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Q. We are moving to an area where the choice of primary schools is between one with 140 pupils and a village school with 58 pupils. Is the latter too small?

Roz Finney, Birmingham

A. Small schools generally have caring atmospheres, but it is harder for a school with fewer than 80 children to provide enough subject expertise among its staff to teach all of the national curriculum effectively.

It probably only has two full-time members of staff and perhaps a part- timer to cover all nine national curriculum subjects plus religious education. Science and technology are the most likely problem areas, as only a minority of primary school teachers are specialists in either.

Some very small schools do manage well by arranging with other small schools regularly to swap staff with different specialisms. Others make extensive use of volunteers to provide sessions for the children in, for example, art or music, to supplement what teachers can provide.

When you visit the school, ask what arrangements it makes to ensure coverage of the national curriculum. Ask too whether numbers are falling or rising and whether it has faced or might face closure plans. Check with the local education authority if you feel you don't get a satisfactory reply.

If the roll is rising and new housing is going up in the area, then its future looks brighter than it would with falling rolls. The cost of running small schools is very high, and they are vulnerable if other schools are within easy access.

Q. If you didn't make the "voluntary" contribution towards a school trip, could the school say the child could not go on it?


A. No. Voluntary contributions are voluntary. Legally, schools cannot charge for trips connected to the national curriculum, made during school hours. The only charges that can be made are for board and lodging on longer school trips which involve non-school hours. Families on certain social security benefits do not have to pay.

However, if the school needs to subsidise the cost of a trip by asking parents for contributions - and most do - and one parent declines to cough up, technically nobody should go because it is illegal to ask the other parents to give more to cover the one who is not giving.

Some trips are cancelled because not enough cash support is forthcoming, but if the school is able to, it will usually try to find the extra from school funds or the parent teacher association.

The design of the new national curriculum, which involves pupils in much more research and project-based activity, does mean that schools must run more trips than they have in the past.

It can get expensive, particularly if you have more than one child at school. If you have a problem contributing cash to the trips, do let the school know. You are probably not the only one. Perhaps, if your circumstances permit, you could offer to help out on the trip instead.

Have you any queries about education? Write to `Crammer', Education department, the `Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.