Readers will recall how for the third time last year we helped defeat a proposal to close Cumbria's Captain Shaw's school. The Council spared no effort to win its case using open refusal to provide balanced evidence, ignoring local efforts to give relevant facts to decision-makers and deploying mis-information as well as obstructive time-delaying tactics in its cause.
The school this year faced the return of Ofsted but had been told by the County education team that there was no way it could be judged good or better and would struggle to rate satisfactory- which now means "required to improve!" That would have been an incentive for the LEA to return to the closure issue.
Governors learned from the inspector, after a thorough and detailed examination, that she had to bear in mind the fact county officers had contacted her ahead of the inspection to "inform them their concerns!" She declined to meet them before the inspection was over. She would have realised a positive finding would have to be defendable. So we congratulate Captain Shaw's staff, governors, parents and children for coming through with flying colours.
Our contact, Abigail Hardwick, has resumed as Chair of Governors and reported the very successful informal partnership with another small school nearby, Thwaite, under the one Headteacher but otherwise autonomous. This is a far happier arrangement than what the LA had tried to impose under threat of closure otherwise.
NASS is very disturbed because we have growing evidence that LA officers set on rationalisation of rural schools and the "big is better and by the way cheaper" myth should stoop to such devious ways to influence events and steer paths to closure. The school is aware from its local grapevine that Cumbria does plan to return to rural school closure schemes.
South Stoke Primary in Oxfordshire, just two classes also, had a similar experience in 2011. The Ofsted inspector saw very differently to what the LA officer had foretold although in this case the County had not sought to influence inspectors beforehand. We hope Cumbria's behaviour, like that of the East Riding in preferring to close schools than pay the lump sum decided for all schools, is not the prelude to widespread closures arriving.
New research reveals for the first time the beneficial results of Keep Britain Tidy's Eco-Schools 18-year programme encouraging schools to put environmental education at the centre of the curriculum with children having a powerful voice in what happens.
The research by Kids Industries mirrors findings from Ofsted, the DfE and Scotland. It reveals more than enhanced environmental awareness. Far-reaching personal and social benefits have accrued, leading to telling improvements in well-being, especially self-confidence, awareness of others and ability to build relationships. Behaviour, motivation and cognitive skills have all improved. "Keep Britain Tidy" is a charity. For more information visit www.keepbritaintiday.org/eco-schools
It is almost six years since our last meeting with the Welsh inspectorate, at which we learned they still took the view expressed in their 2008 report to the Assembly that small schools were as capable as the rest in reaching required standards. We undertook our own sample study of inspections subsequent to that meeting and indeed it showed the quality achieved by the majority of smaller schools. In one case, notably, where inspectors declared the toilets unfit for use by pupils or public the school nevertheless scoffed the top grade on every other aspect of life and learning.
Since then the rumblings of the flawed Reynolds research live on. Gwynneth, and now Powys, have begun closing schools it earlier lost an election for trying to do. The Education Minister tamely accepted every Gwynneth argument and even urged more rationalisation, more urban-based.
Recently he resigned as he had publicly condemned his own Council for proposing to close a school- though careful to claim procedural errors as justification. We wrote to ascertain the extent of his personal support for small schools now but in his reply he said it was not a matter that claimed his priority attention.
We are aware of some recent investigations that raised some questions over Welsh small school performance but from which we dissented and so we decided it might be time to talk to Estyn once more. The meeting will be in November in Cardiff.
Many serious and respected educationalists doubt the wisdom of free enterprise strategies in educational provision. A recent study of the Charter Schools strategy in the US reveals that in 6000 such schools, covering 2.3m students, just 25% of these schools were stronger in reading performance and 29% in Maths. Respectively 56% in reading and 40% in Maths were no better, while19% were significantly worse in reading and 31% in Maths. In total, then 65% in reading and 71% in Maths were no better or worse. Surely this tells observers that organisational change is a poor guarantor of educational success- as research has consistently shows it is about what goes on in classrooms, the people, that matters.
"The Observer" presented a feature recently about a new free school in a very deprived part of east London that is doing very well because it is led with vision, underpinned by sound learning principles that infuse inspired teaching.
Refreshing views on proper accountability, flexibility of organisation, pupil influence and home contacts are all factors validated by research and if managed effectively in practice can guarantee success. Sad that such an example has to come from a free enterprise initiative because efforts in the mainstream system make such things just too difficult - except in our small schools where these factors are very often found despite the problems created almost wilfully by political priority and administrative myopia.
While on Welsh news we are delighted to congratulate the excellent campaigners in and around Llandinam for the effective way they have convinced Councillors their school should stay open. They were advised this was due to the excellent quality the school offered. NASS suspects it may also have reflected the very determined opposition. Congratulations to all concerned. We were happy to help.
Over a year ago the cluster within which this small Church in Wales school worked was up for review by Powys CC and its future may have seemed in doubt. Those in the know- mindful of its long history of excellent inspection reports- could not imagine it not surviving what the Council euphemistically called modernisation for the cluster, but which we are used to seeing elsewhere called rationalisation.
Today Powys describes what it is developing as transformation and our members are at the heart of the action, regarded by all as "an exemplar of good practice." Further praise from Estyn is anticipated.
In a final report to Cabinet following an informal consultation on plans to close the school as part of a county-wide "school modernization" programme, Powys County Council officers stated:
"The responses to the consultation, the latest data and particularly the high standard of education at the school lead to the conclusion that Gladestry Church in Wales School should not close."
Everyone welcomes recognition that Gladestry is a flourishing school in every way. It has a rising intake, currently full, is self-sufficient, is properly meeting the needs of its community and is providing high quality education from very good buildings. The school achieved exceptionally high standards in its Section 50 and ESTYN school inspection report, which concluded that "the school provides very good value for money".
Powys County Council recognised Gladestry as an outstanding school. Not only does it provide a benchmark of best-practice for other schools throughout Powys, but the work undertaken by the Head is seen as exemplary practice within the Authority. Gladestry School's song 'Every Child' was released to highlight the campaign and could be seen on YouTube. It was a collaboration between the children, songwriter Jim Eliot and parent Rob Robinson. UNICEF liked the song so much that they showed it via their website.
In 2009 Gladestry Primary achieved six grade one and one grade two in the 2009 ESTYN inspection and was ranked as one of the top ten Primary Schools of the 257 inspected in Wales that year. The school was also awarded the highest marks possible, three grade 1s, in its Church in Wales inspection the same year. This placed it as the most successful such school in Wales.
It has excellent community links, claiming on its website at one time to have had the world's biggest coffee morning! Children also entertained delegates at the "Delivering Dignity" conference in Llandrindod Wells.
The Cambridge Primary Review takes its latest step with the formation of a Trust to promote it evidence-based arguments. On the Guardian website it has published eight priorities for primary education- inviting comments on what changes are needed. They read as follows:
Help schools tackle educational disadvantage and close the attainment gap.
Child poverty currently affects between 17% and 26% of Britain's children, depending on whether you use the relative or absolute poverty measure, and poverty and social disadvantage impact directly on children's educational progress and attainment. Despite a long succession of government initiatives aimed at tackling the problem, most recently through the pupil premium, the challenges remain severe. There's a great deal that expert and inspirational teachers and school leaders working against the odds can do and have done and we must learn from them. But for their work to achieve its full impact, it must be supported by the country's wider economic, social and educational policies. All too often, such policies pull in different directions.
Give children a real say in their learning.
We must celebrate children's voice and rights in school and the classroom. As the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child points out, children should "have a right to be involved in decisions about their own learning". This influence should extend to pedagogy as well as school councils, for the classroom is where citizenship starts, and we know that discussion, dialogue and argument are very powerful tools for learning.
Primary education should not just be about preparing children for secondary school.
We need to sort out what primary education is for, and ensure that aims driving the curriculum and are not merely cosmetic. To say, as the government does, that the main aim of primary education is to make children 'secondary ready' is to undervalue children's huge potential for development and learning during the primary years. Education is about the here and now as well as the future, but schools should also address the wider condition and needs of children and society in today's complex world. Children leaving primary school should of course be ready for what follows, but what follows year 6 is life, not just year 7.
Make 'breadth and balance' more than a slogan. Take seriously the curriculum beyond the 3Rs.
While primary schools must and do insist on the importance of literacy and numeracy, they should also lay foundations in other areas – in spoken language, science, the arts, the humanities, in physical, emotional and moral development and lived experience. These are in their different ways no less important for children's future learning, choices and lives; they might actually make children more "secondary ready" than the 3Rs alone.
The CPR argues against the old two-tier curriculum – where the basic subjects are covered in depth while the rest of the curriculum is in some schools treated seriously but in others is left to chance, and where the idea of 'standards' is confined to the 3Rs. This approach undermines the cultural and economic worth of the non-core subjects and flies in the face of research that shows how learning in one area enhances learning in others. Without deflecting attention from the importance of literacy, CPRT argues for a primary curriculum whose core includes essential knowledge, skills and experience drawn from all subjects, not just three of them.
Increase the focus on evidence-based pedagogy.
It's only through teaching that the curriculum comes alive for children. And it's only through understanding the art, science and craft of teaching – from research, inspection and shared experience – that teachers can inform and refine their practice. Relying on habit or official pronouncements isn't enough. A greater focus on what evidence tells us about effective teaching and learning will enable teachers to help every child achieve the highest possible standard in all aspects of their education.
Assessment should be about more than just test results.
Where assessment and standards are concerned we need a wider practical repertoire and a more sophisticated vocabulary. We must devise approaches that enhance learning as well as test it, that support the curriculum rather than distort it, and that pursue high standards in all areas of learning, not just the core subjects. It's no longer acceptable that tests at a moment in time and in a narrow spectrum of learning are treated as measures of a child's entire educational attainment or of everything that schools aim to provide. Tests have their place, but both assessment and accountability should be about much more than test results.
Schools should connect with the community.
Britain has immense demographic, economic, cultural and linguistic diversity, which creates a vast array of educational circumstances and needs. The best of our schools don't just work closely with their local communities but make the curriculum responsive to local needs and opportunities and live the very idea of community in their everyday work and relationships.
The discourse of educational policy must change, and radically
As recent events have shown, policymakers tend to be interested only in evidence that fits their ideology or prejudice, and they may ignore or even abuse those who provide evidence that doesn't fit the political bill. Deep and lasting improvements in our education system will be achieved only when policymakers are even-handed rather than selective in their use of evidence and when they speak about education in a way that exemplifies the educated mind rather than demeans it.
CPR addresses general primary issues but readers will recognise the scope for small schools especially to address these priorities. The encouragement of local community links is almost a rule of thumb for us.
As a result of discussions with some key professionals broadly in sympathy with NASS aims and practice we plan a new initiative linking us with the 350 maintained nursery schools in the country- the majority small. They often need the kind of support our members need and we have agreed to provide advice on matters such as campaigning in closure cases. We have long argued the vital importance of early years provision and stated our pride in the fact that children starting in small schools do so knowing that home and school are on the same wavelengths.
NASS hopes to be represented at the forthcoming Ofsted Conference pledging tougher nursery inspections through targeting those thought to be less effective. By so doing we can evaluate why, for example, they and the Government, in addition to the new criterion for effective primary of schools of their pupils being "secondary ready" there is now a nursery education requirement for children to be "school ready." We shall report further in due course.
We gave the Government credit for addressing the funding needs of small schools in its proposals for 2014-15 through the new Sparsity factor and the separation of primary lump sum and secondary. However, closer study shows that in its determination to give Councils maximum flexibility it has opened the door to a range of interpretations not necessarily friendly to small schools.
For example though the Government stated any school with no other within two miles (as the crow flies) Cumbria is using the apparent flexibility to set the distance at three miles. Norfolk may offer the grant only to schools under 50 on roll while Oxfordshire plans no Sparsity payments. Postcode lottery again: in the current year basic lump sum payments ranged from £42500 to £198 000.
As previously we urge affected schools to contact their MPs and ask them to raise the matter with Ministers. We shall welcome more news as plans develop of other potential or actual abuse of Government intentions in the name of such "flexibility."
Register free school meals
We are urging small schools to register all pupils claiming free school meals in an attempt to secure the now £900 pupil premium for such children. We report a Lincolnshire situation where upwards of £3.6m is not being claimed. We recognise rural family reluctance to claim and are asking Government to follow Ofsted example and pay according to entitlement rather than take-up.
Umbrella academy powers
NASS continues to express concern about the powers of umbrella academies to threaten the viability of their constituent schools.
School Closure guidance
We are also urging the DfE not to delay issuing their planned new guidance on procedures for closing schools, procedures we wish to see applying to all schools not just those still within the Local Authority remit. We have been contacted by the senior officer leading the issue of new guidance, an attempt at simplicity of organisational prescription, and invited to comment. We shall do so. The proposed guidance is currently out to consultation. The section dealing with rural school closures at first glance seems fair but we wish to see aspects tightened in terms of Council accountability where fair procedure is not followed - as currently happens on most occasions.
Ombudsman procedures and principles
In relation to long experience, and a further new case, we are asking the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee for an investigation of the way the Local Government Ombudsman network treats complaints using principles and attitudes that are themselves as unfair as those one is complaining about on the part of Local Authorities. We are currently engaged under their normal rules in the case of Gembling's school closure by East Riding.
Urban Village Schools
We continue to argue a case for small schools to be the basis of provision, albeit networked under single governance and leadership, in urban areas, particularly at a time when wilful ignoring of rising birth-rate in the preceding decade is bringing massive demand for pupil places and provision largely by bolted-on expansion of existing schools- creating unacceptably high roll numbers.
Our campaign includes arguing for the entire economics of school provision to be more thoroughly analysed for its longer-term truths. We believe that the commitment to large scale long-term costs more and is less effective. The belief in buildings, tests, inspections and other system factors is too dominant.
We have met National Society leaders in a renewed attempt to secure some agreed fundamental guidance asserting the facts about small schools for individual diocesan education boards to consider when proposing closures or responding to Local Authority closures as we find the actual practice at times almost as chalk and cheese, often just across a county border.
We have the same concerns regarding diocesan academy clusters and shall be interested in how these develop and are managed. We hope early assurances that the aim is to build long-term support but leave schools fully autonomous will be delivered.
Members now receive our new e-mail newsletters in the months between the usual termly hard copy longer editions. It means we can bring you significant news more quickly, with, where necessary, more detail in the printed editions. The next e-letter is due in November.
Law may be changed to bring in a formal presumption against closure of rural schools. The Scottish Government in July launched a consultation on the process to be carried out when a school is shut. Education Secretary Michael Russell conceded shutting schools was "emotive" for communities but said it is important such decisions needed to be open and transparent. He said: "Rural schools have particular importance to the local economy and rural community viability. I want to ensure we protect and enhance that, while still providing councils with flexibility they need."
The 2010 Bill setting fair play process setting standards for consultation did not include a "presumption" as such. The consultation comes after the Scottish Government and local government body Cosla established an independent commission to examine the provision of rural education. It called for clarification. Many of its 38 recommendations can be introduced without legislation. The Scottish Government said it is now looking to amend the Act accordingly. Ministers are also considering if financial information on the impact of shutting a school should be put forward when councils consider closing it.
An independent body could be established to rule on cases where the Scottish Government does not agree with a council's decision to close a school and "calls it in". The Government consultation document argues that this would mean such decisions are made in an "objective and transparent manner without any suggestion of political influence".
A five-year moratorium might be introduced for schools considered for closure, preventing the council from attempting to shut them again during this period. The Education Secretary has rejected one proposal which could have made it easier to close rural schools by loosening a requirement of the 2010 Act for councils to show that closing a school would have educational benefit.
A plea has been made for Audit Scotland to be brought in to ensure the cost of closing rural schools is accurately calculated. Paul Docherty, Chair of Channelkirk School board in 2005 when it was threatened with closure (NASS was active in its successful defence), was responding to a Scottish Government consultation on the country's rural schools network. It will discuss if financial information on the impact of school closures should be in closure proposals.
This review follows evidence from the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) in April that Scottish Borders Council benefits by £1.5 million a year from its rural schools. SRSN was responding to a report by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education showing Channelkirk brings in £213,000 per annum through grant-aided expenditure. The figure opposed the findings of education director Glenn Rodger who had claimed closure could save £1m over an eight-year period. Highlands Council previously had re-opened a school when SRSN showed it lost more by closing it.
Now Mr Docherty thinks greater financial scrutiny is needed. He said: "What I want to see from the consultation is, firstly, a standardised and very simple form detailing the costs of each school which includes the grant provided; and secondly, I want a truly independent body – possibly Audit Scotland – to look at the figures, check them and sign them off as accurate."
The Education Secretary Mike Russell said: "I want to ensure we have measures in place to protect and enhance rural schools, while still providing councils with the flexibility they need."
The Scottish Government has been harried by Councils but adheres to its declared principles in the demand for fair procedure and process when proposing school closure.