This week, concerning figures were obtained from the House of Commons library by Neil O’Brien MP showing a decline in the number of rural primary schools. The figures, quoted in The Times, show almost 150 rural primaries have closed since 2000, with just 5,406 primaries with 200 or fewer pupils now open compared to 11,464 in 1980. Rural schools face many challenges but free schools show these can be overcome; free schools are thriving in rural communities – not only as an integral part of community life, but as an active driver of community development – and local authorities must not stamp out smaller schools to meet demand, especially in response to housing developments.
St Mary’s Primary School, in Dilywn Herefordshire is a perfect of example of this. As pupil numbers declined, the school was set to close in 2011 with plans for schools further away to expand. The community pulled together and applied for the school to re-open as a free school. They were successful and St Mary’s opened as a free school in 2012. The curriculum puts the community at its heart and pupils visit local farms, woods and historic buildings. St Mary’s is once again the cornerstone of vibrant community life in Dilwyn.
A similar situation unravelled for Peaslake Primary School. Serving the community since 1880 as the village primary school. The local authority cut funding as it wasn't deemed viable to remain open. Despite losing funds the community raised £120,000 to continue as an independent school, albeit on a smaller scale. At the first opportunity the community took back control applying to open as a free school. In 2013 Peaslake School re-entered the state sector and they continue to thrive within the community. Reward for their hard work and determination came from a Good Ofsted rating in 2015.
The Swanage School is another example of a school that has beaten the odds. The remote location at the end of the Purbeck peninsular presents significant challenges, while the school’s cohort has high levels of deprivation compared with the rest of Dorset. The school has managed to fill a crucial gap in secondary provision, preventing long and difficult travel for pupils to the closest secondary schools in Wareham – 10 miles away. Rated Good in 2018, the school achieves high standards year on year, with their 2018 Progress 8 score placing them as second highest in Dorset and in the top 10% of all schools.
Schools sit at the heart of rural communities; the Government should be pushing to open new schools to revitalise communities across the country. Our recent paper, Free schools: the next 10 years, calls on the next Government to provide funding for schools that are part of housing developments. A good local school is one of the most valuable assets to developers, and the Government should understand this relationship. Developers should provide extra capital funding and support local authorities underwriting the pupil admission number until the school is full to ensure the success of both the school and the development as a future community.
Schools play a vital part in tackling rural community isolation; we should start by ensuring that there is a free school in every local authority (there are 29 that have not benefited from the programme as of yet) and make sure every child, whether urban or rural, can access a good school.