PUPILS in small village primary schools are among the most successful in the country, according to an unpublished inspectors' report.
But the other news for such schools - many of which are threatened with closure - is more mixed.
Inspectors found that small rural schools, which have fewer than 100 pupils, are generally in affluent areas and perform no better than expected for their intake. They may even do less well than larger schools with a similar pupil profile.
Meanwhile, very small schools with fewer than 50 pupils were found to be much less successful than the average, with three times as many found to be failing. Six per cent fewer pupils made good or very good progress compared with all other primary schools in 199798.
In the first national comparison the Office for Standards in Education analysed inspection data and test results of 2,700 small schools.
It found that at the end of both key stages 1 and 2, pupils achieve "significantly higher levels" than pupils in all other schools, gaining an average of six points more in last year's national English tests.
Inspectors found better teaching across small schools with fewer cases of unsatisfactory teaching. Proportionately more good teachers work in small schools and go to "considerable lengths" to involve pupils in outside activities.
Rural, church primary schools in relatively advantaged areas, typically within commuting distance to towns and cities, achieved the best results of all. Inspectors said few such schools have high numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which together with smaller classes, gives them a "clear advantage".
The schools were also praised for their ethos, spiritual and community links and "great ingenuity" in overcoming problems of poor buildings and facilities. However, the impact of a weak teacher, who can stay with the same pupils for two years, is much greater than in smaller schools. A weak head "can quickly trigger a downward spiral". Around one in seven heads was found to provide poor leadership.
Last year Education Secretary David Blunkett called on local authorities to stop what he termed the "wholesale closure" of rural schools, but councils say village schools are not cost-effective.