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Stark choice for Norfolk schools

PUBLISHED: 10:43 05 October 2009 | UPDATED: 15:13 03 July 2010

Norfolk's network of tiny rural schools was faced with a stark choice- work together or risk extinction.

A hard-hitting report said sharing staff and ideas or joining forces under a single headteacher would shore up the smallest schools in the face of dwindling pupil numbers and rising costs.

Norfolk's network of tiny rural schools was faced with a stark choice- work together or risk extinction.

A hard-hitting report said sharing staff and ideas or joining forces under a single headteacher would shore up the smallest schools in the face of dwindling pupil numbers and rising costs.

Four neighbouring rural Norfolk schools were studied as part of the report by the Cambridge-based Eastern Leadership Centre (ELC) for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Current government policy includes a presumption against the closure of the country's 2,700 small rural schools, but in trying financial times there is a danger that they will find it increasingly difficult to justify their higher per-pupil costs.

The report urges the schools - officially those with fewer than 100 pupils - to work together to cut costs in a bid to head off the latest threat to their future.

Grant Bage, ELC chief executive, said: “Smaller schools traditionally receive little attention until they are threatened with closure or fail an Ofsted inspection.

“Our researchers are experts in rural and small school leadership, and have got inside the skin of what makes small schools tick. There are ways of ensuring a thriving small school sector in the future - but these will certainly not mean carrying on as we are.”

With almost one-third of its 438 schools - 141 in total - classed as small schools, Norfolk has the highest number of any county in England.

The county was the first in the country to develop partnerships and federations, which involve one headteacher overseeing two or three schools. There are now 24 partnerships or federations, including 49 schools.

Shelagh Hutson, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services, said: “We recognise the value of Norfolk's small schools and work closely with these schools to support their future sustainability, wherever possible.

“It is fantastic that the work that has been going on in Norfolk is now being shared nationally through this research, so it may prove beneficial to rural communities across the country.”

The four schools which took part in the research were all in the Downham Market area of West Norfolk: Hilgay Primary, Ten Mile Bank School, Southery Primary and Denver Primary.

John Ward, headteacher at Ten Mile Bank School, which has 30 pupils, said: “We are part of a cluster of schools and we work together to ensure that all pupils get the full experience. We work together for activities including maths and design and technology.”

He said it was “critical” that small schools stayed “at the heart of the community”, and felt federating - working together under a single headteacher - could help with that aim.

“This school is the only real employer in the village. We are the centre of the community. I'm very pro schools federating. It means children will not have to be taken out of the village for schooling.”

He said federating would also cut costs because one head's salary would be split between more than one school.

James McBurney, who has been headteacher at Hilgay primary for four years, said: “It's vital in a community like ours that the school stays open. It is a meeting place for the whole community. At pick-up time, more than half of the people in the village can be here.”

He said the school had 59 pupils, and added: “There's always a feeling that someone is going to question our viability. There's been a big programme of rebuilding schools in Norfolk recently, but it's clear that the money won't be going to schools that have fewer than 100 pupils.

“I think the best answer for everybody is that smaller schools share their resources and form federations so that they can stay open.”

To read Steve Downes's education blog, including his views on the future of small schools, visit www.edp24.co.uk/steve-downes.

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