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Spotlight on a place to learn and grow


The RSN is calling on government to produce a fully funded, comprehensive rural strategy. In this strategy there are a number of areas which we believe are linked, and need to be addressed to produce a vibrant rural community. One of these is a place to learn and grow.
Rural schools typically play an important role at the heart of their community and provide a high quality education. It is imperative that education policies – focussed on the needs of children – support them and help them to face particular rural challenges.

  • There are roughly 5,300 schools located in rural areas. This represents almost 27% of the total number of schools across England (2014 data). Some 53% of Church of England primary schools are located in rural areas.
  • A large proportion of rural schools are small. More than 33% can be defined as ‘very small’, having fewer than 110 pupils, whilst another 29% can be defined as ‘small’, having between 110 and 209 pupils. Comparators for urban schools are 5% and 16% respectively.
  • School running costs (per pupil) increase as school size shrinks and they rise sharply where schools have fewer than 50 pupils. Core costs, such as teaching salaries, energy bills and catering, are all typically above average in rural schools. Home to school transport costs are many times higher in rural than in urban areas.
  • Many rural schools have older buildings which are expensive to run and maintain. A large number have nineteenth century and some have Listed Buildings. High ceilings can make them expensive to heat.
  • Pupils from rural communities travel further to school than their peers who live elsewhere. Those from small rural settlement travel an average of 3.4 miles to a primary school and 7.0 miles to a secondary school.
    Sources are: Church of England Education Office (2014 data), Cumbria County Council (2018 data), Hampshire County Council (2016/17 data), Defra (2014/15 data) and The Key (2018 survey).
  • The top challenges identified by head teachers of rural schools were (in order of priority) :
    • Not having sufficient funding,
    • Maintaining or improving pupil performance
    • Providing for pupils with special educational needs or disabilities and meeting the needs of all their pupils.
  • Teaching and support staff in rural schools frequently need to multi-task, as a result of the (small) school size. For the same reason many pupils at rural schools are taught in classes with mixed age groups.
  • In a 2018 survey most rural school head teachers identified that they have pupils from poor families whose incomes lay just above the threshold which would have earned them the pupil premium grant (or top up funding).
  • Small schools with few staff can find it harder to offer a broad curriculum or after school enrichment opportunities, such as music and sports. They may address this by collaborating with other nearby schools, though this typically involves some extra travel for pupils.

Rural schools often benefit from having experienced staff and most of them perform well, if measured against pupil achievements at key stages or in exam results. However, there are significant challenges which should be addressed by a Rural Strategy. They are:

    • Sustaining schools with small (or fluctuating) pupil numbers;
    • Managing school budgets when operating costs are high;
    • Recruiting and retaining teaching and support staff; and
    • Finding appropriate models for school collaboration.

The Rural Services Network believes that the following initiatives should be included within a Rural Strategy for a place to learn and grow:

→ A presumption against school closures: the long-standing Government policy, which is a presumption against rural school closures, has been helpful in protecting many small schools. There can be circumstances where closures are justified, but generally if village schools close there is a considerable social cost: the community is less sustainable and children are required to travel further. School rolls are more prone to fluctuation from year to year in small schools and the presumption helps protect them through this cycle. A rural strategy would offer a good opportunity to restate the intention behind this presumption and its 2013 statutory guidance, while stressing that decisions should make the interests of children paramount.

→ A fair and realistic funding basis: historically, the funding (per pupil) received by schools varied significantly and to the detriment of those in predominantly rural 21 areas. The National Funding Formula for schools, now being gradually introduced, is very welcome, but it should allow for more than minimum staffing levels and should benefit all small rural schools (which it currently does not). Schools with a small roll often miss out on capital funding for maintenance or modernisation, with expenditure being focussed on larger school development projects. It is important that sufficient funding is set aside for smaller projects, to make rural schools fit for purpose.

→ A stronger focus on rural recruitment: a third of rural head teachers say that their school’s location impedes their ability to attract new teaching staff. Some teachers are put off by the prospect of teaching mixed age groups or having less opportunity to develop specialisms. Gaps in staffing can also be harder to manage in small schools. A more effective strategy is needed to encourage teaching staff to take up vacancies that arise in rural schools. This could include exposure to rural schools during teacher training, more effort to attract people from rural communities into the teaching profession and the provision of (affordable) key worker housing.

→ A workable approach to collaboration: smaller rural schools may benefit particularly from collaboration or clustering, where it allows them to share resources and expertise. This can include shared Heads and shared teaching staff. Moreover, there is some evidence that collaboration is associated with better pupil performance. However, given their higher cost base, small or isolated schools are often seen as unattractive by Multi-Academy Trusts – the Government’s preferred collaboration structure. National policy should recognise this limitation, making extra support available so that small rural schools can adopt a model which best suits their circumstances and enables them to deliver an excellent education.

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