Bleak future for small village schools

By Graham Dines and Mark HeathSMALL rural primary schools are facing a bleak future because there are not enough homes in villages for young families and their children.

By Graham Dines and Mark Heath

SMALL rural primary schools are facing a bleak future because there are not enough homes in villages for young families and their children.

The warning came as one of the county's primary schools - which will have just 13 pupils on its roll in September - was told yesterday that closure was one of three options being considered for its future.

Rural campaigners said a lack of housing development in the villages of Suffolk was leading to communities being dominated by the elderly - and putting the future of small schools at risk.

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Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural charity Suffolk ACRE, said: “I think the level of development in rural areas means that we are not having the balance of age groups.

“Our population is ageing and in rural areas the population is even more marked in terms of the elderly.

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“We should be asking for developments in villages that keep the mix of young and old - in rural areas there just isn't enough housing for those who naturally would come through.

“We need incremental growth in rural communities to allow a mixture of families to emerge so we can keep the children in schools.”

Dr Gibson suggested two ways in which the future of small village schools could be made more secure.

“We need to think about grouping schools together, so there's a headteacher for more than one school,” he said.

“Teachers want to develop their career like everyone else and if they're in charge of small schools, they may not have a chance of doing that - grouping them together under one head could be the answer.

“The other option which we always promote is the potential for co-operative run schools, those run by the community.”

Dr Gibson called for more work to be done on assessing the growth and needs of individual communities.

“We need to look at how many people of different age groups we have in a certain village and how many people are coming in and leaving and why,” he said.

“You get a picture over time of the internal needs and growth of the community. It's about allowing communities to develop.”

Dr Gibson added: “It's vital to keep these village schools open. The classes tend to be small, so kids get more attention, and it's also about giving parents the choice.

“I wouldn't want to deny people living in rural areas the choice of having their children go to school locally.”

Peasenhall Primary School, the smallest of more than 300 schools in Suffolk, will have just 13 pupils on its roll in September.

With its headteacher leaving at the end of this term, Suffolk County Council is facing a staffing crisis at the school that could force its closure or amalgamation into a federation with neighbouring schools.

Members of the county council's ruling executive were told yesterday half the children in Peasenhall Primary School's catchment area already went to other schools, placing additional pressure on its viability.

The two nearest alternative schools are also facing falling numbers - Yoxford Primary School's roll is predicted to be 46 in 2008 compared to 60 in 2001, while at Cookley and Walpole Primary School, pupil numbers in four years' time are forecast to be 23, a drop of 20 on the 2001 figure.

Rae Leighton, the county councillor for the area, said the problem was not just confined to Peasenhall Primary School.

Middleton, Bramfield and Wenhaston Primary Schools were also facing reduced numbers and he warned: “It does not bode well for the future of small rural schools.

“However, we should not just look at the education value of schools - they have a social and community dimension that makes them important assets in village life.”

Mr Leighton said everything possible should be done to save Peasenhall Primary School from closure.

He will be urging parents to consider the option of establishing a federation, under which pupils would continue to be educated on the current site and have access to the facilities at the neighbouring school.

Executive member Terry Green said: “Shops are closing, garages going, pubs shutting - if we are not careful, we can almost see the death of villages.”

But he added the quality of education for the pupils had to be the county council's main concern and that would suffer with just a few children on the roll.

Suffolk County Council's education portfolio holder, Tony Lewis, said small and rural schools were facing their biggest challenges.

He hoped the plight of Peasenhall Primary School would act as a “wake-up call” to communities, encouraging them to look at the wider situation they faced and determine their future, with the help of organisations like the council and Suffolk ACRE.

“We do not want to lose things from villages. We have lost a lot of post offices, shops and pubs and garages and we don't want to lose anymore. We certainly don't want to lose schools if we can help it,” said Mr Lewis.

“It is true that our expectation is that the steady rise in young people in Suffolk has levelled off and is going to decline and we have to take that into account.

“The issues around affordable housing and jobs is a big one. We have got to operate on a number of fronts to make sure that we do not deal with things in bits and pieces.

He added: “We do not want to frighten people, but we can see the trends there and we can see the way things are going. If we get to grips with the issues early, we can sort it out between ourselves.

“We can support communities, but we cannot do their job for them. It's for the communities themselves to wake up to what the issues are.”

Mr Lewis told council members that in a school with just 13 pupils on the roll, the staffing numbers were small, meaning the headteacher would spend most of their time in the classroom with little time for management duties.

“Very small schools like Peasenhall require high levels of funding to sustain the education of such small numbers of children,” he said.

“The unit cost of educating a child at Peasenhall is more than three times the county average for primary schools.”

The executive agreed to consult the community on possible options for the future of Peasanhall Primary School and to make a final decision in October.

n What do you think about the threat to the future of Suffolk's small village schools? Write to the editor with your views.

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