Ministers praise their educational value, but the drive to reduce surplus places inevitably leads to their closure
One thing that worries heads of larger primary schools in shire counties is that they share the local education authority's budget with small village schools. It was like that for us in Warwickshire when I was a headteacher 20 years ago.
"Of course," we would say, "such is the unit cost of educating a child in a school of 100 that we're actually subsidising those places." Then, overcome by reason, we would add: "Which is OK provided they can make a good educational case."
To tell the truth, we were not convinced they could. Our schools had all the proper administrative superstructure of a high-powered machine. So how was a three-teacher school going to cope with a 10-subject national curriculum? It was all a prime example of common sense.
But common sense rarely stands up to close scrutiny. In this case, the scrutiny has been provided by an energetic pressure group called the National Association for Small Schools (Nass). Since 197l, the group has been prodding governments about the benefits of small-scale schooling.
Mervyn Benford, a former small-school head and Ofsted inspector, now information officer with the association, says: "You do not have to eschew balance and be a promoter of this argument. The argument promotes itself from a balanced look at the evidence."
Nass's case was hugely strengthened by Ofsted and national tests. These have consistently shown that small primaries perform at least as well as larger schools.
A 1999 Ofsted survey (Small Schools: How are They Doing?) of schools with fewer than 100 children set the tone. "A good case emerges for the place of small schools in the education system as a whole when the quality of their educational performance is added to the broader contribution they make to their communities," it says.
So isn't Nass pushing at an open door? Circular 11098 set down what it called a "presumption against closure", and, says Mr Benford: "The Government has told us three times in writing that it does not want small schools to close."
Why, then, does he also accuse the Government of speaking with a forked tongue? The answer lies in pressure on authorities to tackle the problem of surplus school places. As Mr Benford says: "The only scope they have for doing anything is to pick off the small ones."
And picking off is threatened right across the UK. Attempts to persuade the Scottish Parliament to state its own "presumption against closure" have so far failed and a number of authorities there are preparing closure plans.
The same is happening in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, Kent published its plans to close 12 primary schools and amalgamate a further 30.
The fatal flaw in this kind of plan is that it cannot, by its broad-brush nature, just target failing and shrinking schools.
Michael Fallon, the Sevenoaks MP, says of a threatened school in his constituency: "If schools are half empty and unpopular, then Kent is right to consider closing them, but Seal St Lawrence primary school is well subscribed and successful."
Weasel words are bandied around when the debates, consultations and battles get under way. One of the most notorious is "viable", as in: "The school is too small to be viable." It seems to say that there is a relationship between quality of learning and the number of pupils. But there is no evidence that there is a "viable" roll size for an effectively led school.
So is "viable" to do with value for money? Ofsted inspections routinely report good value. And just how much money is out there to be saved? Last November, in the House of Lords, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, speaking of Northern Ireland closures, said: "Will he (the Northern Ireland minister of state) accept from me, a village-school teacher and schoolmaster of 23 years' experience, that if he closed all 88 schools in the 40-or-fewer-pupils category, he might be able to increase the overall per capita spending by a mere 0.42 per cent?"
According to Nass, though, the real value-for-money argument for small schools lies in the long-term benefits to society of educating children in human-scale institutions close to home.
Says Mr Benford: "There has always been a social relationship between home, community, society and the education children need. The supposedly 'better value, large-scale' model has lost that vital connection. That there are economies of scale to be had is not only a financial fallacy but an educational one."