Quaint it ain't;Rural primaries

11th June 1999 at 01:00
It may have roses round the door and cowslips in the playground, but today's village school must use modern methods to forge links with the community - and thus ensure its own survival, reports Susannah Kirkman.

Small village schools are often assumed to live in a world of thatched cottages and rural bliss. But cosy relationships with their communities are often far from reality; long-festering feuds and complaints about noise are sometimes nearer the truth.

There is rural school where relations are still suffering after a falling-out over the organisation of village celebrations - celebrations for VE Day, more than 50 years ago.

The school still fighting that feud is pinpointed in a new study from ACRE (Action with Community Councils in Rural England). In another village, conflict between a former head and the community continued to sour the relationship years after the head had left. And in a third, the head commented ruefully: "This is not a village school. It's a school in a village." The mainly elderly residents had little interest in the school - beyond blaming it for increased traffic.

Building good community links takes hard work and considerable commitment, yet village schools have much to contribute.

Roy Souter, head of Doddiscombsleigh Primary in Devon, sees his school as a vital resource for the community and a focus for life-long learning.

"Our school is the largest building in the village and I want local people to be able to share our facilities, whether they have children at the school or not," he says. The school used to have few community links but it now houses pre-school and after-school clubs and a computer skills course for adults.

Although only half an hour from Exeter, the village is surprisingly remote. Tucked away on the edge of a forest, it can only be reached on single track roads bordered by deep grassy banks, sometimes smothered in purple orchids. There are three buses a day.

"Most people wouldn't make the journey into Exeter to do a course,and I think they find the school setting less intimidating than a college," says Mr Souter.

He set up the IT course with help from Exeter College, which provides a lecturer and five computers on permanent loan to the 50-pupil school. Students have included the local publican, a retired farmer in his seventies, and Viv Lygo, a mealtime assistant at the school. "I hadn't a clue before, but I'm confident enough to help my own children now," Mrs Lygo says.

"I was able to leave them at the after-school club, so I wasn't mithered with them running in and out while I was trying to study."

Since she completed the course, her engineer husband has set up his own business and Mrs Lygo does the accounts.

Exeter College is now keen to set up a maths course for adults in Doddiscombsleigh, initially to help students support their children but ultimately to improve their own mathematical skills. Some of the course will take place over the Internet, so Mr Souter hopes to lead an advanced computer skills course which will equip people to take part.

Also on the way are schemes to involve local people in a gardening club for Year 1 pupils and links with the old people's club in the village. For Mr Souter, all this comes on top of teaching a class of seven to 11-year-olds, coaching rugby, cricket and athletics to competition standard, extra after-school classes for the 11-year-olds - and an imminent OFSTED inspection.

"I feel the community links are very important, despite the other pressures. I'm also fortunate that everyone who works here does far more than they're paid to," he says.

Ugborough Primary School near Plymouth fosters good community relations through its all-age orchestra whose 45 members range from seven to 65. It includes former pupils now attending the local community college and at least six adults, some of them parents of current or former pupils.

"People might drift off to the WI or to play hockey, but they all come back just before a concert," says Sue Johns, the volunteer who runs the orchestra. "It's an exciting experience for our seven-year-olds who can only play one or two notes in a bar to be part of quite a professional sound. It encourages other children to start learning too."

Kirsten Miller took up the flute two years ago and welcomes the chance to play in a local orchestra. "Even for adults, it's a challenge, and my children find it encouraging that I need to practise too," she says.

Patricia White, clarinet player and mother of two children at Ugborough, says the orchestra is a community focal point. It plays at village weddings, harvest festivals and the village fair; concerts are always sold out. Its repertoire, ranging from Led Zeppelin to Vivaldi, has something for everyone.

Ugborough's headteacher, Judy Mackay-Marks, believes the orchestra has transformed the community's perception of the school. "When I arrived 10 years ago, the school was known as "sleepy hollow" locally. We had to show people that the children were capable of a lot more. You have to take people with you when you're introducing higher expectations, and the orchestra was one way of doing this."

She says the orchestra is one of the main factors encouraging parents to choose Ugborough for their children. Indeed, harsh economic pressure acts as a spur to community projects for many small schools - with fewer than 100 pupils, even a handful of empty places can mean staff redundancies.

David Edwards, head of Cheriton Bishop Primary School near Exeter, says:

"In a small school like ours we have to make ourselves different so that parents choose us and not the school down the road." The 74-pupil school is host to an out-of-school club which is also open in school holidays.

Small schools are ideally placed to carry out the Government's wider educational agenda, including life-long learning, homework and after-school clubs and playschool facilities, says Sue Stoner, a spokeswoman for ACRE. And this, in turn, strengthens the case for keeping them open.

"A school is a vital part of a village. If you've got a school, you've got a future," she says.

"The Small Rural Primary School and its Community: Educating Together - a report of the ACRE Small Schools Initiative" is published by ACRE, Somerford Court, Somerford Road, Cirencester, Glos. GL7 1TW. Tel. 01285 653477.

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