MORE than half the children attending England's rural schools are from households earning less than the national average.
According to a study of services for children in rural areas, of the 1.7 million under-15s living in England's countryside, 900,000 come from homes whose income is less than pound;400 a week.
Compiled by the Countryside Agency and the National Council of Voluntary Childcare Organisations, the report says schools, nurseries, playgroups and youth clubs are vital in tackling rural social exclusion.
Country children are now to be targeted in a Government drive to raise standards using techniques from the inner cities.
Last week Estelle Morris, the school standards minister, said that nearly half of the 530 secondary schools where fewer than one pupil in four achieves five good GCSE passes were in rural 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."
She said the Government wanted increased numbers of education action zones, which combine extra funding with business sponsorship for groups of schools.
Schools achieving successes in "challenging areas" will be encouraged to share their expertise.
Zoe Ollerenshaw, the Local Govrnment Association's education officer, said:
"Estelle Morris has made an important acknowledgement that problems do not just exist in the inner cities.
"Rural areas are not just made up of 'chocolate-box' villages. There is a lot of deprivation. Much of this poverty can be hidden, existing in pockets alongside the wealthier areas."
Thetford in Norfolk has a population of 21,000, half of whom live in areas of deprivation. Jobs exist in manufacturing, agriculture and forestry, but although unemployment stands at only 2 per cent, in some districts it is four or five times higher. Results from the town's secondary schools tell the story. Thetford grammar, an independent selective school, sees 92 per cent of its pupils achieve five good GCSEs. The town's two state secondaries do not do so well. At Rosemary Musker high the figure is 30 per cent, while at Charles Burrell high it is 13 per cent.
Graham Sigley, project director for the town's education action zones, said:
"Public transport is minimal. If one working parent uses the car, it often means the parent responsible for childcare doesn't have use of one. This makes it very difficult for children to attend after-school activities.
"Staff training is also a big issue. Until recently teachers and classroom assistants had to travel up to 30 miles to attend training in King's Lynn or Norwich. We are now providing local workshops.