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Ministers that the potentially damaging use of national percentile pupil performance comparisons (a proposal now withdrawn) denied existing policy protecting individual pupils from possible identification?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?