In March 2014, Milburn School faced an existential threat: an Ofsted report had declared it “inadequate” across the board and plunged it into special measures.
With only five pupils on its roll, and sitting in a remote location on the fringes of the Cumbrian Pennines, the school had to decide whether to fight for survival or shut its doors forever.
It was a dilemma that extended beyond concern about the education of its five children to the very future of the community. Chair of governors Russell Clark describes the school as “providing some of the lifeblood of the village”.
Today, Milburn School remains small and rural, but it also remains open. Within just two years of that damning report, it has jumped two Ofsted grades to be rated “good” overall and “outstanding” for personal development, behaviour and welfare.
Milburn’s story has made it a shining example for the supporters of small schools. For Clark, the school’s future was “absolutely” under threat in 2014, and it consulted with the wider village to see if it was committed to its survival. It was.
“We are a small village,” he says. “We don’t have a shop. We don’t have a pub. We have a school, a village hall and a church, and we don’t really have public transport. We are integrated into the village. It’s very important; it’s part of the village.”
He believes the key to its post-Ofsted survival was maintaining regular communication with parents to give them the confidence to keep their children on roll, along with close liaison with the local authority and Ofsted to get out of special measures.
It was immediately apparent that “keeping a tight rein on finances” was crucial, Clark says, with a full-time head proving unsustainable and provision of a full curriculum posing another challenge.
The school’s solution was to collaborate with other schools, but crucially, it took the decision not to join an academy trust or federation. “It gives us more control as a village school and more input into the school,” says Clark.
A larger school provides an executive headteacher, and one day a week, Milburn’s pupils go there for specialist subjects, such as French, music and team sports, while the bigger school in turn is able to use Milburn’s forest-school area. The arrangement also allows Milburn staff to develop their skills at the larger school.
The school itself has one full-time teacher and a part-time teaching assistant, and teaching arrangements are flexible: sometimes all children learn together, sometimes they are taught on their own.
“Because you have got so few, you can still teach them individually,” says Clark.
“They can be at different levels in different subjects. Some can be joint subjects, but the teacher is still able to teach them individually so they have all got personalised teaching plans.
“The fact that they are taught in mixed-age groups, we tend to find they mix better with different age groups when they go to different schools.”
And he says that the school’s events in the village, such as the half-termly village lunches, Christmas parties, bonfires and village sports days, give the children extra confidence.
This week, the school took the first step on a new partnership with the much bigger Beaconside CofE Primary in Penrith, 11 miles away, with the introduction of a joint executive head; the full collaboration will begin in September.
Clark says the arrangement is already having a positive effect: “Now that we have the new collaboration in place, we have had a lot of interest about new children joining the Reception year, and some in-year transfers as well.”
He adds: “We have found it works exceptionally well, and we have found it’s a model that suits us. It might not suit every small school, but I don’t know the downsides to it.
“The financial savings, the skill benefits, benefits to children in both schools – it’s just a win-win.”