Hands up for co-operation over rivalry

Estelle Morris's proposal for cluster schools has already been tried in Birmingham. It pushed up exam grades dramatically, writes Richard Garner
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Meet Mike Moran, chairman of the board of head teachers. It's a title that you will probably have to get used to in the years ahead as the Government promotes the idea of schools clustering together to run their affairs jointly.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, floated the concept as one of the main themes of her keynote speech at the North of England education conference earlier this month. And, as with so many new ideas, it's already up and running in one part of the country. Mr Moran is head teacher of Bishop Walsh Catholic School, a performing-arts college in Sutton Coldfield. More importantly, for the purposes of the Government's new big idea, he's also the current chairman of the board of head teachers set up to run the Birmingham Catholic partnership – which all 10 Catholic secondary schools in the city have joined to raise standards throughout the sector.

It appears to have worked. Figures for GCSE pass rates show that in the past decade, while the percentage of pupils obtaining at least five top-grade A* to Cs has improved nationally by 11 per cent and in Birmingham by 16 per cent, the schools in the Birmingham partnership have seen an improvement of 21 per cent. That is the sort of evidence that Ms Morris needs to persuade the Chancellor Gordon Brown to part with cash in the comprehensive spending review to fund similar initiatives around the country.

It has already convinced Professor Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer who is well respected by one of his local MPs, Ms Morris. He has adopted the scheme as his own and turned it into "collegiate academies" across Birmingham. His imprimatur certainly helped to persuade the Education Secretary that clustering schools together could be the best way forward.

Ironically, for a scheme that depends so much on co-operation, the partnership was born in an era when the accent was more on competition between schools. It was first launched in 1988, when the then Conservative government was pushing the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. Schools could qualify for huge dollops of extra cash by pursuing the initiative but needed teachers trained quickly to deliver the curriculum. What better way of achieving that than by co-operation between schools, the argument went.

The TVEI scheme was ultimately abandoned, but the heads of the 10 schools had learnt that there were benefits to be gained by co-operating and so stuck together through the viciously competitive era when exam league tables were introduced. As a result, they emerged as a closely knit force when Labour came to power and when the clock began to be turned back to a more collective approach.

One of the first hurdles to overcome in setting up the partnership is a requirement that partner schools should devote 0.5 per cent of their budgets (which could amount to up to £7,500 per school) to partnership activities. As anyone involved in education for more than a decade knows, the late Eighties and early Nineties were a time when school budgets were being squeezed and it was difficult to find enough resources to keep good staff, let alone spend money on new enterprises.

Mike Moran, who is in his fourth year as head of Bishop Walsh and will spend two years as chairman of the board (the position rotates between the schools to avoid anyone gaining "top dog" status), admits: "It was more of a leap into the dark in those days, I suppose. There weren't too many schools committing a proportion of their budgets to joint endeavours."

Cathy Feeney, co-ordinator for the partnership, adds: "Given the climate, it is absolutely amazing that schools had the vision to go down this line at a time, which was against common sharing of resources."

The benefits were soon apparent. An early breakdown of the GCSE statistics shows that – between 1992 and 1997 – the partnership schools improved their five A* to C grade rating from 25 per cent to 37 per cent, compared with a rise from 38 per cent to 45 per cent nationwide. That represents almost a 50 per cent improvement for the partnership schools compared with just around 20 per cent nationally.

What was the secret of its success? In a word, sharing. It was proof of the oft repeated mantra of new Labour education ministers that good practice must be shared works.

Every Thursday, heads of department from a particular subject area convene at the partnership's offices to share their thoughts about how to improve standards and the quality of their teaching. Any innovative idea at one school can therefore immediately be available to another. Cathy Feeney tells of one new head of department who arrived at his first meeting wondering whether it was worth the effort to drag himself away from his classroom. "By 10.15am, he was saying 'this is great'. There was a real buzz from sharing ideas. It was something he hadn't come across before."

Of course, it goes deeper than that. Bishop Walsh is a performing-arts college in partnership with the Birmingham Repertory Company. As a result of the extra cash it receives, it has sound-proofed studios where budding pop groups can practice after school, the facility to record its own CDs or a range of music, and new space for dance and drama classes. (Interestingly, the increased facilities for dance have led to a marked increase in interest from boys in the subject.) It is also able to pioneer music technology as an A-level for those pupils interested in a career in recording music. The facilities can be used by the community and other schools. The same is true of Bishop Challoner school, a specialist sports college.

"When you join one of our schools, you join 10," says Mike Moran. Co-operation between the schools also helps to nip any staffing difficulties in the bud. For instance, on one occasion when a head teacher fell ill, another was temporarily seconded to his school while his deputy took over his role.

There will be differences in the citywide scheme being planned by Professor Brighouse. Each "collegiate academy" will have a president of the board of head teachers rather than a chairman, but the ethos will be the same. Professor Brighouse, who has been given financial support from the Department for Education and Skills' standards fund for his initiative, is optimistic that two academies will be up and running by September.

The academies can range from "loosely coupled" clusters to "tightly coupled" clusters. If schools opt for a loose arrangement, they can run professional development courses for all their teaching staff – or joint-masterclasses in different subject areas for the most gifted pupils from each of the schools. "Tightly coupled" schools can offer a range of different subject specialities to pupils – either teaching different schools in the cluster online at the same time or marshalling them in one of the schools – and share teaching staff.

Professor Brighouse is also anxious that the city's academies will help to break down racial and religious barriers rather than being composed of schools from just one religious group. He sees schools that have developed different specialisms under the Government's specialist schools programmes sharing their state-of-the-art resources in their individual specialisms with each other.

He likens the management of the "collegiate academies" to the Oxbridge college system. "If you keep in your mind's eye, the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London and the way they operate, you will get an idea of how the schools will operate," he says. "Students at those universities all belong to a separate college, but also to the university."

Estelle Morris would like to take the idea even further. When she floated it at the North of England education conference, she suggested that clusters could have a "superhead" – a strategic head possibly earning a six-figure salary who took on responsibility for planning and innovation for all the schools in the cluster. Each individual school would have its own head to concentrate on learning and the curriculum within the schools. John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, reckons that there would have to be a salary of around £150,000 a year before heads would be interested in taking on the extra responsibilities.

Back at the Catholic partnership, there is interest in that idea. "It could be a way for us to develop in future," agrees Mr Moran.