The Church of England will hold a summit this week to brainstorm ways of keeping open its rural schools.
Many of its 2,000 rural schools – some with less than 200 pupils - are battling to stay open, and are often the last survivor in a village that has already lost its post office, general shop and pub, it is claimed.
The church’s chief education officer Nigel Genders, writing today in the Sunday Times, says: “While it is true that the cost of educating a child might be higher in a rural area, we also understand the value to children of receiving their education in this setting, and of rural schools as rich expressions of their community.”
Mr Genders said many school were built in the 19th century to provide free education for “the poorest in society.”
He said: “If we were starting our schools network from scratch, a town planner might say that we would best be served by fewer, larger schools, situated outside large towns. On the same basis as out-of-town supermarkets, they would be seemingly more efficient, trading increased travel for lower costs.
“But children’s futures are not simply a product we can simply pick up off the shelf, and schools are not — and must never be — run on the logic of a supermarket… Yet that does not mean we can’t learn new lessons, think of ways of working “smarter” and sometimes do things differently.”
The Rural Schools Symposium will be held at Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and will bring together church leaders to discuss new ways of working in partnerships.
More than a third of the Church of England’s schools, teaching nearly 250,000 children, have fewer than 210 pupils. And more than 1,300, mostly primary schools, have half that number of children on their roll.
Problems include crumbling 19th-century buildings with large bills for heating and difficulties in recruiting teachers to work in the countryside.
Protests have grown heated in recent months as parents have accused the church of wanting to close some schools so the land can be sold for development, says the Sunday Times.
It cites the example of North Cotes Church of England Primary School, near Grimsby, which is in one of the church’s most rural and deprived dioceses. But it has survived the falling number of pupils by sharing a head teacher with another school.
Since last year Jonathan Grant has been interim head teacher at North Cotes, which has 24 pupils, while still the head at Fulstow Primary School, about three miles away. “In some villages the school is the last thing remaining in addition to the church,” Grant said. “The post office has gone, the shop has gone. One parent said to me, ‘The school is the heart of the community. If schools go from villages, that is it for them.’”