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Ups and downs of life with the feds

Four other secondary heads in the area have asked me to explore with them the idea of setting up a confederation to share knowledge and skills for the benefits of the students and local community. What advice would you give?

There are emerging examples up and down the country of clusters of schools, (sometimes called federations, sometimes confederations) joining together to replace competition with collaboration. This is being encouraged by the Government in practical ways through initiatives such as the Leading Edge schools' programme and the National College for School Leadership's networked learning communities.

Some federations have gone as far as sharing governance. There are, therefore, confederations that you can visit and interrogate before you take the plunge.

First, be clear about your motivation and the real reasons why you want to pursue this innovative arrangement. You say that the idea is to share knowledge and skills for the benefits of the students. Do all of you share this? Is this laudable aim also owned by each of the staffs in the constituent schools? Where do the governors stand on this?

Make sure that you explore the answers to these questions as you may find that other motives emerge in these different groups. Some examples might be: to work collaboratively to make the most of limited resources; to allow individual schools to focus on what they are good at; to share specialisms (for example, technology or language status); and to foster imaginative and exciting developments with work-based learning providers for vocational options.

The motives could be many but what is driving you and the other heads? A consensus on this will provide you with the direction and anchor point for all the future work you plan. Don't underestimate the importance of collaborative activity.

Second, there is the matter of trust. This is critical for success. Where collaboration has worked successfully, the heads can trust each other implicitly. They are able to recognise that the needs of the learner are paramount and the heads can place these before the individual interests of their schools.

This level of trust needs to be cultivated and does not appear automatically. You, together, will have to gauge where you stand on the evolutionary scale regarding trust. A litmus test for all of you will be when you get down to discussions about money.

The quality of trust is often tested most when heads have to agree on the various funding issues related to collaborative activity. For example, who pays for students pursuing their studies in other institutions than their own? You may agree for the funding to follow the student. You may agree for one institution to trace the various transactions. Alternatively, you may agree there will be no fee for students in other institutions and accept the "winners and losers" model that some confederations follow. Trust has a price.

Third, I would try to get a shared vision for your confederation and articulate it clearly. This will help you with the thorny issues of explaining what you are about to governors, staff, pupils and parents.

Do not underestimate the reservoirs of resistance that lie here. To address this, some confederations have agreed on a shared vision of learning entitlement for the student. This means that if a particular institution cannot meet some part of that entitlement then the learner's needs should be met by another partner in the collaborative.

Fourth, confederations have many practical problems to overcome. A list would include some of the following:

* how compatible are the existing school days?;

* do you have compatible option blocks across the schools at key stage 4?;

* what model of management for the collaborative will work best for you?;

* what is the relationship with the LSC like?;

* how are you going to relate to work-based learning providers? Again, these considerations will provide you with clear evidence about the quality of trust that exists between you. The better the trust, the more people will be prepared to surrender for the common good.

Fifth, be clear about the positives of this endeavour. Some confederations share in-service training across the schools and benefit from economies of scale. This also allows for the identification and sharing of best practice within the confederation.

You should be clear about what you want out of the confederation as well as what you can contribute. There are a number of keys that have unlocked the door to success for existing collaborations. The jury is still out on this one but it is worth a close look.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls' school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years

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