Village Schools - Superb or Superfluous?

This blog was first posted 9th May 2007

I despair sometimes, I really do. Does excellence stand for nothing in this country? Is it really all about ‘the bottom line’? I have just received devastating news - for our little community at least. Our village infant school has been earmarked for closure.

This school is one of the key reasons I was prepared to unpick my life once again and move from the south to the north of the country. It is one of my strongest and most positive memories from when we first came to look at the house and the village. In the Autumn it was awarded the highest possible Ofsted inspection result and, as such, was put into the top 10 per cent of primary schools in the WHOLE country. This is a remarkable achievement for a school of 25 pupils. And it is all down to the dedication, vision and plain hard work of its Head and equally dedicated staff – one teacher, one assistant, one secretary – not to mention the strong parental input and board of governors. It featured in an article in the Primary Review just a month or two back about the quality and value to the community of our village schools. Its pupils leave in Year 2 with the abilities of most Year 4s. Thanks to the drive of the Head Teacher and her understanding that to remain open she has to achieve excellence and go for every financial subsidiary being offered, the school offers an incredible range, for such a small school, of ‘add-on activities’ and extra-curricular activities – swimming, ball skills, basketball, gym club, ICT both within the school and at the local secondary school, French club, card club…indeed, when we first visited the school it had more interactive white boards and computers than the private school our eldest daughter had been forced to attend in London (such was the impossibility of getting her into a decent state school in the over-crowded area of the city that we lived in). It was impressive. Put that together with a magnificent setting – clean air, startling views, quiet lane, sheep and cows and a very full programme of school trips and nature activities - and moving up here, rather than my husband weekly commuting, was an obvious decision. And you know what? – it really made me HAPPY that my children could be educated by the State, as they should be able to be, to a very high standard, in an inspiring environment.

But it seems that all that counts for nothing. Irrelevant the fact that they continue to build new housing without increasing the schools and doctors and dentists so that many of the local schools (again, in just the four years since we’ve been here) now have classes of 30 or more. Irrelevant that the village school brings a heartbeat to the community, already stripped of much of its youth by lack of job prospects and the ever-widening horizons of the modern world. The farming community has virtually been squeezed out of existence, it is now the turn of the young things who, with the tools provided by the excellence of their early education, setting them up for life, are to suffer. Instead of being able to walk to school, we will now have to drive to another, far bigger one, to sit at the back of a huge class and lose all that careful nurturing and attention that creates confident, capable young children, allowing them to make the very best of the next stages in their education. Am I being too idealistic? Or is the local government just being too short-sighted? When money is the issue – they claim the cost of educating each of our children is just too high – it is a hard battle to win. But in the end, you get what you pay for don’t you? Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Is that really what this country needs? Wouldn’t it be nice, just for once, to celebrate success, to celebrate excellence and turn a blind eye to the bottom line? When I think how much taxpayers’ money has been thrown away over the years – don’t get me on Iraq, don’t get me on the Greenwich Dome or the London Olympics. All very different areas of expenditure, to be sure, but I can’t help feeling the domestic coffers could be better prioritised.

I am not a political person. I am simply a person who has paid a lot of money to the government over the years and has, frankly, taken very little back out. I am someone who believes in investing in people, in giving everyone the best start possible in life. I just think it is time someone sat up and took a look at the balance and quality of the education in this country and the importance of the village school in maintaining the heart and spirit of the rural communities. Everything is so weighted towards urban environments that in trying to improve the inner city situation while centralising rural education, leading to the sort of overcrowding that is reminiscent of the urban scenario, there is a real danger of chucking the baby out with the bathwater.