of backgrounds as those in our neighbouring non-selective schools.
"Working together certainly made the task of raising the pound;50,000 sponsorship easier and we won the strong support of the borough council: our bid contained similar targets for improving the skills of the workforce as its own regeneration plan."
Mr Neal and the head of Haven high, Madeleine Fox, believe the joint status has helped to equalise opportunity in Boston - in terms of the curriculum but also where pupils' self-esteem is concerned.
Mr Neal says: "We believe it helps eliminate any feeling of failure experienced by those who are not selected for the grammar school at 11. We have agreed with the other Boston schools a scheme to make it possible for children to transfer to the grammar schools at the end of their first year in secondary school if they achieve sufficiently highly and wish to move.
Such as system has the potential to provide real differentiation."
At Haven high, Ms Fox can see in hard figures the difference made by collaboration.
"This is collaboration with a difference: a secondary modern and a boys'
grammar working to bridge the 11-plus divide," she says. "It is working well and has led to a partnership between the four town secondary schools to ensure all local children have a chance to maximise the benefits of local secondary provision.
"The increase in the number on our roll for September as a result of these local partnerships has been amazing. Our first choices rose over the past year from 57 to 100, and our final Year 7 intake is expected to rise from 125 to 159."
Features of the joint college include:
* A joint assistant headteacher who teaches in both schools and oversees the community programme for the joint status
* A ICT network technician who supports both schools and the community programme
* Jointly arranged courses for adults by the maths departments of both schools.
* Maths, science and technology departments working jointly to support primary curriculum co-ordinators and transition
* Joint master classes in science are planned for September.
Perhaps most unusual of all, students at one school can be accepted on a course at the other. Ms Fox says: "Where appropriate, we accept students from Boston grammar on courses here, and vice versa. It has happened, for instance, with students from Haven high gifted in maths studying higher-level courses at Boston and students moving to the area from comprehensives where they have studied courses which we at Haven high don't offer, such as electronics, being able to study them at Boston."
They both speak with relief of the new collaborative approach which has come about because of the Lincolnshire pilot partner project, originally begun to help schools facing challenging circumstances and now very much the county's blueprint for its leadership incentive work.
Mr Neal says: "It is still early days in the life of the joint college.
What we have already experienced, however, is a healthy sense of co-operation and openness - so different from the competitive culture that existed prior to the bid. We recognise that to be successful as a joint college, both schools have to meet their individual targets.
"We have a real incentive to help each other achieve."
Ms Fox says: "The impact of LIG funding, although still in the early stages, is already being seen here. From a situation where few heads had the reason, opportunity or confidence to talk and share issues, we are now able to sit round a table, talk openly and honestly about what we need to address in our schools and identify how we can share best practice without the spectre of competitive working overshadowing us.
"Collaborative working went out with removal of catchment areas, LMS and GM status. Some younger heads have known nothing else so they warmly welcome the more open and collegiate approach fostered by LIG and excellence clusters."
The technology bid was Haven high's second experience in recent years of the benefits of collaboration. The Lincolnshire pilot project, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, has been running for four years.
Early on, Haven high, in an area of high social deprivation, was teamed with The Deepings school, an 11-18 comprehensive in the relatively affluent Deeping St James, near Peterborough.
"The Deepings had considerable expertise in data management," says Ms Fox.
"Our work with them enabled us to review our systems and consider their systems. We are now a data-rich school and the improvement in results at both key stages is an example of the progress we have been able to make.
"We also shared staff between the two schools, allowing some of our staff to gain experience in teaching A-levels and using their highly trained staff to support our advanced skills teacher programme."