Rural mix helps to improve results

Academics say that the lack of parental choice in isolated areas has contributed to more socially inclusive and successful schools

Children in rural schools out-perform those educated in towns and cities, according to new government figures.

A fifth more pupils in the countryside achieved at least five good GCSEs last year, according to statistics released by the Department for Education and Skills.

The findings come despite evidence from the Commission for Rural Communities that 20 per cent of people in the countryside live in poverty and many cannot afford to buy decent homes.

A leading academic said this week that the gulf reflected the more stable comprehensive intake at most rural schools, where children have little choice but to attend the local secondary.

Professor Alan Smithers, from Buckingham university, said the figures fuelled concerns that increasing school choice would not necessarily improve results.

"In rural areas, comprehensive education really works," he said. "The majority of children, other than those who are independently educated, will attend the same local school - the whole spectrum of abilities will be there, from those going on to leading universities to those leaving school at the earliest opportunity.

"Because it is an inclusive environment, I think most schools get the best out of the great majority of pupils. In non-rural areas, there is more choice of school and some can become quite depressing places in which under-performance is rife."

Last year, 68,776 children sat GCSEs in rural areas - defined using a complex measurement, based on settlements of less than 10,000 people - compared to 454,108 in towns and cities.

Figures show that 61d per cent of children at rural schools achieved at least five A* to C grades, compared to 53.7 per cent in non-rural schools.

Figures released following a Parliamentary question by Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh show the gap between urban and rural education is widest at small-to-medium sized schools.

According to the DfES, more than half of children at rural schools of between 300 and 400 pupils gained five good GCSEs, compared to 28 per cent at similar sized inner-city schools.

Brenda Edwards, general secretary of the National Association of Small Schools, said: "If you go to a school where you know most of the pupils and it is a relatively stable environment, children are going to thrive."

A survey by the CRC in June found that one in five people lives in poverty in rural areas and some 78 per cent said it was difficult to find decent affordable housing.

Critics have accused the Government of squeezing rural schools by pumping cash into urban "superschools", such as academies, and employing a funding formula which favours urban councils over shire counties.

But ministers say schools in rural areas are being safeguarded. Closures of rural schools increased in the 1970s, reaching a peak of 127 in 1983, before continuing at around 30 a year until 1997. In February 1998, guidance to school organisation committees and the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, said there should be a "presumption against" the closure of rural schools.

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