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Two schools under one head can work, says council

THE ground-breaking initiative in South Ayrshire combining more than one primary under a single headteacher is to continue, despite some early setbacks.

An independent evaluation of the two separate projects in the Carrick area and in Ayr, involving five primaries led by two heads, has revealed some shortcomings but also positive results.

Alastair Noble, South Ayrshire's head of educational quality, said officials are "pretty positive about it" although there are obvious lessons to be learned. The feasibility of one headteacher managing more than one school had been established, he believed.

The authority embarked on its "small schools project" two years ago in an attempt to avoid closing small primaries.

The head of the 219-pupil Gardenrose primary in Maybole took 53 pupils from the neighbouring Fisherton and Minishant primaries under her wing, while the head of St John's primary in Ayr was also given responsibility for the town's Good Shepherd primary, which gave her a total of 400 pupils. An assistant or depute head was left in charge of each of the smaller schools.

The only other authority to try out a similar approach is Scottish Borders, where two primaries came together in what proved to be a chequered experience.

In his evaluation for South Ayrshire, George Gordon, former chief inspector of schools in the west of Scotland, makes it clear the changes took much more time to bed down than the authority expected, even allowing for early problems with the technological back-up which as intended to support school management and teaching.

The two heads said that, while the initiative had ensured the survival of the smaller schools and broadened the experience of both staff and pupils, their workloads had increased substantially. They were still coming to terms with managing a multi-campus school.

They were no longer in as close touch with staff and pupils and were criticised by staff and parents for not being as accessible as they had been in the past.

Teachers' views were mixed. Those in the small schools welcomed the reduction in isolation and the access to more resources and educational opportunities. But staff in the larger primaries, St John's and Gardenrose, saw few benefits.

Mr Gordon found no clear evidence of whether pupils' attainment had improved. He called on South Ayrshire's education department to measure this carefully since "the success or failure of the work of the schools will be measured in the longer term on whether or not pupils' attainments rise".

He said the department must also reconsider its support for the schools, both generally and in the use of new technology. Staff development was crucial and there should also be improved quality of communication between the various players.

Mr Gordon remains to be convinced that the initiative avoids the need for school closures, especially in the case of the two Ayr primaries which are less than a mile apart. It was therefore too early to say whether the project represented value for money.

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