We welcome you back a little later than usual. January is subscription renewal time but this year, ever in tune with modernity, we have sent the renewal notice by e-mail and with an invoice as many schools now require such a document. In this present newsletter we add a polite reminder. May this now be just a REMINDER to you as we depend utterly on membership income. Even if every small school knew of us and joined our finances would still be difficult.
We think £15 a year reasonable for the work we do on your behalf and we try to keep subscription levels low because we also encourage individual membership. Many of our members are not directly working in teaching. Many do not have children in school. They do believe in our work and the model of effective education you and we all represent.
PLEASE tell others of us- we are now the Voice of Small Schools! We are sometimes seen largely as the fire brigade rushing to help when a school faces a closure threat or other emergency situation. Yes- and we do that well!
We cannot always guarantee success but we provide a substantial range of tools and related advice to those campaigning to keep their schools- not just the parents and school personnel but also local people for whom the school remains a valued facility and presence.
Perhaps we can describe some of the other less dramatic but equally important things we do for you to justify asking you to renew your
membership. In a letter from David Laws he states "I agree that good schools in rural areas
are often the heart of their local communities." He mentions the standard closure argument about councils claiming costs are too high and refers to the new Government attempts at remedy: "Following the review of the 2013-14 funding arrangements we are introducing an optional Sparsity factor."
Who raised the problems of the current year? NASS! Who alerted schools to the power of local MPs contacting Ministers? NASS! Who wrote detailed letters to Ministers? NASS! Who met David Laws directly earlier this year on a range of small school concerns? NASS! Who has already notified Ministers the new optional Sparsity factor is proving very optional already? NASS!
Who told those drafting the new curriculum that several key elements were not helpful for small schools? NASS! Who reminded Ministers that the potentially damaging use of national percentile pupil performance comparisons (a proposal now withdrawn) denied existing policy protecting individual pupils from possible identification? NASS!
Who has been promised by DfE officials a chance to contribute to imminent changes to School Organisation Guidance (including statutory closure procedures) when available?
NASS! We consistently ask: Should a government department advise a lesser or optional level of guidance than in High Court rulings?
Nor does that lobbying role stop with England. We have been consulted by both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and this year we have again met senior Estyn officers from the Welsh inspectorate.
Because we know the role of leadership in education is critical and how well small school leadership comes through in inspection reports we have once more met the NAHT President and affirmed our interest in sharing efforts on matters of significance to both organisations while building better understanding of the small school factors.
NASS is negotiating for a further meeting with Ofsted. Now one must write initially. We have submitted the following letter to Ofsted detailing our current concerns.
"You have met us in the past to discuss the small school performance. The Chief Inspector's recent analysis of underperformance n coastal towns and rural areas concerns us. Small schools are but 10% of the total school estate and easy to overlook and to denigrate but test and inspection data has been largely good or better. We sense the small-scale, human-scale nature of small schools does contribute to outcomes that continue to surprise even hardened professionals. We worry about the reaction to Sir Michael's words from those less aware of small school virtues.
The Commission for the Countryside included in its annual reporting the performance of rural schools in education. It consistently found that just living in a rural area gave higher quality education. Is Sir Michael saying this is no longer true? Or are there now pockets of weaker performance that do not nevertheless undo overall rural performance?
Other issues that arise:
- Ofsted reports consistently rate small school parent and community relationships as significant performance factors: are we still right to argue these still rate highly? Is the benefit at levels where Ofsted, in view of radically and rapidly changing life prospects for today's young children, sees it effectively contributing to community well-being and lifelong learning?
- Ofsted assesses management aspects of leadership alongside leadership of teaching and learning. Does Ofsted assume possibly minor, technical administrative failings automatically reduce academic performance?
- Lincolnshire tells us that parents unwilling to register their children for free school meals have this year lost the Authority £3.62 million of pupil premium money. Does Ofsted find this growing in small school management in rural areas? You once assessed academic performance against FSM take-up but changed to entitlement. The DfE seems not to use this for the pupil premium.
- Federations and academy clusters claim performance improves as a result. Has Ofsted any firm evidence for such a claim? In some cases schools under shared leadership have felt neglected but without a majority on the governing body such matters remain unaddressed, leading to loss of parental confidence-stress on numbers and governors themselves proposing closure. In some cases, though sharing leadership, schools remain separate legally, with separate Ofsted inspections. Brockdish in Norfolk, managed to de-federate and appointed a 3-day week Head who in their view would give them more than they believed they were receiving from the federated shared Head. Ofsted later rated that school "Outstanding." Does Ofsted reporting of autonomous schools within federations permit evaluation of the management and leadership nevertheless shared?
- Under changed funding arrangements the current DfE lump sum- recommended at £200 000 to meet minimum small school annual fixed costs, has not been paid by any. The average is nearer half that and some have been around £50000. Effectively funding is currently a postcode lottery. Next year brings an attempt at remedy with a Sparsity factor, but the rules for this are flexible enough for Authorities to disown additional grant. Again it is becoming a postcode lottery. Ofsted has experience judging Value for Money and we have never yet seen a report that does not say a small school is good or better value for money. Has this role diminished and is Ofsted prevented from commenting on huge differences in resourcing that in any informed view must affect the quality of educational provision and qualify judgements that year accordingly?
- This is far from exclusive to small schools but very small schools were first to raise the question of the qualification of an inspector to judge the entire Early Years to 11+ age range. With far less time in current practice for observing lessons this broader qualification to inspect factor may not seem so significant but becomes more so if only 20 minutes is to be spent observing lessons compared to the 75% required earlier- ideally whole lessons.
- Quality of Teaching. Twice Ofsted has told us its assessments and each time it has been better in smaller schools, with proportionately more good teachers. Has this been maintained since 2007?
- To what extent is Ofsted now more concerned that schools reach required national targets rather than the hitherto much trusted "broad , balanced and relevant curriculum?" Today's inspection experience seems to allow very little time to consider more than the tables of performance data related to targets.
- The Bew Report in 2010/11 advised that data where rolls are small should not be used singly to make performance judgements but be assessed over a three-year period. Ofsted accepts this but does it compromise the rural/coastal performance claim?
2013 saw the launch of our e-newsletters to paid-up members in months between the hard copy editions. We have also produced 6000 new promotional leaflets and sent every English small school two copies (Head and Chair of Governors) to introduce ourselves. Further copies will be dispersed via the many key influential organisations and policy decision-makers across the country to raise awareness. We are announcing our wish to see a National Small Schools Week during June (see inside cover.) As an individual school or in local groups do please try to engage wide interest in your effective practices. We shall prepare a background leaflet of small school virtues to use to raise awareness and support what you plan locally.
NASS would welcome views from small schools on how they react to the latest Government proposal to equalise opportunity by adopting the private school day that adds homework after school. We are aware of extensions some schools make to help particular families and after-school activities would remain part of provision. School holidays would be shorter. Independent schooling is the Government model but though their pupils work longer days they have longer holidays too.
Oxfordshire will make no sparsity payments to its qualifying rural schools. Devon and Norfolk restrict the grants to younger age groups. Somerset will pay the grant only to schools with 35 or fewer pupils but in its calculations bases the sum only on the number of pupils fewer than 35 that represents actual roll. Cumbria extends the qualifying distance to 3 miles from the DfE two. Restricting the distance may open future claims that schools within such "agreed" grant distances are no longer "rural." Scottish Councils already claim this in cases unrelated to grant- a new definition of "urban." BEWARE!
These are current indications arguing considerable variation in what schools are given. We repeat our 2012/13 advice to contact your MP and refer him/her to David Laws if you have concerns.
Schools are being encouraged to open their doors to children as young as two and extend their nurseries' opening hours as part of the government's latest attempt to increase access to childcare. Liz Truss, the childcare minister, is asking local authorities to ask nurseries to be open for longer during the working day, while legislation will also be introduced to enable schools to take toddlers. As well as helping mothers to go back into part-time employment, the government claims it will create large numbers of childcare places and help to prevent the children of poorer families from falling behind their peers.
Truss told the Daily Telegraph: "Schools have excellent facilities. It is age appropriate, so what you are doing with two-year-olds in terms of singing, reading stories, playing with paint is very different from what you do with a seven-year-old. If you have a really high-quality school nursery, children who are behind (at two- Ed.!) can catch up with their peers by the time they start school. Many parents will prefer longer days rather than five short bursts during the week. If you're working part-time two sessions of seven and a half hours, or three sessions of five hours gives more flexibility."
Some school nurseries already offer care to children under three. The government expects that 40% of all two-year-olds will be in line for 15 hours of free care a week. At present, school nurseries have to register with Ofsted before taking in two-year-olds. This "red tape," as described by Truss, will be removed by legislation in September.
NASS works closely today with nursery schools as most are small. Is this but another strategy to address workplace issues? Is it a strategy to distance parents from involvement with their children's learning or to write off many now regarded as disinterested in education?
Inspectors across the UK well recognise the high quality of small school children's behaviour and the quality of the education they receive in terms of life and living. In today's world serious questions are arising that challenge past values and the attached news item followed the very unfortunate false claims online in the McAlpine case and with online cyber bullying increasing. We include this item because our children deserve any such information that enables them to update their values in context, and relative to their age and stage of development.
A private school in Taunton now teaches pupils about libel risks on Twitter, Facebook and other social media in a move to prompt teachers to extend teaching on social media internet use and responsibility. It falls into the personal, social, health and economic education aspects of the curriculum. The scheme, which may be extended to older pupils, began with lessons on basic internet safety. Staff then realised that actually this was becoming quite a serious issue with things like parties on Facebook, and the traps students can so easily fall into. They were very aware how much the children use it.
Staff accept that celebrities tweeting the wrong thing is beyond school matters but it highlights how easily things can go horribly wrong. It's a good opportunity to tell children that even something that starts off as a joke or something silly can actually get you into a lot of trouble. They're also being taught to not even forward anything like that- in fact to be accountable. Older pupils are reminded that there are laws regarding defamation but for younger pupils the key message is the old adage: Do as you would be done to! The school believes their pupils need to know that whatever they say may just come back to bite them.
The splendid affirmation in our report in a previous edition on Wigley School of the care afforded its children over their six or more years at the school coincided with contrasting national news. As we went to the printer at that time "The Independent's sister newspaper ('i') reported on one day that half of children aged 10 to 14 have seen their parents drunk, while cyber-bullying was becoming "accepted as part of everyday life."
In the same edition it reported concerns among university students and their families that since the £9000 fee arrived teaching time has reduced as tutors chased even more money.
It also reported that 170 leading academics are warning Ministers that school places and teacher supply are growing problems. The DfE denied the latter claim, saying it had met 95% of its target that year. Are we so easily deceived? That defence depends on the target!
The 170 experts may well in fact be right. The school place shortage is beyond denial, with Local Authorities descending to desperate solutions and many schools becoming larger as a result. We repeat that one Local Authority advised parents to seek places in village schools. At one closure meeting in Cheshire five years ago a local campaigner asked why buses available to take children from village schools to towns could not offer places to urban families in village schools using the same buses. This idea always seemed remarkable common-sense. Is now another time for it?
We reported Sue Pollard's excellent book, "Toxic Childhood" when first published. It should be compulsory reading for politicians and professionals alike. Mike Kent's TES column recently spoke of worrying class discipline problems- among 9 year-olds!
News today is filled with growing bodies of hard evidence that our children are unhappy (and bottom of western country league tables) and not well-served by the ever more intense competitive environment they endure both at home, where basic cost of living proves so limiting, and at school, where core educational values are so under pressure from power-seeking politics.
Perhaps NASS is too comforted by news such as Wigley's. Are children in small schools more protected against modern societal drift? Do they have deeper resistance? A study of secondary school Headteacher views on the subject of the village children they receive showed clearly that though the children were certainly less street-wise they absorbed the cultural shock of transfer well, including to the larger environment, worked hard with positive attitudes and achieved well.
NASS believes that education in small schools builds that quality and power. We tell Ministers and parents and employers but no-one listens, or, if they do listen and even recognise the validity of the argument, they say it costs too much. We tell professionals but many of them, not least those in large schools, believe small schools are stealing their money.
We have an almost watertight, irrefutable analysis of the economics of small schools that shows their costs are fragmentary against the rest of local authority and national spending on education while long-term they save money by those very qualities those secondary Headteachers recognised.
Those qualities are the stuff of consistent research across the UK and across the world. When will the public, the employers and parents who pay the taxes, realise they have been betrayed by successive governments for too long and that children deserve better than the majority receive. Meanwhile we must defend the quality of the small-scale, human-scale model we so effectively represent. Are cyber-bullying or parental drunkenness a significant problem? Reader comments welcome.
We have learned of a student from a small Australian secondary school writing about the quality of her education and how it is misunderstood and not appreciated by government, with closure a constant risk as a result of such neglect:
"Living in Boort, school has always meant more to me than simply turning up in the morning and biding my time until the bell rang at three-thirty. Boort District School (formerly Boort Secondary College) has given me a chance to develop interests in a myriad of areas, some of which seem inconceivable for a P-12 school of two hundred students. Debating, rock climbing, surfing and snow skiing trips, have all been a part of my school experience. Having now completed year twelve, I do not feel I would have developed into a more valuable or well-rounded person if I'd attended a larger, less isolated school. So why are rural school students called 'disadvantaged' or considered lesser to their city counterparts?
From where I stand this mindset seems held not only by students from larger, wealthier schools but by the Australian Government itself. With Boort's 2012 VCE results ranked sixty-fourth out of over two thousand schools, it is clear that location has little to do with achievement. Small towns are declining in population and so rural schools are closing at an alarming rate. I think of all the ghost towns around Boort that once supported schools: I wonder if Boort will one day go the same way.
I'm sure when my grandfather was a child he would never have imagined the many small schools in the area becoming redundant in his lifetime. I hope my story brings to light just how special rural schools are, and provokes consideration regarding the journey towards giving them the support and acknowledgement they deserve.