Successful collaboration through Federation
John Jolliffe has been the Executive Headteacher of the Exe Valley Federation since January 2016. In this article, he explores the benefits of a federation and why working together is the key to success, whatever the organisational structure adopted by groups of schools.
“But I don’t understand; why you have come here?”
This was the question that I was greeted with by an inquisitive parent during my first week in the Exe Valley Federation. In fact there were many reasons for making the decision to move from being head of a very high performing school in Bristol to a group of small schools in Devon but the easiest one to give this particular person was that it was time for a new adventure! Although the three schools in the federation at the time had fewer children on roll than Key Stage 2 in my last school, it soon became clear that collaboration between the schools was going to be the key to bringing them together into one organisation that had a clear vision for improvement.
In those early days, one of the first things I realised was that the heads needed time to meet together regularly to share ideas and talk about issues and give support to each other in what was otherwise a virtually impossible job. We agreed to meet every Tuesday afternoon at one of the schools and this proved to be one of the most effective changes that I made in the first few months I was here. This weekly meeting has continued to be sacrosanct to the leadership team and as new heads have joined the federation (one in 2017 and another in 2019) this has been one of the greatest benefits to the heads themselves. It’s true that the staff can hear gales of laughter emerging from my office on Tuesday afternoons but if they listened at the door they would also hear leaders sharing their successes and worries and the occasional tear and expressions of frustration. Gill Adnams, whose school joined the federation in 2019, commented that “this weekly meeting has changed my outlook on headship; I am no longer alone leading in my school but am part of a team that is committed to the same objectives as me.” No one would deny that being a head is a very demanding role, but having a group of people around you who share the same values and experiences makes all the difference in the world; every time there has been a problem in one of the schools, there has been a solution in one of the others; this is the richness of collaboration and one of the greatest strengths of working together.
That’s not to say it has always been easy; early in my time here there was a week when the chair of governors and Business Manager both resigned and I learned that one of the schools was causing the Local Authority (LA) concern through inconsistent data. With each challenge there was also an opportunity to bring about change and seek new ways of working. The school that was causing concern was given support by the LA but also found solutions from within the federation through colleagues supporting each other and learning together in a structured way and 18 months later, the Ofsted inspection judged that the school retained its ‘good’ status. This pattern of peer to peer support has worked very well since then, supporting a school that joined the federation after an Ofsted inspection judged that it ‘required improvement’ and working with a local independent pre-school facing a similar challenge. In the process, teachers and support staff alike have gained from sharing their learning and experiences and as we all work in similar schools, there is a common understanding of the challenges of mixed year classes that change in composition year on year, not having a school hall, rising and falling rolls and having to teach two or three year groups at the same time.
It is fair to say that it is the governors of the federation who have undergone the most dramatic development in the last four years as they have gained understanding of their joint responsibility for children’s learning across the five schools. This wasn’t always the case as initially governors had a very ‘school-focused’ approach to governance, but to their credit, learned to take a wider responsibility. However, when we moved from three schools to four, we realised that it was no longer going to be possible for all governors to read Heads reports for all the schools and ask questions about them. After much thought, Jackie Enright, the Chair of Governors, came up with the idea of ‘home teams’ of a few governors who would get to know each school individually and spend time there on learning walks, often armed with biscuits or cake for the staffroom! These home teams have proved invaluable at Ofsted inspections, when the members of the group have been joined by the chair and vice-chairs in talking about the strategic work of governors, whilst also knowing the school and its staff and children very well. The balance of strategic oversight and local knowledge isn’t always easy to get right but the dedication and professionalism of our governors has meant that they have been recognised as a strength in all the schools, both during federation reviews and by Ofsted.
As the federation has grown, we have been able to develop our own middle leaders and trained them in a bespoke professional development course. This is now in its second incarnation, making use of contacts we have made with other organisations and professionals and giving aspiring middle leaders the opportunity to hone their skills within the federation. We now have a layer of middle leaders who are responsible for driving improvement in English and maths, championing disadvantaged children and running the initial teacher training programme.
“But how do the children gain from this?” I’m often asked. From a classroom perspective perhaps, nothing has changed except that teachers can share their planning and resources with other colleagues and access staff development opportunities that a small school could only dream of having in place. But there are very tangible ways that children benefit because our combined budgets enable us to undertake bigger scale projects that are just not possible in a small school. One example of this is residential visits, which are open to every child from Year 3 upwards. None of our schools on their own would have the manpower, funding or capacity to take the whole year group to sleep with sharks at Plymouth Aquarium, or visit the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, but between us we can give children the opportunity to learn together in new and exciting ways outside school. One of the skills that children learn on these visits is how to work as part of a group of 60 or 70 children, which is very different from their own school group of sometimes less than 10; this is such good preparation for being part of a large cohort at secondary school.
The federation has grown gradually over the last four years as two schools asked to join us and at each re-federation we have been able to gain capacity to do more ourselves. For example, we now have a full-time Business Manager, who has taken on the running of school meals and negotiating contracts for five schools together. Whilst it’s true to say we don’t achieve huge economies of scale yet, we do get discounts for bulk purchasing of a few hundred pounds, which all helps. We have also been able to share a SENDCO across two schools so as well as another school gaining the expertise and wisdom of an existing SENDCO, we don’t need to send two people on the same training course but can share this input across schools.
By working together we have also developed the capacity to incorporate two pre-schools into Foundation Stage Units, thus improving the quality of provision and maintaining our pupil numbers at the same time.
In the last four years there have been significant changes in the educational landscape and at one time it felt that becoming an academy was the only way to go for small schools. But it feels like this may be changing as it is recognised that school to school collaboration is the key to driving improvement and that the organisational structure is perhaps less important. Whilst it is true that any school can work with its neighbouring schools, in reality this is very hard to achieve and there does need to be some common leadership to provide the strategic vision for collaboration. This, at least, has been my experience over the last four years and I can see exactly why the Exe Valley Federation schools are stronger together as they seek to provide the best education possible for the children who live and learn in the five schools. To answer that parent’s question from my first few weeks, that is why I came here!
The Exe Valley Federation comprises Brampford Speke C of E School, Cheriton Fitzpaine School, Newton St Cyres School, Silverton C of E School and Thorverton C of E School. All the schools are within a ten mile radius of each other in villages in or close to the River Exe in Mid-Devon. All the schools have been inspected by Ofsted in the last four years and have been judged to be ‘good’ in all areas.
Since John wrote this article a sixth school, Sandford, has joined the federation.