On the outskirts of many English towns, adjacent to greenbelt and farmland, you will find small village communities situated around a local school, church and public house (the pub) – and many of these communities have been established for centuries.
But these semi-rural areas could be no more if the new funding formula proposed by the government has anything to do with it. This is because the proposals could lead to the closure of many of these small village schools. And when a village school is closed, the heart of the community goes with it.
In many of these villages, the shop, pub and post office have already closed, making the school and church the only places that bring the community together. And without them, the English village community is lost – leaving behind a dormitory place where commuters simply go to sleep.
The semi rural problem
For many it is assumed that village schools in semi-rural communities are financially “stable”, or even well off, because of the background of the children that attend them. But notion that it is only middle class students from financially stable backgrounds that attend local village schools is simply not true. And in many cases, these schools are already struggling to survive from year to year.
A lot of this is down to the fact that school funding is given per pupil and many of these schools have a small number of children – many with less than 100 pupils. Many of these schools also have a tiny number of children, if any, who qualify for the additional “pupil premium” funding. This is a fund given to schools to decrease the attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children. Due to the lower number of pupils who attend these schools there are also fewer children who are looked after, whose parents are in the armed forces, or are eligible for free school meals.
Parents of children with special educational needs can legally try to get their child into any state funded school of their choice, and they often choose small village schools as these are thought to offer a safer environment for their children to learn. This can bring benefits for all the children involved, but it can also increase the costs involved for the school.
To make matters worse
Increasing financial constraints over recent years has seen governing bodies and head teachers working together to look for, sometimes drastic, cost saving measures. Many have entered into federation arrangements, where a group of two or more schools have a joint governing body.
There has also been an increase in the number of multi-academy trusts popping up. These have both been found to be good ways of sharing resources, improving efficiency and effectiveness to reduce costs overall. But in at least one case, this has also meant schools are now having to share a head teacher.
It is difficult to see then how these schools can reduce costs any further without the educational experience of their children suffering. But the proposed new funding policies suggest that they will need to in order to survive.
Under the proposed new formula, schools will receive funding in four ways. This includes an amount per pupil, along with “additional needs funding”. This is similar to pupil premium and is given according to four factors: deprivation, low prior attainment, English as an additional language and mobility.
Funding will also be allocated as an amount per school, and this will be based on additional factors. This includes “sparsity”, so where the school is located in relation to other schools, “premises related” – such as being in an old building – and the “growth” of the school.
But herein lies the problem, because many of these village schools do not qualify for the sparsity allowance because they are not more than two miles apart. But they are unable to merge or increase pupil numbers to take advantage of the growth funding because of the restrictions of old school buildings.
Then there is also additional funding to be given based on the the geographic area and variation in costs – which will be much more likely to benefit city schools.
The way things currently stand it seems as though the government and local authorities are not interested in these schools.
They may well think they have more pressing issues in schools with a bigger number of pupils. But they cannot afford for these schools to close. It could leave whole areas of a town with no primary schools.
Pressure on school places in other areas will also be significantly increased – with parents driving significant distances to take their children to school. And the educational experience and lives of the children involved will be disadvantaged.
When a village school is closed, the heart of the community is lost. So let’s give these schools a chance and keep our village communities alive.
Kay Smith is chair of governors for the Greenhills First Federation - a federation of three small semi-rural first schools in the Kirklees Local Education Authority, West Yorkshire.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation.