Saturday, March 20, 2010

Threats to Rural Primary Schools

It's often said that the closure of the village pub is the end of a viable community and there is some truth in this. However the closure of the village primary school is often much more devastating and according to Jessica Shepherd's article in the Guardian this is something that could well happen to many small Schools with less than 150 pupils.

Many people assume that small rural primary schools must be easy to run but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Being Headteacher of a small primary school isn't necessarily easier than a big School. In fact it is probably harder. Less staff to delegate work to, other leadership roles as well as being Head, quite likely having to teach for a day or two and all for very little more money than you could earn as a regular classroom teacher.

The same rules apply to huge Schools with several management and support staff as they do to a School with 35 children. Smaller companies have less paperwork to do but the same isn't true of Schools who have to abide by countless rules and regulations with no slack for small schools.

The Guardian articles quotes  Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services saying Heads of rural primaries were "burning themselves into the ground" as they try to run schools on tight budgets and teach part-time.

However the National College also says that heads of rural primaries report that it is a highly rewarding job but despite this there is something of a leadership crisis making headteacher recruitment difficult.  Combined with the current financial uncertainty this makes smaller schools at risk of being merged (called in education jargon "federation") or even closed altogether.  Once closed it is extremely unlikely that a small school would ever re-open.

But the National College Press Release does have some good ideas such as rural primaries sharing business managers who can deal with finance, buildings, business and other things like identifying budget savings and leaving the Head to get on with teaching and running the School. This could be an alternative to federation where the Head is shared between Schools and to the unsatisfactory situation where some of the core functions of the school have to be carried out by volunteers with variable results. Schools attracting professionally skilled governors and with PTAs that can raise lots of money can prosper whilst others (often with the greatest challenges to begin with) struggle.


So there is a need for Governors, Heads and Local Authorities to be open to new ways of doing things and to think about these things now rather than waiting for a crisis to develop.  We also need to do a better job of explaining these challenges to parents. Even simple things like the way year groups are organized can be difficult when you have less than a single form of entry and an apparently small change to funding might mean the loss of a teacher or the Head having to teach which can be hard for some to understand particularly if their own experience is from larger town or city schools.

Schools need to work hard to develop constructive partnerships with each other now rather than being forced into federations for financial reasons. Parents and other members of the local community need to get behind their local schools and give their support and encouragement to ensure they are still here in the future for their pupil's brothers, sisters and future generations. It would be a shame if people only realized the value of their local school when it was gone.

The author is the Chair of Governors of Stradbroke Primary School but this blog post represents his personal opinion and not that of the School or its Governing Body

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