Saturday, 22 December 2007

Back to the Future for rural schools : Victorian-style classes feared

SCHOOLS built by the Victorians in some of West Somerset’s rural communities could soon be forced to again deliver teaching in Victorian-style classes.
The step back to a teaching style of 150 years ago could be forced on small schools by funding proposals being considered in the New Year.
It could mean schools such as Exford Church of England First School being reduced to a single class where all the children from the ages of four to nine years were taught together by the school’s only teacher.
Similarly, Dulverton Middle and Community School could find its nine classrooms cut to six, with subsequent redundancies among the teaching staff.
Governors of the two schools are fighting the proposed changes to the way in which funding is allocated to schools throughout Somerset.
The county council is due to decide on January 16 on a package of 11 proposals.
One of those who will be attending that meeting to address councillors is the chairman of the governors of the Federation of Exford and Dulverton Schools, Dr Brian Martin.
The federation, which was only formed in April of this year as a result of county council pressure to cut the costs of running small schools, also includes Dulverton All Saints Church of England First School.
Other schools which have federated under recent county council pressure include Cutcombe and Timberscombe First Schools, as well as Danesfield Middle, Williton St Peter’s First, and Old Cleeve First Schools.
A ‘soft governance federation’ was put in place for Minehead Middle, Porlock St Dubricius, Minehead St Michael’s, and Dunster First Schools.
Crowcombe and Stogumber Primary Schools also federated in a separate move.
Nevertheless, the county council has highlighted the fact that the cost of running its small schools is still in the top 100 of the most expensive schools per pupil in the country.
Dr Martin said the new funding proposals were finance-driven and did not take any account of need to bed in recent federations and make them work properly.
He said the council wanted to spread its education cost per pupil more evenly across all schools and one way of doing so would be to reduce the ‘small schools protection’ which currently guaranteed a minimum of two classes for schools with 60 or fewer pupils.
Dr Martin said the moves would leave schools such as Exford ‘vulnerable’ and could even lead to closure.
He said: “We think that this is a step back to Victorian times almost.
“It really does not pay any heed to the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy that has been pushed forward by the Government.
“And ‘individual learning’ just goes out of the window.
“It puts small rural schools in a very vulnerable position.”
Dr Martin said the knock-on effects could see small and middle schools unable to teach the national curriculum to the right standard, meaning pupils would move on to the West Somerset Community College still requiring to be brought up to the right level of education for their age.
There was a further risk that some West Somerset parents might move to another area in order to secure a better education for their children, or that parents would be put off moving to live in the district, thereby causing a fall in pupil numbers and making schools even more vulnerable.
Dr Martin said some pupils as young as four and five years were already making a journey of 40 minutes to reach schools on Exmoor.
If the schools closed, the only alternative would be an even longer journey to a town school.
He said: “It is not like an urban area where you may be able to close a school and still have reasonable travel times to an alternative. There is no alternative on Exmoor.
“We are making a plea that there is an exception in this area for small rural schools which serve their communities.”
Dr Martin appreciated some schools, such as Danesfield Middle, in Williton, might benefit overall from the proposed changes and it was likely that Somerset’s larger schools would support the new funding regime.
But he said: “We would hope they appreciate that they are part of a whole school system here, where we all feed through to the community college and secondary education, and would want strength in the whole system.”
Dr Martin said making teachers redundant in Dulverton Middle School would result in a loss of specialist skills and make it near-impossible to deliver the school’s highly regarded Exmoor Curriculum.
  • Our photograph shows Exford Church of England First School. Photo submitted.

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