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Chorus of appraisal for village life

IT is good news that the Government hasn't allowed the farmers, fox-hunters and fuel protesters to define the ground for its new White Paper on the countryside, because much of their agenda is irrelevant to the shifting challenges of rural life.

There may still be a few feudal villages locked in thrall to the local landowner, but the middle-class flight from the cities which has contributed so heavily to urban problems has also changed rural communities. Though deprivation is less in-your-face, many villages now have a population as varied as any town - with schools which reflect that.

I recently took part in a village appraisal, a newly-popular exercise designed to give people a say in the future of their own village. We found that a clear majority had moved into the village within the past 20 years or so, most of them of an age to raise their families in the countryside. Most had chosen traditional stone homes - probably contributing to the lack of affordable houses for local families identified in the White Paper - and the farmers' problems did not loom large with them.

The 21st-century villager is more anxious to stop them selling off their grazing meadows to developers, and to convert them from agri-business to organic bliss.

The new villager recognises that a thriving rural community still depends on its traditional framework of school, pub, shoppost office and church, but that three out of these four pillars are in crisis. John Prescott's paper makes only brief reference to saving village schools from closure, but does not recognise that many have now progressed to become the most thriving element of village life.

Mr Prescott's promises may help the shop fight back against the supermarkets, but many rural pubs and churches have failed to find ways that combine traditional values with the way we live andthink now. Only the schools attract enough customers, perhaps because they are the only village institutions changing in tune with a new generation.

You could say that is because every child has to go to school, whereas no one is forced to show up in church, the pub or the shop, but young families don't have to live in the country or choose the village school.

But the attraction of smaller classes doesn't make running a village school easy. The wider mix now of social, cultural and economic groups in the rural community can lead to a clash of beliefs, lifestyles and income levels which makes tough diplomatic demands on the teacher.

Parents who may be fifth-generation villagers, high-tech executives, potters, consultants, artists or sustainable development crusaders may want different things for their children. Some demand good test scores; others are more passionate about creative space and the tyranny of tests. But play it right and they can provide a wonderful support mix, which may do as much as national policies to strengthen the village school as a focus for community life.

A report on The Small Rural Primary School and its Community, written by former HMI Ronald Arnold and published by Action with Communities in Rural England, was revised earlier this year. It stressed the positive contribution to teaching and learning that can be made by links which draw on the interests and skills of community members. But, unsurprisingly, it found that many teachers felt burdened by tests and inspections.

Enter David Hargreaves. In a recent speech the new chief of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority revived the idea of well-designed school project work to help pupils develop the skills they will need in the knowledge economy. Such life after national tests may be just what rural communities need too.

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