Small rural schools could share headteachers to stay afloat, DfE study suggests

Rural primary schools could share headteachers or consider joining multi-academy trusts to overcome the funding challenges they face, according to new government research.

The Running rural primary schools efficiently report, commissioned by Department for Education, specifically selected a sample of schools with fewer than 110 pupils that “appeared” to have good finances and pupil attainment. However, researchers found that funding at the schools was “tight”, with some struggling to “overcome financial difficulties”.

One potential solution offered was for schools to share headteachers to save cash. However, the report noted that, while this is possible in a MAT, it is more difficult in a standalone school or a school where headteachers also have a significant teaching role.

Another suggestion was for rural primary schools to join a MAT, with potential benefits including saving money through a central team, the potential to manage in-year deficits across schools and helping with recruitment difficulties and a lack of continuous professional development.

However, the report also noted that some LA maintained small rural schools do not want to join a MAT, and feel the opportunities offered by becoming part of a trust can also be found elsewhere. Church of England schools were also worried about losing their religious character.

In May, the Reverend Nigel Genders, head of education at the Church of England, told Schools Week that his organisation remains “committed as a major education provider” to running such schools, but accepted that some may have to close.

The nine LA maintained schools and 21 academies interviewed for the report  highlighted particular issues around volatility in pupil numbers, struggling to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, meeting the cost of their typically more experienced staff, paying to provide cover for teachers who need training and struggling to negotiate good purchasing deals.

Many rural schools reported difficulty in recruiting, especially headteachers or other senior teaching staff, and found that recruiting to remote rural locations with limited and expensive housing was more difficult that recruiting to urban schools.

Small schools in areas of the country where local authorities are “weak” were described as “particularly vulnerable”.

“We became aware of a few examples where schools had become academies and joined participating trusts out of a perception that the local authority services available to them were becoming increasingly less effective,” the report said.

“This was partly because academisation meant their local authorities were supporting lower numbers of maintained schools, and no longer able to afford the right levels of expertise.”

The DfE estimates there are just under 2,000 primary schools with fewer than 100 pupils in rural locations in England. Of these, around 400 have fewer than 50 pupils.

Last month, a report warned that how schools bid for government support should be reviewed as a lack of access to externally-funded educational interventions can lead to schools in rural or coastal communities feeling isolated. 

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