The Ulster Unionist Party says it has succeeded in getting its amendment passed during a debate on rural schools. The amendment strengthened the original motion by introducing a legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools as well as adding an additional duty to consider the impact a closure would have on the community, similar to the protections already in place in England and Scotland.
Education spokesperson Danny Kinahan, who is also Vice Chair of the education committee, said:
"Our amendment called on the Assembly to adopt the English and Scottish presumption against the closure of rural schools which is designed to give rural schools a clearer and more comprehensive consultation system than currently exists in Northern Ireland. Rural schools are central to the fabric of our local communities which are under great pressure due to the closure of local shops, post offices and police stations. In many cases the local school may well be all that is left to hold rural communities together."
Agriculture spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson said: "Rural schools are, and should remain, at the very heart of what it is to be a rural community. Area Planning strikes fear at the heart of rural communities - fear that their schools could be shut down or will remain unfit to accommodate the needs of families moving to the countryside."
Residents living in rural England are being failed by ministers who are focusing state funding on towns and cities, according to a committee of MPs. Countryside communities suffer a "rural penalty", with higher house prices and council tax but less funding for local schools and poor internet and mobile phone coverage, the MPs say.
In a new report, the cross-party environment select committee calls on ministers to do much more to reverse the "deeply unfair" rate of state funding for rural areas. The government should also find ways to make buying second homes in the country less attractive, the MPs argue.
The report was published three days after another study, from the charity Age UK, found that elderly people in the countryside suffered from isolation as a result of cuts to transport services and shop closures. Rural areas make up 86 per cent of England and around one-quarter of the population - some 12.7 million people - live in the countryside.
More than half a million businesses in rural areas contribute a total of £200 billion to the national economy. Ministers have promised a renewed effort to "rural proof" Whitehall policies, and have published new guidelines intended to ensure that government decisions do not make life worse for people living in the countryside. The Select Committee found that the government has failed to honour previous promises to protect rural communities, which may be widely dispersed and already lacking in infrastructure, from suffering further difficulties.
Anne McIntosh, the Conservative chair of the committee, said rural schools and businesses were suffering as a result. "Broadband has become a basic utility yet thousands of people in rural communities have ridiculously slow speeds or no connection at all", she said. "The Government must be clear when broadband will be available to those currently without access."
(nb The recent new agreement between the Government and British Telecom goes some way towards improving speeds.)
The report says it is "unacceptable" that rural areas receive less in central government grants than urban councils, the committee said. "Rural communities pay more in council tax, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than people in large towns and cities." The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is deeply unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts.
Sir Michael Wilshaw said a spotlight was needed on Local Authorities that are failing poor children. Many of these now were in leafy suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts rather than big cities. Such pupils were often an 'invisible minority' in schools rated good or outstanding. They coasted through education until, at the earliest opportunity, they severed their ties with it. 36% of pupils with free school meals obtained five good GCSEs including maths and English. Among all pupils 59% achieved this. He wants a new team of 'National Service' teachers sent in to help. Sir Michael has praised big improvements in London schools and says other big cities have also made great strides.
Lest the reference to rural areas be mistaken NASS ensures it is clear to other observers that the Chief Inspector referred to market towns- often the schools children transfer to when their village schools are closed! Evidence worldwide has consistently shown that children from impoverished and disadvantaged families actually make progress in small schools.
As we reported in an earlier e-newsletter, the Government proposes to resolve the problem it sees in KS2 level 4 being achievable within a mark range from 40+ to 70+ by giving parents more precise indications of how their children fared. It claims this is only for parents. The profession is dismayed as children will certainly find out. Consultation was launched typically across the summer holidays but pressure from the profession had the original September closing date extended into October.
Professional associations for teachers and headteachers have voiced strong opposition. NASS believes this measure of particular anxiety to small schools for the same reasoning that small schools have been excused league table publication. In small test groups the chances that individual pupils will know exactly how each other scored is much higher. We shall oppose in our response. We urge members and all who work in small schools to consider the situation very carefully and respond similarly. Time is very limited. Nick Clegg will be quick to interpret low response as "favour" since it will resonate as a Lib Dem version of Michael Gove's "tough on standards - tough on teachers"
Following our first liaison meeting with former NAHT National Secretary Mick Brookes and the then President we asked for a further meeting with this particular issue in mind.
Many of our members may also be NAHT members and we suspect many headteachers will be as concerned as we are, not least small school headteachers.
We conveyed our concerns to the new President who, like Mick Brookes, has some small school background and proved as sympathetic to our representations. She promised to ensure our views were considered in that Association's own response to the consultation, then still open.