Minister suggests free schools as answer to ‘hollowed out’ villages

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PARENTS in rural areas could stop their community being “hollowed out” by setting up new free schools, Ministers have suggested.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb raised the idea as MPs rallied behind small rural schools whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.

Fewer pupils, budget pressures, difficulties recruiting staff and poor broadband connections put small schools under strain, posing a fresh challenge for communities that have often already lost vital services such as post offices, pubs and village shops.

Parents have already opened three small rural free schools as part of the Government’s radical policy to allow communities, charities and businesses to set up their own state-funded schools, and another 18 are in the pipeline.

“The Government’s free schools policy supports rural school provision, as it can respond directly to local parental demand and it adds diversity, innovation and commitment to the school system,” said Mr Gibb.

“Again, we encourage rural groups and parents to consider applying to establish a new free school where they think there is a need.”

Financial strains have put many small rural schools under threat in recent years and the coalition has sought to stem a tide of closures over the past decade.

Mr Gibb said he wanted to keep the number of rural school closures “to a minimum” as Tory MP Rory Stewart warned the country had experienced a “cataclysmic hollowing out of rural areas” since 1997.

Some small schools have joined together as federations where they can share senior management and cut costs to make themselves more viable.

Ministers are also under pressure to review the education funding formula, amid concern it fails to account for higher costs in remote areas.