Rural idyll hides a harsh reality

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Poverty, isolation and lack of resources for pupils in country areas are forcing schools to help themselves, reports Irena Barker

Launceston College in Cornwall has been judged a "good school" by Ofsted and, with 50 per cent of its pupils gaining five A-C grades at GCSE, it is in no danger of joining the Government's controversial National Challenge `hit list'.

However, the 1,400-pupil comprehensive in one of the UK's most idyllic areas is not without its problems.

Around a quarter of its pupils have learning difficulties, and its catchment area covers places of "significant deprivation".

Despite this, there are few extra resources for these pupils, many of whom settle for low-paid jobs at the local pasty factory, the largest employer in the town.

The school wants to offer more vocational training to pupils so they can gain higher-grade work, but it suffers because of its isolation from other schools and colleges.

In an effort to help itself, Launceston has applied to the Learning and Skills Council for pound;2 million to convert an old boarding house into a regional centre of excellence specialising in hotel and catering, travel and tourism.

But Iain Freeland, the deputy head, has been told his application must fit an urban template to qualify. He must find 50 Neets - young people not in education, employment or training - to stand a good chance of getting the money.

"Because unemployment is not the problem it would be hard for us to find that many, but that doesn't mean we don't need the centre," he said. "The nearest FE college is 26 miles away and these pupils need vocational training to escape the poverty trap."

A recent Association of Teachers and Lecturers' (ATL) survey indicates that Launceston is one of hundreds of rural schools struggling to help their poorest pupils.

The vast majority of the 500 rural teachers and lecturers surveyed said they had pupils whose attainment and wellbeing were affected by lack of ambition, confidence and good nutrition.

Nearly three-quarters said that poor public transport to and from school stopped pupils taking part in after-school activities.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) estimates that out of 2.8 million children living in the countryside in England, 300,000 live in poverty. The union claims the Government has "insufficient understanding" of the problem, and that rural schools suffer because it is more cost- effective to target urban schools with schemes such as Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones.

Rural schools may also struggle with the introduction of initiatives - including the new work-related diplomas, the community cohesion duty, inclusion and extended schools - that have been devised with urban settings in mind.

Mary Bousted, ATL's general secretary, said: "Before the Government makes any policies or changes existing ones, it must stop and think about the impact they will have on families in rural areas.

"The diploma programme could fail if children cannot get to the colleges running the courses.

"And without access to apprenticeships or jobs outside the immediate neighbourhood, children have little incentive to work hard at school and raise their aspirations."

Jean Scott, senior policy adviser on education to the CRC, said: "Generally, results are higher in the countryside for national tests and GCSEs, but this masks areas of underachievement.

"Areas of Lincolnshire, Humber, Cornwall and Humberside are particularly affected, but statistically they don't turn up in the data subsets."

She agreed that the Government's flagship diploma programme could struggle to reach the very people it is designed for.

"In rural areas, it will be difficult to access the full range of courses without significant travel, and only the most motivated will be prepared to do that," said Ms Scott. "But we are not talking about the most motivated young people."

However, she is more positive than the ATL about the Government's attitude to the problem.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families' Rural Schools Group is already working on how to implement extended services more effectively, she said.

"There is recognition that the problem exists, but there isn't one simple answer."

Faced with accusations of neglecting the rural poor, Jim Knight, schools minister, explained that a new funding formula to enable schools to provide better transport and services to those who need them was pencilled in for 2011.

But it would be a big ask to expect these measures alone to solve the more fundamental problems of places such as Launceston.

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