Rural schools often benefit from having experienced staff and most of them perform well, if measured against pupil achievements at key stages or in exam results. However, there are significant challenges which should be addressed by a Rural Strategy. They are:
The Rural Services Network believes that the following initiatives should be included within a Rural Strategy for a place to learn and grow:
→ A presumption against school closures: the long-standing Government policy, which is a presumption against rural school closures, has been helpful in protecting many small schools. There can be circumstances where closures are justified, but generally if village schools close there is a considerable social cost: the community is less sustainable and children are required to travel further. School rolls are more prone to fluctuation from year to year in small schools and the presumption helps protect them through this cycle. A rural strategy would offer a good opportunity to restate the intention behind this presumption and its 2013 statutory guidance, while stressing that decisions should make the interests of children paramount.
→ A fair and realistic funding basis: historically, the funding (per pupil) received by schools varied significantly and to the detriment of those in predominantly rural 21 areas. The National Funding Formula for schools, now being gradually introduced, is very welcome, but it should allow for more than minimum staffing levels and should benefit all small rural schools (which it currently does not). Schools with a small roll often miss out on capital funding for maintenance or modernisation, with expenditure being focussed on larger school development projects. It is important that sufficient funding is set aside for smaller projects, to make rural schools fit for purpose.
→ A stronger focus on rural recruitment: a third of rural head teachers say that their school’s location impedes their ability to attract new teaching staff. Some teachers are put off by the prospect of teaching mixed age groups or having less opportunity to develop specialisms. Gaps in staffing can also be harder to manage in small schools. A more effective strategy is needed to encourage teaching staff to take up vacancies that arise in rural schools. This could include exposure to rural schools during teacher training, more effort to attract people from rural communities into the teaching profession and the provision of (affordable) key worker housing.
→ A workable approach to collaboration: smaller rural schools may benefit particularly from collaboration or clustering, where it allows them to share resources and expertise. This can include shared Heads and shared teaching staff. Moreover, there is some evidence that collaboration is associated with better pupil performance. However, given their higher cost base, small or isolated schools are often seen as unattractive by Multi-Academy Trusts – the Government’s preferred collaboration structure. National policy should recognise this limitation, making extra support available so that small rural schools can adopt a model which best suits their circumstances and enables them to deliver an excellent education.
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