Small rural primary schools can struggle to overcome financial difficulties and face challenges recruiting staff and delivering a broad and balanced curriculum, new DfE research shows.
The study reveals that staff in small rural schools are typically more experienced, more expensive and less likely to leave their post than those in large urban schools, which can make it difficult to manage costs.
Small schools also warned that their budgets can be more affected by volatility in pupil numbers.
Quick read: Small schools face isolation
The new research follows the publication of a separate report, revealed by Tes, which showed that small rural schools were facing educational isolation that affects them “professionally, economically and culturally.”
The challenge of running rural schools
Today’s research was carried out by the Department for Education to identify evidence of good practice for individual small rural primary schools and collaborations.
A sample of small rural primary schools with less than 100 pupils that were performing well in terms of their pupil attainment, finances and Ofsted assessments were selected.
However, the study still shows that these schools faced challenges. Many small schools found it difficult to offer a broad and balanced curriculum.
In some cases, mixed-age classes mean that the national curriculum is organised into rolling programmes. This can mean where pupils from two different year groups share the same class or where subjects allocated to the two different year groups in the national curriculum are combined for delivery over two school years.
The study warns that some schools felt that teacher training was not designed for these types of classes and that limited guidance was available.
However, it also says that some teachers like working in small schools, which "necessitates undertaking a wider variety of tasks that might not be required in larger schools".
The report also highlights problems in recruitment faced by small rural schools.
Most schools and trusts identified headteachers and senior teaching staff as being particularly difficult to recruit, while many also highlighted issues finding lower-level admin and supervisory staff.
Recruiting to remote rural locations with limited and expensive housing was considered harder than recruiting to urban schools.
To overcome recruitment challenges, schools sought to highlight the benefits of working in small schools, such as a wider variety of roles, more responsibility and the chance to develop the skills necessary to teach mixed-age groups, the research shows.
Some schools in multi-academy trusts said that they could achieve savings by having one headteacher responsible for more than one school.
And the report says that most of the schools and trusts saw the MAT model as offering opportunities to achieve savings.
In November last year, the Church of England’s lead bishop for education called for a cross-governmental rural strategy to help sustain rural schools.
The Rt Rev Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely, was speaking after a Church summit that explored ways to safeguard the future of education in remote communities.
There were 1,264 small rural Church of England schools with 110 or fewer pupils last year, and another 856 with fewer than 210 children on roll.