The South Lakes Federation began life with two headteachers on a train journey to London. By the end of the day, with the chance to sit and plan and the back of a suitable envelope, they returned to the Lakes with an idea about developing their schools based not on hierarchy, but on collaboration.
Cumbria is an unwieldy county, with poor transport and communication, and poor economic health. In addition, the local education authority had for many years managed schools as a series of consortia.
So why did they want to do more? It takes a great deal of psychological energy to collaborate in an environment of hot competition and challenging rural geography.
But Heads Steve Wilkinson, of The Queen Katherine School, and Chris Clarke, of Queen Elizabeth School Kirkby Lonsdale, shared a strong vision from the outset - 'vision' in this sense being a sheer act of faith: by working together, individual students would achieve more than would be possible through the efforts of a single school.
An example is the way that the flexible curriculum provision is organised. The ten schools and one college now involved in South Lakes Federation (SLF) have set up a 14-19 operational group, led by a pathfinder manager whose salary is (fortunately for the budget) paid from pathfinder funds.
Over three years, they have established striking new opportunities for key stage 4 students, including two Young Apprenticeship schemes and vocational courses such as caring for young children and automotive servicing and repair.
Kendal College, the further education college involved, substantially underwrote the costs at first, but now the schools contribute significantly from their own budgets.
Initially, the students assigned to the college tended to be at risk of exclusion, disaffected or just plain bored. This posed problems for college lecturers who were asked to teach students who were likely to be alienated and to manage, as a group, students from half a dozen schools.
In fact, they have been delighted by the willingness of students to co-operate. Now, many of the students who voluntarily attend will certainly achieve five or more GCSEs at A*-C grade.
The pressure is growing to provide equivalent opportunities for post-16 students, though this will introduce other tensions - how school sixth forms relate to the FE college, for instance.
Reasons not to collaborate
This way of working creates challenges, because setting the achievement of the student above the achievement of the institution requires courage.
Among the challenges are:
trusting another institution to teach the students whose performance you rely on for your own performance table
allowing students to take a vocational subject they love, but only at level 1 because the subject cannot be studied to level 2 until they are 16 years old - another league table limitation
allocating increasing portions of your budget for joint projects, including transport (considerable in this rural area), where you do not necessarily control the project or the outcome
accepting the uncertainty that, if collaboration is developed still further (see the new qualifications pathways), there are no longer clear demarcations for which students 'belong' to which institutions
deciding how to collate and manage data to which all institutions have access (this, at least, is well in hand)
To address these, all the heads and the principal give significant time and energy to intense sessions of planning, negotiation and exploration.
They struggle with the knowledge that they need to delegate activity and to trust other people to work on their behalf - which is at odds with the (unsurprising) desire of most heads to have a hands-on grasp of every detail.
However, delegation is leading willy-nilly to empowerment. SLF negotiated with the local authority a significant delegation of funding from the LA's inclusion budget, so that SLF can manage itself those students considered hard to place, in need of significant alternative provision, and in danger of permanent exclusion.
Every school has appointed an inclusion advocate, and these individuals work together to determine the best provision for the students, including time spent in the local pupil referral unit.
The staff themselves have already gelled as a team but the heads who set up and approved the process are now slightly nervous about its practical implications.
This does not reflect lack of faith but anxiety about the unknown: can the South Lakes Federation be an educational entity in itself, when all the institutions are separately governed and measured, and have separate budgets?
In order to provide itself with a business framework, SLF formed a limited company, with representative governors as members and the heads as directors. This gave it the means of employing staff if necessary, and there are now five of us acting as 'collaboration builders'.
Our chief role is not to act as substitutes for staff who are too hard-pressed to spend time in meetings (although sometimes this is the case); it is to provide a different framework for thinking about the extended organisation.
This inevitably leads to more comparisons and questions. For instance, the students attending courses at the FE college feel more like adults because they think the lecturers interact with them in a more adult way; they resent being treated as immature, as they perceive it, when back in school.
College staff say they are hard on the students; they treat them as if they were in the workplace and expect good time-keeping and strict adherence to codes of practice.
Staff and lecturers are working together to find out what makes the difference, and whether or not the ethos of 'school' should change. There will be no easy solutions but staff are willing to work differently if that is what is needed.
The first collaboration builder to be appointed was the executive secretary, whose role is essentially to make sure that the wheels don't fall off this enterprise. For the first three years, his salary was paid from DfES funding, but now it comes from the budget contributed by all the schools because that funding has ceased.
He began with the expectation that he would spend about two days a week on this work, but has found himself stealing time from other work as SLF has grown and intensified.
INSET for all
Another collaboration builder has been internally seconded to act as the training school manager on behalf of all the schools. A quarter of her time is allocated to the federation and paid from the joint funds.
She was appointed after the first year in anticipation of SLF becoming a training federation - but the DfES rules for training schools changed. (Strategies have to keep changing to take account of yet more government initiatives.)
One striking outcome from her work was a joint INSET day, at which almost all workshops were led by members of staff from the different institutions. This has made an enormous difference to the sense of partnership across the federation.
Another officer is responsible for devising and managing the curriculum and the resources for students judged to be at risk of exclusion. Her salary comes from the inclusion budget already mentioned and she has now a really exciting curriculum for students who can benefit from it (land-based studies, countryside skills, young fire fighters, pictured above) - but there is also a challenge.
Her title is alternative curriculum enhancement coordinator which led to students being labelled 'ACE students'. Rather, she invites schools to refer to 'students who will benefit from the ACE programme'. As a consequence, one head has asked: "Will we have to stop categorising students - SEN, for instance?"
The heads contemplate this question in all seriousness. But beyond it is a still more testing question: can they accept collective responsibility for all the results?
The current strategic development plan for the federation no longer fits on the back of an envelope. It incorporates aspirations to be creative and innovative, with a pragmatic understanding of what will be necessary to make that real.
None of it is easy because, despite rhetoric inviting schools to 'network' and 'co-operate', systems of assessment still assume the outcomes of 'above average' and 'below average' rather than embracing the concept of overall school improvement.
But in the South Lakes there is now a real passion to improve the life chances of every student; not of some at the expense of others.
Jill Clough has worked with the South Lakes Federation for the last three years as a consultant, providing strategic advice and hands-on support. She is one of the ASCL MAPS team of consultants.
The South Lakes Federation comprises:
Cartmel Priory School
John Ruskin School
Kirkbie Kendal School
Queen Elizabeth School Kirkby Lonsdale
Sandgate Special School
The Queen Katherine School
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