Small schools: the next big idea?

Some parents are fed up with large classes and vast comprehensives: they want to run their own, smaller show. Diana Appleyard reports
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Around a hundred dissatisfied parents a month are thought to be taking their children out of state schools and, because of the lack of suitable alternatives, having to educate them at home or go private.

Tomorrow sees the launch of a book that aims to increase the alternatives available to parents who are fed up with what is served up to their children by huge schools and large classes.

Called Freeing Education: steps towards real choice and diversity in schools, it is a series of articles by leading educationalists, calling for more state funding to encourage different types of schools to be established in this country.

In the Netherlands, the government fully funds all schools - whether state-run or privately managed by teachers or parents. In Denmark, 10 per cent of schools are run by parents or teachers and funded by the state.

The new book, compiled by Human Scale Education, the body that campaigns for small schools, argues there is little or no choice for parents in the present system of private or state education.

Fiona Carnie, the national co-ordinator of Human Scale Education, says: "Middle-class parents are opting for private schools because there is no alternative. There is mounting discontent among many parents about large, inhuman state schools."

Next month sees the launch of Third Sector Alliance, a campaign that pulls together demands from New Christian, Muslim and Steiner schools and Human Scale Education for state funding.

There are around 15 parent-run schools in Britain. All have been set up within the past 12 years, and survive through parents' fundraising efforts and charitable donations. For many, it is an uphill struggle to keep going.

Small schools asking for state funding are told to apply for grant-maintained status, but the only one to try so far, a small alternative primary school in Derbyshire, has failed.

Schools applying for grant-maintained status have to follow the national curriculum and some of the very smallest schools either do not follow the national curriculum through choice or would be unable to deliver it in full because of their size.

The first of the 15 parent-run schools to be set up in Britain, the Small School in the village of Hartland, in Devon, is preparing its submission for grant-maintained status to the Department for Education and Employment. With its current roll of 35 secondary-age pupils and high levels of GCSE exam success, it believes it has a strong chance of approval.

Fiona Carnie says that if state funding - either part of full - were to be granted, many more parents would leap at the chance to run their own schools. "We have about six in the pipeline just waiting," she says. "Most of the schools are operating on a shoestring, but parents are delighted by the personal and stimulating education their children are receiving. Just think what schools like this - with this amount of parental backing - could achieve with proper funding."

'Freeing Education: steps towards real choice and diversity in schools' is published by Hawthorn Press, price pounds 9.95.

Human-Scale Education can be contacted on 01761-433733.

The National Association of Small Schools will be holding its annual conference in London on 16 March. Call 01263 577553 for details.

Abinger Hammer First School, Surrey

One of the smallest parent-run schools is Abinger Hammer First, near Guildford, in Surrey. It opened with three pupils nearly 13 years ago after the local authority closed it when its numbers fell below 20.

Today the school has eight pupils aged between five and eight, and 20 children in a fee-paying nursery.

Shirley Corke, the secretary of the trust that runs the school, says: "The nursery helps to keep us going - but it's a constant struggle."

The school costs around pounds 14,000 a year to run - most of which pays for the teacher, who works four days a week. Another teacher fills in the extra day for free. Local people raise half the money and the rest comes from charitable donations.

The school follows the national curriculum and offers French, too. Children transfer to the state system at eight.

But the school is a victim of its small size. Many of the parents of the nursery-school children choose to send their children to local private schools, or opt for the bigger Abinger Common state primary school, several miles away.

The events held to keep the school going have become a focus for the local community. The school is run by the Abinger Hammer Village School Trust, and the aim is to keep a school at the heart of the small community.

Shirley Corke says: "Most of us are local people whose children have long since grown up - we have just one parent on the governing body - so we can keep the continuity that is vital to making sure the school survives."

The Small School, Hartland, Devon

The school, for 11- to 16-year-olds, was set up 14 years ago because local parents were unhappy about their children leaving the local rural primary schools and being bussed to state comprehensives an hour away.

The school has four teachers - paid about half the state average - and offers a very different type of education from that at the local comprehensives. "We have academic study in the mornings only," says the head, Richard Seccombe. "The afternoons are devoted to crafts, games, or other activities such as photography and cycling."

The pupils are taught in average class sizes of eight - and last year three-quarters of them achieved five or more GCSE grades A-C in the seven GCSE subjects the school offers. "That's roughly twice the national average," says Mr Seccombe. "Almost all our pupils go on to take A-levels or vocational qualifications."

All the important decisions about the school are taken by the School Association, which is made up of parents, trustees, pupils and the teachers - who all have an equal say.

Parents raise most of the pounds 60,000 annual running costs. The rest comes from education charities and a charitable foundation.

Mr Seccombe says: "We are successful academically but that's not the be-all and end-all. We put more emphasis on a complete education in a small, friendly environment, with lots of accent on the development of the children's whole personality and talents."

He sees the application for grant-maintained status as a test case.

"We believe there shouldn't have to be this constant pressure to raise money to survive when we've proved we're successful."

Dame Catherine's Primary School,

Ticknall, Derbyshire

Dame Catherine's Primary was opened by parents eight years ago, when the local authority closed it as the village school because of falling numbers. It has 35 pupils and three full-time staff. Around a third of the village children attend - the rest end up at private schools or the state primary in a nearby village.

When the school first opened it had a reputation for offering "alternative" education, a reputation that has cost it pupils. The new head, Ian Mitchell, is more keen to follow the national curriculum, albeit in a more child- centred way and in mixed-age classes of only 11.

The school is run on a very informal basis - there is no uniform and the pupils call the teachers by their first name. Mr Mitchell says the pupils transfer to state schools at 11 without problems.

"They are very confident children as they've had so much individual attention, and they're used to talking to adults on an equal basis," he says. The school does informal tests every week but does not use national curriculum tests. "Academically, I think our children are ahead."

Dame Catherine's did apply for grant-maintained status three years ago but was turned down - parents believe on the grounds of size.

It costs around pounds 50,000 a year to run the school. About pounds 15,000 is raised by a small craftshop at a nearby stately home. Parents work as volunteers in the shop for a half-day every fortnight. The rest of the money comes from fundraising and donations. Parents have to pay pounds 50 a month.

Mary Magson, who heads the parents' group, says: "When parents first come to look at the school we warn them of the commitment they'll have to make. It does put some off. It really is time-consuming and can wear you down."

Priors Marston First School,

Warwickshire

The 37-pupil village school at Priors Marston is due to close this summer as part of a huge school reorganisation by the county council to get rid of surplus places.

The county council plans to bus children from the village to a bigger school in the neighbouring village of Napton. Some of the parents are adamant it will reopen as a parent-run school.

"We're determined to keep a school in the village," says the chair of governors, Carolyn Booth.

The parents are confident that a parent-run school will get charitable status and they have already raised pounds 10,000 for start-up costs. The parents estimate it will cost around pounds 40,000 to pounds 50,000 a year to run - and local people and businesses are pledging both money and practical help.

Around 20 parents in the village have said they will send their children to the school - but others are being warned off by the council, who say they cannot guarantee the Priors Marston children a place at the new school when they need to transfer at the age of seven.

Some residents have circulated a letter to every house in the village saying the school would impoverish all the other charities locally. Other people are reluctant either to pledge money or put their children's names down for the school because they don't believe it can survive.

But the parents are convinced the school will be viable and an anonymous benefactor has said that if the parents can support the school with children aged from four to seven, he will pay the incremental costs of turning it into an all-through primary up to the age of 11.

Photograph: Roland Leon/NewsTeam.

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