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Help yourself by helping others

Claims that governors of rural schools are selfish about sharing their facilities are wrong. Laurence Pollock reports.

WHEN Peggy Wotton retires, her sub-post office may well find a home at nearby Stawley village school in Somerset.

Mrs Wotton has been post mistress for a cluster of tiny hamlets for 33 years, and before that her mother-in-law did the job. She is a very game 68-year-old but stresses: "I can't go on forever."

As a governor at Stawley for the past 18 years, formerly chair and now vice-chair, she can see the link between a threatened 48-

pupil school and an endangered species such as her sub-post office.

She is enthusiastically backing Stawley school's "rural community initiative", which could see its role expand into a range of facilities - perhaps including her post office - as a process of keeping the area alive.

It is an issue keenly felt by many of the 2,700 "small schools" (those with fewer than 100 pupils) around the country. This is especially since Diana Organ MP, the new president of Action with Communities in Rural England, claimed that negatively-thinking governors were a block to encouraging such developments at rural schools (TES, March10). Her colleague Peter Bradley, chair of the Labour group of rural MPs, said the first things governors worry about are insurance and security - rather than how they can contribute to sustaining rural communities and services.

Stawley, under acting head Eddie Gregory, has just survived a viability assessment, which is carried out on all small schools in Somerset when a head leaves. He and the governors attribute their survival in large measure to the initiatives to place education at the heart of local facilities.

Governors launched a needs assessment identifying cradle-to-grave requirements for the little cluster of hamlets. These ranged from infant healthcare and after-school clubs to chiropody and a drop-in centre for the elderly.

The strategy, developed by Mrs Wotton, chair of governors Julia Swann, and Mr Gregory is a sophisticated promotional exercise. Citing the Government's Green Paper on rural development, Stawley's vision statement is eyeing multi-agency funding from social services, community education and single regeneration funding, the countryside agency and health authorities.

The key, however, is new building and extra staffing on top of the current 2.2 full-time equivalent posts. Currently, a "tailored" unit houses the children and governors hope that the need to replace this will provide a springboard for a suitable infrastructure.

Mrs Wotton acknowledges that there are concerns about security: "I gets talked about and we are aware that it needs to be tightened as much as it possibly can.

"I do not reckon you get as many concerns in an area like this but nobody is safe. Our first priority is always the children."

Governors at Armathwaite community school in Cumbria would subscribe to that. They also have ambitions to build a resource which will underpin the whole community.

The 34-pupil school, with an age range of four to eight, is already hosting an array of village-based activities. The local Shoestring Theatre company competes for space with an information technology course run by the University of Central Lancashire, a "storysacks" reading programme, and a group of Northumbrian pipers.

The school is also planning to use its long Edwardian marching corridor as an art gallery to exhibit work by both professional artists and local people. Headteacher Jenny Dixon dreams of an artist's studio there.

Peter Lee, the chair of governors acknowledges that with so much going on it is sometimes an effort to find free space for a governors' meeting.

He stresses, however, that this is more than just a marketing exercise to help save a school which, like Stawley, has faced closure.

"I believe that a school based in a small community actually helps to keep those other facilities and activities alive. If the school goes they will go."

He also argues that closing Armathwaite but keeping the building as a resource would not be a solution: "I am sure that the premises would lose a lot of potential if they were not part of a living building used throughout the day."

Additionally, governors and the head have a longer-term strategy to stimulate broader daytime use. The school is currently discussing the possibility of the local nursery moving onto the site with scope for primary healthcare support and infrastructure.

There is implicit support for small schools from the present Government. Despite pressure on education authorities to reduce surplus places only half a dozen small schools have closed since 1997. But there is no room for complacency.

Mervyn Benford, of the National Association of Small Schools, confirms that there is a genuine problem in the attitude of some governors to developing school usage.

But he adds: "We think there is a more significant objection coming from headteachers who are concerned about how you insulate children from other usages.

"You need to adapt to a modular-type building so that the community can access facilities without coming into direct contact with children."

National Association of Small Schools, telephone 01295 780225

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