Sarah Todd: Village school ethos can advance our urban areas

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CLOSING rural schools is an easy option. Much easier than tackling 
real-life gritty issues such as poor teaching, truancy and the general haemorrhaging of money that can punctuate the running of large urban schools.

Far from being a thing of the past, the traditional village school ethos should be rolled-out into inner cities. It would be harder for children to skip school if they didn’t have so far to travel. Also easier, and less intimidating, for parents in tough areas to take that step over the threshold and get involved.

This is what happens in that education-ally-advanced country of Sweden, where they get better results from smaller schools that are able to engage more with both parents and children. They also have a simple scheme – what else from a Nordic country? – called Turn the School Buses Around. It’s doing just that. Parents are offered the opportunity (and transport) to enrol children in small rural schools that could otherwise be under threat; in turn reducing class sizes in towns and cities.

After extensive research in 2006, the Scottish Government proclaimed that pupils in smaller schools were getting the best education and has adapted its policies accordingly. In fact, it found that the smaller a school the more chance pupils had of reaching university. These findings had nothing to do with the socio-economic advantage falsely alleged to explain small school academic success. There are disadvantaged pupils at small schools; the difference is they make progress rather than stagnating and becoming underachievement statistics.

The National Association for Small Schools (NASS) is frustrated with the way education authorities in the UK calculate viability of schools with the infant-grade sum of number of children divided by the school’s budget.

NASS campaigner Mervyn Benford, who was the head of a village primary school for 15 years a former Ofsted inspector, believes “small schools are an easy target”. “Because parents, children and the wider community are involved in small schools there is no doubt that a lot of costs are saved in the long-term,” he says. “Behaviour, attendance levels and academic achievement are higher in small schools so these children don’t in the long-run end up costing nearly as much as those in large schools.

“In fact, we are now campaigning for small schools in the city. They would be so much more cost-effective in the long run. Up to 50 per cent of educational outcomes reflect quality of teaching but the rest is home background...It is vital we not only save, but learn from the success of our existing small schools. They are an easy target for cost-cutting and closures when they should be looked at for inspiration and ideas.”

Ofsted results can end up hammering a final nail into the coffin of small schools. Many can’t publish their results as, because of class numbers, it would be possible for children to be identified. So the ambitious modern parent, neurotically scanning the league tables, can unwittingly miss the most high-achieving school in the area.

This enrolment by perceived performance can, on the other hand, be a poisoned chalice for schools that are “lucky” enough to top the tables. They have spawned a new breed of parent only interested in getting their offspring into the “right” school and has no affinity with the wider community.

Old-fashioned school fetes, church services and traditional fundraisers like the bring-and-buy sale can be of little interest to parents once they have secured the much-coveted school place. They beep their horns at farm traffic as they race for the bell at highly-rated rural schools; completely oblivious of the life people are living an old blackboard rubber’s throw from the playground. Those that would have done some baking for the cake sale and understood about harvest traffic are, of course, a rare species. They have been priced out of the villages they grew-up (and went to school) in – a recurring issue at Wednesday’s countryside debate organised by The Yorkshire Post and Richmondshire District Council.

In their place are prosperous early retired couples – the last generation that have a decent pension – holiday cottages and the super-wealthy who seem to have stepped straight out of the television series Escape to the Country. The irony with this latter incomer is that they so often send their children to school back in the cities they have “escaped” from.

A headteacher once said it wouldn’t hurt so much if only they’d look around what the local school had to offer before taking the fee-paying route. Fine, if they still chose the independent school; but not to even have a look around seems unfair. It’s not about money; it’s about making friends and a lasting link with the community that would survive a move on into the private sector for senior school.

There are 4,000 schools in England with fewer than 150 pupils and 1,400 schools with fewer than 75 children on roll. They are a vital part of the social infrastructure of rural England. Bringing two small schools together as a federation can work; but a shotgun marriage is never the answer.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life