THE Schools Minister, Jim Knight, has told councils not to close small rural schools as a means of axing surplus places. In a letter to all councils last week, he said that, to protect village life, there should be a presumption against closing rural schools.
His letter follows high-profile protests against plans to close more than 30 village schools in Herefordshire and Shropshire. The protests led to a rethink on closures by both counties. Their initial proposals were a response to official guidance, sent out in December, which said that councils would receive cash under a nationwide school-rebuilding scheme only if they had plans to deal with demographic changes to cope
with an earlier drop in the birth
rate now affecting primary schools.
In a letter to The Guardian on Tuesday, Mr Knight confirmed that closing schools was not the Government’s preferred means of tackling surplus places. An Audit Commission “toolkit” sent to councils gave examples of how councils could manage schools with lower pupil numbers. It is believed to suggest sharing staff and resources.
The Church of England has about 1000 small village schools, roughly half the national total. They are spread across all dioceses, with the greatest concentrations in predominantly rural dioceses in the South-West, west Midlands, North-West, and East Anglia. Senior churchmen led last month’s protests in Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Canon David Whittington, the Church of England’s head of school development, this week welcomed Mr Knight’s intervention. “Closing schools which are the hubs of their communities, or shutting schools which achieve high standards and which have few or no surplus places, cannot be acceptable. We join the Minister in encouraging rural local authorities not to take this easy way out of solving financial pressures or falling pupil numbers.”
Diocesan boards of education were ready to work with local authorities to address the wider issues about the provision of places, Canon Whittington said.
Professor John Howson of Education Data Surveys said that recent statistics show that the drop in the birth rate is now at an end, and primary school numbers will begin to rise again from 2009.