Too small by far

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Seventy small schools in Scotland have closed in the past 10 years. Heads fear more will follow

HEADTEACHERS OF small Scottish schools are increasingly worried about the possibility of closure.

A new report, commissioned by the Scottish Executive, looks at the work of heads in very small schools and identifies a shortage of applicants for leadership posts as one of the biggest challenges facing the sector.

The "very small schools" featured in the report are those with rolls of 50 or fewer. In 2006, there were 431 such schools 20 per cent of primary schools in Scotland.

The report, produced by the Scottish Council for Research in Education Centre at Glasgow University, compares findings with that of previous research carried out between 1996 and 1998.

Since then, increased uncertainty about small schools has emerged. Seventy have closed in the last 10 years and there is frequently a shortage of applicants willing to take on the responsibilities of a teaching head.

Over a third of headteachers reported rolls to be decreasing and perceived the threat of closure never to be far away.

Other concerns included: uncertainty during periods with acting heads; local policies on placing children with additional educational needs; absent or unskilled teaching colleagues; supervision of probationer teachers; and isolation from the mainstream of educational practice.

Yet small school headteachers appear more settled now, with only 9 per cent hoping to apply for a headship in a larger school (compared to 21 per cent in the 1990s).

Fewer heads were worried about curricular change, although the figure remained high 59 per cent said they were more stressed than they used to be, against 66 per cent in the Nineties.

Headteachers in small schools are also shown to be "skilled networkers", who see informal contact with other heads as the best way of increasing opportunities for pupils and staff.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, was unsurprised by the heads' concerns.

"There is concern that local authorities will make decisions on financial grounds, and that will be that, rather than having open and rational debate about it," he said.

But he stressed that headteachers will have been reassured by the SNP government's frequently expressed support for rural schools and its commitment to reducing class sizes.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "If you look at how much you would save by closing small primary schools and put it against all the other investment councils make, there is no obvious saving, especially in geographically sparse and remote areas."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The Government has made clear its commitment to introduce a presumption against the closure of rural schools and will be considering further the detailed implications of taking that forward. It intends to consult on how it proposes to do so."

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