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Villagers reverse county closure

Mark Whitehead on a campaign that united a milkman, a princess and a former Chrysler executive. Peter Brown went to the village school and left at the age of 14. His two children went there, and his great-grandfather was a pupil when the school opened in 1847.

So when Warwickshire decided to shut the school in Priors Marston because of falling pupil numbers, it came as a personal blow.

Peter, the local milkman, solid-fuel delivery man and grass cutter, saw it as a further threat to village life. "Everything's getting bigger and amalgamating," he said. "We've got to stop it somewhere along the line. We want to keep a bit of individuality."

Priors Marston, which reopened last week as an independent venture backed by charitable donations, is the latest in a string of small schools to go it alone.

Pupil numbers had dwindled to 45 and there was a clear case for merging it with Napton school in the next village. But, when a vigorous battle to save the Church of England school failed last year, parents raised money to keep it going independently. They collected more than Pounds 40,000 to pay for two teachers. Maintenance and equipment are being provided by local people and businesses.

David Adams, a former Chrysler executive whose two children went to the school, accepts that finances are precarious. "I'm sending out a double message. I'm saying we're confident of our long-term future, but at the same time we desperately need funds to keep going."

So far, most of the donations have been modest; not so some of the fund-raising ventures. Next month, the school's trustees are holding a Pounds 35-a-ticket ball with food provided by the firm which catered for Andrew Lloyd-Webber's wedding.

Items for auction will include a pill-box sent by Princess Diana inscribed "With love, Diana" and two centre-court seats at Wimbledon. TV cook Sophie Grigson, who lives nearby, is writing the foreword to a new cookery book.

However, the village is divided and many local children have been sent to Napton. Mr Adams blames council officials who warned parents that they may lose their right to a place at the county school unless they signed up quickly.

As a consequence, the newly independent school has only 13 pupils, but Mr Adams is confident it will grow. The trust deeds specify that the school should provide education free to the children of the village. But the trustees have interpreted that to mean they can charge children from elsewhere and have set the fees at between Pounds 750 and Pounds 950.

For Brenda Edwards, the school's headteacher, the peaceful atmosphere, community spirit and small classes made a salary cut worthwhile. "The setting and the pupils are lovely and the support we've had is overwhelming. It would be very sad if village schools like this were to disappear."

The question remains whether a school can exist largely on goodwill. The longer-term answer, say those at Priors Marston, is along the lines of the Danish system advocated by the Human Scale Education group, where parents who set up a school receive 85 per cent of funding from the state.

Meanwhile, Priors Marston represents a victory for the efforts both of articulate professionals such as Mr Adams and traditional residents such as Peter Brown.

Warwickshire claims the school is not supported by most parents. But Mr Adams has set his sights high. "We've thought it all through and we're rebuilding bridges with the county. We want to become the best school in Warwickshire. "

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