Countryside in crisis

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Disinfectant and detergent may rid shoes and clothes of the foot and mouth virus, but children need reassurance and information, says Julia Mather, acting head of Lorton primary school in the sheep-farming fells of west Cumbria. Earlier this month she noticed her pupils were becoming anxious. Outbreaks of the disease had reached double figures and 600 Lake District children were kept home for a week.

Mrs Mather held a special assembly to unlock the youngsters' fears. Some, she says, believed people could catch the disease. Others were upset because they knew their pets would have to die if the family farm became infected. One child was deeply disturbed by images of cattle being lifted by the legs on to the funeral pyres. "Nothing as shocking as this has happened before," says Mrs Mather. "Being a hill farmer can be a struggle, but this is threatening people's livelihoods completely. Everyone is on tenterhooks."

Teachers helped Lorton's 77 pupils to talk through their anxieties. Village schools have tremendous strengths, says Sue Stoner of Action with Communities in Rural England (Acre ). "Recent exam results show that small schools do incredibly well. Children flourish when taught in a small, caring environment."

Acre sees village schools - like village pubs, shops and post offices - as vital to rural life. But until 1998 more and more were being closed on grounds of cost - their only future as a desirable family home. Then the Government stepped in.

Peter Bradley, chair of a group of rural Labour MPs, is proud of the decision to halt the closure of village primaries. For him they hold the promise of a brighter future - and not just for children. He sees them spreading the gospel of lifelong learning, with headteachers possibly adopting a Scandinavian-type role with wide-ranging social as well as educational responsibilities.

Mr Bradley, who represents the Shropshire constituency of Wrekin, is wary of talk of crisis. Agriculture at its most labour-intensive accounts for just 7.5 per cent of the rural workforce. he says. "Of course farmers are going through a terrible time and we must be supportive. But what about the other 92.5 per cent?" The rural economy is grwing faster than the urban one, he says, so to talk of disaster is to ignore the extraordinary diversity of life outside cities.

Nevertheless, fears remain. Researchers from Aberdeen University earlier this year warned of the risk of the rich taking over the countryside, leaving the poor ghettoised in urban areas. A north Yorkshire survey of 60 18-year-olds found that by the age of 22 only one had managed to achieve an independent life in a rural district. The rest lived with their parents or had moved to a city.

Sue Stoner knows the dangers. "Once you stop catering for the next generation, your villages are dying," she says. Give in to commuters and retired people, and house prices go up and locals move out. "You end up with an unbalanced population."

Not all rural schools are small. Stan Aspinall is head of a 1,500-pupil comprehensive in Whitehaven, about 15 miles from Lorton primary. The seaside town of 50,000 is not prosperous. The old industries of steel and coal mining have long gone and the agricultural blight has seen a significant rise in the number of children claiming free meals. "The farming community is not the future," says Stan Aspinall, who believes the future lies in tourism - another victim of foot and mouth. Whitehaven is an "undiscovered Georgian gem", a new town built on the back of the slave trade and once England's second port. He hopes a refurbishment scheme funded by British Nuclear Fuels at Sellafield (the area's major employer) and European cash, may help stem the drain of talented youngsters from the area.

Mr Aspinall also expects much from Whitehaven's bid, with 14 other local schools, to become an "excellence cluster". The scheme, an extension of the Excellence in Cities initiative, would bring the schools pound;650,000 over three years. As in the urban scheme, the ingredients include mentors and programmes for gifted children (see feature, page 14).

Mr Aspinall intends to use the money to fight cultural deprivation. "There is an insular feeling here. The motorway is a long, mountainous drive away. Out there is somewhere our children seldom visit. We want to give them the sort of experiences inner-city kids take for granted."

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