The DfE has published its annual list of primary schools designated as rural. This year, the total is 4,906, up by just over 200 on last year. The list includes four middle schools and 11 all-through schools. The majority of the schools are either community (1,779) or Voluntary Aided or Controlled (2,320) with many of the latter being church schools. There were 593 academies of various sorts and 206 Foundation Schools. Interestingly, there are only eight rural free schools serving the primary sector across the whole of England and two of these are all-age schools, both in Oxfordshire.
If, after his conference speech, the Prime Minister really wants every school to be an academy by 2020, rural primary schools are one of the groups he will have to work upon. Many of these schools are in Tory controlled county councils across the rural heartland of England. Although Oxfordshire is keen to convert all community and voluntary schools to academy status, there may not yet be the same enthusiasm elsewhere in some parts of the country.
There is a question over whether the government should still be funding people to go around persuading schools and authorities to convert schools to academy status after the cuts to be announced in the comprehensive spending review. Could that money not be better spent elsewhere? After all, the government could, almost at a stroke, add a clause to the current Bill about to enter the House of Lords, mandating a change of status for all schools making them converter academies and sort out the issues of trusts and other arrangements later. This would leave local authorities with the duty to champion education and monitor performance. But, this may be too radical a proposal for a Conservative government.
As I remarked last year there are a small number of schools designated as rural within the London boroughs. Interestingly, the total has increased by one this year. By contrast, there are only 107 rural designated sponsored primary academies across the country, with only Cornwall and Norfolk having total numbers of such schools in double figures. The South West, Devon and Cornwall have large numbers of converter rural primary academies, whereas there are virtually none in some of the northern rural areas. Academies as a concept does seem in the primary sector to be something of a north south split.
Some years ago in the Gove regime there was a proposal that would have severely limited the funding for rural primary schools by removing the grant each school receive independent of pupil numbers. Now, it seems as if there is a recognition that such schools serve a valuable purpose. The issue is how will they be organised in the future and what role will democratically elected local government play in their future?