Can our village school survive?

Chris Woodhead, the controversial former chief inspector, has set up a chain of private schools. His company is accused of poaching children from the state sector. Edi Smockum reports
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The Independent Online

I love my daughter's school. Its rural location in Buckinghamshire includes a village green with a vast chestnut tree, a little brook boasting several lazy ducks, and a fantastic reputation for academic standards and for working with parents and local people.

I love my daughter's school. Its rural location in Buckinghamshire includes a village green with a vast chestnut tree, a little brook boasting several lazy ducks, and a fantastic reputation for academic standards and for working with parents and local people.

At last month's spring fete, Thornborough infant school raised almost £900 - not bad for two hours on a Sunday afternoon at a school with only 27 pupils and nothing more to offer than good cakes, a few tombolas, roll-the-penny and the usual games.

We knew we had found the right school for our quiet daughter when the head teacher allowed us to attend with Molly to settle her in. For two weeks, my husband or I accompanied Molly to school every day, until she let us know that she was fine to stay on her own. She may not have spoken to another child for her first six months, but a year later, she has become a confident and boisterous little girl. We couldn't be happier. She has small classes and the atmosphere is great.

Despite this, the school stands to lose a third of its pupils in year two, the year of schooling when they are aged six and seven. To understand why, I need to go back to the day, just after Easter, when a full-colour advertisement placed by Akeley Wood, an independent school, appeared in our local paper. This offered what was called "a unique opportunity for this September" of assisted places at the junior, lower and senior schools. Nothing wrong with that, you might think.

What the parents were being offered was substantial inducements that would cut tuition fees by 30 per cent over the child's entire education at Akeley Wood, saving them as much as £25,000. There was a catch. Akeley Wood wanted the students to start this September, that is, earlier than the children would have normally left the state system. The effect on the Thornborough school community was dramatic. Parents split into two camps. Some - who were planning to send their children to Akeley Wood at seven anyway - saw the opportunity to save substantial sums of money. One parent told me: "Of course, I would keep her here until the end of year two, but we couldn't possibly turn it down". Others fretted over the possible break-up of our treasured seat of learning.

Thornborough wasn't the only school in the area to be affected. Marsh Gibbon, the local Church of England School, may lose 13 students from a roll of about 100. "It's absolutely terrible," says Louise Metherell, the head teacher. "I am losing sleep over it."

Metherell is clearly worried about her school and her students. Marsh Gibbon is a popular school with an excellent reputation. But it goes up to year four, and Metherell feels she is losing pupils all the way through the school. She has had many of the parents express sadness at taking away their children early, but they say they had little choice. As someone who sent her own children to Akeley Wood after they had finished at Marsh Gibbon, Metherell was sympathetic, even though she wasn't pleased with the tactics used.

Akeley Wood is run by the Cognita Schools Group, a for-profit company whose chairman is the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead, the man who fell out with New Labour, and who is deeply unpopular in the state system for wanting to root out incompetant teachers. Cognita is now the largest owner of independent schools in the country, with some 21 schools under its management and, according to its website, looking for more.

Asked about the effect on local schools of poaching the children early, Woodhead is unrepentant. "I am concerned if we have offended any of our stakeholders, but I believe parents have a right to choose a school. We have been accused of poaching but we've simply said to parents 'this is what is on offer' and in a democracy, and indeed in a market, this is how things work."

Cognita has offered some 52 children a place on the assisted places scheme. That is enough for several classes. The company insists that it is in a competitive situation and needs a marketing scheme to keep the number of children flowing through the system.

One of the reasons why the consequences for the dozen or so local infant schools could be so severe stems from the way that state schools are funded. School budgets are based on the number of children in the school in January; if they lose children in September, as they will in this case, they will have to reimburse the local education authority.

Carol Chandler, the head of Gawcott infant school, will lose three children from a roll of 69. Although that may sound like a small number, the timing of the Akeley Wood offer is unfair, she says. Her annual budget, completed in April, assumes that the number of children going from year one to year two will be stable. Akeley Wood advertised its offer in May, meaning that she was suddenly short of money. At Marsh Gibbon, the head is already working to see how she will balance the budget.

As Jan Davies, a governor for the past seven years says: "In small schools, every child counts." We are lucky, at Thornborough, in that we have a surplus, according to Davies, and will be able to handle the loss of revenue. If our luck holds, Molly could enjoy the benefit of a smaller class without suffering the knock-on effect of budget cuts. Instead of a class of 20, she will now be in a class of 14.

But as one parent pointed out, money isn't everything. While these numbers seem enviable compared with many state schools, there will be other implications for children. There can be times when class sizes are too small. When Molly's group started, it was comforting that her group of children would be going through infant school together; now it seems as if that comfort has been removed.

However, what goes around comes around. The Cognita initiative is having repercussions at Akeley Wood too. Parents with children already at the school are understandably miffed at the preferential treatment about to be given to those who replied to the advertisement.

When, on 11 May, a letter was sent to Akeley Wood's parents seeking to explain why Cognita had made such a generous offer, Cognita said the offer was "targeted at children in state schools" to "increase the provision of additional places at the school, without compromising in any way the education of children already committed to the school in September 2005". The money, it said, was to help Akeley Wood "develop and improve the senior school". Parents, however, were having none of it. They demanded a meeting with Chris Woodhead and chief executive Rees Withers last week that had to be held in the national hockey stadium in Milton Keynes to accommodate the 500 parents who showed up.

It lasted almost three hours and led to some heated exchanges, according to one parent who was there. There were calls for Chris Woodhead's resignation. A letter handed out by a group of concerned parents asked why existing Akeley parents should be subsidising other people's children.

They are angry that, while their fees have gone up by seven per cent, they were not offered a similar deal to bring new recruits into the school. Many have threatened to take their children away and have questioned the depth of education experience of Cognita's management team. A hastily organised website ( www.cognitaparents.org.uk) raises a range of issues, from how the offer was handled, to fears that the small school is going to be "swamped" by newcomers.

The recruitment scheme has now been closed down and parents have made their decisions, but questions remain about the damage Cognita's arrival has done. Highly regarded state primaries have suddenly found themselves losing pupils and money because of decisions by a company to enter the marketplace. And parents have worried that their offspring left behind in the state sector may be disadvantaged.

If Cognita applies these tactics around the country it could have a profoundly disruptive effect on the state primary system. If there is a place for Cognita-style initiatives, it should surely be to take children from underperforming schools with unhappy pupils or parents, not institutions such as Thornborough.

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