Countryside March have focused attention on the problems of rural schools. Chris Bunting reports on ministers' new hobbyhorse
THE word "countryside" used to conjure up misty images for city dwellers of neatly-clipped hedgerows, cows with impossibly full udders and vaguely menacing men carrying shotguns.
The fuel crisis and countryside protests have shaken up these cosy stereotypes. And in recent years a new and potentially explosive ingredient has been introduced: the Countryside Alliance. Protesters have stormed the cities, complaining about the oppression of the country by an urban-focused government.
The alliance has achieved massive publicity but has also generated hostility. To the townie audience, it's all a bit too feudal: large masses of "countrymen", headed by their landowners, presenting a programme that puts defending the right to chase foxes on a par with relieving real distress in the country.
Education Secretary David Blunkett exposed the ideological rift separating the urban left from rural conservatives during the fuel crisis when he criticised "grumbling" farmers who "weren't at the forefront of bemoaning the collapse of the steel industry or the pits or the ship industry or textiles".
But should the problems of the countryside be brushed aside as the "forces of conservatism's" militant tendency?
Not according to Mr Blunkett's own department. In recent weeks, the Department for Education and Employment has displayed a new willingness to listen to rural problems. In particular, ministers are beginning to recognise that rural poverty is a hurdle which must be cleared if it is to achieve its targets for educational improvement.
Schools minister Estelle Morris told an international conference three weeks ago that half of Britain's worst-performing secondary schools were in country areas. She said: "Sometimes the nation almost expects under-achievement in our urban schools... I think there has often been a failure to acknowledge poverty in rural areas."
Hard on the heels of this revelation, Mr Blunkett announced that Excellence in Cities, the Government's key scheme for tackling the problems of inner-city deprivation in schools, would be extended to rural areas and smaller towns. Since then there has been frantic activity.
Martin Booth, chairman of the Local Government Association's rural education working party, came out of a meeting last week with junior minister Jacqui Smith beaming. "They are really looking at these issues. Finally, we seem to have a government that wants to know about rural disadvantage," he said.
This is new. While the Blair Government has been praised for helping to stop the closure of small rural schools, its policy towards tackling educational disadvantage has been concentrated on inner-city deprivation.
Excellence in Cities, as its name implies, was conceived as a way of targeting extra money and support at large blocks of urban deprivation. Education action zones, though on a smaller scale and occasionally extended to country areas, were also originally designed as town and city solutions.
Why, when, according to the Countryside Agency, inner cities account for only about 65 per cent of peple living in poverty have they dominated the political agenda?
There are problems with the structure of our political system. While there are many urban MPs speaking almost entirely for poor constituencies, there have historically been few country areas, outside the old mining communities, dominated by the voice of the disadvantaged. The lack of unionisation in many country industries has helped to weaken an alternative platform.
But Les Roberts, chief executive of Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), believes a major problem is the mindset of national government and the media. Both like to aim at big prey. And the inner cities, with their concentrations of deprivation in defined geographical areas, make easier targets to spot.
"Number-crunching doesn't work in rural areas. In many areas there will be a percentage of the population experiencing poverty, living cheek-by-jowl with really very prosperous people. Whitehall can't make head nor tail of this. The overall figures for the area look good," Mr Roberts says.
The large mass of deprived pupils in rural schools are attending class alongside relatively prosperous children and, when the problem does occur in a concentrated pocket, it will often be too small to deal with through an education action zone or Excellence in Cities partnership.
Lynne Pawley, headteacher of Brough primary school, East Cumbria, is working in the heart of such a pocket: "Only 12 per cent of our parents come from higher social income groups but, down the road, they have 80 per cent of fairly well-off families. This is very localised but the problems for us are no less difficult: lack of income in the household, low expectations, emotional and behavioural problems," she says.
Add to that the fact that many children have to miss extra-curricular activities because their only way of getting home is the school bus and a general lack of out-of-school social and leisure facilities in rural communities and, according to Ms Pawley, the problem is as intractable as any of those faced by the inner cities.
With cabinet committees working towards the publication of a White Paper on rural issues in November and with a unusually large proportion of Labour MPs looking to be re-elected from marginal rural constituencies at the next election, minds are being concentrated on the issue.
But according to rural campaigners, ministers need to do more than just expand programmes such as Excellence in Cities, which have been designed to tackle urban problems into urban areas.
The greater geographical spread of poverty in rural Britain means that it can be harder to get to grips with. "Behind a lot of policy at the moment, not just education policy, there is a broad underlying concept of the zone, a geographical area to concentrate resources on. The Government seems to find it really hard to think outside that way of thinking but it doesn't really apply to rural areas where poverty is widely dispersed and often hidden," Mr Roberts of ACRE says.
With Tony Blair's promise to eliminate child poverty in Britain within 20 years hanging over their heads, all government departments are faced with the puzzle of solve the problem dogging a green but not always pleasant land.