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Thorny problems at Brambly Hedge

Poverty, low ambition and schools vulnerable to closure is the reality in rural Britain. However, the landscape can be inspiring and there's a chance to be at the centre of community life. Jill Parkin reports

Country schools - they're all mud, maypoles and mothers in 4x4s, aren't they? Fine if you want a quiet life, easy kids and harvest festivals with proper pumpkins and Sam in Year 6's dad's exploding home-made cider. But not for teachers who want the nitty-gritty of educational life.

Myths about country schools abound. It's true that in some areas a PTA auction of promises could yield the odd half lamb, home-reared, but plenty of rural schools are in underprivileged areas.

Here's a statistic to weigh against that half lamb: around 24 per cent of rural 19-year-olds don't get a qualification equivalent to an NVQ2 (GCSE level). The figure in urban districts is around 28 per cent. Different, but not worlds apart.

Jean Scott, senior policy adviser with the Countryside Agency, the rural advocate and watchdog, highlights one of the differences. "The main point about rural schools is that they play an important role which goes beyond the provision of education," she says. "Many are at the heart of their communities and the school is often the only community building available in a small village.

"Schools also contribute to the viability of rural communities. It's increasingly recognised that they can play an important role in community and economic regeneration."

The countryside has particular educational problems, according to the agency: small schools which are vulnerable to closure; limited curriculum opportunities; low aspirations and poor attainment; plus restricted access to post-16 education and training.

Rural education is no idyll. It's hard work says Terry Hobson, head of Appleby grammar school, a 500-pupil comprehensive in Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria. "Rural teachers must wear many hats. Their schools cannot access many of the funding streams available to others and staff must cover the usual requirements and increasingly high expectations," he says. "You may find that you quickly become co-ordinator of several initiatives. You could be a subject teacher, head of department and fully involved in several activities. In smaller schools, you could be the only teacher of your subject."

Rural schools seek to counter such isolation with in-service training and co-operation. Appleby belongs to the Rural Academy of Cumbria, a co-operative of nine schools. Similar developments exist elsewhere.

Country children are a mixed bag. And, like them, you may be deprived of a few urban conveniences. "Students and staff can have little access to facilities which urban dwellers take for granted, such as libraries and broadband," says Mr Hobson. "School days and activities are constrained by transport. Practices, rehearsals and clubs must, in the main, take place in lunchtime. The weather can break the routine: snow, floods and winds can prevent them happening."

Right. But the country school must have something going for it. As long as you realise life is not all Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter. "The advantages can be amiable students who need to be stretched, the opportunity to work in a school community rather than an institution, and a chance to teach at a personal and rewarding level," says Mr Hobson.

"This can be true of urban schools also, but the surroundings can be truly beautiful and you may find it hard to leave, even though you gain a professional experience which can be an investment for the future. One thing is certain: you will have to work hard. My staff do."

One such person is PE teacher Helen Scoltock. She liked her previous job at a 1,300-pupil comprehensive near Halifax but, since moving to the country to be with her boyfriend, she has been pleasantly surprised. "The students are differen. On the whole, they're from more affluent families here. They are more willing to learn and seem more intelligent. I've had to re-do the schemes of work I've brought from my old school because I was getting through them quickly.

"The children seem more able to organise themselves. That could be something to do with having to be organised for travelling to school every day. I've never been in a bad mood since working here. Life is less stressful. If I'm slightly late the children will be all sorted out into teams by the time I arrive. They actually want to be educated."

So, what about housing? You need to think hard about where you want to live. You could be miles from school and still in the catchment area, perhaps in a lovely village with no buses, no pub, and certainly a limited night life. In some areas, access to the nearest market town is relatively easy, yet larger towns and cities can be hours away. A car is essential and housing can be expensive.

But you can become an integral part of the village, its social life and its history. That, says Bill Mann, 57, head of St Hilary primary school (249 pupils) in the village of St Hilary (parish population around 760) near Penzance in Cornwall, is something worth having. "It's true some heads take a country school posting thinking it's going to be easy, just as some business people take a country pub. Both get a rude awakening," he says.

His school has nine teachers, most of whom live within five miles of where they work.

"The best thing about a rural school is being part of the village. A few years ago the school won the agricultural show, which was ailing somewhat.

We took it over and it's thriving again.

"The school can be a village catalyst. St Hilary feast was a traditional local holiday on the Monday nearest January 13. It was marked with a concert until 1946. We have revived the concert, and the staff all get involved in beating the parish bounds on that day too.

"The feeling of history, of being rooted in the community, is good for children. There aren't many jobs in Cornwall and I like to think of the children, wherever they are and whatever they're doing in years to come, looking back and thinking: 'It's feast day in St Hilary. They'll be getting ready for the concert.'

"It's a special place, and working here you become conscious of history and your responsibility for making sure we don't lose sight of it. The past has brought us to where we are and that's a lesson a rural school is well-placed to teach."

The size of it

* Two-thirds of rural primary schools have fewer than 200 pupils; a quarter of rural secondaries have fewer than 600.

* Statutory guidance now contains a presumption against closure: 30 schools per year were shut before 1998, but only two in 1999 and 2000.

* However, declining pupil numbers mean many smaller schools will soon be vulnerable to closure once again.

* Overall, educational attainment is higher in rural than urban areas, but 17 per cent of the 1,683 most educationally deprived wards in England are in rural areas. One in 12 rural 19-year-olds has no qualifications at all.

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