Small schools are generally more costly, but rural communities prefer them. One way to keep them viable is to form federations of neighbouring schools.
Phil Revell reports
Parents love small schools. They like the closeness of the relationship between child and teacher; they like the opportunity to get a daily update at the school gate. They like the cosiness of the playground, where a child is not submerged in a sea of faces. They even like the buildings, though they usually are ancient and inadequate.
Paul Dennis's views are typical. His children attend Great Dunham Primary School, near King's Lynn in Norfolk. "All my children have been at small rural schools. The thing that is most noticeable is that there is real pastoral care, with the 11 and 10-year-olds looking after the younger ones. But it's not only pastoral, 10 and 11-year-olds take an active role in the education of the younger ones and pass on their skills to younger children. " The Office for Standards in Education last month gave village primaries the thumbs up, saying they are among the most successful in the country; proportionately, more good teachers work in them.
Local education authorities do not share this love of the small. For them small schools represent surplus places and additional expense, typically pound;500 per child. Most authorities, including Norfolk which has more small schools than many, advance educational arguments which suggest that small schools face exceptional problems: such schools are particularly vulnerable to staff absence; they often have inadequate accommodation; headteacher posts are difficult to fill. Given teacher recruitment problems this last point isn't restricted to small schools, but heads in a small school often have a class to teach as well as cope with the full administrative workload. Most important, though, are the mixed- age classes in small schools, which, argue local authority officers, militate against effective teaching.
Mervyn Benford, of the National Association for Small Schools, is not convinced by the arguments. "LEAs invariably have financial motives behind seemingly plausible arguments that small schools cannot cope educationally," he says. "County councillors are easily seduced by the apparently compelling logic put forward by their specialist officers."
Mr Benford argues that, in fact, small schools represent a model of educational efficiency. He points to national curriculum test scores as evidence that small schools consistently do well. "There is a small but clear differential in favour of small schools," he says.
At present these results do not appear in league tables because individual children could possibly be identified from the figures. But Mr Benford believes that the unpublished figures show that as small schools become even smaller their results improve. "What small schools offer is a humanity of scale," he argues.
One option open to authorities which both retains a small school in its community and tackles some weaknesses is the federated school.
The Dunbury Church of England First School in Dorset is a school on four sites, in four villages near Blandford Forum, but with one head and one governing body. Dorset created The Dunbury in the early Nineties in response to a recruitment crisis which meant two headteacher posts were unfilled for some time. Parents were initially suspicious and hostile to the idea.
"Nobody knew what a federated school would be like," explains the headteacher, Christine Pfaff. "Everybody's vision was that the children and the teachers would be on buses moving around all the time. Nobody wanted that - it was never an option." Instead the four bases operate much as they did as individual schools, each taking children from their own village.
Mrs Pfaff felt that to begin again as one school, it was vital to abandon old loyalties. "In the first year I moved nearly all the teachers, so that they had a fresh start in a new village with children they didn't know, parents they weren't familiar with and a working partner they hadn't had before. It was quite a painful process."
Dorset built the school a sports hall and the sites are linked by fax and a video-conferencing system. The age groups come together once a week for assembly and specialist lessons such as music and games.
"It's the best of both worlds," says Lizzie Pate, base leader at the Winterborne Whitechurch site, "the closeness and the small numbers of a rural school, yet with the admin and support of a larger school."
Being in charge of the base has given her management experience, which is another of the advantages of federation. "It's quite an unusual role," she says. "It's all those things such as meeting parents and dealing with difficult situations - the things you need to know. It's an ideal way to pick up experience."
Her view is echoed by Mrs Pfaff, who points out that two base leaders have gone straight on to headship. "They're getting people management skills, and if you can get that right you can do anything."
Federation does not offer an opportunity to save money, which could explain why there are not many Dunbury clones. The cost of linking the four sites absorbed savings on headteachers' salaries. But what federation does offer is a way out of the dilemma of those who want to preserve the strengths of small schools yet protect them from the threats posed by their isolation.
At The Dunbury Mrs Pfaff has administrative support, a finance manager and, most important of all, time to do the head's job properly. "Unlike a head in a two teacher school, I don't have a class to teach. I've been a head in such a school and I worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After a few years I was completely burnt out.
"I think federation is a wonderful way of running rural schools. The secret is to make it one school."
STEPHEN HANSCOMBE IS HEADTEACHER OF FORD END CE PRIMARY SCHOOL
Stephen Hanscombe is headteacher of Ford End CE Primary School, near Chelmsford, Essex. His staff is the equivalent of two and a half teachers plus one full-time and two part-time support assistants, for 59 pupils. He says: Ford End is a small village. There's no shop, no pub; all that's left is the school and the church. We're seen as the centre of the community, and that does help us to overcome the challenges. Our PTA raised pound;3,000 in six months last year for PE equipment, and we've got 18,000 Tesco Computers for Schools vouchers, which isn't bad for a school with 59 children.
Everybody in a small school takes on many more roles than they do in a larger school. All my staff have multiple roles. My role ranges from teaching to subject co-ordinator, to stoking the boiler or cleaning the toilets.
When I came here the majority of children were from out of our catchment area. Four years ago there were 30 children; we've gone up to 59. We'll go up to about 65 next year.
I've raised the profile of the school in the catchment area, but I'm kept afloat by children from out of it. I don't see anything wrong with that because we are offering something different.
You could level the accusation that small schools like Ford End lack the facilities to deliver a full curriculum, but we work to overcome it. We have a hall, though we use it partly as a teaching base. One member of staff runs a netball club and I have parents who run football and tennis clubs. We find expertise from the local community.
Staff development is something you have to be aware of. We belong to a cluster group of small schools in the north Chelmsford area; we share expertise. I honestly don't know how some small school heads manage with little or no admin support.
For further career development there would be no choice but to go into larger schools. For staff to be lost would be a great shame but small schools hold few opportunities for promotion.
Something like a federated school offers another level of management. Part of me is sceptical about the idea of federation - the idea of having no headteacher on site for some of the timeI The Government appears to see this as the future for the management of small schools, but it's something that will have be sold properly to schools.