Nick Gibb: Vital rural schools can benefit from lessons for the future

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THE Government recognises the contribution that small rural schools make, and that often they are at the heart of their communities.

Rural schools play an important role in our education system. Of the 18,500 maintained schools, 5,400 are in rural areas.

Of those, 525 schools have fewer than 50 pupils on their roll.

There are many high-performing rural schools that are popular with parents, and the Government want to see good and accessible schools in every community.

However, these schools face particular challenges, including smaller pupil numbers, budget and resource pressures, greater difficulty in recruiting head teachers and teaching staff, the technological challenges of ensuring adequate broadband, and less peer support from schools in neighbouring areas.

All those pressures can lead to the hollowing out of rural areas.

However, although it is true that some rural schools are isolated, there are good examples of effective collaboration.

Some schools share head teachers. That helps to preserve the focus of education within the locality, while allowing the operation of a larger management unit and offering some economies of scale.

There is also a growing trend for good and outstanding rural schools to convert to academy status.

We encourage such applications, in line with the Government’s overarching ambition for all schools to become academies so that more children can benefit from the improved standards and autonomy that academy status brings.

The Government’s free schools policy supports rural school provision and it adds diversity, innovation and commitment to the school system. Again, we encourage rural groups and parents to consider applying to establish a new free school where they think there is a need. There are already three small rural free schools, with a further 18 in the pipeline.

Home-to-school transport will invariably be part of any discussion about rural schools. That will be the case particularly where a school is proposed for closure and the pupils will need transportation to a different school in a different village.

We know how crucial transport is to rural communities. The Department for Transport has provided £10m of extra funding.

Local authorities are responsible for the maintained schools in their area and as such they can propose changes, including closures, to those schools. Where changes are proposed, the local authority must follow a statutory process that includes consultation of those likely to be affected by the proposals.

The proposals are then decided on under local decision-making arrangements by the authority. The Government have repealed the so-called surplus places rule, which obliged local authorities to remove surplus places in their school estate above 25 per cent.

Of course, local authorities are still obliged to ensure value for money. When considering whether to approve proposals to close a school, local authorities must have regard to DfE guidance that includes the presumption against closure for rural primary schools.

Such arrangements were introduced by the previous Government, but we continue to support such a presumption. Although it does not mean that rural schools will never close, it does ensure that a local authority’s case for closure must be strong.

There is also a case for saying, “Why don’t we mothball classrooms, because in several years’ time we could see an increase in the birth rate?” However, that comes at a cost, which local authorities must take into account when they make such decisions.

Let me turn to the issue of school funding. The main funding issue faced by rural schools is that, as they are generally much smaller than schools in urban areas, they do not benefit from the same economies of scale.

Our analysis shows that it is small primary schools in particular that need additional support to remain viable.

That is why proposals in the “Consultation on School Funding Reform: Proposals for a Fairer System,” which we undertook in 2011, looked at how small schools could be better protected, as well as at the underlying discrepancies and unfairness that are in the current system.

We would like to address the disparities in the rural schools either through a sparsity weighting or, in the case of primary schools, through a lump sum figure. The lump sum suggested in the consultation – I emphasise that it is only a consultation at this stage – is £95,000.

We have published a summary of responses that we are considering and we will make a further announcement in the spring.

The DfE is very committed to, and ambitious, for rural communities and their schools. We recognise the importance of preserving access to a local school for rural communities, and that is why we will be contributing to the Government’s rural statement, recognising the importance of ensuring that rural communities thrive, benefit from and contribute to sustainable economic growth, and are able to identify and address local needs.

As part of that, we are working to ensure that there is greater choice in rural areas, that standards improve by increasing the number of academies and free schools, and that the number of closures is kept to a minimum.

• Nick Gibb is the Schools Minister. This is an edited extract of a speech to Parliament on

rural schools.