Whispers from Westminster

22nd April 2016 at 00:00
Village schools can thrive in the promised land

Politics and music have a long intertwined history. Activist singers and protest songs have entered popular culture, from Billy Bragg to, er, Charlotte Church. Tony Blair is inextricably linked with D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better. David Cameron is a huge fan of The Smiths, much to the band’s embarrassment. Who can forget Chumbawamba throwing water over John Prescott at the Brits?

Which must be why I found myself humming a few bars of Jerusalem yesterday, while reading a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on rurality, and thinking about academies.

One of the things that is unusual about England, in terms of space, is how unlike some of its competitors it is. Around 65 per cent of the population live in highly dense urban areas, of whom half live in major cities. But those 65 per cent of people only live in 15 per cent of English land space, which means we also have about a third of the population scattered around 85 per cent of our green and pleasant land.

If you look at the top 10 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) countries, some are marked by dense urban populations (much of East Asia), and some have disparate populations over large areas (Canada). Few have both. Perhaps only New Zealand has a similar demographic mix to England, with a far smaller population overall.

This matters when it comes to schooling, because it affects distribution of teachers and also the pattern of schools themselves. One of the issues raised about universal academisation is whether it threatens the viability of village schools. Such schools operate in a strange place in political discourse – feted in the abstract, as physical embodiments of Blake’s England, they are also often ignored by policymakers and politicians who live and work in major metropolitan areas.

But what’s so interesting is how widespread such schools are. There are more than 4,900 specifically designated rural primary schools – almost a third of the total – spread across almost 100 local authorities, including ones which on the face of it sound very urban.

Rural doesn’t mean small, and it doesn’t mean areas with low populations, though there’s clearly an overlap. Some 300 primary schools across England – in places such as North Yorkshire, Devon, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Cornwall and Northumberland – are officially defined as being in “a sparse setting”, which relates to their geographical isolation from other areas. And around 100 primary schools in England have fewer than 30 pupils across their entire school cohort.

An economist might look at rural schools and see efficiencies to be made by condensing them into fewer units, based near market towns. But such schools play a vital role in their local communities.

One of the things that I hope universal academisation will do is provide these schools with a clearer future, by linking them together, and possibly strengthening the legal barriers that stop them from being closed. One doesn’t need to think that the Holy Lamb of God once gambolled on England’s pleasant pastures to recognise the value of such village schools.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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