Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Save rural schools

Government funding reforms are threatening to close many rural small schools.

That’s the warning from the National Association of Small Schools (NASS), which for 36 years has promoted the work of schools with 100 or fewer pupils. Many of these are in rural communities and in a fight to protect their long-term future; NASS has launched a ‘Fair Funding for Small Schools’ campaign that includes supporting an e-petition started by one of its members.

Last year, the government proposed that - under the school revenue funding system - local authorities should allocate a maximum lump sum of £150,000 to all schools in their areas.  With most school funding coming from a fixed sum per pupil (the figure for which varies across the country) then this money is especially important to small schools and needs to be sufficient to cover their fixed costs.

Amidst concerns about the potential impact on smaller schools, NASS successful lobbied MPs to force up this figure for 2013-2014 to £200,000.

However there was no guarantee on what sums will be allocated in the future and no minimum threshold was established. So whilst schools in Hampshire have a lump sum of £190,000 the figure falls to just £42,000 in Worcestershire in what NASS argues is a ‘postcode lottery that puts every small school in the country at risk.’

Schools from Cornwall to Northumberland, with hundreds in-between, have contacted NASS to raise their concerns. NASS claims that one Warwickshire headteacher has been told by his local authority that schools with less than 100 pupils are no longer viable.  Adding to small schools concerns is also the fact that from April all schools will be required to meet the first £6,000 of any additional interventions to meet a child’s special educational needs.

According to Richard Maudsley, an education officer for the diocese of Exeter and who works with 131 Church of England schools in Devon: “Many rural small schools are being forced to use up their reserves to stay open. They have made savings over the last few years, but you need a certain amount of money to run a school regardless of how many pupils are in it and rural schools are more expensive to keep open.

Closing rural schools will take the heart out of many communities and is not likely to save too much money if the alternative is to put five-year olds on buses for lengthy journey’s to far away schools. Devon is a large County. I believe the government needs to recognise that rural schools are special cases and ensure they are adequately funded now and into the future.”

At Gembling Primary School, which is situated between the small villages of Gembling, Kelk and Foston on the Wolds near Driffield in east Yorkshire, there is a real possibility that the decision by East Riding Council to restrict funding to £130,000 will see it closed in the summer. Another £35,000 is needed or else 26 children, including six travellers children, will need to find an alternative school. Parent and school governor Jacquie Stedman believes: “That would be a tragedy as the school is an important part of local rural life.”  

According to NASS secretary Barbara Taylor: “Small schools are the focal point of many rural communities. Research has shown rural schools often excel in their standards of education and achieve standards of equal and higher than their larger counterparts.

“There are great partnerships between schools and parents, many of who move to a specific location because there is a school there. This provides a more balanced community age-wise and helps create work opportunities for those already living in the countryside.”

These points and more are made succinctly in an e-petition, initiated by Larl Phillips, against the closure of rural village schools to the Department of Education. This cites the revised national funding formula as a cause for concern, believes there is a need for County Councils to be given more flexibility to retain rural schools and believes the ‘government has a duty to act and protect small schools in rural areas and support their education services.’

Readers can sign the e-petition at https://submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/45516

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