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Education Board urges small schools to make alliances

17 October 2014

KEITH BLUNDY/AEGIS ASSOCIATES

Hanging out: pupils from Ebchester C of E primary school, Consett, Co. Durham, from a photograph in the report Working Together

Hanging out: pupils from Ebchester C of E primary school, Consett, Co. Durham, from a photograph in the report Working Together

SMALL Church of England village schools - more than half of all small schools in England - will not survive unless they make teaching and administrative alliances with neighbouring primaries, a report for the C of E's Board of Education on the future of the Church's rural schools has warned.

In a foreword to the report Working Together, the C of E's chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, wrote: "The need to offer a broad educational experience whilst facing the challenge of sustaining experienced leadership under increasing financial pressure means that the days of the individual autonomous small school are numbered." He urged more collaboration between schools, or joining of diocesan multi-academy trusts.

"Reluctance to do this, or a longing for the status quo, will leave us with a system that was good for yesterday's world, but is not fit for the purpose in the changed education landscape."

About 65 per cent of the 4443 church primary schools have fewer than 210 pupils - the level the Government regards as a small school. Almost 95,000 C of E schools have rolls below 100. The challenges that they face include a squeeze on funding, difficulty in attracting staff - particularly head teachers - and providing the curriculum breadth demanded by enhanced education standards.

Moreover, small governing bodies can struggle to meet the financial and monitoring responsibilities that they now face, and too few have taken on the academy status favoured by government policy, the report says.

The report outlines a collaborative future for church schools in which they share head teachers, teaching expertise, premises, administrative and financial services, and expert governors. This would be achieved by joining diocesan multi-academy trusts, which would provide the scale needed for interdependence.

The report urges them "to dare to be different". Schools with limited premises could, for example, teach Key Stage 1 pupils on one site, Key Stage 2 on another, while a third site could specialise in children with special educational needs. It also suggests the use of greater technology in some areas, to provide the "virtual education" already under way in remote areas of the Scottish Highlands.

The financial viability of rural schools could be strengthened by widening community use, providing space for a post office or other services, the report suggests.

As well as viability checklists for school leaders and governors, the report includes case studies of collaboration already under way. Among them is the Trinity Federation of three C of E primary schools in Norfolk, which now shares a single head teacher and governing body.

Another example is the redevelopment of Bletchingdon C of E School, in Oxfordshire, cited in a comment on the report by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who chairs the Board of Education. The new building is part of a scheme that includes affordable housing and social amenities. "Partnerships like these are essential if villages are to retain their schools," Bishop Pritchard said.

The report has been widely welcomed by diocesan education boards. The director of education for the largely rural Lichfield diocese, Colin Hopkins, said that, without collaboration, budget pressures and a heavy teaching load on staff would make many schools unsustainable. Half of Lichfield's 204 schools have fewer than 210 pupils; 60 have rolls below 100; and 15 have under 50 pupils. The diocese's smallest school, at Longnor, in the Staffordshire Peak district, has nine pupils. Another, at Flash, closed after the roll fell to three.

Canon Harold Stephens, who chairs the board of education in Salisbury diocese, which has 133 small schools - 70 per cent of the diocesan total - praised the report's forward-thinking steps to safeguard the future of rural schools.

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