All schools are under pressure to deliver maximum results on increasingly shrinking budgets, but when there are only two pupils in a year group, it throws the pressure to achieve into stark relief.
In a year group that size, there are only three possible outcomes for how many pupils achieve above the threshold: 100 per cent, 50 per cent, or none at all.
I am the headteacher of a small school in rural Hampshire, where two-pupil year groups can be a reality. Working in these “all or nothing” circumstances has taught me important lessons about how to make the most of minimal resources.
Of course, leading a larger school presents different challenges, but I believe there is plenty that all school leaders could take from the microcosm of the small-school budget. So, here are some of the key things I have learned from leading my small school.
A poor inspection report can have a huge effect on a small school, with major funding implications. It is essential that we provide as much context for our results as possible.
We keep all the leavers and late arrivals on our tracking system as evidence of turbulence and of the progress they have made during a short time. Small Steps tracking to show the progress of pupils with SEND is also vital.
Similarly, we ensure that our school improvement plan, self-evaluation form, headteacher’s report and milestones of progress are all tightly interconnected, so inspectors can see that self-evaluation is strong and governors will have a clear understanding of the impact of any fluctuations in our numbers.
Maintain pupil numbers
To keep things as stable as possible, we do everything we can to maintain our intake and prevent huge discrepancies in the number of pupils in each year group.
We use our website to promote everything that makes our school unique to encourage prospective parents. We advertise all the time in local papers and have made a video for our website called “What makes a small school special” (see westmeon.hants.sch.uk).
Saturday open mornings are now the norm and I also take every opportunity I can to write articles about the importance of small schools.
Consider the cost of cheap staff
Replacing a leaving member of staff with a cheaper one is usually preferable for the budget. But in a small school such as ours, teachers have to lead several subjects.
While an NQT or other younger – and cheaper – member of staff settles in, other staff, including the headteacher, will have to take on more subjects. CPD has to be targeted very specifically for the needs of the school.
While the issue will be more pronounced in a smaller school, it is universal that cheap staff can come with costs in the long term.
If you are hiring cheap, make sure that you take the additional CPD requirements into account.
Use learning support assistants
Where cutbacks do have to be made, think twice before cutting your learning support assistants (LSAs). Instead, concentrate on hiring the best LSAs you can.
One pool of expertise that has helped us to keep costs down are qualified teachers who have decided to become LSAs. They bring a wealth of knowledge to our school. In return, we are able to provide them with job satisfaction by giving them additional responsibilities.
For example, we have a qualified teacher and ex-Sendco working as a LSA. She is our Sendco for half a day a week and is paid accordingly for this – and any extra paperwork or meetings relating to this side of her role. She spends the rest of the week as a LSA, delivering interventions.
We also have a trained early years teacher working as an early years assistant, who can take over the class in an emergency and be paid as a teacher for these periods.
Of course, these arrangements need to be mutually agreed. You must ensure that staff are not working outside of their contractual obligations and are paid accordingly when they cover a teaching role.
Join forces in the community
Working closely with other local small schools enables us to have a joint orchestra, a joint sports teams and a joint forest school.
Each school offers its area of expertise and either pays for the related activity, or all schools contribute at a fraction of the cost.
Joint minibuses keep down costs, as do joint Inset days and training. In some cases, we can also raise money by offering our staff’s expertise as a service and advising other schools in the area.
Building relationships with local drama and sports clubs has led to offers of financial assistance to attend their sessions. As a faith school, we also work closely with our attached church. We use each other’s buildings for free and enter into mutually-beneficial arrangements for licensing the use of land.
Above all, we know that the school cannot stand still. We must be innovative and forward-looking to flourish in this challenging financial climate.
Julie Kelly is headteacher at West Meon Church of England Primary School in Hampshire