Team town and country

2nd November 2007 at 00:00
Heads of schools in the countryside are grappling with a welter of initiatives, which many believe are better suited to pupils in towns and cities. Irena Barker finds out how they are coping.Until recently many urban heads would have envied their rural counterparts. Fresh air, open countryside and cosy a community around a village school would seem attractive to anyone coping with the strains of inner-city leadership.

But in the past few years, as the mountain of government initiatives has reached new heights, the tasks of a rural head have become increasingly burdensome.

In small primaries, heads can find themselves teaching up to three days a week, at the same time as dealing with the challenges of extended schools provision to the new financial management standard.

The introduction of teachers' preparation and planning time has increased the burden too, with heads often having to step in to take classes. And money is short in the countryside as the distribution of funds often ignores pockets of deprivation amid the country piles.

In secondaries, heads are having to think about how to implement the 14-19 diplomas, which will be phased in from next year, in the face of great travelling distances between providers.

The increasing strain of the job has taken its toll on recruitment and many authorities are opting to federate groups of rural schools so they can share resources and leadership.

The recruitment problem is exacerbated by schools with small staffs finding it very difficult to release teachers to work for a National Professional Qualification for Headship, a necessity for promotion.

Nick Dowler, head of the 60-pupil Nocton Community Primary in Lincolnshire, said one of the biggest problems was working out how and if government initiatives were actually relevant to his school.

For example, all schools must be able to provide the "core offer" of extended services by 2010, but surveys suggested they would not all be welcome, or even viable, at Nocton Primary. He said: "We are continually doing surveys and less than 10 per cent of pupils wanted a breakfast club, so it wouldn't be viable to run one. We also found that children are looked after by friends, neighbours or childminders after school, so a childcare service also wouldn't be necessary.

"We've been approached on occasion by companies offering services, but when we tell them what kind of numbers of children would come, they lose interest.

"Bussing children from school to school so they can access services might not necessarily work either."

He said there was increasing frustration with government schemes that seemed to be based on "one size fits all" for primaries of 60 or 600 children, in any social context.

But government agencies are determined that no pupil will miss out, wherever they are in the country. The Training and Development Agency for Schools is offering local authorities advice on how to introduce viable extended services in rural schools, largely by asking them to operate in groups.

The agency points confused heads and local authorities to the Moorlands cluster of 17 schools spread over 64 square miles in Staffordshire. A full-time co-ordinator deals with the daily logistics of transporting pupils and arranging providers.

Another issue facing rural schools is their new duty to promote community cohesion, which will become subject to Ofsted inspection from September 2008. As rural schools are often all-white, this can present a challenge as there is not a rich cultural diversity to draw on.

Nocton Primary has forged links with Nelson Primary in East Ham, London, which has 900 pupils and 40 nationalities represented.

As the only member of his management team, Mr Dowler initially linked up with the head of Nelson Primary, Tim Benson, as someone to "bounce ideas off" after they met through the National Association of Head Teachers. It can be lonely at the top and both felt that schools at opposite ends of the scale could learn from each other.

The partnership has also proved a useful tool for opening pupils' eyes to other cultures. A group from Nocton has visited the capital and children and staff from the London school are due to visit them soon.

In secondaries, one of the biggest challenges will be the introduction of the work-related 14-19 diplomas. The Government is expecting schools to work together to provide the courses. Many urban heads are concerned about the logistical problem that will entail, but rural heads are even more worried.

Ian Wright is head of Sir William Robertson High in Welbourn, Lincolnshire, which is nearly a mile from the nearest village and about 10 miles from the nearest secondary school or college.

"We have a real issue with the diplomas," he said. "I can't understand how the urban model driving the 14-19 agenda can be translated into a rural setting. Who do we collaborate with nearby? Pupils will have to do a 22-mile round trip to study a course, and that could be quite off-putting."

He said parents' mindset was also a barrier as many had chosen a rural school because it was a safe, secure setting. They simply didn't want their children leaving for certain classes.

Mr Wright added: "I am not a luddite and I think there are loads of opportunities emerging from this, but I don't think it has ever really been thought through properly how it effects rural communities."

Despite the inconveniences of modern initiatives, many people are still very positive about what small rural schools can offer pupils. Rather than being an expensive strain on a local authority, some believe they are more viable than ever.

Bill Goodhand, chairman of the National Association of Small Schools, said advancements in technology such as broadband and video-conferencing meant schools with only a few pupils and one or two teachers could enjoy a rich curriculum and direct links with other pupils all over the world.

Closures of small rural schools have also slowed since 1998 when the then school standards minister Stephen Byers announced there would be a "presumption" that they would stay open. But schools can be closed if an authority can make a case against them. Nine were shut in England in 2006.

Mr Goodhand said: "In some authorities, there has been powerful arm-twisting for schools to form partnerships and federations or face closure. But others, like Norfolk, have dealt with the problem in a very sensible and progressive way, with co-operation on the ground."

[ For more information on extended school provision in rural schools, see http:tinyurl.com2ogzfu

Make contacts and play to your assets

- Form links with contrasting schools in big towns and cities. This gives isolated heads and their staff a chance to share ideas and pupils benefit from getting to know others from different backgrounds through visits and online links.

- Heads in small rural primaries (fewer than 100 pupils) can meet other heads with heavy teaching workloads by joining the National Small Schools Forum. See www.

- Capitalise on your surroundings. Jim Knight, the schools minister, called for teachers to help children "connect with the countryside" last week. The Government wants schools to arrange links with farms and encourage pupils to grow fruit and vegetables. Many rural schools are ideally placed.

- Prioritise government initiatives, often created with an urban environment in mind. Work out what is relevant to your school.

- Extended schools need not be stressful: the Training and Development Agency for Schools' website has case studies of how rural schools and authorities have coped. See

In practice

Muddy road to a 'soft federation'

When Judith Elliott-Hunter bought her Mercedes C190 Coupe, she hadn't bargained on the mud.

As head of two small schools in rural Norfolk, she regularly drives the two and a half miles of country roads between them, which takes its toll on the car's paintwork. Otherwise, the arrangement has worked out well.

She took on the task of leading the "soft federation" of Frettenham and Hainford Primary Partnership Schools eight years ago after the local authority struggled to recruit for both. The schools only had about 45 pupils and three teachers each.

Unlike many rural heads, Mrs Elliott-Hunter has been relieved of her teaching timetable and can devote all her time to leadership. As the schools are still separate entities - one is a church school and another a community school - she even has a secretary on each site. She is also paid an extra two points on the leadership scale.

"Instead of doing two jobs in one place, I do one job in two places," she said. "I have a basic timetable of which school I'm going to be at and when, but I try to be flexible and go where I am needed. If parents need me on another site, I will pick up the phone."

The partnership, one of three in Norfolk, allows the schools to employ curriculum co-ordinators for each subject area, with their decisions affecting both schools. A higher level teaching assistant also travels between the two sites and covers preparation and planning time.

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