As two village schools face the threat of closure - are more of Norfolk's small schools at risk?
PUBLISHED: 07:00 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:02 11 July 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
Pressure on funding has made small schools - often at the heart of communities with decades of history - more vulnerable than ever. As two village Norfolk schools face possible closure, Lauren Cope reports.
Parents in Winterton have reached a crossroads.
In June, a consultation was launched by Norfolk County Council over closing the village primary school, after 18 months without a permanent headteacher and a dwindling pupil roll.
More than 1,700 people have signed an online petition against the move, and parents say they are torn between moving their children in advance of what feels inevitable, or staying to fight the potential closure.
They’re not alone - Norfolk’s rurality means it has a high proportion of small village schools and, with funding largely dictated by pupil numbers, many are becoming vulnerable.
At the end of June, the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust has confirmed it will seek permission to close St Andrew’s Primary in North Pickenham, while it was agreed late last year that Alderman Swindell Primary, in Yarmouth, would close.
Angela Hudson-Jones attended Winterton Primary, following her father, and now sends her three children there.
“It means a great deal to people,” she said. “It means a lot to our community. Parents chose to nurture their children in the way the school offers, but there will no option but send them to much bigger schools.”
She said 400 homes were planned for nearby Martham and almost 200 at Pontins, in Hemsby.
“We’ve been told that the council know that and are still confident on the plans,” she said, “but those other schools will reach breaking point and they will need more space - and Winterton would be perfect.”
With some Norfolk schools attracting just one or two pupils in a year group, it’s easy to see, despite assurances that it is a last resort, why it’s a worry.
MORE: Councillor brands proposal to close village primary school ‘absolutely short-sighted’
In 2016, the 171-year-old Brockdish Primary, the county’s smallest school, shut, with Mileham Primary closing one year earlier.
Mark Kiddle-Morris, county councillor for Mileham, who at the time of the closure warned it could be “another nail in the coffin of Mileham”, said the loss of any school had an impact.
“It’s regrettable when anything closes in a village, whether that’s a public, or a shop or a school - those are the places where people congregate and meet,” he said. “Young families pick children up from school, meeting other parents, starting coffee mornings and so on. You lose all that.”
But he said nearby Litcham School, where many of the children moved to, was now thriving.
In Great Yarmouth, parents are still coming to terms with the closure of Alderman Swindell, which is now due to merge with nearby North Denes Primary despite a vociferous campaign and legal fight.
Its headteacher Alison Hopley said: “I know every child and every family in the school, and everyone’s names. I lead assembly every morning and can do a sweep and tell you who isn’t here. If you are going somewhere 190 days of the year it’s important to fell known, to be valued as part of a community. If you double that, it is different. It’s delegated - the headteacher can be one step removed.”
She warned that closures of small schools would continue, with the education system moving towards a “factory” approach which, despite character and geography, had money at its forefront.
Both the government and Norfolk County Council have a presumption to keep small schools open where possible - but the council encourages small schools to work in groups where possible, and says 105 pupils should be the smallest size for a standalone school.
A spokesperson for the council said there were many small schools that achieved well for their pupils.
“Small schools can face challenges in recruiting staff and delivering some areas of the curriculum and the best solution can often be to partner, federate or become part of an academy trust,” they said.
“We support schools to work together in this way and encourage governing boards to be part of a strong network, to support their viability. This work ensures that very many small schools can thrive, in spite of the challenges they face.”
How many small schools do we have?
The county’s rural nature means its proportion of small schools is much higher than the national average.
Government figures show that, as of January 2017, there were 2,080 schools with up to 100 pupils around the country - 10pc of the total number.
But in Norfolk, that figure inches nearer in one three schools.
Department for Education data shows there are at least 124 schools around Norfolk which have 105 pupils or fewer, and at least 25 of those with fewer than 50 pupils.
With 422 maintained schools around the county, the 124 equates to just under 30pc of schools - meaning that, roughly, one third of our schools are small.
It has long been identified as an issue in the county, with a small school strategy created in 2013.
Last November, the council’s children’s services team confirmed that 105 pupils should be the minimum size for a mainstream school.
What do heads think?
We spoke to 20 headteachers of schools with fewer than 105 pupils about where they see their future.
The majority - 60pc - said they were not worried about the future of their school, though 40pc said they did have concerns.
Two said that fluctuating pupil numbers were cause for worry, while another said budgets had never been so tight.
Almost all headteachers - 90pc - said they thought it was important for small schools to work together, with most, just under 70pc, in federations.
When asked about their links with the community, one said they “right were at the heart of the village”, hosting local events, having strong links with the community and educating almost all the children.
Another said they were “the hub of the community”, and one head said, with a lack of amenities in their village, they take part in events and cook for the monthly community lunch.
And just under 70pc said they believed there would be a role for small village schools in the future.
What happens to the buildings?
Several have been turned into homes, including the former Hilbre School, in Sheringham, St Mark’s Boys School on Hall Road, in Norwich, and Wellesley First School, also in Norwich, which became a medical centre, pharmacy and 14 homes.
Brockdish Primary is used by Waveney Heritage, a community interest company, while the council said it was looking to market Mileham Primary in the future.
The former Old School House in Mattishall was demolished in 2013, having stood empty for a decade, but in 2016 the parish council decided to devote the site to a play and exercise area.
Elsewhere, the county council is exploring building a new complex needs school on the site of Alderman Swindell Primary in Yarmouth.
The Peterhouse Primary in Gorleston was demolished in 2012 and turned into a care home for those with dementia.
And a £1.6m scheme saw a Victorian primary school in Pulham St Mary turned into a community centre, the Pennoyer Centre.