It's a small school, indeed the whole pupil roll for the full six years of primary education numbers 14. It has a head teacher, who is the only teacher. There are not an enormous number of single-teacher schools left now; there are more in Scotland than in England or Wales, and Dundrennan is a bit of an oddity because it is not in the back of beyond: there is another, larger primary school less than five miles away in Auchencairn; and Kirkcudbright, about 10 miles to the west, has three. There is spare capacity throughout the region. Dundrennan School is under threat of closure.
The community is convinced that this is principally economic. It is expensive to educate children in such a small establishment: it costs nearly twice as much per child as in Kirkcudbright. But the arguments presented by the education authority are educational: such schools do not offer a child a full and proper educational experience.
My children were educated in inner London primary schools, the younger of them in Hackney. I was chair of governors there six years ago, and because of the high staff turnover we struggled to keep class sizes under 30, to give the children any continuity of teaching and to build any sense of shared purpose between teachers and parents. I am certain that we were failing to deliver a full educational experience.
So perhaps I tend to be rather romantic about tiny schools like Dundrennan's, but it seems to me that they do provide a particular set of "educational experiences", which should be included in any assessment. The biggest argument against them is that with the 10-subject curriculum it is unlikely that any teacher will be an expert in every necessary area. In fact, however, the single teacher is supported by a range of peripatetics. This means that the children are in fact taught by the expert; in larger primary schools, the subject co-ordinators tend to advise class teachers in their specialities.
Even so, I would be prepared to concede that there might be gaps of subject expertise. But isn't this compensated for by the enormous flexibility that so small a class allows? Personal attention, individual learning programmes, the possibility of children working ahead of their age group in some subjects, and, equally, the ease of protecting slower children. Fourteen is almost an ideal primary class size, the size that you pay good money for in the private sector.
We must not become fixated by curriculum alone. This emphasis has been brought about by the failure of too many individual primary schools to deliver the most basic skills to the children in their care. The national curriculum is designed to ensure minimum standards, not to be the sole criterion for judging the efficacy of education.
What children in single-teacher schools certainly do get is an experience of community and continuity. They gain a considerable freedom and independence. "Who are you?" two five-year-olds asked me, as I arrived to visit. It was neither impertinent nor fearful; it was courteous and mature. These children cannot confine themselves to their own peer group, to cliques and exclusion - and this seems particularly important in rural areas where young people are less likely to be exposed to wide variations of ethnicity, culture, religion and lifestyle. As families get smaller, the experience of living closely with children older and younger than oneself, more capable or less independent, has to be a bonus. It cannot do an 11- year-old anything other than good to know, at a practical level, both how bright and how infuriating a five-year-old can be.
Children are supposed now to be free of all responsibility, but I remain unconvinced that this is healthy. The knowledge that you are important to your whole community, valued as the main institutional manifestation of that community, must reinforce the importance of education for such children. Given the restrictions of rural life, it will be sad if we can't continue to provide children with the specific advantages that such circumstances make possible. Single-teacher schools should be protected.Reuse content