Earlier this year NASS was in contact with the Bishop of Oxford, who has overall oversight of Anglican education, as we sympathised with his public complaint that government policy in recent decades had virtually broken the long concordat on education between Church and State. He invited us to meet Nigel Genders, then entrusted with a major review of rural education- our particular concern- and we met him in the spring. He has subsequently become CEO of the National Society and his review has just been published. The Bishop responded in the Daily Telegraph:
Small rural schools must dare to be different
With their future under threat, inventive new schemes are needed to help them survive.
The report argues more shared working- even with a form of executive leadership. NASS hopes this is not formal federation but systematic, informal collaboration as we strongly urge. The Bishop cites Norfolk- not the best example in our view- and accepts some closures. NASS would refer the Bishop to the new DfE rural list and its emphasis on school as a community resource. Loss of autonomy affects local identity and can impair the community partnerships the report values.
The second strand is shared community ventures, working together, sharing buildings and other resources- something NASS wholeheartedly approves, and with good case history. The Bishop cites examples already happening which have inspired the report.
Finally the report urges new technology, video-conferencing and the like. Again NASS has reported early examples, from Wales and elsewhere, of such positive curriculum and professional enrichment strategy. The report is important and should be consulted by any small school. We shall welcome comments and report further examples in future editions that meet our on the whole welcome reaction to these ideas.
The unwelcome element is news that one county, Norfolk, already agrees the Report's view that autonomous small schools are finished. NCC regards all schools under 50 as causing "serious concerns" under its local quality grading system and so to be unequivocally proposed for closure regardless of actual performance. No primary school is to be smaller than 110 ideally and shared headship is required to achieve that. NASS will oppose firmly!
Notwithstanding a DfE rural status list Norfolk's new rationalisation scheme alleging transformation of rural education is likely to see the end of small, stand-alone primary schools in Norfolk villages. No evidence is offered as to how educational performance will be transformed but the human landscape certainly will be changed. It is policy based on tired arguments of cost and educational efficiency largely mere opinion. The policy ignores factors like permanent on-costs of transport. The Council brazenly calls it 'the Norfolk Rural Primary school concept model.'Bottom of For... At the same time the Council moved to close its smallest school- George VI Primary School in Great Bircham, west Norfolk.
Without any foundation it supposes such large area schools give economies of scale whilst retaining local ethos and identity. It cites evidence across the country that simply does not sufficiently justify the claims. Economic evidence needs to build over time as long-term transport costs show. There is hard evidence that long-term transport costs erode alleged savings while separate schools had better results before closure. No Council we ask ever shows its alleged savings ever materialised.
Sophisticated economic analysis any business would do to evaluate economic worth are disowned because they would prove Council claims wrong. Councils refuse to reveal the figures taxpayers, especially parents and local rural communities deserve. It is politics using distorted figures and educational claims based on little direct professional experience of small school life and work designed to frighten councillors into such draconian measures.
James Joyce, Chair of the Children's Service Committee, said: "One has to be very cold, and, in many ways clinical, to make a decision. The decision always has to be what's in the best interests of the children."
Cold and clinical maybe but why does someone- parent, businessman, editor, councillor- not ask him what evidence exists that small schools serving their local families and communities are NOT in children's interests while his unsubstantiated claims are? Councillors will also be asked to reconvene the council's Small Schools Steering Group to make recommendations for future activity. Utter hypocrisy if they have closed them all!
Rik Martin, for Norfolk Rural Community Council, said he could understand closing very small schools, but questioned if new executive Headteachers would understand local community needs. He called for the strategy to be "rural proofed." "It's just another instance of a local rural asset undermined. It's really important that people living in rural communities are not disadvantaged by efficiency economies."
He added: "If the only thing left is the school, it is more than just a school." Is there a future for small village schools? The Diss Express has reported three schools closed by Councillors without discussion because the idea came between a Cabinet and a Committee meeting. The schools had a serious case for Ministerial intervention but did not seek NASS help.
This NASS national initiative achieved a modest start this summer due to a generous grant from a charity. The project encouraged small schools to go public with one or more aspects of their work and engage public awareness of that quality. We gave money to every group of schools that applied. We welcomed in particular projects involving the local community and area. These were:
A nursery school in Oxfordshire working on an intergenerational project with former pupils to develop a history trail around the school along with a celebration of dance and music learning with pupils from local primary schools.
A group of 10 small schools in Derbyshire for transport costs for sports day, bonding day workshops for pupils moving onto secondary school, children's parliament and supporting fund raising initiative for community project.
A Greater Manchester nursery school for half day workshops working with local artists and involving staff, children, parents and governors to create a unique piece of artwork.
A Hertfordshire small school working with other local village schools and communities to celebrate how they use the local environment, including a rounders tournament, den building and scavenger hunts in local woods
A Greater London nursery school working with families, children and staff on a project entitled "My family story" - with drummers and dancers from different cultural backgrounds celebrating community cohesion.
Three Oxfordshire schools providing transport costs to facilitate a parents' and pupils' cricket tournament.
A Lancashire nursery school to facilitate a music session with parents/ grandparents and a lead musician and two Forest School sessions for parents and children.
Parents and pupils are celebrating after governors at Farnham primary voted to save the school on its current site, rejecting a move to Stansted. At a crunch meeting they voted 12:2 to oppose any relocation plan to the relief of the parish, which had campaigned against Essex County Council's proposals ferociously.
The authority launched a consultation with the community suggesting the best way of ensuring enough pupils to make the primary viable was to move to the former St Mary's school site capable of expansion. NASS was asked for advice on the virtues of staying small, and duly provided much hard evidence.
A spokesman for the campaign said: "We feel they [the governors] were put under heavy pressure. Under a poor consultation process by Essex. We congratulate them for resisting the pressure they were put under. We welcome the vote against moving Farnham school by the Farnham and Rickling school governors. We feel they have made a very wise decision. Huge thanks go to all those who backed the school - Farnham and Stansted Parish Councils – and the parochial church council, who all unanimously voted against the proposal, as well as almost all parents, future parents, former pupils, families, friends, the local Farnham community, not forgetting many others in surrounding areas who saw the folly in closing such a gem of a school.
There is a lot of hard work to be done to make sure the school is not threatened in the future and will be looking to work very closely with the governors to support them in making sure this happens. Now the school is safe, we would also encourage parents throughout the area, including Bishops Stortford to consider the school for their children: we think they will be very surprised at what they find. As the Observer has reported, some children will be expected to travel long distances to their new schools in September. We urge them make enquiries now."
A spokesman for Essex County Council said: "The decision whether or not to publish a statutory proposal to relocate and expand Farnham Primary was always to be taken by the governing body of the school. Feedback from the local communities has been considered, and the governing body has decided not to proceed with the proposal. The relocation will not therefore proceed and Essex County continue to explore other options for meeting the growing demand for primary school places in Stansted."
Subscriptions became due on January 1st- the still very modest amount of £15 per school, compared to other professional association rates. Members benefit from the work being undertaken entirely by volunteers for no more than essential costs. We give a report of our many and varied activities each year- lobbying, defending, promoting. The new system begun in 2013 will continue- namely that invoices will be sent out by post and payment via official funds and bank transfer is certainly acceptable. Of course cheques payable to NASS are equally welcome and any donations likewise