Education: United in everything but location

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The Independent Online
No longer are there separate schools in the beautiful Dorset villages of Winterborne Stickland, Winterborne Whitchurch, Winterborne Kingston and Milton Abbas. There are instead bases of Dunbury First.

The children wear the same uniforms. They can communicate with one another by fax. They share teachers in a split-site school, whose buildings are separated by fields and country lanes.

The headteacher spends a day a week in each school. All teachers have their own classes, but they also spend one day a week in another base to share their teaching specialities.

Dunbury First opened last September with about 180 five- to nine-year-olds. It is a combination of four small village schools that were closed in July to make the country's largest federated school.

The children still go to the same picturesque Victorian school buildings, scattered through a lush valley in the heart of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, but the names they have borne for generations have disappeared.

Only a handful of federations exist in the country, generally involving just two schools, often created by default because of difficulties in recruiting heads to small schools that could be under threat of closure.

The decision to create the Dunbury federation was taken after the headships of two of the village schools in the Winterborne valley, near Blandford Forum, were advertised but could not be filled. It was a big decision, one that caused much anxiety in the community. People worried that children would end up being bused all around the valley for lessons. At worst, some feared that it was a precursor of permanent closure of at least some of the schools.

None of the existing heads got the job as overall headteacher, and there was some ill-feeling among parents as staff were transferred between villages.

Christine Pfaff, Dunbury's head, acknowledges that the period leading up to federation was difficult. 'All the schools had to be formally closed, and closure notices had to hang on the gates for seven months,' she says. 'When the schools shut for the summer holidays, people worried what might happen when they were not there to protect their schools.'

Now, well into the second term as a federation, everything is different, she says, with positive attitudes among staff, governors, parents and pupils. Busing is kept to a minimum. The children go to Blandford, about five miles away, for PE because of a shortage of facilities in all four schools. Each term children of the same age come together a couple of times for joint work.

Once a term the whole school joins for a special assembly in one of the village churches, because none of the schools has enough room to play host to all the children at the same time.

Some reservations remain in the villages. As one parent put it: 'It's a way of keeping our village school, but you can't identify with it. I don't know any of the parents up the valley. It's the parents and children at your own school gate that you know.'

(Photograph omitted)