Rural schools ‘must work together’

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SMALL rural primary schools must work together in effective partnerships if they are to survive into the future, according to a new report published today by the Church of England.

It warns that the days of the “individual autonomous small school” are numbered because of the financial challenges they face and it says few rural schools have the capacity to become academies without outside support.

The Church of England has produced the report as it is responsible for more than half of the country’s 4,146 small rural schools in England – those with less than 210 pupils.

About two-thirds of the church’s schools fall into this category.

The report says during a period of austerity, schools remain one of the last links between the state and rural communities as post offices, libraries and police stations are closed down. It also suggests that the closure of such schools would have a “devastating impact” on their communities.

The report’s author, the Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer, said: “In the current education landscape small rural schools face some tough challenges which are not simple to resolve and are often expressed in negative terms.

“This report is about suggesting a range of collaborative and innovative ways forward for these schools, which clearly have a key role in rural life, while not shying away from the difficult questions.”

The report, entitled Working Together, highlights successful examples where rural schools have been able to share resources. This includes an alliance of primary schools near York which have come together to deliver teacher training.

Each of these eight schools is said to fall into the “very small” category with less than 100 pupils on roll - with the smallest having just 20. Working Together also issues a challenge to rural schools to “dare to be different”.

It warns that few rural schools have the capacity to convert to academy status without support from outside, but highlights that the Church of England already has support structures in place with the creation of “diocesan multi-academy trusts”.

With more than 130 sponsored and 350 converter academies, the Church is actually the biggest sponsor of academies in England through various different trusts around the country.

The Church is calling on its schools to use parts of the school building for other services including post offices, community centres, nurseries and holiday clubs.

The Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, who is the chairman of the Church of England’s Board of Education, said: “Rural schools, like our country churches, are the vital heartbeat of the countryside.

“Partnership has to be the way forward.

“In the Diocese of Oxford, for example, we are seeing imaginative schemes such as the one in Bletchingdon, where a new school – which will also house community village facilities – is being built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, alongside affordable rural housing, to the benefit of all.

“I hope this report will inspire other such creative partnerships to help our rural schools thrive.”

The issues raised in the report reflect the concerns of communities across large swathes of rural Yorkshire.

There are more than 170 Church of England schools in North Yorkshire alone, with scores of these being primary schools serving remote rural communities.