Martin Ainsworth, headteacher of Wellfield Business and Enterprise College and chairperson of South Ribble Learning Foundation explains how group working has helped 14 educational establishments reduce isolation and increase effectiveness

The South Ribble Learning Federation comprises of 12 high schools, one further education college and one special school. The group have a tradition of working together over many years,and this relationship was formalised when we became a NCSL Network Learning Community five years ago. Even though this DfES/NCSL initiative has ceased, we continue to collaborate in an increasing number of projects and initiatives. In a period when often it seems we are encouraged to compete school vs school, we have enjoyed the fruits of cooperation.

South Ribble is part of the bigger Lancashire authority and at times it is very useful to be in one of the largest shire counties in England. However, it is sometimes difficult in an authority with 90 high schools to feel part of a team and be able to move quickly when the need arises. We all know in this world of rapid change, moving at pace can be the difference between being at the business end of matters or languishing unfunded and unrecognised at the back of the field.

By organising ourselves as a smaller unit (ie12 high schools; one special school and one further education college) we have developed the ability to drive forward quickly and efficiently on a number of fronts.

One of the keys to our success has been the positive working relationship the headteachers of all our institutions enjoy. This relationship has to be nurtured with regular, structured opportunities to meet, planned into the school year. Taking it in turns to host meetings gets us round the district seeing first-hand developments in our different places of learning. An annual two-day residential conference has allowed us to stand back, see the bigger picture and plan ahead.

We take great pains to induct new headteacher colleagues and support each other proactively in tricky times. We value the trust and fellowship we have, and these precious qualities underpin anything we achieve. National and local government agencies, business and community partners are eager to work with an experienced and united learning federation. So many bids/initiatives require effective demonstration of partnership – together we have been more successful for the area and our own schools than we would have been alone.

Building the network
We now have built on the headteacher network by establishing similar federation groups for curriculum or vocational senior managers, leaders in pastoral care or student support, ICT, SENCOs, heads of subject in specific curriculum areas, eg history, vocational groups and groups supporting able and talented students.

Supporting these groups with time and resources requires real commitment by federation members. The headteachers’ group respond flexibly to the needs of the other groups and coordinate their efforts toward future improvement of our learning federation.

With the encouragement for schools to seek specialist status we have actively attempted to achieve a spread of specialisms across our patch (four technology; three sports; two creative/arts; one maths/engineering; one business and enterprise and one humanities).

Specialised diplomas, in particular, and vocational provision, in general, are a big part of the learning agenda developing personalised programmes for our students. We have successfully gone through the gateway in the engineering specialist diploma and anticipate success in other diploma bids over the next couple of years. The membership of our federation includes Runshaw College, a highly successful FE college. They work as an equal partner and provide vital support in developing curriculum expertise 14-19 and in vocational areas in which 11-16 schools are relatively inexperienced.

An ambitious project
Three years ago we undertook an ambitious project to develop a vocational centre specialising in construction. In our area there was no provision in construction, necessitating accessing courses at another FE College. This was expensive in time, travel and funding. We received brilliant support from the Lancashire Education Business Partnership who worked to find us partners and provide project management support. A steering group was formed with representatives from potential partners, local authority, Learning Skills Council, Eric Wright Construction, Progress Housing, LEBP, two local FE colleges and ourselves.

This group had senior executive members who were able to make quick decisions, ensuring obstacles were overcome and momentum was maintained. The partners gave unselfishly of their time and expertise and the steering group enjoyed the excitement of the purposeful meetings and the tangible progress being made. Everyone put in funding and Eric Wright Construction, passionate to lay foundations for a new generation of skilled operatives, did more than most to ensure we were going to open on time. Premises were located; plans drawn up; refurbishment completed; staff appointed, procedures agreed and students recruited.

From its conception to the opening of the centre took less than 18 months – an amazing experience and a proud moment when the chief inspector of schools, Maurice Smith, performed the official opening. The centre is now nearly two years old, financially viable, catering for 500 students, providing Level 1 and 2 vocational courses in bricklaying, joinery, painting and decorating.

Looking forward
Only by working together, in a trusting and creative relationship, could we have made so much progress, so rapidly. We now look forward to being successful in going through the gateway to provide specialist diplomas in construction at the Eric Wright Centre. We would use the associated capital funding to expand the centre’s capacity and capability. Currently, we cover the disciplines of bricklaying, woodwork/joinery, painting and decorating. We look forward to the inclusion of plumbing and electrical. The centre will provide taster sessions for Year 8 students in the federation schools and develop enterprise activities in the construction context.

The federation is putting in place plans to deliver further vocational provision. A training hairdressing salon will open in September at my own school, Wellfield Business and Enterprise College, providing 14-16 courses for all federation schools. Mobile provision is being provided in motor vehicle studies taking the specialist learning to the learners. We plan to develop other vocational facilities around the district allowing all partners to champion areas matching their own specialisms and successful journeys through the gateways of diplomas.

We believe that wherever young people are educated in South Ribble, we will work together to ensure the service provided is of the highest quality. We have learned that, working together, we can be much stronger than working in isolation. Together we can influence decision making by others that effect our district much more positively. Planning for the future collaboratively is more ambitious and efficient.
Finally, as headteachers we have been able to support each other in ways that allow us to be more confident and less isolated in our work.