It is the end of a long week and there is a parent sitting in front of you, begging to take their child on holiday during term time. This is against school policy, but the situation is complicated – the infant school down the road has already agreed to allow the child’s younger sibling the time off, which makes it harder for you, the head of the junior school, to justify your decision.
Until five years ago, this is the type of situation that I and the head of our neighbouring infant school kept finding ourselves in. No matter how closely we worked together, there always seemed to be mismatched policies that caused difficulty for parents and tensions between our schools.
Something had to change. Although we communicated well as leaders, we wanted to make sure that there was a consistent strategic vision at governor level to allow us to put identical policies in place. The answer, we decided, was to set up a federation. This is defined in law as two or more schools operating under the governance of a single governing body.
So, how did we go about this? The first step we took was to set up a joint governors’ committee to look at how we could work together successfully. The governors considered all the options open to them, before deciding that federating would indeed be the best solution. It would allow both schools to keep their independence while working together to meet the needs of our local community, with the added benefit of setting our existing relationship in stone, regardless of any future disagreements or leadership changes.
Once this had been decided, the next step was to consult with staff. We used a non-pupil day to explore what made our schools special, and what mattered most to us. We also invited experts to talk to staff about how things would work regarding contracts and budgets, as these were areas of concern for some.
After this, each governing body met separately and both voted in favour of federation, subject to consultation with parents. We then held six information sessions at different times, to give parents the opportunity to share their opinions on the proposal.
Obstacles to overcome
If this makes the process sound easy, rest assured that it was not quite as simple as I’m making it out to be. Of course, there were obstacles to overcome – the main one being a general reluctance to make significant changes to the way two successful schools were run and the worry that it might be detrimental to either organisation.
To help put minds at ease on this matter, we should have been clearer at the start about the reasons behind the change. We didn’t get this quite right at the beginning of the process, so after federation, we made sure that we drew up a five-year plan that set out how we intended to change structures to enable us to work together more closely.
This plan helped in the early stages, as it allowed us to park some difficult decisions without veering away from the point of what we were doing.
Another helpful exercise was undertaking a job swap in which the head of the infant school and I stepped into one another’s shoes for three weeks. We wanted to show the whole school community that we trusted each other and were totally committed to the partnership. Handing over your school to another headteacher is a big deal, but the whole experience was fascinating. I led one of the worst assemblies in my career – I was so nervous that I ridiculously over-prepared, and after a few moments it was clear I’d pitched it at completely the wrong level for the children.
However, I learned a lot from the experience – not just about how to deliver an assembly at infant school, but also about the context in which my fellow headteacher was working. This knowledge really helped when it came to discussing our shared improvement plans.
Words of advice
So, is federation something that I would recommend? Absolutely. We wouldn’t go back to being two separate schools now, even though at times it would be quicker and easier to be doing things on our own.
Some final words of advice, though. If you are considering setting up a federation, make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. For example, don’t expect there to be massive financial savings as a result. Some goods and services come with a discount, and this is very welcome, but financial considerations alone are not a good reason to start a federation.
Above all, be prepared to keep talking about the positives of the federation, to staff, parents and each other. So far, I believe this has been the key to our success and the main reason why, five years down the line, the benefits of our close, hard-wired partnership still outweigh any disadvantages.
Roy Souter is headteacher of Stoke Hill Junior School in Devon. He tweets @Exe_Head