Choppy waters ahead for rural high schools

Without being too crude, there may well be headteachers in Norfolk who are wishing that couples in the late 1990s and the early Noughties spent a bit more time producing offspring.

With my sons being born in 1999 and 2001, I feel like I did my bit to keep Cromer High School's desks occupied.

But maybe other people were too busy watching the explosion of reality TV shows – or just out spending money as the economy boomed.

Whatever the reasons, the low birth rate back then is haunting many of this county's schools now.

In some areas, schools will not notice any difference, as plans for future housing development will likely bring enough new families into their areas to compensate for any drop. That is certainly what is on the horizon in growth point areas like greater Norwich, King's Lynn and Thetford.

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And some of Norfolk's most popular schools, which are regularly oversubscribed as parents battle with each other to get their children admitted, will be fine. They will just have fewer parents to disappoint when they miss the cut.

But that does not help the majority of Norfolk high schools, which are in smaller towns or rural areas, where the number of high school-aged youngsters is plummeting, and which are not among the popular apparent 'elite'.

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Salvation is standing on the horizon, with primary school numbers forecast to increase significantly from next year, correcting a dip that the sector is currently going through.

That increase will be a relief for Norfolk's primary heads, and will filter through to secondaries a few years later.

But jam tomorrow does not satisfy schools today. They have a problem to deal with that will not go away just because of an army of extra students that is marching towards them, but which remains distant.

What makes it worse is that the demographic dip has coincided with a real-terms reduction in funding. And pupils equal money. Each high school student is worth at least �3,000 per year to a school.

So what can headteachers do in response to falling numbers?

Melinda Derry, headteacher of one of Norfolk's smaller high schools, the 484-pupil Stalham High, is looking at it as an 'opportunity'.

She said: 'Parents are keen to send their children to a small school because you don't have the impersonality of a larger comprehensive.

'Some of the highest achievers are very small schools in rural areas. A drop in overall pupil numbers means parents will be able to make a choice because it is the right school for their child.'

Ms Derry added that one of the potential side-effects of falling pupil numbers was that schools could be forced to narrow their curriculum.

But she added: 'We have set up partnerships with other schools to protect the curriculum. We have students going to Broadland High at Hoveton for an IT diploma and to North Walsham High for creative and media diploma and a BTec in performing arts.'

Tim Newton, senior development officer at Norfolk County Council for school organisation, said school population went 'in waves'.

He added: 'We still know that in rural areas we are looking at demographic drips in numbers. That's what we have to deal with.

'At secondary school it's very much about birthrate or a decline in the number of parents. It's not exclusive to Norfolk, it's a national trend.'

He said that when pupil numbers dropped, schools had to 'look at their staffing', and added: 'In different places there will be different challenges.

'Some experience significant drops when the cost of maintenance and heating and lighting remain the same. They may have to make adjustments to their use of school buildings. There will be more of a challenge in the rural areas and we will need to work with the schools. There are partnership approaches which need to continue. Schools may need to explore partnerships with each other.'

Mr Newton said: 'You can do small things, including removing mobile accommodation. If it's no longer needed, it can be used elsewhere.

'Schools can look for alternative solutions, like using classrooms for community facilities or leasing or using them for county council accommodation for support staff.'

While the high school numbers are going in the wrong direction in Norfolk, numbers of Cambridgeshire are set to remain steady, and in Suffolk the Department for Education (DfE) is predicting an increase until 2014, before numbers fall away slightly thereafter.

Suffolk headteacher Jeremy Rowe, who leads Sir John Leman High at Beccles, was relieved at the encouraging future figures, but said: 'We were the most oversubscribed school in north Suffolk this year and we are in a very strong position.

'Being very popular has given us a shot in the arm.' He said his school's numbers had increased by 10pc in recent years, largely because of 'a big improvement in results'.

Mr Rowe said he 'sincerely' hoped that falling numbers in Norfolk would not lead to fiercer competition between schools for students.

But that is one of the other potential side-effects, as schools desperately try to get more bums on seats.

Headteachers may be forced to sharpen their elbows and polish their PR to woo prospective parents.

After all, particularly for the smallest schools, their very existence may be at stake.

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