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A question of survival

05 June 2015

Margaret Holness sees how partnership can be of benefit to rural schools


Federation: Sarah Robson and children from St Peter's C of E (A) First School, Alton

Federation: Sarah Robson and children from St Peter's C of E (A) First School, Alton

IF FEDERATION, with its educational and economic advantages, can still be a matter of choice in urban areas, for small schools in the countryside it is becoming a survival strategy, the sole approved path to the future, as last autumn's Archbishops' Council report on rural schools made plain.

In a foreword, the Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, spelled it out: "The days of the autonomous small school are numbered. It is only as our schools work intentionally in structural partnerships and collaborations that they will find the strength and resilience they need to continue to offer outstanding education at the heart of local communities." 

The majority of C of E primaries fall within the Department for Education's definition of a Small School: that is, one that has fewer than 210 pupils. More than half the C of E schools in England (though a much smaller percentage of its pupils) come within this category. Those with fewer than 110 pupils are regarded as Very Small Schools. The Church has most of those, too.

The problems they face include managing an expanding curriculum with a limited staff; making a small budget stretch ever further; and - a pressing problem - attracting head teachers prepared to take on significant managerial responsibility, along with a teaching timetable. When small-school heads retire or move on, advertisements for their successors attract few replies.


LICHFIELD diocese has 126 small schools, of which 59 are very small. The dearth of applicants for two small-school headship posts was the issue that led to the creation of the Churnet Valley Federation, in rural east Staffordshire. When it was left without a head teacher, St Peter's First School, in Alton, with just 52 pupils, began working with the larger 88-pupil All Saints' First School, in Denstone, just two miles away. The collaboration worked well. So, when the head of All Saints' moved on, and repeated advertising failed to fill a shortlist, the two governing bodies decided that federation was the obvious solution.

Sarah Robson, the head of another small school, St Augustine's, at Drayton in the Clay, 16 miles away, was drafted in as acting executive head of the federation last September, while continuing to oversee her own school. 

One year on, she has been appointed permanent executive head of the Federation, which will become a three-school body when St Augustine's joins in September this year.

Kickstarting the Federation has been a challenging time, Miss Robson says. Teachers and governors from the three schools were committed to new ways of working, but her hardest task has been dealing with a minority of parents who, as the rural-schools report expected, still "hanker after the status quo". Her response has been to explain, again and again, the reasons for the initiative, and to extol its benefits.

And, as Miss Robson describes them, the advantages of federation seem unassailable - economies of scale not least among them. She has been head of St Augustine's for 12 years, and says that, throughout that time, making her school budget last out the summer term was always a headache. But that is no longer the case. She has even found the funds to recruit more teachers.


THE curriculum has benefited, too. Subjects are now timetabled across the three schools, allowing for joint school trips, for example. When the local authority provided sessions with a maths adviser to one school, all of them benefited from the specialist advice. The Federation has one sports co-ordinator, and one business manager.

Crucially, the Federation aids succession planning, which is particularly important in church schools. The three participants each have their own "Head of School". "Senior teachers have stepped up to the role, and find they enjoy the responsibility," Miss Robson says. And the Federation provides a wider pool of potential leaders.

Ideally, federations take place between schools that are within five miles of each other. St Augustine's is 16 miles away from its future partners, but Miss Robson says that "all the staff, all the governors are on board." Her enthusiasm is shared by Terry Davies, who chairs the Federation governing body: "It's undoubtedly secured us a brighter future."

The biggest winners from the Federation are the three villages that now have schools with a future, the diocesan director of education for Lichfield, Colin Hopkins, says.

As the rural-schools report points out, many have lost their post office, their shop, their police station - and even their pub. "The school is one of the state's last remaining structural point of contact with rural communities," it says.

Underpinning the Federation's achievements, Anthony Orlik says, is growing a school community with a common purpose in a very diverse area. Moreover, the schools retain an unashamedly Christian ethos. The cross and the Bible are prominent throughout both schools. There is a daily Christian assembly, at which individual pupils can ask for prayers. All classrooms have a worship corner, often used for "going-home prayers", and local clergy are often in the school. There are regular school events at the parish church. "Non-Christian parents know what our ethos is. They don't have to send their children to us, but they choose to," he says. Even though many pupils are Muslim, the only parents who exercise their right of withdrawal are Jehovah's Witnesses.

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