Small schools: What is life like at one of Norfolk’s smallest, Brockdish Primary?
09:47 29 July 2014
With Norfolk’s small schools under threat of closure if they do not form federations, education correspondent Martin George finds out about life in one of the very smallest.
“To me, it is the centre of the village”
For many Brockdish residents, keeping a primary school in the village is “absolutely vital” to preserving the community.
Headteacher Mandy Reeve said: “I had a mum come in the other day who said without the school she would not know anybody because when she first moved here there was no way to meet anyone in the village. Once her child started at the school she met other parents. You don’t think of how important that is.”
It is a school with an open door policy for the local community, and parents are frequent visitors and helpers, whether it be driving the minibus or helping decorate.
Jan Croxton, a former vice chair of governors, said: “To me, it is the centre of the village. A lot of pupils from years ago still live in the village and are still very supportive, even though they are in their 70s or 80s.”
Wayne Hart, whose daughter started at the school when they moved to Brockdish in October, said: “We think it’s the heart of the village. We have only got the school and the church. There’s no pub or shops. It’s the centre point. It’s how we got to know people.
“It all starts at the school but grows and spreads out. Even for OAPs it’s a great source of connection and the children respect the older generation.”
Set in a small village amid the fields of the Waveney Valley, and with just 21 pupils and two classes, Brockdish Primary School sounds like the epitome of a romantic rural education.
The school, which dates back to 1843 and occupies a former workhouse, faces many of the issues confronting the county’s smallest schools. It is now looking to secure its future by forming a federation with other schools, with a total of 250 children.
Gill Key, a governor, said: “I think it’s the way forward, definitely, purely to keep the school open. It will be good for the children to see other schools and how they work.”
Parents and pupils give their views about Brockdish Primary
■ Kim Davis, a parent governor with a boy at the school, said: “It’s just the whole atmosphere of the place. We are all very close here. I suppose that we all know each other very well. We are all here to make a difference and help the school. I think the ultimate thing here is that they are all very good to each other, and respectful.
They are just nice to each other.”
■ Wayne Hart’s daughter moved to Brockdish from a large school in Essex in October. He said: “I think her knowledge is the biggest change. If she did not understand something it was tough, because she got lost, but here they sit and explain it to her. She went up two grades since coming here. She has come out of herself. She is more confident because it is not so intimidating.”
■ Amelia, six, said: “Sometimes my friend helps me learn and I help her and the teachers can also help us if our friends don’t know the answer.”
■ George, 10, said: “I’m happy I’m at a small school because it doesn’t get too crowded. We all help each other out because some of us have been here for a long time and we are all friends now. It’s good because when you move up to high school it’s better when you know people who you have seen recently so you don’t get scared, and you have a good time.”
Headteacher Mandy Reeve, who has previously taught at Suffolk’s largest school, said she “just fell in love” with Brockdish when she first visited six years ago.
“It was the instant awareness that the older children really look after the younger ones”, she said. “It’s like a family. There’s that ethos of caring for each other. Here, if a child falls down, two or three children are there before a teacher. They are just phenomenal. The older children grow up to be very caring individuals, and I think that sets them up for later life.”
The pupils are polite and confident when showing visitors around their school, whether it is the downstairs classroom used by the reception and years one-two, the upstairs classroom used by years three-six, or their vegetable patch and newly created nature area.
A typical day starts when children go inside for their first activity, ‘target time’, where each works on a specific area they have been given to improve. There is a daily whole-school assembly, and at break time all the children can play together, and they have lunch together in the hall. Some afternoons are devoted to whole-school activities, such as a recent session making things for the nature area.
Concerns are often raised about very small schools; do children suffer academically and miss out socially, or do staff lack training and support? Staff, governors and parents say this is not the case at Brockdish.
Mrs Reeve said younger pupils in mix-age classes “blossom” because they saw what older pupils were doing and wanted to do the same.
She said that for three of the previous four years, children leaving Brockdish made above-expected progress, and the other year was in line with national expected progress.
And she said Brockdish worked closely with others in its cluster of local schools, with teachers training together and having shared staff meetings, and pupils regularly doing activities together. The school’s current Ofsted rating is “requires improvement”.
Acting chairman of governors, Stephanie Clements, said indications from a recent inspector’s visit were “extremely positive” about its efforts to become “good”.
Asked about the challenges, Mrs Reeve said staff often spent a lot of their holidays doing odd jobs so money could be saved for education.
Jan Croxton, a former vice chairman of governors who still volunteers at the school, said there were things only a small school could do.
She said: “If a child does have problems, whether emotional or physical, they are picked up much more quickly than if they were in a class of 35. If a child is misbehaving it’s put down to being naughty, but here it’s ‘hang on, maybe there’s an underlying problem’ and we are able to offer support.
“With a small school you have more individual contact with parents.
“If a child is having a problem, because we know the parents, we are able to discuss things more, and because there’s an open door policy, if parents have concerns they are able to discuss them more freely. It’s more of an extended family unit.”
From September, the school is inviting children who would normally start in September 2015 to come to reception class for two sessions a week, and is also inviting parents whose children participate in flexi-schooling, where they are at school for part of the week, to register at Brockdish.
Did you go to a small Norfolk school? We would love to hear your memories and see your photographs. Write to Martin George, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
In tomorrow’s EDP: The history of Norfolk’s small schools. Plus – What happened to those that closed?