The only school in the village: Why are small primaries closing down?

As a location for a film about growing up in rural England you would be hard-pressed to better Stiperstones Church of England Primary School in Shropshire.

Founded in 1872 to serve the Victorian lead mining community of Snailbeach, it takes its name from the rock-strewn summit of the hills made famous by AE Housman's poem about rural life, A Shropshire Lad.

On the school's doorstep are the ruins of a row of squatters' cottages that were once the homes of the people who worked in the lead mines. The cottages were abandoned with the closure of the mines in the Fifties. They now represent a lost community, a way of life that exists only in history books.

Now a new spectre is threatening this swath of rural England: school closures. In February the county council announced plans to shut nine schools, including eight village primaries, to cope with a £1m funding gap in the county's annual school budget. The council says the shortfall is the result of falling pupil numbers which has already led to the loss of £10m in central government grants over the past five years.

Controversially the Conservative council has decided to use the reorganisation to tackle "funding disparities", changing the formula by which money is allocated to schools in order to strengthen larger primary schools. It claims the change is necessary because a fall in pupil numbers has put large primaries in an "unsustainable" financial situation.

However, campaigners fighting to save the threatened village schools feel they have been hung out to dry. Under the proposed new funding formula, all primary schools with fewer than 150 pupils will have their funding cut, while those with more pupils will gain. Schools with fewer than 50 pupils would be hit hardest with average budget cuts of 11 per cent.

Stiperstones is in the latter category. The school, which has 29 pupils taught in two mixed aged classes, stands to lose £23,800 a year under the council's plan, making it unable to meet the proportionately higher fixed costs of running a small school.

The school's head teacher Sue Cooke says she understands the need for cuts but believes rural schools such as hers are being unfairly targeted.

"We are already losing our library van, public toilets in the village are being closed, funding to help the village hall is being cut and the bus service into Shrewsbury, our nearest town, is being drastically cut," she says.

"The people in the village feel that very close knit, successful rural communities like ours are being unfairly penalised. If the school were to close, we would probably become an older community and you would not get families coming here to live with young children," she said.

Another Shropshire village school under threat is Lydbury North Church of England primary. Closing the school would save £83,000 a year in fixed costs but could also mean an increase in transport costs of £38,000 a year, which has infuriated local parents.

"Many parents do not think it is acceptable to put a four-year-old on a bus for up to a 45-minute journey at each end of the school day, especially in the winter when it's dark," says Nikki Pugh, who chairs the governing body.

"The net savings they have quoted is around £45,000. That would mean making eight staff redundant and taking away access to local education for 40 children. It's especially frustrating because the school identified to receive the children is not big enough and would require a new classroom at a cost of £150,000. It makes no economic sense."

Shropshire is not the only council looking to make savings. Herefordshire County Council is considering a plan to slash funding to small schools to meet a £1.5m shortfall in its budget. The proposal could see up to 40 small schools either closed or merged.

One Herefordshire school already earmarked for closure is Dilwyn primary, a Church of England school with 31 pupils. Parents and governors are fighting closure and an appeal has been lodged with the Schools Adjudicator.

"Over the last few years three other local schools in the county have closed and there's a feeling that it's a bit like Ten Green Bottles – that other small schools are closing one by one and that you will be next," one Dilwyn supporter told The Independent.

The National Association of Small Schools, which represents many of the country's smallest primaries, has said up to 400 schools across the UK with fewer than 50 pupils will struggle to balance their budgets in the 2011/2012 fiscal year. Campaigners are also fighting closures in Staffordshire and battles have been fought in Cornwall, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire. Closures have also been proposed in parts of rural Scotland and Wales.

The association says a combination of budget cuts, the removal of the ring-fencing that has provided extra financial support to protect small schools and Coalition plans to introduce a pupil premium to help disadvantaged pupils will favour larger schools in urban areas at the expense of small schools.

"If funding formula protection is ended or reduced, as some local authorities currently propose, it would be a disaster and could wipe out hundreds of small primary schools across the UK," says Mervyn Benford, the association's information officer.

He says the increased cost of school transport – an estimated annual £1,000-£1,500 per pupil for every five-mile journey, according to bus contractors – and the damage caused to rural communities should be taken into account by councils when considering school closures. They should also consider the wider benefits.

"Instead of looking at pupil unit costs in isolation, councils should evaluate the benefits of small schools in wider economic and social terms. Children educated in small schools consistently do well academically, with good behaviour and positive attitudes to life and learning. They avoid the heavy costs of later educational disaffection and failure while their more enduring school performance enhances their career prospects and boosts future tax revenues."

The association says the benefits of small schools apply as much to urban areas as to the countryside and says the Government should be encouraging their establishment in inner-city communities as a model for raising educational standards.

It also points to the success of small schools in Finland, where the average number of pupils per school is 50. The Scandinavian country is held up as a model for educational success and regularly tops international school league tables for basic skills.

"We urgently need a more sophisticated analysis of the economics of school size. Small schools bring significant benefits, not just in sustaining rural communities. Ministers should see small schools as assets not liabilities. They offer a family-friendly, community-based model for education which is too precious to lose."

This viewpoint appears to be shared by the Hereford diocese of the Church of England, which represents five of the Shropshire village schools under threat, including Stiperstones and Lydbury North. The diocese has thrown its weight behind the schools' campaign against closure and is looking at alternatives which could mean the five church schools being turned into a primary academy, operating independently from the county. Under this plan, all five schools would stay open on their present sites, under the direction of a single governing body.

"Small schools are able to offer a curriculum and learning experience which is highly personalised and relevant to individual children, and the quality of relationships and care offered in these settings, is second to none," says Philip Sell, the diocesan director of education.

Mr Sell confirmed the diocese was exploring the idea of becoming an academy provider for the primary schools following the success of Hereford Academy, a local C of E secondary school that opened in 2008.

The diocese's intervention could set a pattern for other campaigners against school closures across England. It is understood that some schools, in Herefordshire and elsewhere, may also be considering the alternative of setting up free schools, another of the Coalition government's flagship education policies.

Meanwhile parents and pupils at Stiperstones primary are hoping their campaign, which includes a YouTube video, will enable them to keep their school – and their community – alive and avoid the fate of the Snailbeach lead miners.

Facts about small schools

* There are 2,500 primary schools in England with fewer than 100 pupils. One in three such schools have fewer than 50 pupils.

* Small primary schools, including very small schools, consistently top national performance measures across the UK.

* Successive Countryside Commission reports have found that children in rural schools achieve better results – with no clear link to income.

* In 1999, a Government study revealed that three times as many smaller schools achieved 100 per cent pass rates in primary Sats than larger schools. In 2007 Ofsted noted this proportion had increased.

* The Scottish Executive reported (2006) that pupils in its smallest schools had a 25 per cent higher chance of entering higher education, with economically disadvantaged pupils also making progress.

* In 2008 the average spent on pupils in Scotland was higher in wholly urban councils (£4,594) than in councils in mixed rural areas and market towns (£4,421).

Source: National Assoc. of Small Schools

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