Hundreds of small schools are at risk of closure because of a funding overhaul that could result in budgets being severely cut, according to campaigners.
The Church of England has become the latest organisation to add its voice to growing concerns over the potentially "devastating" impact of funding changes due in April on small schools.
These schools, which typically have around 200 or fewer pupils, are more costly to run because of the difficulty of achieving economies of scale. Under a new national formula, they will be given a lump sum of up to #163;200,000 a year on top of their regular funding, which is supposed to cover those costs.
But concerns have been raised after it emerged that schools in some local authorities will receive as little as #163;42,000, prompting fears that they will be forced to close or merge, federate or join an academy chain.
The Local Government Association and the National Association for Small Schools (NASS) have already raised concerns that small and rural schools will be hit by the new funding rules.
Commenting at the General Synod last month, the chairman of the CofE's national board of education, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, said the Church also feared that small schools would suffer.
"All schools will receive a lump sum of up to a maximum of #163;200,000," he said. "However, local authorities are applying the funding arrangements in very different ways, many of them allocating much smaller lump sums, and this will have a significant impact on all small schools.
"We continue to make representations at a national level on this matter, but detailed funding decisions are made locally, so there is greater need for local political lobbying and for individual dioceses to continue to work with their local authorities to negotiate the best deal for all their schools in these very difficult circumstances."
The bishop singled out the #163;42,000 lump sum that has been set by Worcestershire County Council as cause for concern (see panel, left).
Ann Mundy, the CofE's director of education for its Worcester diocese, told TES that worried headteachers had been contacting her since the news was announced by the council in the autumn.
"I don't want to scaremonger, but a large percentage of our church schools are small, rural schools and we're very anxious about their future. It's potentially devastating," she said. "They're worried about their long-term sustainability and how they can maintain an education. These schools really do serve their communities and if they close there will be knock-on effects. We're desperate for that not to happen."
Worcestershire is one of the 40 lowest-funded local authorities in the country. But Jane Potter, the council's cabinet member with responsibility for schools, said it was complying with the government's minimum funding guarantee, which says that no school should lose more than 1.5 per cent of funding per pupil for the next two years.
"At the end of that time we anticipate a new national formula from the government that will give Worcestershire schools the funding they deserve, and consequently we are not giving consideration at present to possible closing or merging of schools," she said. "It should be recognised that, despite comparatively low funding levels, the county's schools continue to deliver excellent results."
Mervyn Benford, information officer for the NASS, said: "We believe local authorities will use this as a final chance to close small schools. They're awkward to administrate for them and they don't fit into neat, tidy boxes. We believe hundreds of schools are at risk."
The Department for Education website says that the government believes the new funding arrangements will be "sufficient to cover the fixed costs of a small school. That is the purpose of a lump sum."
But it adds: "In some cases, schools may need to consider operating more efficiently and this includes federating, merging or joining an academy chain."
TAKING A HIT
The CofE's Worcester diocese has 100 schools, three-quarters of which have 210 pupils or less - 37 of them have fewer than 105 pupils and 13 fewer than 60.
Janet Adsett is head of Castlemorton CofE Primary School, near Malvern, which has 94 pupils and has been in the village for 150 years. "It feels as if there's a second agenda here, which is what is an optimum-sized small school," she said. "As well as hitting the Church, it's also hitting good or outstanding schools that are educating children well. It feels like a double hit."