March 11 2014 Latest news:
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Children’s education is more important that the needs of the wider community when the fate of small schools in Suffolk comes under the microscope.
That is the blunt message from the county councillor responsible for education as members of the scrutiny committee prepare to look again at the allocation of school places in Suffolk.
Lisa Chambers said she was aware of the importance of small schools to the life of many villages – but her first priority would always have to be the education of children.
She said: “I know that will not be what communities want to hear, but the first priority has to be to give children the best possible education.”
While some children thrive in small schools, there are concerns that those which are very small cannot give their pupils the breadth of education they need – how can children of four and 11 be taught together in a one or two-class school?
The county council’s scrutiny committee is this week due to hear a report on how it plans the allocation of school places in Suffolk.
The report points out that the government’s definition of a “small” school is one with fewer than 100 pupils. In Suffolk 40 of the county’s 257 primary schools are defined as “small.”
Most have entered into federations with other schools to share headteachers, administrative support, and some lessons.
However Ofsted inspections have highlighted concerns that pupils in small schools might be missing out.
Mrs Chambers said she would be concerned if her children were taught in mixed-ability groups, let alone mixed-age classes.
“I am aware that the concerns of parents may be different from that of the wider community when looking at their local schools, but it is the interests of the children that have to come first.”
There are no immediate plans to close any small schools – and if any such proposals come forward, there is a fixed procedure that has to be gone through before any closure can be confirmed.
The cost of running small village schools is also a factor – although Mrs Chambers said the standard of education was the over-riding factor.
Graham White of the NUT in Suffolk said his members could understand the issues surrounding very small schools – but feared the county council could target those which were larger.
He said: “It could be difficult to provide enough breadth to pupils of a very small school with less than 30 pupils and our members recognise that.
“However there are good points to be considered with smaller schools in rural areas – youngsters can walk or cycle to school.”
Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey has several small schools in her constituency – many are members of federations with each other.
She said: “I would be concerned about any attempt to introduce a fixed policy from the top. That happened in Norfolk some years ago and did not do a great deal.
“Some small schools can be very successful when working together – schools like Middleton and Peasenhall primaries are small but are greatly valued by parents.”
This comes less than a week after the primary school league tables were published, which showed that Suffolk is one of the worst performing authorities in the country.