Is this the end of the road for Norfolk’s small schools?

Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary school is threatened with closure. Pictured in front is Sonia Hump

Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary school is threatened with closure. Pictured in front is Sonia Humphries and her son Elliot. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

Small schools in Norfolk could become a thing of the past after education chiefs revealed details of one of the biggest changes to the structure of education in the county for generations.

Norfolk County Council assistant director of children services Gordon Boyd. Photo: Steve Adams

Norfolk County Council assistant director of children services Gordon Boyd. Photo: Steve Adams

Half of Norfolk's primary schools could be affected by a renewed push for smaller schools to join together in federations with a single executive headteacher and governing body – and ideally about 200 pupils.

The county currently has 38 primaries with fewer than 50 pupils, which will come under most pressure, and 133 with 51-140 pupils. A number of villages could be left without a school presence.

Gordon Boyd, assistant director of children's services, said: 'We are not talking about school closure. It's about institutions that are currently small needing to get themselves organised to double up, triple up, quadruple up to form a federation. The unit they then take ideally has about 200 students in it.'

He said the council 'won't go away' until schools under a certain number consider a 'structural solution', and added: 'Of course, if you are thinking hard about it, you will rationalise it and you might say you don't need seven sites, but five. That pulls at everybody's heartstrings.'

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However, he added that sometimes support for village schools could be 'an attachment to mediocrity'.

For the first time, the county council has stated 'emphatically' that small schools tended to produce a worse pupil performance, with 61.8pc of children in schools with fewer than 50 pupils achieving the expected standard by the time they leave, compared to a Norfolk average of 71pc. He said the Diocesan Board of Education, whose 114 schools represent more than half of Norfolk's small schools, is pursuing a similar strategy.

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Mr Boyd said problems small schools faced included teacher recruitment, poor socialisation of children ahead of high school and insufficient resources to help those with special needs.

He said the benefits of small schools forming large units included staff helping each other, a critical mass of people to develop new practice, the creation of a 'plum job' in executive headteachers, and savings through the need for only one site manager, business manager and school secretary.

He also said the financing of the current system, where smaller schools could receive up to £16,000 per pupil, compared to £4,000 for larger schools, would be unsustainable when the government introduced a national funding formula for schools.

A school's size will become a more prominent factor in the council's annual risk assessment of Norfolk schools, with even schools with positive Ofsted judgements more likely to be put in the 'causing concern' category and subject to intervention.

Small schools that Ofsted gives the bottom 'inadequate' rating could be closed rather than converted into academies.

Mr Boyd said schools with fewer than 50 pupils would not survive unless they could show how they would grow to 100 or so pupils in the future.

He said: 'I think it's an opportunity for the council to say 'yes, it's difficult, but we have to address it as a prerequisite for having a good school for every Norfolk learner'. We can only improve the existing school system to a certain extent. We need to reform it, and by that I mean we need fewer schools and fewer heads, who are genuine heads rather than classroom teachers, because of budgets.'

He said that while communities would be given the chance to express their views, the council and diocese needed to be courageous when looking at the long-term future of schools, and consultations would not be binding. He added: 'This is not punitive. This is a better deal for children. We know that them languishing in small rural schools is not in their best interests.'

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