THE Government should implement a new rural strategy to combat the issues facing countryside communities, the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, has said.
Speaking after a symposium held at Lambeth Palace this week on protecting the future of education in rural communities, Bishop Conway said that an “overarching rural strategy is now required for the issues facing our countryside communities to be seen together.
“Such an approach is needed not only to give longer-term stability to our education provision, but for housing, infrastructure, broadband, agriculture, business, and industry to be seen in the same lens.”
The Rural Schools Symposium, was attended by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, Lord Agnew, and representatives from OFSTED, the National Farmers’ Union, the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and other council and education leaders.
Bishop Conway, who chairs the council of the National Society and is lead bishop for education, said: “We have been reassured that the Government has a presumption against the closure of rural schools, which is a positive foundation for the future.
“We have also heard from a number of stakeholder organisations, as well as those who are working with schools and communities across the country, who are exploring innovations in collaboration and the use of new technologies to improve pupil outcomes.
“Over the past 200 years, Church of England schools have adapted to significant changes in society, and we are confident they will continue as rich expressions of their communities long into the future.
“But the countryside is not uniform, and requires a joined-up approach to give its communities the opportunity to thrive for generations to come. We are committed to working with the Government to achieve this.”
More than one fifth of pupils who attend C of E schools attend rural schoolsthat are officially “small” (fewer than 210 pupils) or “very small” (fewer than 110).
In an article for The Sunday Times this week, the C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, wrote: “Children’s futures are not simply a product we can simply pick up off the shelf, and schools are not — and must never be — run on the logic of a supermarket.
“While it is true that the cost of educating a child might be higher in a rural area, we also understand the value to children of receiving their education in this setting, and of rural schools as rich expressions of their community.
He concluded: “There will be no magic solutions for the financial challenges our rural schools face, and the right solution in one instance may not be a good fit for another.
“Nevertheless, as pupils, parents, and staff at schools across the country look ahead to nativities, carol services, and a well-earned rest at the end of a long term, they can do so with the promise that we are working just as hard to keep rural schools a nurturing environment in which pupils and staff can continue to thrive.”
In response to the current debate on faith schools, Mr Genders also wrote: “Widely misunderstood, Church of England schools are not ‘faith’ schools. They are not run by the Church with the purpose of educating only those of a Christian faith. Instead, they stand out as being open to children of all faiths — and none.
“They teach a broad range of faith views in religious education; only a minority have any sort of faith-based admission policy; and staff are drawn from diverse backgrounds.”