Rural schools are struggling due to a squeeze on budgets and a funding system that is unfair on areas where “there are more cows than people", union members have been told.
At the National Education Union (NUT section) conference in Brighton, a resolution has been passed arguing that rural schools provide a vital service to their local communities.
And NUT members have called on their union executive to put pressure on the government to give rural schools "a protected status", which recognises "their significance for the survival of their communities and values the educational offer they give to their pupils."
NUT area secretary for Somerset Roland Hurrell told the conference that rural schools suffered not just through lack of funding but in recruitment and retention of staff. He said: "Our schools do not get a fair deal in comparison to our compatriots in larger towns and cities across the country. We have a disparate population, and we suffer disproportionately. Somerset is a rural county, we have a small population compared to our geographical size. God knows we have more cows than people.
"Obviously we have smaller numbers of students, often bussed in from villages around. And rural schools, from year to year, have real difficulty managing the numbers, which go up and down. So it's really difficult for senior managers to be able to deal with."
Rural schools 'are suffering'
Rural schools have fewer staff than many other schools, but still have to carry out a full range of duties, said Mr Hurrell. He added: "Rural schools regularly shut, which creates a massive problem for the communities which serve them.
"All across Britain, in Somerset and the South West, and the South East, the North East, the North West, in Wales, and all points in between, rural schools of all shapes and sizes are suffering."
A former headteacher of a rural village school in North Yorkshire, Anne Swift, told the conference that she had worried every year about pupil numbers, knowing the impact they would have on issues like class sizes and workload.
She said: "The move out of the area by a family with school-age children was always a disaster.
“These schools are at the heart of their communities, but they are expensive, when compared with educating pupils in larger schools.
“More and more schools are federating to avoid closure or redundancies and, although this can bring benefits in terms of sharing expertise, facilities, training and enriching the curriculum for the children, we need to consider more fully the implications for good or ill of this."
Delegates also said they wanted to see more funding for rural schools to help protect their existence and provide a quality education for pupils.