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The challenges of employment relations for school federations

The education system has been undergoing rapid structural change, not least with the introduction of academies and free schools. By comparison, federations are relatively long in the tooth, having been introduced in 2003. But they still present unique challenges in terms of communication, leadership and employment relations.

What is a federation?

Federations give schools the power to create a single or joint governing body between them.

In this way, federating can help raise standards in struggling schools by partnering with better performers, or provide support for small schools that are in danger of closure or have difficulty in recruiting the right staff.

Federation between primary and secondary schools can also strengthen the continuity of education within and between local communities.

Benefits include mutual support, sharing staff, creating opportunities for staff development and for children to take part in joint activities, while saving costs by centralising 'back-office functions', such as finance, HR and administration.

Head teachers say the arrangement also frees them from administrative roles so that they can focus on the main issues of teaching and learning.

HR challenges

But the potentially complex structure of some federations can be daunting.

From the outset, heads and governors have to be up to speed with their obligations under TUPE regulations.

For example, when voluntary aided and foundation schools join federations, TUPE will apply as staff will cease to be employed by the school governing body (which will be dissolved), and enter into new contracts with the federation's governing body.

Individual school heads joining federations may have to adjust to their reduced autonomy, and may no longer have the final say in how their school is run. They may be answerable to an executive head teacher who oversees all the schools in a 'chain'.

Executive heads themselves may also have the additional challenge of managing large numbers and diverse cultures across multiple sites.

Maintaining good communication is crucial, particularly when performance within a federation isn't where it should be. When improvements are needed, conflicts can arise between heads about the best way to go forward - and the potential loss of flexibility and quick decision-making that can beset large organisations can add to the strain.

Sensitive leadership and 'soft' management skills can make all the difference, creating a unified body moving together for the benefit of all parts.

Acas publications and services

Acas can help you set up or manage a successful federation, being an authority on employment relations and change management. Acas also has extensive experience working with professionals in the education sector.

For instance, there's Acas guidance for academies and free schools, including help with Transferring Staff (TUPE), Working with Trade Unions and Employee Representatives, and Communication and Consultation.

Practical training is also available in Managing change, Having difficult conversations, Skills for supervisors and Contracts of employment.

And you can get free, confidential advice from expert advisers on the Acas Helpline; call 0300 123 1100.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.


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