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Sad tale of a village primary

Nadene Ghouri reports on the closure of a rural school and its consequences.

Britain's rural village primaries are in crisis, according to the Small Schools Association.

The claim comes as a row has broken out over who is to blame for last week's closure of a 21-pupil primary school in Norfolk.

Following a damning Office for Standards in Education report last October, parents withdrew children from Potter Heigham first school over the Christmas break, forcing it to close at the start of the new term.

Headteacher Mrs Sheila Sturman has been on stress-related sick leave since last term. A governor claimed that the "final straw" was being told by acting head, Maggie Bird, that she wouldn't allow a child of her own to attend the school.

Ms Bird, head of nearby Martham School, was drafted in at the start of last term to manage Potter Heigham's two part-time teachers. Both are now to be transferred elsewhere. A secretary, dinner lady and caretaker face uncertain futures.

Parents and governors blame local authority neglect and mismanagement. They say the local authority made no real effort to save the school, instead offering pupils free transport to neighbouring schools between two and eight miles away.

However, Norfolk LEA blames governors for not accepting help earlier. Lynne Sheppard, vice-chairman of the governors, said: "We know this will be devastating for the village and for future generations, but we had to act for our children who need a good school now."

Norfolk's spokesman John Birchall said: "The parents wanted assurance that we could get a new permanent head and raise standards within months. We couldn't. We don't think we are to blame. We offered a lot of help and advice way before the OFSTED report, but sadly not a lot was taken up."

Mervyn Benford of the Small Schools Association claims that local authorities increasingly "trot out the tired old arguments that small schools are expensive, low in quality and can't offer the national curriculum". He says: "We've never tried to deny some small schools aren't performing as well as they might, but at the same time we know the majority are. But LEAs behave as though a failing small school is the norm.

"I know of tiny schools where parents put pupils' names down at birth as if they were going to Eton, because many parents recognise the specialist teaching and quality time excellent small schools can offer children."

The association claims that many LEAs are "deliberately painting the darkest picture", often using bad OFSTED reports as an excuse for closure, despite the increasing popularity of the countryside. Every day 300 people in Britain move from the city to the country, and last year Britain lost 11,000 hectares of greenbelt land (an area the size of Bristol). As a result small rural pockets are becoming semi-urbanised, strengthening the economic argument for cheaper and larger centralised schools.

Grega Hutchinson of the Council for the Protection of Rural England agrees that the smallest, most remote village schools face a crisis: "These new semi-urban villages bring wealth and prosperity on the one hand, but do very little for the society of surrounding smaller villages. Village schools are the very fabric of village life - that's not an emotional response, it's an economic one."

Dick Smith is chair of the governors at the 17-pupil Heckingham school, 15 miles from Potter Heigham. Next week he and other parents are due to meet with Norfolk's deputy education director, Tony Jackson, after learning that Heckingham has been earmarked for closure, again following a bad OFSTED report. He says: "I'm not one for conspiracies, but what happened at Potter Heigham is all too much of a coincidence. At the end of the day school governors are only well-meaning amateurs. Blaming governors for a bad OFSTED report reflects just as badly on the LEA as it does us - because they let us fail. We've felt for a long time that the LEA have given us too much rein, almost wanting us to fall flat on our faces so they can close us. The difference here is that Heckingham parents aren't going to give up our children to 30-pupil classes and long bus journeys without a fight."

Mr Birchall insists that Norfolk does not have a covert closure policy. He says: "Village schools are something rural authorities have to live with. We're hamstrung by geography. It's not just about cost - the fact is that achieving required standards in small schools is difficult. That said, a 35- pupil school in this authority -Tacolneston - just had an outstanding OFSTED report.

"Closure isn't always bad - it can help strengthen a nearby school. And there's nothing like the threat of closure to galvanise a community. Many schools we've earmarked have been reprieved after the community spurred itself into action. "

Back in Potter Heigham, villagers are beginning to fight back; 300 have signed a petition to keep the school open. But, as Mr Birchall points out: "I've no doubt the parents acted in a way that was right and proper for their children now, but if the petition should be addressed to anyone, it should be to them not us. They are the ones who voted with their feet."

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