Small schools may close, union warns

FALLING pupil numbers could see some rural schools being axed in Suffolk and teachers lost in Essex, a teaching union has warned.The National Union of Teachers (NUT) fears that small village schools will be plunged into financial crisis because of how Government grants are distributed.

By Jonathan Barnes

FALLING pupil numbers could see some rural schools being axed in Suffolk and teachers lost in Essex, a teaching union has warned.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) fears that small village schools will be plunged into financial crisis because of how Government grants are distributed.

Cash is handed out to schools depending on the number of pupils and many primary schools are seeing numbers fall.

"It's no exaggeration to say we are going to lose some village schools over the next 10 years," said a Suffolk NUT spokesman.

"We are anticipating big pressures on smaller schools because of the way the money is being passed on.

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"The LEA is told to give the money out on a per capita basis and isn't allowed to hold any back for pressure points.

"The bigger schools will do better out of it, but the smaller ones will suffer."

The Government has pledged a 4% increase on the settlement for 2003/04, but the NUT says it will not be enough for schools still reeling from last year's grant.

Many schools were forced to dig deep into their reserves to cover costs and some had to axe jobs.

Essex NUT representative Jerry Glazier said: "I think it's inevitable small village schools are more vulnerable at times of financial constraint. We already saw one or two schools losing staff last year. The incidence is not as high in Essex as in Suffolk because we have got bigger urban areas."

Mr Glazier said small village schools have the least flexibility to be able to cope with budget cuts.

Garry Deeks, headteacher of Wilby Primary School, near Stradbroke, which has 68 pupils, said: "It looks as if it is going to be very tight this year – it's certainly going to be challenging."

Mr Deeks, whose school had a budget of £200,000 in 2003/04, said: "In the past, Suffolk has had a very positive approach to smaller schools and has been able to support them with a block allowance.

"The suggestion from the Government seems to be those allowances were too generous – but that is not how we see it.

"Flexibility has been reduced in the allowances and the funding doesn't allow the freedom we once saw to reflect local needs."

He added: "Every school has fixed costs and the same sort of costs – we have to fill in as many forms as bigger schools.

"There will be several schools who weathered the situation after last year's poor settlement and used all their reserves.

"It will now be quite a headache to set a budget to sustain those expectations. Schools that had to absorb all their resources will not be in a position to do so again."

Tony Lewis, Suffolk County Council executive committee member with responsibility for schools, said: "Many schools are starting to see rolls stabilising or falling for the first time in many years and we do have schools that have never experienced that before.

"But those schools won't necessarily find themselves worse off. They are guaranteed a 4% increase on last year even if rolls are falling."

Mr Lewis added the LEA was applying for a transitional Government grant of £3.1 million which would be used to help schools with the biggest financial problems.

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