Village schools are too precious to lose;Platform;Opinion

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
The Scottish School Board Association is campaigning for small, rural primaries. Ann Hill explains her own commitment

SMALL SCHOOLS play a vital role in Scottish education. About a quarter of primary schools have fewer than 60 pupils and more than 38 per cent have fewer than 120. Headteachers in these small establishments will usually have a part-time or full-time class teaching role in addition to responsibilities for curriculum management, staff development, administration and finance, relationships with parents and the community.

It is a fact that small schools cost more to run. However, they offer endless benefits. There have been occasions in recent years when faced with closure a small school has had to demonstrate its rich and varied curriculum as well as its contributing to the well-being of the local community.

I am lucky enough to have had experience of both large and small primaries. My son attended large schools in Lerwick and Glasgow. My three daughters have all attended Mouswald primary in Dumfriesshire where the roll fluctuates between 28 and 48. This year, my last as a primary parent, it has been 32.

The school, which dates back to 1791, commands views of beautiful countryside with the Solway Firth in the distance. It has been upgraded in recent years, with two teaching bases - the "wee end" (P1-P3) and the "big end" (P4-P7). New curtains and carpets throughout contribute to a lovely environment for pupils and staff.

Children are taught to look after the school and each other. There is a family atmosphere. Traditional values of discipline and respect are fostered and the co-operation of parents much appreciated.

In rural areas there are of necessity a larger number of schools with three or fewer teachers. In Dumfries and Galloway, more than half our primaries fall into that category. It is time to recognise their role and to share the experience they offer.

Parents know intuitively that children thrive in the early years in a school on a human scale, but we need facts and figures, ideas and suggestions to support the case. The information is available but needs to be pulled together. Headteachers at a Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum seminar last year expressed the same desire.

The ever present budget-driven threat to small schools has galvanised parents. Collectively and mainly through school boards, they speak about the pressures faced by rural authorities. But we need more than a defensive exercise. We need to focus on and share best practice, and celebrate our small schools.

Faced with the demands of the 5-14 programme, larger schools benefit from a pool of teachers in which they can find expertise in subjects such as science, technology and physical education. What the smaller school doesn't have, it can buy in. It is a matter of timetabling the specialist teacher to fit in with the needs of the school.

Support can come in many forms - through electronic links, clusters, shared resources and use of the local environment for history, geography and science. The expansion of pre-school education will add to the role (and roll) of many small schools. The Inspectorate has found small schools just as effective as larger ones, as parents have known for years.

But there can be disadvantage - isolation can impact on socialisation, the scope of extracurricular activities, developments such as supported study and the nature of the school day itself because of travel time.

With higher fixed costs and proportionately higher teacher numbers, small schools are inevitably more expensive. Funding is always the issue, hence the possibility of using the private finance initiative (PFI) for replacing and repairing buildings. The concerns can include job security, hence the emerging difficulty of recruiting teachers to rural areas.

But the flavour of small school education gives the positive side. The former head of Mouswald kept a record from 1962 until her retirement in 1993. A few of the entries read:

January 3, 1962 When school opened this morning it was discovered that the radiators and many of the pipes had burst due to extreme frost. When the plumbers and heating engineers inspected the damage they said it would take all week to put everything right, so I made arrangements to take the school in the schoolhouse next door.

February 10, 1964 Mr Meldrum, PT organiser, came to deliver new types of plastic balls guaranteed not to break the windows. To prove this he threw one at the window - and it broke!

December 19, 1966 Centenary party held. A large cake was donated by the Muir family, Cleughbrae, and the children were presented with suitably inscribed mugs made by Tom Lochhead, the potter from Kirkcudbright, who is a former pupil.

March 3, 1971 Public meeting to discuss closure of the school.

June 8, 1972 Parents began work in the old school garden. School not to be closed.

November 10, 1978 It was revealed that of the schools recommended for renovation the main complaint was the poor condition of the toilets - most of them outside toilets - and in many cases, where there were staff toilets, there were no wash-hand basins.

August 22, 1989 School reopened - work not completely finished. Cardboard boxes everywhere. Children have been very helpful but we can find nothing.

June 7, 1992 PTA sponsored walk in Mabie Forest in aid of Telethon. School board members treated pupils to juice and biscuits to celebrate opening of a new reference library.

These are some of the things that make a small school what it is. It's about living in a community where the school is the centre of life and everyone plays a part in its existence.

Ann Hill is chief executive of the Scottish School Board Association.

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