The impact of poverty on pupil achievement is as great a problem in many rural areas as it is in inner cities. Jon Slater looks at why funding policy fails to reflect this
Close your eyes and picture a deprived area. What do you see? For most people the answer will be an inner-city wasteland, high-rise blocks and council estates plagued by graffiti and vandalism. Not many will think of rolling countryside and pretty villages.
Yet poverty is not confined to cities. As teachers in rural areas know only too well, deprivation is now common in the countryside. But because much of rural England is relatively prosperous, pockets of poverty tend to be overlooked by the public, by the media - and by policy-makers.
The Government recently launched Excellence in Cities, to help combat the effects of poverty on pupil achievement, but there has been no equivalent initiative for the shires.
Action with Communities in Rural England argues that the Government is geared to spotting poverty in urban areas, not in the countryside, where seasonal jobs are common, cars are a necessity and skilled work is often lacking.
Because rich and poor are more likely to live side by side in rural areas, averages don't highlight deprivation. But in one village of 200 people in Wiltshire, for example, a third of the population earn more than pound;40,000 a year while another third earn under pound;6,000.
Some attempts have been made to calculate rural poverty accurately. Research in 12 areas by the Countryside Agency (formerly the Rural Development Commission), a government quango which promotes countryside issues, found that in three-quarters of them, a fifth of the population were on or below the breadline. In Nottinghamshire and Devon the figure was more than one in three.
Earnings in most rural counties are below the national average and once unemployment data has been adjusted to take account of hidden joblessness - such as non-claiming of benefits and "seasonal" jobs - figures are similar to those for urban areas.
Robert Ward is principal of Neale-Wade Community College in March, Cambridgeshire. He has seen the impact that the decline of local industries has had on the area - and his pupils.
"Ten to 15 years ago the railway would have had a centre here and the modernisation of farming means that agriculture only employs 10-15 per cent of the labour it used to do. It's a problem faced by many rural areas. There are a lot of people in this area on the breadline. If a sole falls off a kid's shoe while he's playing football in the playground you see him coming here in trainers until his family have saved up for a new pair."
And deprivation causes greater problems for schools than enforcing the rules on uniform. Low parental expectations can also be a big problem. Where successive generations have worked on the land, education is often seen to lack relevance. Yet the decline in agricultural work means there are few local opportunities for those leaving school unqualified.
Out-of-school clubs are hampered by lack of transport. And while schools in more affluent areas can rely on fundraising from parents, schools which serve poor communities have problems organising extra-curricular activities.
"If we produce a school trip at more than pound;5 a head, I can't make it run," said Val Sprigg, head of nearby Cavalry primary school. "What we're talking about is parents who care but can't rather than won't."
Although ministers have repeatedly told schools that deprivation is no excuse for poor performance, their policies acknowledge that schools in poor areas do need extra help to raise standards. This extra help includes more cash each year for local authorities with high levels of deprivation and the pound;350 million Excellence in Cities initiative, which will include action zones in inner cities based on just one secondary school and its feeder primaries.
Lack of awareness of rural poverty means schools in the shires are missing out on this assistance. Dr Ward believes this is blatantly unfair. "Schools like mine in a depressed area, working hard against the odds, are being barred from this kind of help. In each of the past six years we have had a decline in real terms in our budget. If you're in the leafy glades you get the same amount of money as we do. We need a radical overhaul of funding mechanisms - it is an all-party issue."
He is backed up by Candy Atherton, the only Labour MP in Cornwall and a member of the education and employment select committee. "There has been an incredible disparity in the way funding has been handed out over the past 20 years," she said.
Tight budgets along with pressure from the Audit Commission to reduce surplus places have led a number of authorities to review provision. Campaigners fear that some small rural communities could lose their village schools.
Sue Stoner, ACRE spokesperson, is worried: "In the battle against rural deprivation, the Government should honour local aspirations in fighting to preserve small village schools. They can play a major role in promoting social cohesion, providing access to local services, aiding economic development and helping to deliver community projects."
There are signs that the Government is starting to take the problem seriously - prompted perhaps by some of its record 170 rural MPs, and the countryside march in London last year. A discussion document entitled Rural England has been produced and is expected to lead to a White Paper later this year. However although the document talks about building sustainable communities, there is only one paragraph on education - and no new help for schools.
But if rural areas are to attract scarce public resources - for regeneration, to keep schools open and to help teachers give their pupils the chance to escape poverty - we may all need to change our assumptions.
As Mary Cooper, Cornwall's head of education policy and planning, said:
"Our image is one of the hardest things to fight. People think of us as a picture postcard."