The third day saw half the group visit some of the most remote schools within England – one of which is the highest school within the country. All schools within this cluster of schools provide a primary school education and have enrollments varying from five students through to 60 students. Two of the schools have been federated to ensure the sustainability of each school community.
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Lynda from the Local Authority of the Department of Education supports the cluster – she has a focus on supporting smaller and more remote clusters of schools throughout Staffordshire. She believes that small schools need to cluster together and be outward looking to offer the best education for students and to support teachers. This is evidenced in what we have seen through the federation of St Bartholomew’s and Flash Primary Schools today. It is also due to the passion, commitment and vision of Sue Evans and her team that the students at these schools were a joy to be around.
Through the cluster approach developed within this cluster, students were provided with a great learning program with student learning outcomes being very strong – a number of students performing at the “exceptional” level.
St Bartholomew’s Church of England Primary School is one of 85 small schools in the broader Staffordshire district. It has a current enrolment of 18 students and two years ago amalgamated with Flash Primary School (who currently has 7 students) as part of the Federation approach which operates within England. This restructure was necessary for the survival of the two schools whose numbers were declining due to a change in demographics caused by changing industries, the disappearance of farms and remoteness of the area. In addition families are commuting to Buxton and Manchester for employment opportunities. These families will often take their children with them and enroll them at schools in the towns of their employment for logistic reasons. Sue Evans, who is the Head Teacher at St Bartholomew’s, has witnessed this decline in numbers over the sixteen years she has been at the school.
On Monday and Tuesday the students are taught in their own schools that are separated by a distance of four miles. They come together on Wednesdays and Thursdays at St Bartholomew’s for their “specialist classes” and on Fridays the students all have swimming lessons and spend the remainder of their day at Flash Primary. They travel between schools by bus.
Both schools currently finish at year 4 and following this the students travel to larger town schools to complete their primary education. Both schools have the capacity to have nursery school students.
St Bartholomew’s and Flash Primary are also part of six cluster schools in the immediate area. These schools meet once a term for an activity day to enable the students to mix together as many of these students will eventually meet up together when they go onto a bigger school after year 4. This also assists the students in their transition to a bigger school.
In addition the cluster provides valuable professional development and learning support and they often visit each others schools to enhance and broaden the learning provided in each school site.
Sense of community
There is a strong sense of community within this cluster of schools. One example of this is that each day at school the students enjoy a cooked meal for their lunch. Families are given the menu a week in advance so the students have the opportunity to choose to eat or bring their own lunch. The students are all seated for lunch and are expected to serve the food for each other and to help in the clearing of the tables. During our visit we were fortunate to be part of this and sat and ate with the students. This highlighted to us the importance of community for these schools and how it helped the students build the capacity to look after each other.
The community is keen to see both these schools survive and thrive as it means that it will survive too in these remote areas.
Parents of the students at St Bartholomew’s were positive about the federation of the schools as they understood that their school was possibly under threat of closing one day itself.
Another school we had the opportunity to visit was Hollinsclough Primary School which is a “flexi-school”. It became a flexi-school as the small village school was reduced to five students and a need was recognised to have more flexible schooling approach.
Flexi-schooling is a combination of home schooling and formal days at school. The reasons for the flexi-schooling being introduced within the Hollinsclough community include:
- students being emotionally bruised by schooling experiences in the past
- parents wanting to spend more time with their children
- parents wanting to follow a particular educational philosophy
- parents feeling that their children are not quite ready for full-time education.
The learning options developed by Hollinsclough Primary School provides a flexible framework for students to be involved in their learning and includes the possibility for students to learn:
- part-time where the student come on agreed days and joins in with time-tabled activities for that day
- children and parents come to a ‘learning-hub’ at least once every two weeks
- eLearning opportunities
Through the vision and dedication of Head Teacher Jeanette Mountford-Lees the school numbers have grown from five to 53 (including 23 full-timers) in three years. This includes students having an individual learning program no matter what option they choose.
Collegiality Across the Cluster
These cluster of schools have a strong sense of collegiality. Teachers in these schools have to wear lots of different hats to make things work for their students, and more broadly their community. They meet on a regular basis with their cluster schools to share ideas and Professional Development.
These schools again outlined to us the importance of, and benefits, that clustering provide for each student, teacher and head teacher.
Rural England is facing the same challenges as rural Australia when it comes to the survival and functioning of small schools, and both recognise the importance of these schools in their communities.