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Why small schools need big hearts

Primaries with modest rolls throw up their own management challenges, writes Gerald Haigh

What is the size of the average school roll? A thousand? Five hundred? In any discussion of management issues it is usually assumed that a typical head is running a community of several hundred people.

The truth is, though, that 2,500 heads in England alone are running schools with fewer than 100 children. And because small schools are staffed on the assumption that the head will teach for most of the week, the standard leadership and management tasks have to be slotted in wherever there is space.

No matter how few children it has, a school is still a school. The head gets the same circulars, meeting agendas, and demands for information as the head of a big community school. And even a three-teacher school has to have co-ordinators for literacy, numeracy, special needs and other curriculum subjects. The words "quart" and "pint pot" spring to mind.

Small wonder that some give up. Last May, The TES published a letter from the head of a small school who had resigned after 11 years, having been "ground down by juggling the pressures of being a class teacher and head".

The National Association of Small Schools says the story is a familiar one.

"What she describes," it says, "is an inexorable drift into despondency under the relentless pressure of more and more bureaucracy."

Being a teaching head is difficult. But there are many who make a success of it - small primary schools tend to achieve above-average SATs results.

What's the secret?

Pauline Dixon, head of the 70-pupil Rocklan primary in Norfolk, emphasises the importance of having an excellent administrator - a necessity since her school gained beacon status. "I get 21 hours a week of office help from Hazel (Nesbitt), but she's not just a secretary, she's a proper PA, paid on an appropriate scale," says Mrs Dixon. "I'd sink quickly without her. She keeps an eye on my workload; sometimes she'll take my diary and cancel everything for a week or two."

Mrs Dixon does find time for administration during the day, and she takes work home on her laptop, but she knows where to draw the line. "I work silly hours in the week," she says. "But I keep Saturday and Sunday free, and Friday night if possible - a total break to recharge."

Mike Green, head of Langham Village school on the Norfolk coast, appreciates an administrator who can work independently. "She'll draft letters, and bide her time before burdening me with problems. You need someone with a bit of empathy, who knows and understands the job."

He applauds the role played by Norfolk authority, too. "They support their small schools - there's always someone on the end of the phone, and a link adviser, and a range of packages available to help manage finance."

For all teaching heads, the classroom is always the priority - no interruptions, no cancellations. "My class, and planning my teaching, are at the top," says Mr Green.

Both he and Mrs Dixon are aware that without teamwork they cannot function.

As well as holding an official after-school staff meeting every week, Mrs Dixon has a more informal session - "a jolly that enables people to pull closely together".

Environment plays a crucial role in keeping these leaders happy. Mrs Dixon, who came late to primary education after being a lecturer in FE, says:

"There's more to life than promotion. I've some land at home, chickens, a couple of dogs. Maybe I'll just stick where I am."

Mike Green also appreciates his surroundings. "I can look across the marshes on this protected coastline," he says. "It's an environment that can give you a lift.

"There's not been one day in my 11 years here," he says, "when I've thought, 'Blimey, I have to go to school today'."

National Small Schools Forum: National Association for Small Schools:

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