Leominster, our nearest town, used to have its own dedicated post office, as befits a settlement of 11,000 people or so. But it was a casualty of the Royal Mail's brutal culling of rural post offices a couple of years ago, and now, when they want to post their parcels or present their passport applications, the good folk of Leominster and district have to queue up at the back of a newsagent. Meanwhile, the handsome post-office building in the market square remains boarded up. Welcome to rural England in the 21st century.
And now, streamlining and profitability, those twin buzzwords to which our politicians and bureaucrats are so in thrall, without a thought for whether they might diminish the quality of people's lives, have struck again with even more devastating effect. There are plans afoot in Herefordshire to close or merge 37 schools, and although the scheme has been put in temporary abeyance following the spirited opposition of parents and teachers (which Herefordshire Council, in all its sweet, or perhaps stupid, naivety, appears not to have anticipated), the threat is still very much alive.
It is the brainchild of the Local Education Authority, which, according to the Hereford Times, based its plans on five-year-old projections of falling pupil numbers, even though the birth rate in these parts is actually on the rise (I blame the cold winters). The primary school our nine-year-old son attends is, mercifully, not on the list for the chop. This is good news in so far as the lack of bad news can be construed as good news. For Jacob's school is a model of what a tiny village school should be: well run by a caring, charismatic head teacher and a talented, hard-working staff, its pupils motivated and happy. All this has been recognised by Ofsted inspectors, yet its reputation is not what will save it, for the same can be said of many of the Herefordshire (and Shropshire) schools earmarked for closure or merger.
Queen Elizabeth Humanities College, a thriving secondary school in Bromyard, the second-nearest town to us, is another in the firing line, and the rank stupidity of even threatening to close it is eloquently expressed by a banner strung up on the A44 in Bromyard: "Shut our school, kill our town". This simple equation is elaborated upon in the following observation: "When a school closes, [the community] loses a vital focus. Children spend longer travelling to other schools. Young families will come under pressure to move elsewhere. School closures can have a knock-on effect on other services, like village shops, setting up a spiral of decline."
The words of some outraged parent or teacher? Nope. They were uttered 10 years ago by Stephen Byers, then the education minister in a young, idealistic Labour government, and he was dead right on all counts.
It is hard to find much of a silver lining in this oppressive storm cloud, but those who moved from the city to the country partly in search of better education for their children have at least found a common cause with folk who have lived here all their lives. "We suddenly feel like incomers no more," says Rob Linighan, a TV producer who, two years ago, moved from London to Llangrove, near Ross-on-Wye. "Every waking hour is filled with action committees, planning and fund-raising for the fight ahead. Our phone never stops ringing as our experience in the media is put to good use, and as well as painting banners and holding quiz nights, I am making a documentary about the school, which will be sent to every councillor to try to help them to visualise what they are planning to destroy."
Ross Williams, the landlord of a favourite pub of mine – The Wellington in Wellington – and another former London-dweller, has a similar tale. His children attend an excellent village primary school, and have flourished there, but it is now one of those on death row. "Herefordshire's primary-school education system being the main reason we came here, we're very pissed off, as you can imagine," says Ross.
There are many dispiriting dimensions to this story of monumental bureaucratic incompetence, but here's just one of them: if the story concerned the fate of 37 foxes, rather than 37 schools, I fancy that metropolitan Britain would be outraged by what is going on in the countryside. As it is, there is little evidence that it cares even a jot.