Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Small schools & islands

When I first met a small group of people campaigning to save their village school in Monks Eleigh from closure, I was struck by their wisdom. They understood how vital a school was in attracting young families to villages to keep them vibrant.  Many, themselves educated in small rural primary schools, challenged the current thinking about how small schools somehow failed pupils by not offering 'breadth' of curriculum.  

They understood how the 'gentrification' (as one person put it) of Suffolk's villages - exacerbated by local councils not always sticking to planning guidance - was affecting  their future. They understood the issue of rural transport, of long journeys to school by small children, of parents (often with no or limited access to their own transport) who are unable to juggle work, after school clubs and child care.

I suggested the campaign group might want  to raise questions directly with  the political leaders, who seemed  to be  behind  the actions of the education authority at a council meeting. Surely, an opportunity to be part of democracy in action.

The group planned their questions carefully based on their wisdom and expert knowledge of their subject.  This was their school; their history, their future. A school whose Governors and staff had embraced the idea of being 'Federated'.  A school that was let down by the education authority  who told them, when they were asked about help with their 'loose Federation' that they should 'make it up as they went along'.   An LEA that seemed to think that 4 visits a term amounted to 'intensive support'. An LEA that seems to believe that small schools are a contributory factor to Suffolk's poor attainment. An LEA with savings to make. A school on a huge piece of land - a potential financial asset ripe for development?

Members of the campaign asked their supplementary questions at the council meeting safe in the knowledge that they would not be answered. I watched as any faith they had in this system of open democracy slipped away. We spoke afterwards. The only positive was an opportunity to speak to their local Councillor - a Councillor, however, who had not even visited their school but who of course pledged to do so.

The campaign continues. As we saw reports yesterday of a shortage of primary school places we could be forgiven for having some hope. 

There are though some things that are becoming increasingly certain. 

The new formula means schools will be funded based on pupil numbers. Despite the recent political rhetoric this means small schools will become untenable- unable to deliver the economies of scale their larger counterparts can. At the full Council meeting I asked what the LEA's policy was on schools with 200 or less pupils. Of course I did not receive an answer.

When an Interim Executive Board gets involved there is no local input or influence by local people.

One failed Ofsted inspection seems to mean schools are forced to federate or become Academies. Successful schools however may be reluctant to Federate with a failing school. There appears to be a fear that they will be negatively impacted rather than helped by joining with others.

A failure to embrace and build sufficient numbers of council or other social housing in our villages is cutting off their life blood.

If your school is a 'church' school you cannot rely on the Church to intervene and help you.

Finally that local people, who care at least as much about the education of their children as those who sit on the education authority, can always be ignored.