School mergers are on the horizon
As a Cromer lad raised on fierce football pitch battles against Sheringham, I understand the roots of local rivalry.
I’m not averse to jokes about "shady Shannocks" or a barbed reference to Suffolk or Ipswich. But when it goes beyond good-humoured sparring and becomes antipathy it stands in the way of progress.
Thankfully, Cromer and Sheringham have shown how to retain their differences but build on their strengths by launching a pincer movement that resulted in the successful Crab and Lobster Festival.
And Norfolk and Suffolk police forces ignored historic silliness between the two counties to merge services and save £10m.
At the moment, the talk at all levels of government is of collaboration, shared services, working together. With Whitehall squeezing the funding, it is one of the only ways to save money without hitting services or staff.
What I do not understand is why this principle has not significantly filtered through to schools.
At the moment, there is a dash by some schools to become academies, enticed by the promise of extra money and "freedom" from local authority control (for "freedom", the cynics might invite you to read "more responsibilities and less expert support").
It’s understandable. Education secretary Michael Gove has made it clear that academies are his pets, so schools cannot be blamed for feeling that they must join the short dash to freedom.
But I think some projects are established in isolation, and designed to shore up narrow interests, rather than make a genuine difference to the education of a generation of young people.
In a county where schools are often isolated geographically and in terms of contact with their neighbours, surely there is room for joint or grouped academies – either horizontally, high school with high school, or vertically, with primaries joining forces with secondaries.
Money would be saved. But it would also enable schools to share their expertise and have a more rounded vision of what is needed in the wider community.
And the horizontal model would at least tone down one of my pet hates – competition between schools for students.
Last week, we had the unnecessary and degrading annual event of millions of parents waiting for the postman for the "make or break" letter telling them which high school their child would go to.
It’s marketplace economics in the wrong context. If neighbouring schools were working together, they could quit the slick marketing and focus on life-changing education.
Last week’s announcement that five schools in the Aylsham area will be jointly seeking foundation status, in order to set up a charitable trust that will enable them to work more closely together, is a perfect case in point.
Rather than buying in all of their own services separately and making decisions in isolation, they will be able to jointly procure where possible and save money, and draw up wide-angle policies that take in the needs of all of the children in the cluster.
Meanwhile, Hockwold Primary and Methwold High – already run by one headteacher – are effectively merging. And, with Methwold planning to offer degrees, it raises the prospect of a single vision for education for children and young people from birth to graduation.
Partnerships, joint working, collaboration – or even, dare I say it, mergers – could just be the future for schools.
posted on 09 March 2011 11:00 bySteve Downes