'The loss of small schools would be incalculable'

Small schools have been hit hard by the funding crisis – many are in danger of closure, warns the NAHT's Paul Whiteman

Small school have been hit particularly hard by the school funding crisis, writes the NAHT's Paul Whiteman

This general election is a golden opportunity for those of us who care most about education and young people.

Its challenging, but we must make sure that the election campaign doesn’t just focus on Brexit. A Brexit-only election would be a disaster for schools and young people. "Fact-checking" has already become a feature of this election, with plenty of organisations robustly challenging the claims and promises from parties and their candidates. This is important. Education is too big a priority for the debate to be skewed by false information or misleading statements.

In recent times the NAHT headteachers' union has become renowned for the research work that it has published. Our reports have shaped government thinking, changed public opinion and brought about some real changes to the system. Today we’re publishing fresh data from our members in smaller schools. 

Small schools are at the heart of our local and rural communities. But today’s data reveals that many leaders are worried about their financial survival. Life in a small school is precarious. More than four in 10 small-school leaders are concerned or very concerned about the possibility of closure of their school.

Eight out of 10 said a lack of funding was the primary cause for this. Seven out of 10 worried about low or fluctuating pupil numbers. This is a terrible state of affairs when you think about how vital these schools are. In many places, the school is the last beacon of light in the town or village they’re in.

The post office, the police station, the library, the community centre have all gone. We cannot afford to allow the school to be next.

Small schools suffering a funding crisis

Life in a small school is unique. Senior leadership teams tend to be quite small.  Some 76 per cent of respondents to our survey said they have an SLT of just one to two members.  Less than half – 46 per cent – have a deputy or assistant headteacher. Some 59 per cent of school leaders in small schools also have a teaching commitment.  

Teams are smaller, too. Typically, small schools employ fewer than four full-time equivalent teachers – about 65 per cent. Most teachers in small schools lead three or more subjects (60 per cent). That is a huge weight of responsibility resting on everyone’s shoulders – particularly the leaders'.

Life in a small school requires sacrifices to make ends meet. Some 70 per cent of leaders are reducing investment in equipment. While 67 per cent are cutting down the number or the hours of teaching assistants. And 63 per cent are decreasing investment in CPD, while  60 per cent are not spending as much on essential maintenance. Only 16 per cent of respondents said they received additional funding through the national funding formula. Of those that do receive funding, the majority – 84% – said this was not enough to provide reasonable budget stability.

All schools have suffered as a result of budget cuts, but small schools have been hit particularly hard. Current funding arrangements are not working for these schools. My worry is that future governments will see these schools as inefficient, or impractical to keep open – just because they are small.

But as our data shows, these schools are already as lean as they can be. And in many cases, they are often the only public service left standing in their community. They may be small – but their loss would be incalculable.

Sure, value for money in public services is correct. But out-and-out efficiency speaks of a miserly attitude to the futures of our nation’s children. Small schools, their teams and their pupils must be protected.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union

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