Analysis: How well do Norfolk’s small schools really perform, and how much do they really cost?

Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary school closed last Wednesday, despite a campaign by parents. Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary school closed last Wednesday, despite a campaign by parents.

Monday, July 28, 2014
9:15 AM

The next few years are likely to see the biggest change in the structure of Norfolk education for generations. Education correspondent Martin George analyses the numbers behind the proposals.

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Norfolk County Council explains its strategy

Norfolk County Council said closing a small school was “only done when there is no other viable option for a school”, and it aimed for every Norfolk child to attend a school rated “good” or better by Ofsted by 2016.

A spokesman said: “High quality leadership is a critical factor and recruitment of governors, headteachers as well as senior and middle leaders in small schools is a significant challenge. With 425 schools in the county we have one of the biggest and most complex systems in the country. For many years schools have been working together to increase their critical mass which supports sustaining high-quality leadership, which in turn supports children achieving good outcomes.

“It is against this background, as well as the current financial pressures, that we have been encouraging governors to look strategically at the long-term future and organise themselves in larger units.

“A one form entry school allows a year group to be taught on its own and equates to a 210-place primary school. Schools and federations are already looking at ways of achieving this and bigger groupings so that they gain the many benefits such as developing improved senior leadership structures, career development opportunities for all staff and improved business support functions.”

What do small village schools mean to you? To many, they are the beating heart of the community, and offer a loving environment in which to bring up children. To others, they pose an unacceptable risk to education standards, and are financially unsustainable.

For more than a century, these competing interpretations have created a tension at the heart of primary education policy in Norfolk, but there has now been a decisive shift towards reform at the county council and Diocesan Board of Education.

With standards of education in Norfolk under the spotlight like never before, small stand-alone schools will become a thing of the past over the next three years, and to survive schools will have to form strong, permanent federations – or other structures – with at least 210-250 children.

What do the numbers tell us?

Questions have been raised about the future of small schools many times, but this time it seems a plan will be implemented that is far-reaching and permanent.

It is an issue county councillors have been considering formally for perhaps three years, but the policy has become progressively more muscular, and now spells the end for small, stand-alone schools and signals structural changes for many more.

Last week Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary, with 27 children, closed, and governors at King George VI school in Great Bircham, which has 13 pupils, are consulting on closure.

The county council has said the smallest schools perform less well academically, and cost a disproportionate amount of money.

Today’s analysis of school data confirms that, on average, schools with less than 50 pupils do perform less well in end-of-school exams and Ofsted reports, but also shows this average masks some highly-successful small schools.

The council’s preferred model is school federations with at least 210 pupils. Our analysis suggests the best-performing schools academically are those with 50-99 pupils, and that economies of scale become less pronounced once schools have a critical mass of 100-149 pupils.

However, there is an increasing emphasis on leadership, and the council believes larger groupings are needed to attract and retain good senior and middle leaders.

Exam results, Ofsted grades and money can be measured. It is harder to quantify the social impact of a small school on a community. The Norfolk Rural Community Council has called for the council’s strategy to be “rural proofed”.

The scale of the change

The small schools strategy will have huge effects across the county over the next decade, with schools with fewer than 50 pupils coming under most scrutiny.

Of the 38 smallest schools, just over half are already part of wider federations, but all but five are in federations that do not meet the council’s recommended size.

In the longer term, hundreds of schools will be affected. Of 361 Norfolk primary schools, 109 have more than the 210 pupils, and only 27 of those below this size are part of federations with at least that many pupils.

While federations will preserve an educational presence across a number of sites, education chiefs concede it is almost certain than some villages will lose the school in their community.

Performance

The county council’s key argument for re-structuring primary education is that, on average, small schools do significantly worse academically than their larger counterparts.

According to the most recent Department for Education figures, for 2012-13, in Norfolk primaries with fewer than 50 pupils, an average of 60% of children left having achieved the expected levels, compared to a Norfolk average of 71%, and a national average of 75%.

But this average hides wide variation among the smallest schools, with 100% of pupils at two schools gaining the expected level. Meanwhile, schools with 50-99 pupils performed the best, with an average of 74% achieving the expected level.

A spokesman for Norfolk County Council said: “Although attainment levels are higher in schools with 51 to 99 pupils their vulnerability remains because of the difficulty in recruiting headteachers and staff, the risks when staff fall ill and the challenges in delivering a broad curriculum in mixed ability classes. The changes to funding will only exacerbate these difficulties in the long-term.”

The latest data from Ofsted shows that, on average, the smallest schools have the worst Ofsted grades, while the group with the best Ofsted judgements are schools with 100-149 pupils.

Finance

While the council says education standards are driving their small school strategy, finance also plays a role. Government data clearly shows how much the smallest schools cost. Total spending per pupil at the smallest primary, King George VI in Great Bircham – which is consulting parents about closing – was £14,550 last year, compared to a Norfolk average of £4,634.

But while the very small schools are at the extremes, a closer look at the data suggests the financial savings from size become less pronounced once schools have 100 pupils or more, with schools with 100-149 pupils costing £4,314 per pupil, compared to £4,146 at schools with 200-249 pupils.

A council spokesman said: “In the current system small schools are subsidised by other schools.”

Accountability

Previous proposals to close small schools have often floundered in the face of vocal opposition from the communities involved, and the issue helped sweep the Conservatives out of power at County Hall in 1993.

Times have changed since those days in three important ways: the alternative to the status quo is rarely as stark as closure now that alternatives such as federations and academy sponsors are available; the greater pressure from the government and Ofsted to improve standards makes local politicians more determined to take action; and the age of austerity makes the financial arguments more compelling to many.

Nevertheless, elected politicians are still subject to pressure from voters, and this month the children’s services committee agreed that the unelected director of children’s services should be the final decision maker on school closures, in consultation with the committee chairman or vice chairman. Under the cabinet system, which was abolished in May, the decision was delegated to the elected member responsible for schools.

A council spokesman said: “The decision was taken by members, who agreed a process which would see a proposal to close a school brought before the committee as part of the statutory consultation.”

• See tomorrow’s EDP for why staff, parents and governors at one small school feel it plays a vital role in village life.

• Did you go to a small Norfolk school? We would love to hear your memories and photographs. Write to Martin George, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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