Village Primary Schools Under Threat

by Roger Abbott on 15 April, 2017

Ockley School Has Closed

 

There is a major problem looming with our village primary schools. Unless we take action, there will be extensive closure of village schools, not just in our area but all over the country. The consequences will result in major changes to the demographics of our rural communities and this is a threat to our heritage.

 

What happened in Ockley

The problem is not, as is claimed by the governors, falling numbers. More it is down to falling finance.

What has actually happened is what happens in all communities: the birth rate varies from year to year. The smaller the community the greater the variance. This is simple probability theory: some years are good years for baby births, and some years are not good years. That’s the way it is and the school system simply has to cope with that.

This year’s reception class at Ockley is the result of a particularly poor year. The other classes were OK. But as soon as the closure became a serious likelihood it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents, desperate to get the best for their children and fearful of being left with a poor choice of school later, removed their children and took them elsewhere. Wouldn’t you do the same?
It is unfortunate that some numbers I hear banded about regarding pupil numbers are grossly misleading. Too often it is the number of pupils remaining AFTER those who have left as a result of the closure announcement rather than the number who were attending earlier in the school year.

The governors called a meeting of the Ockley community in January where the governors asked for help. There was a great response and quite a number of people offered their expertise in corporate and local government finance, marketing, management, etc.  It is a great shame that insufficient time and resources were available to take advantage of these offers. I presume the governors would have taken advantage of the community expertise but I must assume they were under financial pressure to close. Thus, before what had been billed as a “statutory consultation period” had completed, it was formally announced that the school was to close immediately.

You might ask what happened to the “statutory consultation period”. Well, the school at Ockley is actually the “Ockley Base” of Scott-Broadwood School. Therefore there is no longer any such thing as “Ockley School”. So, legally, the governors seem to have announced that they were closing some of the buildings of Scott-Broadwood: something they can do without consultation. It just so happens that it is all the buildings in Ockley that are closing, but Scott-Broadwood School continues in Capel.

The parents in Ockley are still planning to revive their school and they deserve all the help to do so.

 

North Downs School & Similar Mergers

The community in Ockley should have been told that Ockley School would cease to exist when it was merged with Capel to form Scott-Broadwood and there should have been a wide-spread consultation before that merger took place.

I don’t know if that happened, but I certainly don’t recall such a consultation when Brockham, Betchworth and Leigh Schools were merged to form North Downs School. There were parent meetings, but only to explain how things would change.

So Betchworth and/or Leigh must now be considered under threat for exactly the same reasons, and under exactly the same process, as at Ockley. They are small and (in government eyes) inefficient.

 

Primary Schools in Rural Communities

Probably it is the village school that is the most important factor in maintaining the community. It encourages a balanced demographic for the village. Particularly young couples with small children are much more likely to stay in the village if there is a primary school nearby. In the absence of a school they are much more likely to move elsewhere, with the result that the community has a significantly older average age. Without young people and children to drive the community into the future there is a tendency to become sterile and dormitory.

Children are the future of our communities and of our heritage.

There are several other aspects. For example, the School Gate Club along with the village pub are now the most important community communications centres. This is where all the local news and gossip is exchanged and local events are originated. Take away the school and the community loses an essential means of communicating with itself.

Where the village school has closed we can see this is what happens.

 

The Finance Problem

Here is the real reason and the real problem.
The Government’s new funding formula for schools is about to be phased in over a two year period. Whilst there are transitional arrangements, the basic philosophy is wrong.

Current Government policy documents express the desire to take ALL schools away from local governance. Primarily this will be by merging schools into academies. Thus a single academy will have a central administration and central curriculum for a number of schools. It will then be up to the academy to manage their own schools in the most efficient manner possible.

Funding will be based upon the total number of pupils. True, there is a significant element of that now, but the concept is to make the funding per pupil the fundamental element to ensure the same level (per pupil) no matter where the school may be located. This will amount to about 72.5% of the national budget, or about £23bn.

There will be about £5.8bn (18%) for “Additional Needs Funding”. This is not to cover for schools in small communities but, according to the Government documents, “investment in this area … is vital to improve social mobility”.

About £3.1bn is reserved for what the government terms “School Led Funding”. The major part (about £2.3bn) of this will be a fixed sum, initially set at £110,000, given to each school: a kind of “fixed overheads” fund. This is significantly lower than the sum granted by Surrey County Council, but the Department for Education is making a statement here, claiming that the lower figure will “encourage schools to share services and functions”. In other words schools not forming part of an academy will get lower funding.
Also buried in this section is a “Sparsity” fund of about £27,000,000. This is intended for small schools in small communities that are unable to share resources. Amounting to 0.08% of the national budget, we can see that a primary school in the middle of Dartmoor might get an additional £25,000, but a village school in Surrey? No chance!

Finally there is something called “Geographic funding”, which seems to be a form of area-cost adjustment. However, this is yet to be defined.

 

So we can see clearly that the small community schools we have in our villages will be required to merge in some way. The Government ideal will be for all to be adopted by an academy. With the current Government we can expect the fixed overheads part of the “School Led Funding” aspect to be reduced further as this is an easy way of telling everyone that “academies are more efficient”. Any school not joining will be financially penalised.
The additional funding that Surrey County Council has allocated to help small schools overcome the variances of birth rate will disappear.
With the funding received by the academies being much more “per pupil” and no finance available to overcome variable birth rates, it becomes obvious that larger schools will be more financially efficient. Thus it will be in the interests of the academy to close the smaller rural schools and transfer all pupils to larger urban establishments.

Thus the funding formula financially disadvantages smaller schools and, in the desire for economic efficiency, it is the village schools that will be closed. All children will eventually attend large schools in towns and the whole structure of village communities will change as a result.

 

The Future

The government’s funding formula is another attempt to take away local accountability.

In 2003, the introduction of NHS Trusts was intended to increase efficiency by introducing an “internal market”. This concept has clearly failed (no blame on the NHS staff here: it’s all down to political dogma) and that has led to privitisation, poor pay for nurses and others on already low wages, a disjointed service that fails to meet our requirements and a massive increase in administration costs.
When the district councils were required to hand over their social housing stock to Housing Associations for a pittance it was again the political intention to introduce competition and private enterprise philosophy. We have seen what has happened since. Most of what were local housing associations have merged into large corporations. Again not the fault of the staff, but these large organisations have lost their local accountability and have made massive rent increases such that “affordable housing” is no longer affordable for so many people.

In ten years time, which future will it be for our primary schools? Will we have our community primary schools closed to be replaced by large town based centres operated by national academies with no local accountability? Or will it be the NHS Trust model, where each academy is adopting expensive private companies and competing for our infant school children?

What is wrong with having a village school? We get the best teachers in there that we can. We make the school an integral part of the community which, incidentally, improves the involvement of parents as well as the standard of education. By and large the children walk to school, which is not only the healthy option but also encourages social integration. Added to that we are preserving the priceless heritage of our rural communities.
With administrative costs of the NHS having risen by £20bn in the last 15 years, will the new funding formula reduce education costs? I doubt it!

 

[Note: all funding figures from Schools Week analysis of the Government’s new funding formula]

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