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Rural schools learn to help themselves

It may be a new town, but Telford amp; Wrekin is nearly 70 per cent rural. To the north lies an expanse of farmland and small, often wealthy settlements plus the market town of Newport.

Before 1998, the area belonged to Wrekin District Council, which has very different associations and was named after the famous, whale-shaped lump of volcanic rock that dominates the locality.

Newport's three secondaries - a comprehensive and two grammars - are all are doing well. Newport high school for girls is regularly placed in the top 100 state schools in newspaper league tables, while Burton Borough, an 11-16 mixed comprehensive, gets good results without the full ability range.

It would, then, have been easy for the new authority to forget about the northern half of the borough. Its priorities were the schools in special measures and the appalling disadvantage facing so many of its children.

Rural schools have their problems too: mixed-age classes, heads who have to spend four days out of five in class, and quaint buildings that are no longer fit for their purpose.

Classroom teachers meanwhile find themselves struggling to master four or five different briefs and sickness or any other absence can be a big headache. It helps that Telford amp; Wrekin retains close links with its "parent" authority, Shropshire, which has long experience of dealing with such issues. But the borough's rural schools have also decided that a bit of self-help is in order.

When the literacy programme began in primary schools, there was an urgent need for training, but the government funding was targeted on areas of deprivation, says Sue Jenkins, head of St Peter's primary school in Edgmond. "So we sorted the training out for ourselves."

With the backing of the LEA, eight of the rural primaries have formed a self-help partnership.

"The focus is on developing leadership and on allowing co-ordinators to meet for curriculum planning," says Ms Jenkins. Eight primary science specialists, for example, are working on new ways of approaching the subject. They are also hoping to exploit new technology to help overcome isolation and have bid successfully for a grant to create a networked learning community to the National College for School Leadership.

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