Village Schools Assignment

A RURAL EDUCATION STUDY in CHESHIRE by Rev. Verena Breed, 2010

  1. Abstract

    This assignment was inspired by the “Transforming Learning Communities” process and is based on experiences and observations in the combined benefice of Bosley, North Rode, Wildboarclough and Wincle in the County of Cheshire/ Diocese of Chester. The aim of the TLC process is to reduce surplus places in schools and to improve overall provision in the educational sector. The outcome, as highlighted by the national press over recent years, often includes particularly the proposed closure of rural schools. Therefore, we need to ask if these proposals are motivated by educational standards at these schools. This process threatened the existing two C of E Primary Schools in this rural combined benefice. This assignment will look at the implications of losing the village school for the local community, describe an example of a “temporary village school” and its effect on the community and, since we are dealing with church schools, also the potential of village schools for the local churches. The church’s commitment to village schools will be regarded in a theological reflection. At the centre of the observations are small village schools. What is said about small schools may also apply to small schools in urban settings.

  2. Introduction
    1. Transforming Learning Communities

      Transforming Learning Communities (TLC) is a government initiative reviewing school provision in the counties in respect of their sustainability. In the light of falling birth rates, the target has been to reduce surplus places and offer the best provision for children. The educational authority for the area studied, Cheshire County Council (2008), describes this process as aiming to meet the needs of the wider communities.

      During the consultation process there were two meetings of the respective head teachers, chair of governing body, vicar and the lead officer for the County of Cheshire in autumn 2007. The lead officer made three statements “off the record” that need to be looked at with some scrutiny.

    2. Educational standards in small village schools

      The first statement was that, “children in small village schools are deprived by a lack of choice and diversity and therefore fail the educational standards”.

      The National Association for Small Schools (NASS) in 2007 drew attention to the Bill for Choice and Diversity (DFES 2006). This Bill argues in the name of higher standards. We have to face the question: Are educational standards in smaller schools poorer than in their larger counterparts?

      Ofsted results (2006/2007) clearly show that small schools with the least choice and diversity excel and achieve the same or higher levels of standard than their larger counterparts in urban areas. The NASS (2008) points at the quality of education in small schools, not least because of the special dynamics that these schools can offer.

      Research by Human Scale Education (HSE, 2004) suggests that small rural schools do not only deliver good or outstanding academic achievements but also have much more to offer. The research describes how students’ and teachers’ attitudes are generally much more positive as is the social behaviour, children are much more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities, their attendance record is better, students self-regard in academic and general terms is higher and how interpersonal relationships are much more positive. Their research draws on findings in the USA and the United Kingdom. Francis (1992) reaches the conclusion that children in small schools are happier and have more positive attitudes towards their school.

      The argument that children at small schools lose out on specialist teaching is contradicted by Ofsted’s research on the involvement of parents and carers (2007) which concludes that “the best schools made them active partners”. It is the leadership and management of the individual schools that have the defining impact on achievements.

      The experience in these villages shows that small village schools use the help and expertise parents and other members of the community have to offer. The high level of identification with the school by parents and by the community result in generous offers by those who have an area of expertise to offer. These communities can, for example, draw on: a professional musician (parent playing for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), a local organist, an artist, a well-known illustrator of children’s books, a specialist science teacher and native speakers of Italian, Swedish, French and German who all offer language lessons.

      This leads us to the second statement: “Academic achievements in rural areas are connected to their social, often middle class, background”. This widespread assumption has often been put to the test but has been shown to lack foundation. According to NASS (2007) research, comparisons of schools in areas that are classified as privileged, according to the socio-economic data, and areas which are less privileged have shown that this has little impact on achievement levels. On the contrary, many children that come to small village schools from outside the catchment area often have a special needs or statemented background. Not only parents are behind this move. According to NASS (2004, p. 1), there is a tendency for “education officers to seek rural school placements for pupils with particularly difficult learning problems”. Despite the variety of socio-economic background of school’s catchment areas and the number of children with learning difficulties in small rural schools, achievements in such schools are above average. When we compare “achievement and attainment data at the end of Key Stage 2” of our village schools and the national data provided by the Department for Education and Skills (DFES, 2004/05) we can find more evidence that small rural schools can provide very high educational standards. National Statistics of the National Curriculum Assessment at the end of Key Stage 2 and 1 respectively show clearly that the value added by small schools is above the national average.

      It is striking that both of the lead officer’s statements seem to be a contradiction in terms: children in rural areas that attend small village schools are deprived and therefore cannot achieve good results, yet, if they do achieve, then this is due to their middle class background. Small rural schools cannot win, it seems.

      Educational standards in small schools are mostly above average. Ofsted (2000) comes to the conclusion that: the proportions of pupils achieving levels 2 and 4 at the end of key stages 1 and 2 respectively are significantly higher in small schools compared to other schools.

      Educational standards therefore do not provide a reason for the closure of village schools. The NASS Newsletter (2007) states that small schools not only provide excellent education but also equip their pupils with a number of positive attitudes that carry on to influence children in their secondary education. They seem to fulfil the vision set by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (2007) which expects every school to be uncompromising in its ambitions for achievement, “sitting at the heart of the community it serves.”

      Ofsted (2000) finds:
      The good ethos of the great majority of small schools is one of their strengths. Inspections invariably describe very good provision for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, especially in church schools and close links with parents and the community also contribute strongly to the ethos of small schools (p.5).

      This brings us to the lead officer’s third statement “that the village school plays an important part in the life of the community in rural areas is a myth.” It has to be noted that the outcome of TLC reviews in several counties, especially Shropshire, Herefordshire and Wales, seems to result in proposed closures of village schools. What is the rationale behind these proposals? There is no hard evidence for small village schools failing academically or educationally. So, perhaps, is it just the easiest solution to reduce the number of surplus places? After all, by closing village schools and bussing the children into the nearest town, surplus places are reduced and larger schools filled.

      Another issue is the financial aspect of small rural schools, in which costs per head often appear higher than in larger urban schools. The Archbishops’ Commission on Rural Areas (1990, p.105) in their report comments on this point and comes to the result that “it would be wrong to damage this quality in the cause of financial savings.” This report recognises the outstanding quality of small village schools. Lankshear (1995) shows that the financial argument has threatened small schools for along time. Benford (NASS) states in a BBC interview (BBC Radio 4, 28.1.2008, 12noon) that through the closure of the supposedly more expensive small schools, the local councils save money which can be used to modernize and enhance provision in larger schools. Benford points to Ofsted and earlier research, which reveals the worth of small schools to the community. He shows that, after including the cost of transporting children from rural areas into town and the costs of placing some special needs children in specialized schools, the argument that small schools cost more cannot be sustained.

      This assignment is based on the rural combined benefice of Bosley, North Rode, Wildboarclough and Wincle and therefore is based on a small sample. It would be very interesting to compare the findings with larger scale research.

    3. The Villages:

      In the following I will look more closely at the four villages of the combined benefice and describe their varied situations.

      1. Bosley:

        According to the Parish Plan (2005), Bosley lies about 5miles south of the town of Macclesfield, right at the eastern edge of the county of Cheshire, bordering onto the Peak National Park. Bosley has a population of approximately 406 people living in about 150 households. Bosley maintains a very small number of businesses. The most dominant business in the village is still farming. Other features of the village are the Parish Church St Mary the Virgin, the Methodist Chapel and Bosley St Mary’s CE (controlled) Primary school with currently 41 on role.

        The children of Bosley School come from the village itself, from the town of Congleton (6 miles) and also from the village of Rushton (2 miles), which lies just across the border in Staffordshire. Some of the children from Rushton come to Bosley because of an old family link with the village or the school and some parents wish to avoid the Middle School System practised in Staffordshire.

      2. North Rode:

        North Rode’s population is 178. The village lies two miles west of Bosley. Private housing has risen in its percentage over the last few years, mainly through barn conversions. North Rode still has its Parish Church, St. Michael’s. The school was closed in 1969. Transport is now provided for the children of North Rode to travel five miles to the village of Marton. There are no other links between these two villages.

        The former school building is now run by a trust which lets the building to a private day nursery. According to a recent survey it is a major concern of the villagers to keep in touch with families and their children and to provide a meeting place, which will allow regular activities.

      3. Wildboarclough:

        Wildboarclough village is located within the Peak National Park. The border to Derbyshire runs only four miles further east. The river Dane, which marks the border with Staffordshire, defines the southern border of the parish. Three Shires Head and Three Shires Bridge which mark the point where Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet are part of the parish boundaries. The population is about 201. The village was once a thriving community as part of the estate of the Earl of Derby and was a centre of the silk and cotton weaving industry. Farming has survived the downfall of the silk and cotton industry and plays an important part with both beef cattle and dairy farms in combination with sheep farming. Private housing constitutes only a small percentage to the village. Apart from two Public houses and an “Ice Cream Farm” (a working dairy farm which has secured its future through diversification), Wildboarclough still has its Parish Church, St. Saviour’s. The village once had its own school, which was closed about 40 years ago. The children from this community now go to the neighbouring village school in Wincle (3miles). Wildboarclough and Wincle are also linked in a combined benefice. The ‘Old School Rooms’ are now run by a trust and are kept for community use as village hall.

      4. Wincle:

        Wincle is located in the Peak National Park. Wincle has a population of 164. The river Dane is the natural border towards Staffordshire. The village is mostly comprised of working farms with very little private housing or farm conversions. Wincle also has a fish farm, two public houses, the Parish Church, St. Michael’s, and the Village School, Wincle C of E Primary.

        Wincle School is the last village school remaining in this part of the Peak Park. Macclesfield Forest’s school closed after the Second World War, which meant their children had to go to Wildboarclough. After the closure of Wildboarclough School, Wincle School has now got a vast catchment area, which stretches beyond Wincle to cover Wildboarclough (3miles) and Macclesfield Forest (5miles). The village school featured quite highly in the questionnaire which was drawn up in preparation of the Parish Plan (2004/05). This document clearly reflects the importance of the school for the village; the school is seen as an asset for the village, both as a school with its staff and children and as a building, which provides the only meeting rooms in the village.

      All four villages have a highly scattered population. All four villages are still dominated by livestock farming, i.e. dairy and/or beef cattle and sheep. None of them have a defined village centre; there are no shops, but three of the four have Public Houses. All four villages still have their village church whereas only two villages still have a school. The other two villages lost their schools about 40 years ago.

      In a later section, this assignment will compare its findings with the data for neighbouring Marton C of E Primary. This school is a purpose built school for the communities in seven surrounding villages. In the process of establishing this school North Rode School was closed together with the schools in five other villages. Marton School now lies in the centre of a catchment area of approximately 20 square miles.

  3. The village school and the community
    1. Identification of the village with the school

      Francis’ research (1985) reveals that the children attending the local school have a high level of identification with the village community. According to the Cheshire County Council TLC data sheet (Macclesfield area, 2007) Wincle has almost 100% of the children within the catchment-area as pupils in the local Primary school. In 2008 all 19 primary school aged children in Wincle attend Wincle School and six out of eight from Wildboarclough. Support from parents for the local village schools is very strong.

      The parents of three children who have previously been placed in private education when Wincle School was threatened with closure in 2002/03, have since moved their children back to the village school, once its continued existence seemed secure. The TLC data sheets show a similar result for Bosley.

      A different trend can be observed where there is no longer a local school within the village community. North Rode is part of a group of seven villages, whose schools closed in 1969 and which now all feed into a purpose built rural village school about five miles away that replaced all seven village schools. Children are transported to Marton C of E Primary by bus or taxi. There is no other natural link between these communities.

      Cheshire County Council’s TLC data sheet (Alsager, Sandbach and Holmes Chapel area, 2007) shows that the percentage of children from North Rode who attend schools outside the catchment area is significantly higher than in Wincle or Bosley.

      In North Rode only five of ten children go to Marton School, the parents of five children have made a different choice and belong to different school communities. Lankshear (1995) describes how sensitive an issue it can be if parents are required to send their children to school in a neighbouring village and that other factors become important. Parents of children from North Rode seem to be more flexible in their choice of school and do not seem to feel a strong commitment to the school of their catchment area.

      The above stated data suggests that the identification of families whose children attend the school within the community with that village school is very high. This assignment will now look at the relationship between the school and the village community.

    2. The influence of the village school on the community

      The Parish Plan for villages of Wincle and Bosley (2004/5 and 2005) reveal that the communities highly value and support their school. Defra (2000) states that “local schools are at the heart of many rural communities, and a school closure in a rural area can have effects well beyond the schooling of the community’s children” (p.28). And Lankshear (1995) describes rural schools as focal points of their communities not least because they offer “a sense of belonging within the community” (p.8).

      In the four villages examined in this research there are significant differences in the community’s life as a whole. The age range of the population seems to be affected by the presence or absence of a village school. The TLC officer argued that in many villages the number of children is decreasing and therefore the need for village schools is diminishing. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the fact that good village schools attract families with children into the communities they serve. Martin Holden, from the Macclesfield Estate Agent Holden & Prescott, said in an interview that a village school was an important selling point for families with primary school aged children. He said as far as Estate Agents are concerned village schools are a great asset for the local community because they attract families with children. This is underlined by the comment of a family with four children which moved into Wincle two years ago; they had been looking at a number of properties but it was the school across the road “which sold the house to us”. Out of five similar sized properties in Wincle four were bought by families with small children, whereas in Wildboarclough none of the recently sold three properties were bought by families. Looking at the situation in the two villages on the Cheshire Plain we can observe a similar tendency. Families with children prefer to move into Bosley, which provides primary education in the village, rather than into North Rode, which does not. In 2008 there were 19 primary school aged children living in Wincle (Population 164), 21 in Bosley (406), 8 in Wildboarclough (201), 10 in North Rode (178). Taking into account that part of the rural population are commuters Gaze (2006) in ‘mission shaped and rural’ sees the importance of keeping children’s education at the local school to pull them “into the social fabric of the area” (p.21). Carey (1998) argues that schools are so important because “they are in the thick of society” (p.3). He shows that particularly church school have a contribution to make in equipping pupils for their lives by “forming people who have the moral strength and spiritual depth” (p.9).

      Clearly, as Ian Terry (2007), the Director of Education of the Diocese of Hereford, describes on the Diocesan website, in sparsely-populated areas small schools play an important part in adding to the sustainability of rural communities. He also draws attention to the point that children develop holistically with their community. The importance of such schools is underlined by a statement from the Diocesan Board of Education on the Chester Diocesan website (2008):

      "In the Diocese of Chester, many of our schools are in rural areas and we recognise the special place that a village school has in such areas and wholeheartedly support the Government’s position that there should be a presumption against the closure of such schools."

      The NASS (2009) affirms that small schools are essential to the future well-being of society, ideally placed to serve as significant enterprises in their communities. Both the education of the children and the life of the community are enriched.

      Defra (2000) in its Rural White Paper sees local schools at the heart of rural communities which offer more than just education to its children. The previous section contains good examples that these village schools offer much more to the community. Often the schools provide the only communal meeting places. The schools have become a focal point for village life. All local groups such as the WI, Parish Meetings, Whist Drives, Sunday Club and also Young Farmers meet in the schools and fundraising events such as safari suppers, Church Harvest Supper and Bring-and-Share Lunches also use the school buildings. Macclesfield College uses the school halls to offer adult education in form of computer classes and art courses.

      The villages of Bosley, Wildboarclough and Wincle hold thriving annual village fetes which are greatly supported by staff, pupils and parents from the village schools. North Rode has no such regular village event. The loss of the village school has a great impact on the village life since all village events have to be held in neighbouring village halls which lie several miles away. Events there are not seen as “local” events. This is reflected by findings of the North Rode parish plan steering group which has identified the lack of a meeting place in the village as a vital issue. Another point that has been identified by this group is that the small number of children of this village goes to three different primary schools. Consequently parents and pupils do not naturally come together. No doubt the village school can be described as an important asset in the community.

    3. An example – “a temporary village school”

      Wincle School has a capacity of 49 pupils. The children are taught in two classrooms: Reception to Year 2 in the Infants and Years 3 to 6 in the Juniors are each taught in mixed age groups. Over the last five years Wincle’s number on role has increased from 18, in times of bad Ofsted results and threats of closure, to 54. In the academic year 2006/7 the size of the junior class (27) exceeded for the first time in many years the capacity (25) of the old junior classroom (formerly part of the Head teacher’s house). With rising numbers and changing requirements for the provision for children, Wincle had to engage in a building project in order to increase the school’s capacity to accommodate the number of children attending.

      Due to the fact that Wincle lies within Peak Park it proved quite difficult to obtain planning permission. Peak Park determined that no additional ground must be used for any new building leaving the school with only one option: to tear down the extension at the back of the school (build in the 1960s) which hosted the Infants and build in its place a two storey extension. With six months worth of building work required, it became clear that the school had no chance to accommodate all the children on site during the period of work.

      Cheshire County Council suggested that the school look for provision at schools with spare capacity in and around Macclesfield with the nearest option being 5 miles away. The headteacher and governors made a conscious decision that the children should stay within the local community. Wildboarclough village agreed to offer the “Old School Rooms” to Wincle School. So, in May 2007, the junior class moved into the neighbouring village of Wildboarclough.

      For about six months Wildboarclough was, once again, the proud “owner” of a school in the heart of their community. Many people remarked how the school had brought back life to the village. For many grandparents it brought back memories of their own time at Wildboarclough School; the parent generation had no longer had the chance to go to Wildboarclough but had to travel to Wincle School. Many local residents took the chance to go into the school and offer their expertise in various areas. Local farmers offered their fields free of charge for PE lessons and games. A neighbour to the School Rooms gave the children the use of his private garden during their stay.

      Many locals commented how much the school brought life back into the village. After the children moved back to Wincle School the “sounds of children’s laughter” have often been described as the most missed. Wildboarclough children have written comments in the “Wildboarclough diary” which reflect how much they appreciated going to school in their own village.

      The children explored their surroundings in the regular “Wildlife Club” which for those six months was centred in and around Wildboarclough and completed the “John Muir Award” with a long walk and a sleepover in the Old School Rooms. The children greatly enjoyed their stay and looked at it as a great adventure. To show their appreciation they invited the local residents to tea and home made cakes and other events. The church in Wildboarclough also grasped the chance to invite children to special services. For a first time the Leavers’ service was held in the local church and the village residents came along in support. Since the children have moved back to the new classroom at Wincle School the link to the neighbouring parish remains strong. The head teacher, staff and governing body are planning to maintain this connection through school trips to the neighbouring village, for example as part of the Wildlife Club, and through involvement of pupils and parents at the village’s Rose Queen festival and involvement in the annual Pantomime. In addition to that the school made a presentation to St. Saviour’s Church in Wildboarclough for the centenary of the church in June 2009. In previous years the school’s community involvement was largely focused on Wincle. All in all, it seemed not only to have been the best possible solution to the problem of accommodating the children during the building works but it was also a greatly valuable experience for everyone involved.

  4. The village school and the church
    1. Church Schools

      This assignment has portrayed the impact of a village primary school on the local community. It is significant that a high proportion of surviving village schools are church schools and, therefore the impact of closures on the local churches need to be observed.

      As shown in the previous chapter, the Church was the first institution to engage in education of the general population. In rural areas the ongoing commitment of many dioceses to village schools has led to a high percentage of village schools having either voluntary aided or voluntary controlled status. Francis and Lankshear (1990) make the point that, according to research, the Anglican Church particularly supports small schools. For example in Hereford Diocese 58.9% of village schools are Church Schools. Osborne (2004, p.35) states in his analysis of rural life: Vicars are also involved in schools. A large number of schools in rural areas are Church of England schools and the local vicar will almost invariably be a governor. The vicar may also take assemblies or teach. This assignment will, therefore, move on to look more closely at the potential of contacts between the village church and the village school.

    2. Contact between the local Church and the village school

      Davies, Watkins and Winter (1991) show that rural clergy spend more time in schools than their urban counterparts and are also often ex officio school governors. Francis and Lankshear (2001, p.434) come to the conclusion that It is clear that the presence of a church voluntary aided primary school within the benefice can have a measurable positive impact on certain aspects of local church life. (…) In other words, church schools can contribute to the local benefice’s strategy for church growth.

      Francis’ (1985) argues that, in many cases, the most regular contact between church and school is through the local vicar visiting the school on a regular basis either informally or formally for assemblies or lessons. Dewar (2003) gives examples of how Common Worship can enhance school’s worship by offering the children “a knapsack of material that will be available to them in their entire journey through life” (p.22). The level of contact is greatest with primary schools since they are the most likely form of school still remaining in rural areas. Secondary and further education establishments are mainly located in larger villages or towns and will have wide catchment areas covering a number of rural communities.

      It might be more difficult for clergy to get involved in schools that are run under the local authority, although Francis (1985, 1987) shows that, in rural areas, it is still more likely for local clergy to have access. North (2005) perceives the local school as a wonderful opportunity for the vicar to establish contact with the children and Van de Weyer (1991) sees the village school as an opportunity for mission in the community. While this assignment does not support Van de Weyer’s statement it agrees with Bowden (1994) who describes the care of children and young people as an important area of pastoral responsibility.

    3. Family Services

      For special services, such as Mothering Sunday, Harvest, the Children’s Society Christingle service and the Samaritan’s Purse Shoe Box service, the school is a simple and effective way to reach most children by invitation. The great success in terms of attendance at such services seems to underline the possibilities. On these occasions the attending children represent up to 60% of the children that are on the roll of the local village school. Most of those children will live within the parish but also a significant number of those attending will make the journey from the place of residence.

  5. Implications

    When we look at village schools we need to see them as part of this Faith community and have to acknowledge the implications of school closures.

    Many dioceses have declared a strong commitment to keep schools in rural areas open and therefore underline the importance of the general as well as the domestic function of church schools. Dewar (2003) draws attention to the decision of General Synod to recognise “Church schools as central to its mission” (p.3). Namely, A. Terry (2007), Director of the Hereford Diocesan Board of Education, and Colin Hopkins (2008), Director of Education for the Diocese of Lichfield, expressed a continuous commitment to serving the whole nation in the name of God and have recognised the importance of the role of their schools for the rural communities. They describe their statements as the Diocesan Board of Education’s vision of what our Church school network is about for the future.

    The Church has remained truthful to its two functions in providing education for children and helping them to take their place in the Christian community and therefore serving their local village communities.

  6. Conclusion

    Sparked by the statements made by the TLC lead officer for Cheshire this assignment has looked closely at the provision small rural schools offer and the impact of church schools on local communities and churches. Based on national evidence we come to the conclusion that educational standards at small schools are above average and furthermore that small schools provide more for pupils than just a good education. Looking at the four villages, we can conclude that the remaining small village schools play an important part in the life of their communities and churches. It becomes apparent that there is a difference between communities with and without local school. Village schools help the children to identify to a large extent with their community and also the community seems to identify with their school. The Church of England recognises the domestic and general function of its schools and remains committed to the provision of local education.

    It would be a very valuable further exercise to take a closer look at all C of E village schools within the Diocese. The key findings of this assignment could with the help of quantitative research be set in a wider perspective. Such an investigation could show whether the findings of this piece of work have validity on a larger scale.