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Education: small schools out in the cold

10 February 2023

Pat Ashworth learns the plight of a rural church school looking for a home

St George’s C of E Aided Primary School, Langton Matravers, Dorset

St George’s C of E Aided Primary School, Langton Matravers, Dorset

SMALL rural primary schools can face serious challenges when working through the process of being embraced by multi-academy trusts (MAT), a school governor in Dorset suggests.

The Revd James Mercer, the associate minister of the St Aldhelm Benefice, in Salisbury diocese, and a governor of St George’s C of E Aided Primary School, Langton Matravers, describes it as “the unseemly experience of a speed-dating charade, in which heads and governors seek to court indifferent MATs, charming and wowing, whilst at the same time sharing painful vulnerabilities about their school to potential suitors; only to be rebuffed and stood up after a brief flirtation.

“It proves to be a demeaning process, wearily costly in terms of time and energy.”

The Government’s Education White Paper in March 2022, Opportunity for All, set out plans for all schools to join a MAT by 2030, each envisaged as educating around 75,000 children (News, 1 April 2022).

It promised more money for diocesan MATs, and signalled a willingness to increase the number of church schools, recognising the costs that dioceses and other religious authorities faced in establishing trusts, and promising to “develop options for financial support allowing strong Church and faith trusts to drive even higher standards in these schools”.

The withdrawal of the Schools Bill in December means that a degree of confusion now exists; but the direction of travel towards MATs is clear.

The first challenge, Mr Mercer says, is to find like-minded schools with which to form “hubs”, since a group of schools is more likely to be attractive to the MAT business model. Isolated individual schools are more difficult to service, he suggests, and MATs do not have the reach or responsibilities traditionally provided by now diminished local education authorities.

St George’s is a case in point. In the light of much-reduced local-authority support, it sought, with diocesan encouragement, to find an appropriate MAT partner. It is a small, thriving, and financially sound school, judged “Good” by OFSTED, and so it worked with three other local primary schools to form a hub.

With an agreed timeline from the Regional Schools Commissioner, it was assumed that the four schools would join their preferred trust. The final decision rested with the MAT board. It came as some surprise when the chief executive informed the school that the trustees were not prepared to take it on for financial reasons, on the grounds of its small size.

The Church of England is heavily invested in small rural primary schools. Mr Mercer suggests that these, especially any at risk of running deficit budgets, face an “existential threat from the current web of chaotic, incoherent education policies”.

The threat is to more than simply the pupils. Mr Mercer describes such schools as “vital agents of social cohesion, well-being and identity within rural communities; their influence and significance extending far beyond the education of young people in a local setting”.

The Church of England has acknowledged that church schools in rural areas will need to belong to trusts that manage at least 35 schools, but that there would need to be “rethinking in rural contexts”. With 254 MATs, the C of E is the biggest provider of academies in England; but only about one third (1535 schools) are currently academies. More than 3000 church schools will need to convert or to be en route to conversion by the end of the decade.

The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, made it clear in his response to the White Paper that he welcomed the move to convert all schools to academies. “Since the beginning of the Academy programme, I have always spoken of the need for interdependence rather than an approach to the school system which has been driven by individualism and autonomy,” he said at the time (News, 1 April 2022).

“Our work on rural and small schools has highlighted the need to work together, and for schools to embrace change through the formation of structural collaborations and partnerships.

“For us, the purpose of connection and collaboration is not simply the economies of scale, or the benefits of sharing practice across a group of schools (important as they are). It is fundamentally about doing better for the children we serve, and the desire for us to move from being a network of schools and leaders who share a common vision to being a powerful movement for transformational education for the common good.

“It’s a movement which needs to work for the small rural schools (of which the Church of England provides the vast majority across the country), as well as the large urban schools where the majority of our one million children learn.”

The chair of governors of St George’s, Anthony Moore, argues in a letter to Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, that the academisation process “has serious implications for our school and other small primaries” in the constituency and county.

“The danger for families in Dorset and other rural counties is that very small village schools like ours will be rejected by trusts, and have to limp on the very best they can with ever decreasing resources and eventually be forced to close.”

In a letter to the director of education for the diocese of Salisbury, Joy Tubbs, on 9 January, Mr Mercer observed: “It is reassuring that the educational landscape in the diocese has been shaped by the Diocesan Board of Education and MATs working together, with few schools now without a choice of MAT home.

“However, with local education authorities’ barely having the resources to function at all, where does democratic accountability lie within the MAT landscape? Locally accountable education authorities previously had a democratic responsibility to support small rural primary schools, in order to sustain community cohesion.

“To whom do these small, vulnerable schools and their communities now turn if they find themselves as potential islands isolated from neighbouring schools by the hermetically sealed borders of ever enlarging, but inevitably selective, MATs?

“Not all will have the energy, experience, or professionalism to invest time in the distracting urgency of negotiating local hub partnerships — especially when such efforts can be so easily discounted.”

The Salisbury diocesan board of education said in a statement that it was working proactively to encourage all its schools to join a strong school trust. It currently works in partnership with 20 trusts that are able to receive church schools, and, to date, 57 per cent of its 192 schools have taken this step, including many small schools.

Many more schools are exploring a future MAT home, it says. “Schools are encouraged to work locally with others to find a trust solution, particularly where they are small schools, so they can work collaboratively together with those in their immediate vicinity.

“In the case of St George’s, the Diocesan Board of Education is working closely with the regional director’s office of the DfE, and local trusts, to support them in identifying the most appropriate way forward as quickly as possible.”

Mr Mercer reflects on the general situation: “Where, with the continuing demise of locally accountable education authorities, do we take the fight to ensure that small village schools across the country, whether C of E-affiliated or not, are not carelessly lost to a market-orientated MAT system that inevitably favours an urban setting and larger schools?”

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