Goodbye to the Village School?

The Church of England appears to have accepted the fate of some of its schools will be closure. As I have been saying for some time on this blog, the new National Funding Formula won’t save many of our small primary schools from closure, and may even hasten their demise. Where rural authorities could once ensure their local funding formula provided for the high overhead costs of these schools, the combination of a lump sum and the manner in which the sparsity factor is to be applied will probably sound the death knell of some small schools. How many, is a matter for debate and someone – the DfE as the national planning body or local authorities that will pick up any additional transport costs resulting from school closures – should probably now be doing some planning ahead to identify the extend of any closure, What is the acceptable time for a five year old to be on a bus or in a taxi across two journeys to and from school? Will the Church of England be lowed to provide the new larger schools to replace those closed as too small for the modern age?

Indeed, the whole issue of home to school transport arrangements should be reviewed so that they don’t fall disproportionally on rural counties and are almost totally avoided by the large urban authorities and London boroughs. Should secondary schools be able to attract pupils be providing free transport to the possible detriment of other schools in their local area as regards pupil numbers and the funding consequences? Is the High Needs Block sufficient to provide for the transport needs of children with SEND needs?

How important are schools to their communities? I note that Barbara Taylor, the secretary of the National Association of Small Schools and chair of governors of an Oxfordshire primary school with less than 50 pupils, accepted in the Schools Week article “that some underperforming small schools may have to close, but argued “most” perform well and are a “focal point of the community”. I would agree with that view, but it isn’t fashionable at Westminster.

Now is the time for those that support small schools, especially in rural areas, to put the pressure on MPs representing rural constituencies? If you want to ensure your local school will survive this unintended national policy outcome then send your MP an email to that effect before anyone has mentioned closure: afterwards may be too late as this requires a policy rethink and isn’t about saving just a single school. Many of these MPs represent traditionally safe Conservative seats, but parents and other family members often form a large part of their electorate. The alternative is to build more house in the village and attract enough new families to make the school secure, but that isn’t always an option.

Without a change of policy, the view of The Reverend Nigel Genders, head of education at the Church of England, as expressed in the Schools Week article, that some schools may have to close might just be an understatement.


Hymns and Schools

What better way for a writer of an education blog to spend Christmas Day than to recall some of the Victorian hymns that feature schools and education, either in their title or the actual words. However, research hasn’t yet yield up a ‘carol’ with a direct school reference.

In 1829 there appeared in the USA, ‘Hark, the infant school bell’s ringing’ by a Miss M. J. and composed for Infant school Number 1. This appeared in the aptly named ‘The infant School and Nursery Hymn Book, published in New York as long ago as 1831.

Of course, it is necessary to winnow out the much larger collection of hymns about Sunday, or as the Americans seem to call them Sabbath Schools, when seeking for those hymns about schools as more general education establishments. However, it is worth recalling the debt that the development of education has paid to those that started the ‘Sunday School’ movement more than two centuries ago.

Hymns about schools in general, and especially schools for younger children capable of instruction, appeared throughout the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, especially in the USA. Some of their first lines included:

Lord and Saviour, true and kind

We build our school on thee, O Lord

To infant school. To infant school

Dear God, a school day

Gracious God, our heavenly father, meet and bless our school

How we love our infant school

The bell rings for school

Our youthful hearts for learning burn – with the third verse starting ‘Our teachers are so very kind, We love to go to school.’ This hymn appeared in hymn books up to the 1930s.

Henry James Buckoll an assistant master at Rugby School was responsible for two of the more enduring hymns relating to the school year: ‘Lord dismiss us with thy blessing’ and ‘Lord, behold us with Thy blessing, Once again assembled here’. I am not sure what new pupils made of the reference to ‘once again’, but perhaps it was the schools as an entity and not the pupil as a person Buckoll was writing about.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the large number of Church of England and Roman Catholic primary schools in England, not to mention the remaining few Methodist primary schools around the country, there appears to be little specifically written hymns for these pupils to sing in modern hymn books.

Like other popular songs, hymns appear to go out of fashion, although at Christmas the staples of O Cone all ye Faithful; Hark the Herald Angels Sing; Silent Night; O little town of Bethlehem; Away in a manger and while shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seem to come around every year.

So, festive best wishes to both regular readers of this blog and those that have alighted on this festive post. May 2018 be a wonderful year for you wherever you are reading this Christmas epistle.






Education not a priority for voters?

The Conservative Party seems to have calculated that because education in general and schools in particular didn’t feature prominently in the 2015 general election campaign parents and voters generally were content with the direction of travel. This means Tory policy-makers think voters support the move towards a school system that deprived local authorities of most of their remaining functions regarding schools and required all schools, including all primary schools, to become academies.

The forthcoming local elections in May are an opportunity for many voters to prove the government spin doctors wrong. As this blog has asserted, primary schools should remain under local support and direction as part of a national system. Schools are an important part of their local community, indeed in many rural areas they are the only manifestation of the community other than a village hall. The pub, shop, church and all other services have disappeared. Many Tory councillors recognise this point. Indeed, I suspect than some even entered active politics in support of their local school.

Announcing the policy that all schools must become academies just before Easter and both the teacher conference season and local election campaigning was either an act of supreme self-confidence on the part of the prime minister – for he must have sanctioned the Chancellor telling the world about the policy in the budget – or a staggering lack of understanding of the feelings of voters for their local school and its place in the community. Why the Tories would want to offer opposition parties a campaign against wholesale nationalisation of schools is beyond my understanding.

So far, despite their important as operators of primary schools, the churches and other faith groups seem to have bene relatively silent on the announcement about academisation. Easter Sunday sermons would be a good time for the Archbishops to convey to the faithful whether they back the government or will support those that want local authorities to retain an interest in schooling.

The honourable way out might be for Mrs Morgan to announce that in the first stage all secondary schools will become academies and that the policy will then be reviewed in the light of how MATs are working before moving on to the primary sector if the policy has proved successful. After all, we live in an age of austerity, as the government keeps telling us, and creating academies for the sake of it uses money that could be better spent protecting children’s centres, rural bus subsidies, disability benefits or a host of other more useful projects.

The Perry Beeches warning letter from the Education Funding Agency published on Maundy Thursday will just add fuel to the fire of those that worry about how MATs operate. Of course there were schools that broke financial regulations under local control, and even heads that went to prison for mis-appropriating public or parents’ funds. But, it would be interesting to know whether the trend towards financial mis-management is more likely in MATs with no geographical basis than those where they work closely with local authorities?

Who runs our schools could become the key battle of the 2016 local elections. If it does, there is no guarantee that the Tory programme for all schools to become academies will meet with universal voter approval.


De Facto if not De Jure

The difference of opinion between the Secretary of State, a lawyer, and the Chief inspector, a former head teacher, over the inspection of academy chains that was played out in front of the Education Select Committee this morning is interesting. In this case I am on the side of the Secretary of State. The post on this blog of 27th March this year showed that Ofsted inspectors didn’t shy away from the issue when the use of Pupil Premium money was concerned. Indeed, Mr Gove’s answer to the PQ detailed in that blog surely offered support to current the Secretary of State’s view. My reading of the legislation on the functions of the HMCI is that he has the power to enter any location relevant to the powers of inspection and he can be directed by the Secretary of State under her own powers.

A long time ago in the early 1990s, when Ofsted be first formed, the issue arose as to whether HMIs had the power to inspect teacher training in pre-1992 universities that were bodies not under government’s direct control being corporations of one type or another in their own right. The universities lost that battle. Academy chains would lose the same battle in my judgement. If necessary it would only need a short clause inserted in a Bill currently before parliament to make the position absolutely clear. However, it would be a brave academy chain that might stand out against a Secretary of State knowing she believes she has the power to inspect either directly or through an inspection of all or some of the schools within the chain.

As this is the exercise of public money it also raises other interesting questions where functions ancillary to the direct provision of education are concerned. How far does the remit of Ofsted run in this increasingly devolved world of education?

Then there is the issue of diocese and academies. Can Ofsted look at the working of the diocesan office where it is partner in an academy trust in the way that it might not have done in the days when church schools were in the voluntary category? If so, it might wish to start by considering the efficiency of leadership appointments in the schools under the control of the Roman Catholic Church and whether there was any room for improvement in some dioceses through learning from the best practice elsewhere in the country.

No doubt the next issue will be who will inspect the work of the regional school commissioners?

Will they, like the local authorities before them, want their own advisory services to complement the work of Ofsted or will they rely upon a mixture of data provided by schools and inspections by Ofsted for the intelligence about the performance of the schools that are their responsibility. Either way, it seems likely that yet another bureaucracy will be established.

In that respect this government is following the path of its predecessors: cut the number of civil servants when entering office and then find reasons for appointing new ones to support the policies it develops.

How many rural primary schools are there in England?

This is the sort of pub quiz question that can only be answered by those that follow the DfE website and the many detailed updates to our knowledge about the education system that appear from time to time. According to the DfE’s latest announcement, there are 4,673 primary schools that qualify for the designation ‘rural’ under the annual order published as a Statutory Instrument this year on the 29th September and that came into force on the 1st October. Unlike most SIs this one is signed not by a Minister but by a DfE official.

For those of you that thought London was an entirely urban area, there are six primary schools in London boroughs designated as ‘rural’ schools. One of these is the Forty Hill Church of England Primary School in the north of the Borough of Enfield. Located within the M25 it sits in an area of green belt adjacent to its parish church on a very restricted site just nine miles from the centre of London.  Originally built as an all-age elementary school in 1851, some 20 years before the advent of formal state education, it now has 238 primary age pupils wanting a church school education.

According to the DfE Forty Hill School is classified as  being located in a category defined as ‘Hamlet and Isolated Dwelling – less sparse’ as opposed to one of the other categories such as ‘Town and Village – less sparse’ and ‘Village – sparse’ as well as the really rural ‘Hamlet and Isolated Dwelling – sparse’.

Of course, compared with Kielder First School in Northumberland, Forty Hill might be considered quite an urban school. According to the DfE, Kielder has but 13 pupils aged between 5-9 with three teachers and two classes and a unit cost of over £14,000 per pupil. Earlier this year Ofsted reported that it was ‘outstanding’ having improved since its previous inspection. Schools like this one exist because, especially in winter, it would be challenging or even impossible to transport the pupils from the adjacent area to the next nearest school.

For many rural schools this isn’t the case, and from time to time local authorities have had various degrees of success in amalgamating rural schools into larger units. However, such is the love of all schools threatened with closure that apart from amalgamating separate infant and junior schools into a single  primary school there have been relatively few  large-scale schemes of amalgamation except where authorities have removed a three tier system and reverted to the ‘normal’ two-tier system with a transfer age at eleven.

Now that the smallest school can convert to an academy the geography of primary schools in rural England is likely to remain much as it currently is until a policy change forces a re-think. However, with ever younger children in schools, and a growing school population, this isn’t likely to be an issue high up anyone’s agenda for the next decade. As a result, perhaps the DfE can stop this annual exercise and save some more cash.




Challenging schools find difficulty recruiting new leaders

Each year more than 2,000 schools in England advertise for a new head teacher. Most are successful at their first attempt. However, regular surveys have revealed that a proportion does not achieve success at their first attempt, and a small number require more than two attempts to find a new leader for their school. Recent research by the National College (Earley et al, 2012) has emphasised the importance of good leadership to the success of a school.

An analysis of primary and secondary schools advertising for a head teacher during the 2011/2012 school year revealed that the schools needing to re-advertise were likely to present several factors that possibly made them unattractive to some candidates. Understanding the factors affecting a school’s likely success in recruiting a new leader is of importance in the present market-led recruitment system for school leaders. Such knowledge may also help in determining whether preparation for headship embodies the appropriate skills and practices necessary for leading such schools.

Some 335 primary schools and 85 secondary schools that placed a first advertisement for a head teacher during the period between the end of August 2011 and the end of August 2012, and where there was at least one re-advertisement during the period up to the end of December 2012, were assessed as part of the study. Generally, secondary schools experience fewer challenges in recruiting a new head teacher, possibly because the ratio of potential candidates to vacancies is much higher than it is in the primary sector.

The research assessed three different aspects of each school:

  • Schools that were not straightforward primary schools, including junior and combined schools were assigned a score of 1.
  • Faith schools of any denomination were assigned a score of 1
  • Schools with KS2 results below the national average in 2012 were assigned a score of 1 as were secondary schools where the % of A*-Cs at GCSE including English and Mathematics were below the national average.
  • Schools with Free School Meals above the national average for the past six years were assigned a score of 1
  • A score of 1 was awarded for each re-advertisement. A re-advertisement was a second or subsequent advertisement more than 21 days after the original advertisement, but no more than 365 days after the original advert. The same rules were applied to each re-advertisement. The maximum score on this count was 6 for the primary sector and three for the secondary sector. In the primary sector, there were 72 schools with two re-advertisements; 23 with three; four with four; two with five and the one school with six re-advertisements. Since the re-advertisements included those during the period between September and December 2012 a small number of schools may have had their score affected by one point because they commenced their search for a new head teacher early in the 2011-12 school year compared with those that started the process latter. Hover, as 50% of head teacher initial advertisements appear between the start of January and the end of March each year the number affected is likely to be small.

Finally a minus score was applied for advertisements placed during most of the month of August and the whole of December as these are times when fewer candidates may be looking for a new post than at other times of year.

A total score was then created for each school, and the schools were ranked in descending score order. Schools with missing data were excluded from the ranking at this stage. Three schools scored six out of a possible maximum score of 10 for primary schools and one secondary school scored five out of six.



Of the schools ranked in the top 100, there were only three community primary schools including St Meryl a community primary school in Watford that topped the list. Although it has the name of a saint, according to the school brochure this referred to the name of the builder’s wife when the school was built in the early 1950s. If so, then this successful school might be well advised to consider a change of name to one less suggestive of a religious affiliation on a casual glance.  The other two community primary schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results included another primary school in Hertfordshire, and one in Bracknell Forest.  The latter had been under-performing at KS2 for the three years before 2012.

Of the remaining 12 schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results 10 were faith schools including three Roman Catholic, six Church of England, and one Jewish School. The two community schools were a combined school in Buckinghamshire and a junior school in Kent. Of the faith schools, one Church of England school was a combined school and three schools were junior schools, (two Church of England schools and one Roman Catholic school).

The geographical distribution of the 100 primary schools at the top of the list included 45 schools in the south East; 20 in London and nine in the counties of the East of England adjacent to London that are similar in many ways to many of the authorities in the South East. Thus, 74 schools in the top 100 were located in or around London.


Because of the large number of academies and recent academy converters full details are only available for 69 of the 84 secondary schools with re-advertisements. The missing data relates to either Free School Meals or KS4 results data. Of the 84 school with full or partial data 10 are in London, including seven of the 37 schools with a score of three or above, some 19%. Fifteen of the schools in the top 37 are faith schools, including 12 of the top 20.

Some 20 of the schools have above average KS4 results and below average scores for Free School Meals. Of these schools, ten are faith schools. However, there are only four such schools in the top 37. Three are Roman Catholic schools, and the fourth is an 11-18 boys’ school that is converting to become an academy.


The presence of a significant number of faith schools in our results is perhaps not a surprise since it has been reported for many years that such schools, and especially, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic schools have experienced difficulties in recruiting new head teachers.

The extension of the work to consider whether there might be other factors affecting recruitment, and specifically whether a combination of higher than average numbers of pupils with access to Free School Meals and lower than average Key Stage outcomes for the sector might affect recruitment is a new departure. Seemingly, such a combination does affect the market, with higher numbers of such schools re-advertising, with the South East and counties to the north of London being noticeable among the schools in the primary sector, with secondary schools in London probably also being over-represented. Clearly, where these schools are faith schools, the issues are obviously compounded.

It is clear that as Free School Meal levels increase, so there are a greater number of schools performing less well. While this may be understandable for secondary schools, where many are coping with the effects of under performance by their pupils since the start of their education it is less so in the primary sector where the importance of the early years of education has been known for some time. Those schools with high levels of Free School Meals are now being helped with the additional funding through the Pupil Premium scheme. However, the considerable number of primary schools with relatively few pupils who will benefit from that scheme, but still currently under perform  in some cases quite markedly so, must be of concern.

An analysis of schools in the primary sector where the Free School Meals index was below 20 revealed no real difference between the performance of faith and non-faith schools

There may well be other factors, such as the size of the school that need to be taken into account when considering the challenges facing school seeking a new leader, but it seems likely that the interplay of factors relating to deprivation and control of the school are still key factors in how easy a school will find it to recruit a new leader. The location of a school in London or the counties and authorities surrounding the capital may be a further subsidiary factor that can affect some schools.

How the future governance of schools will affect leadership recruitment and development in the future is clearly something that will need watching with interest.


Earley, et al. (2012). Review of the school leadership landscape. Nottingham; National College for School Leadership.