'I've got to cut myself to the bone': low pupil numbers putting pressure on village schools
PUBLISHED: 05:30 28 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 28 May 2019
Rural schools in Norfolk are struggling to make ends meet as fluctuations in pupils numbers make long-term budgeting increasingly difficult.
Primary school admissions data for the 2019 reception intake, issued by Norfolk County Council, showed that as of April 16, 32 schools had more than 50pc of their places empty - of which all but one were village schools with a new intake of fewer than 20 pupils.
It comes after a government report into small rural schools said sudden changes in pupil numbers and staff made it difficult for schools to stick to even short-term plans.
Ormesby Village Infant School near Great Yarmouth has barely half of its places filled for the new year, with 31 vacancies out of 60 places.
Lucy Bates, headteacher at Ormesby Infant and Junior Schools, said the situation was "a disaster" and followed under-subscription in 2017 and 2018. She said it had affected school finances to the point where she was considering staff cuts.
"I have got to cut myself to the bare bones and it will feed through to the junior school as well," she said. "We have the same overheads we would have if we were full. I still have to clean the school and heat it - all that is the same whether I have one child or 180."
She added: "Our governing body has talked about what more we could do to attract more children to the schools, but I would be very annoyed if nearby schools were trying to take away children who should legitimately come to us. I would not do anything that would disadvantage another school."
READ MORE: Primary school places: Figures reveal rocketing demand in market town
Following large intakes in 2018, Bacton Primary and Mundesley Infant Schools, part of the Coastal Federation of Schools, both have a significant proportion of their places empty for 2019.
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Bacton Primary headteacher David Hopkins said it was in stark contrast to 2018 when the school had 13 of it 15 places filled.
"In 2017 - which tells you the story of rural primaries - there were five who were starting in reception with us and this year we have only got four confirmed. Obviously when your numbers fluctuate that much it makes budgeting and class structures very difficult," he said.
The fluctuations mean the school's youngest class (reception, year one and year two children) will drop from 27 pupils to around 20 from September.
Mr Hopkins said the school had structured its classes in anticipation of growth from new homes in the area, which had yet to materialise.
Government report on rural primaries
The Department for Education commissioned a report on the running of small rural primary schools, using data from 90 primary schools including in Norfolk and Suffolk.
The report, released in March, concluded there was "no single best way of managing small rural primary schools financially" and that longer term planning was difficult due to the possibility of sudden changes in pupil numbers or staff.
It found some participating schools were experiencing, or forecast to shortly experience, in-year deficits - where the cost of running the school was more than their grant funding and self-generated sources of income.
Multi-academy trusts were said to help small rural primaries through sharing teaching and leadership roles, securing "volume discounts" on costs such as equipment and services and helping to improve school performance, but the report also said small schools could be vulnerable to isolation as academy trusts spread and grew.