What no school?

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Popular, small and picturesque they may be, but rural schools are fighting for survival. Is it really worth keeping them open?

If everything had gone to plan, Steve Docking would have been turning off the lights for the last time next month, bringing to an end 150 years of history. His pupils were to be scattered among surrounding villages, and the community would have seen its school go the way of its post office.

As it is, when he re-opens the school after the summer holiday, he will be welcoming the largest cohort in many years. He has the satisfaction of knowing that Delamere CofE Primary School now boasts a waiting list and had to be given special permission to exceed its allotted intake for reception.

It's just 18 months since Delamere was earmarked for possible closure by Cheshire County Council. After a vigorous campaign by parents, including 700 letters of support, just before Easter it was given a reprieve, at least for the foreseeable future.

But others have not been so fortunate. More than 1,000 primary schools have closed in the past decade, the bulk of them small rural schools. Most are the victims of local authority attempts at cost-cutting, amalgamating and merging schools and removing surplus places.

The signs are that this squeeze will get tighter. Despite official support for diversity, the trend is in favour of larger schools. One in seven secondary pupils is now in a school of 1,500 pupils or more, and the number in schools with more than 2,000 pupils has doubled since 1997. The strain on the public finances over the next few years is likely to increase the pressure on local authorities to look at closing schools to save money.

Small schools have plenty of supporters, who point to better results and the benefits of learning in a family atmosphere. But that has not stopped the "rationalisation" of schools, backed by the argument that maintaining very small schools is an inequitable use of increasingly sparse funds.

At Delamere, closure seems a receding nightmare. The school, 10 miles from Chester, serves a scattered community, its catchment area stretching six miles in every direction.

Built on land bequeathed by Queen Victoria, used to provide timber for the Royal Navy, the school had 250 children on roll when it opened in 1846. Today it has space for 90, although in the wake of the closure threat numbers had fallen to 44, with parents understandably anxious about enrolling their children in a seemingly doomed school. Now there are 56 on roll and from September there will be 62, as confidence seeps back.

The day after putting the case for his school's survival at county hall, Mr Docking, headteacher at Delamere for the last four-and-a-half years, was welcoming inspectors from Ofsted. The subsequent outstanding rating reinforced his conviction that the school was too good to close.

"Sometimes small schools are looked at as second class citizens," he says. "How many schools have been shut that had the potential to be outstanding? It shouldn't just be about size; it should be about quality of education. There was something really worth fighting for here."

Mervyn Benford, of the National Association for Small Schools, says evidence for the benefits of small schools is overwhelming. But conventional wisdom that much of their advantage is in small class sizes is mistaken.

"It has nothing to do with class size - in some village schools you will find class sizes comfortably up into the late 20s," he says. "The thing that drives small schools is that children feel parents and teachers are taking them in the same direction. This essential partnership between parents and schools is much more difficult to achieve in bigger schools."

Research published by Ofsted in 1999 found that test results were significantly better in small schools, but that once socio-economic factors were factored in, these differences became slight. But evidence from the Scottish Rural Schools Network suggests relative affluence may not be the crucial factor.

They found that secondary schools whose intake came from small rural primaries got better results than the national average, even where they were similarly ranked on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which covers a range of indicators including income, employment, health and crime.

At an individual level, the network found that pupils on free school meals achieved better results at small rural schools, and their pupils were 25 per cent more likely to go on to further and higher education.

"The evidence shows that the model of a small two or three-teacher school is something worth saving," says Sandy Longmuir, the network's chairman. He says Scotland's geography means the continued existence of many small schools, particularly on the islands, is more a matter of social policy than finance. "They are hugely expensive but it is a question of whether you want to maintain populations on these islands."

He acknowledges that small schools can have their own problems. Weak teaching or poor relationships between teacher and pupils are magnified when a school has just one or two teachers, and some schools can become unviable if there is no likelihood that a population decline in their catchment area will be reversed. But he says local authorities often fail to take additional transport costs into account, and the savings from closing a school can appear miniscule against overall education budgets.

As a hypothetical exercise, the network calculated that closing every rural school in Angus and redistributing the money across Scotland would result in an extra Pounds 3.50 for every pupil in Glasgow. "We don't argue that there is no situation where a school should ever close, but when the money is divided out it doesn't come to a huge amount," Mr Longmuir says.

But David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, argues that a widespread programme of closure could make a substantial difference. Professor Reynolds, who has looked at the case for closing small schools in Wales, says the financial case is often overpowering.

"The savings may be small if you are talking about one or two schools, but in a rationalisation that would probably affect about 150-200 schools in Wales, or a couple of thousand schools in England, the sums of money would be considerable, substantially more than Pounds 3 a child," he says.

"I can see the point that children shouldn't be part of a financial calculation, but a decision to spend money on children in some schools disadvantages children in other schools."

But the argument for closing small schools is not just about money. Prof Reynolds' research into schools in Pembrokeshire found that when schools merged into bigger schools, results rose by more than the local authority average. His surveys also found that pupils preferred life in their new, larger schools.

Prof Reynolds believes that the minimum for a viable school is about 90 pupils, with three to four teachers, still small by international standards. "It is hard to find any reason for keeping open very small schools," he says.

While primary teachers are often required to be generalists in a wide range of areas, Prof Reynolds argues that schools with a small number of teachers cannot match the breadth of skills in larger schools. But at Delamere Primary, Mr Docking says bringing in outside expertise more than makes up for any deficiencies. A specialist music teacher visits the school once a week, providing a quality of teaching hard to find in larger primaries.

For Sophie, 10, there is another advantage of being in a small school. "When you do sport there are not a lot of people to choose from so you get picked for the teams," she says. "It is better to be in a small school."

A criticism frequently levelled against small schools is that combining year groups can make it harder for the teacher to pitch their lessons, as well as meaning children have fewer peers of their age. But Julie Clayton, assistant head at Delamere, says in practice teaching more than one year group is no problem.

At Delamere, pupils are divided into one class for reception and Year 1, one for Years 2, 3 and 4 and one for Years 5 and 6. "Initially you wonder how you will meet the needs of the children, but after a while you see them as one class of different abilities," she says.

Combining year groups also helps the children to mix, with children of all ages playing together in the playground. It also encourages the older children to take responsibility for the younger ones, and the younger ones to follow the example of their elders, she adds.

One of the main advantages of small schools is the relationship with the pupils. "We know every single child phenomenally well," she says. "If somebody doesn't look happy we know straight away." The impact on the children's confidence and self-esteem from the attention is noticeable, she adds.

Debbie Rees, a parent governor, says this confidence helps Delamere pupils overcome the adjustment of moving to a much larger secondary school. "You know they're going to be looked after well here, and you're never going to get that in a huge school," she says.

Brian Convey, head at Milburn Primary in Cumbria, agrees. "It is very easy for me to spot when someone is having difficulties," he says. "For me, a lot of the advantage is the intimacy. I spend four years with the same children, so I know them inside out."

Mr Convey is the only full-time member of staff at Milburn, a 38-pupil school on the northern tip of the fells between Penrith and Appleby. The small number of staff - there are also two part-time teachers and a classroom assistant - has not stopped the school winning several national art competitions, and Mr Convey also employs a supply teacher for languages and a swimming teacher.

He says teaching the same children from Years 3 to 6 is a spur to varied teaching - "I can't repeat myself" - and the school also avoids the pressure of league tables. There are always fewer than the minimum 10 pupils in a year group needed to feature in the tables.

"That is a key issue for us because it means we've been able to go down the line of a creative curriculum for a long time now," he says. "There's also less paperwork: I don't have to pass on a lot of records to the next teacher because the next teacher is me."

Milburn once boasted the smallest school building in England, but since Mr Convey's arrival it has been augmented by another classroom, an indoor toilet and a headteacher's office, although it still has no outdoor space. The school is advertising for a new head, with Mr Convey stepping down in December. He acknowledges it is not a job that would suit everybody. "You have got to be a certain type of person to work in a school like this," he says. "You have got to be pretty self-confident and if you needed the social aspects of school, you might find it more difficult here."

When he arrived 20 years ago the school had just been reprieved from closure, and declining populations mean there is every chance this threat could return in the future. Higher property prices have forced many young families to move - although the ongoing property slump could partially reverse this - and the shortage of employment leaves many seeking their fortunes in urban areas.

While the majority of small rural schools are primaries, there are some small secondary schools. Nor are they exempt from the threat of closure. Fairfield High in Peterchurch, Herefordshire, has 376 pupils and 18 months ago was listed for possible closure, before a reprieve in the face of a campaign by parents.

Chris Barker, headteacher, dismisses suggestions that Fairfield's size limits the opportunities for pupils. Next year the school will offer seven vocational BTEC qualifications, as well as the full range of GCSEs, and no teacher is teaching outside their area of expertise. At the upper end of the school, Year 10 and 11 pupils are interviewed about their interests and the curriculum designed around them.

"To say small schools can't offer breadth is a complete nonsense, you just have to be a bit more imaginative," Mr Barker says. "It is easier to be flexible in a small organisation and we can direct resources to where they're needed. I'm sure in a larger school it would be easier to forget children, but in a small school you have to take notice of everybody."

He says smaller schools often offer more effective pastoral care and are more attuned to the personalised learning agenda. Although he acknowledges the greater costs - Fairfield receives an additional grant of about Pounds 150 a pupil a year - the latest Ofsted report on the school found it provided "outstanding value for money". "If it means young people can be educated within their local community, it is a small price to pay," Mr Barker adds.

Where a school does close, the consequences for the community can be far- reaching. Mr Longmuir of the Scottish Rural Schools Network points out that village schools often double as the village hall, and provide one of the few meeting points, particularly with rural pubs and post offices under threat. Delamere Primary is typical in providing a community focus, hosting mother and toddler groups, salsa dancing and pilates, among other groups.

The impact of closure is being felt in Lanreath in Cornwall. Despite a campaign by parents, the village primary school shut two years ago, its numbers dropping from 35 to 12 during the course of the closure battle.

"The school used to bring everybody together," says Siobhan Rawlings, whose four sons went to the school. "The nativity play was a big event and we have to work much harder to keep the community alive now. There is a lot more to a school than just education."

She says primary age children from the village are now scattered between four schools and Lanreath has lost the link between the younger members of the village and the older ones, who used to come into the school to see the children's work. Ironically, since the school closed a programme of building affordable homes has brought an additional 10 primary age children into the village.

Rural schools also help strengthen a sense of belonging, according to Deb Wozencraft, secretary of the Association of Communities in Wales with Small Schools. "They are a valuable community resource," she adds.

She says while it is impossible to justify keeping schools with fewer than 15 pupils open on financial grounds, wholesale closure of small schools would have serious consequences. Wales has experienced something of a lull in school closures over the past 12 months, but Mrs Wozencraft says looming public spending cuts will raise the issue again.

The scattered nature of Delamere's catchment area means if the school did close, many children would lose the opportunity to socialise with their near-neighbours. "It is not the sort of place where children live next door to each other," says Julie Clayton. "They wouldn't walk past each other's houses."

Craig Stockton, chairman of governors, says that the threat of closure galvanised the community into making more use of the school. "It was one of those moments where you don't realise what you've got until it's gone," he says. "We recognised the school wasn't as integrated into the community as it could have been, and we have taken steps to change that."

Mr Docking is realistic enough to know that Delamere's reprieve is only applicable for the foreseeable future. Outstanding Ofsted or not, there's nothing to say the closure threat won't return. He points to a field opposite. "If that was a housing estate it would be guaranteed, but schools this size will always be under the microscope," he says. "If you've been through it once, you know there is always the possibility it will happen again. What it means is that I value every single one of my kids."

Whatever the assurances over the value of diversity in the school estate, of the need to have small schools as well as large ones, as local authorities feel the pressure of cuts in public spending, rural schools know they are in the firing line. Whether parent power can save them is another matter.

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