On June 6, 150 of the country's top headteachers met over dinner to discuss not only their own future but the fate of schools serving a quarter of a million pupils in some of the most deprived areas.
As the diners enjoyed their lamb steaks, Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, pressed the flesh, drumming up support for his latest idea to expand the number of specialist schools.
Sir Cyril left the Savoy Place conference venue on the Embankment in London -motto "combining grandeur with attention to detail" - convinced that England's top state-school heads will jump at the chance to take control of their struggling neighbours. He hopes they will use powers in the new education Bill to form trusts made up of a number of schools with a single "superhead" as chief executive overseeing the other heads.
Teachers should "not necessarily" be sacked when low-performing secondaries become part of trusts run by high-performing neighbours, Sir Cyril told The TES. But senior management should be replaced at the 272 schools which do not have specialist status and where fewer than a quarter of pupils get five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, he said.
Staff would have to buy into the ethos of the new school if they wanted to keep their jobs.
The Government's proposals for trust schools have caused controversy because they would let the private sector play a greater role and the new "independent" state schools can opt out of teachers' national pay and conditions and curriculum rules.
But Sir Cyril pointed out federations with other schools avoided business involvement: "This is a way of using the trust mechanism to improve standards... and it isn't privatisation," he said.
Heads at the meeting expressed enthusiasm for partnering struggling schools in principle, but warned of practical difficulties.
Graeme Hollinshead, head of Grange school, Oldham, said struggling schools might have legitimate reasons for wanting to go it alone. He said takeovers would only work "if the partner you're taking over actually wants you there and is keen to improve".
One of Sir Cyril's staunchest supporters is Sir Dexter Hutt, principal of Ninestiles school in Birmingham, which has supported three struggling schools in exchange for management fees. Sir Cyril is suggesting the lead schools in a trust could get more money, for example the pound;60 per pupil for a second specialism.
Sir Dexter acknowledged the fear of small schools that they might lose their identity if assimilated into a bigger, more successful school. "But," he said, "that cannot happen because every school is unique, with its own distinct intake."
Eighty-eight per cent of heads and deputies who took part in a poll at last month's National College of School Leadership annual conference said they were wiling to support other schools. The college is recruiting 50 top heads or "National Leaders of Education" to help struggling schools.
But unions reacted angrily to Sir Cyril's proposals to take over non-specialist schools, warning they would damage headteacher recruitment.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it would further demean managers of challenging schools. "We have got to break this culture of blame which will aggravate the crisis in recruitment," he said.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "There are many different models of partnership from loose co-operation to hard federations. I don't think there should be a single recipe."
There are more than 140 federations covering both primary and secondary schools known to the Department for Education and Skills, although a spokesman said there were likely to be many more. Federations can range from schools sharing a single governing body to loose collaborations.
One head with experience of such a partnership believes it cannot be imposed and must benefit all partners to be a success.
Sir John Lewis, former principal of Dixon's academy in Bradford, became chief executive of a new three-year improvement partnership between Dixon's and the nearby Wyke Manor community school in January. Wyke Manor was struggling with only 9 per cent of Year 11 pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths last year, compared to 82 per cent at Dixons.
Sir John admitted he thought hard before agreeing to the partnership but teachers at Dixon's have benefited from working at Wyke. He said the lead school will further enhance its reputation if the partnership is successful.
Dr Liz Sidwell, chief executive of the Haberdasher's Aske's federation praised by Sir Cyril, said: "Knight's (one of the schools in the federation) has gone from struggling to fill its roll a year ago to being oversubscribed by five to one. I wouldn't say our model of hard federation is always the best way but partnership is the way forward."
Cyril Taylor 21 * email@example.com
SPECIALIST KEY FACTS
Specialist schools are expected to raise between pound;20,000 and Pounds 50,000 sponsorship depending on size. They get extra public funding of Pounds 100,000 each year plus pound;129 per pupil.
58 per cent of pupils in specialist schools open from September 2004, achieved five Cs or better at GCSE in 2005 compared with 46.7 per cent for non-specialists.
Research by Professor David Jesson suggests humanities, technology and science colleges are best at improving pupil performance. Sport, engineering and maths colleges are least successful.
Those taking a second specialism get an extra pound;60 per pupil (minimum pound;60,000 per year, max pound;90,000). Schools with vocational education as a second specialism get another pound;30,000 a year and those with a second language specialism get pound;30 per pupil on top of the pound;60.
There are more than 2,500 specialist schools: arts 457; business and enterprise 235; engineering 60; humanities 110; languages 274; maths and computing 259; music 33; science 335; sports 370; technology 592; special needs 12; vocational 47