Don't chicken out - save our village schools

15th February 2008 at 00:00
There used to be a Yorkshire village school in the 1950s where the headmistress had quietly converted one of the designated classrooms into a hen-run for her husband's poultry enterprise. The children could be found all huddled together in the other room - even the chickens were free range in comparison. I know this tale to be true because my father was the first person from the county authority to open the door and set a wary foot in it.

The clucking classroom was frowned upon at the time, yet this innovative use of a school's premises now seems like a brilliant vision of the future. It was prescient of a time today when the headteachers of small, cost-ineffective, rural schools may need to embark on similar entrepreneurial scams in order to stay open.

Those pioneering dales headteachers were plainly a resilient lot. Today's primary heads scarcely know the meaning of survival. In fact, one North Riding head survived at her school for more than 70 consecutive years, having started as a pupil at the age of three and gradually working her way up to the post of headteacher without ever leaving the place. The past is, truly, a different country.

Chicken farms notwithstanding, these people were devoted to their schools and never seriously considered that they would ever close - not while the roll was at, say, a healthy-sounding 12 or more, and certainly not while they had a say in the matter. They had their own solutions to falling numbers. It was quite customary in such circumstances for the village headmistress to visit the local farmer and use whatever persuasive powers she had at her disposal to ensure that he only hired labourers with at least two or three young children in tow.

Today's village heads need to show similar initiative. Chicken-farming and fecund farmworkers may not be the answer today, but why not, for instance, try converting one of the rooms into an "olde worlde" classroom and open it up to the public as a kind of "That'll teach 'em" heritage centre? Classes and teachers could take it in turns to experience old-fashioned teaching methods, while coachloads of nostalgia tourists pay pound;5 a head to observe quietly at the back of the room.

Besides, some of those now discredited teaching approaches stand more than a decent chance of coming back into favour one day. The school's "heritage centre" will convert seamlessly into a new forward-thinking "beacon centre of excellence". The funds will be positively flooding in.

Alternatively, those who run education could simply ensure that the small village school is kept going. Big generalisation, yes, but these places do tend to encourage a warmer and more caring experience; to focus more on values and less on value-added data. By closing them, we will lose something special and move even closer to a time when education itself is no better than that North Riding scene - nothing more than a frantic, exam-fed chicken run.

Stephen Petty, Head of humanities at Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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