Future of Norfolk small schools under scrutiny

Eccles, Norfolk. Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary School ANL-140704-194012009
Eccles, Norfolk. Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary School ANL-140704-194012009

Small schools as we know them in Norfolk could be set for major structural and managerial changes, following the announcement of recommendations aiming to address their long-term sustainability.

Norfolk County Council outlined plans during a meeting of its Children’s Services Committee last Tuesday to implement larger groups of schools, or ‘federations’, with single governance structures, after earlier reports suggested the current organisation of small schools was a “potential barrier to school improvement.”

The measures include developing executive leadership models across multiple schools, reducing the number of infant to primary school changes for pupils and ensuring mixed-age classes, common in small schools, align with Key Stages and no more than two year groups should feature per class.

James Joyce, chairman of the Children’s Services Committee at Norfolk County Council, said: “We have some fantastic small schools which are doing innovative work and delivering a great education for pupils, despite the barriers their size creates.

“However, even in these schools a change at the top, or a period of staff sickness can cause significant turbulence and can impact the quality of teaching and learning, which is why we need to make sure that we have a model that delivers the very best education for children both now and in the future.

“We know there is not a one size fits all approach to education and we will consider individual needs of communities when working with schools.”

Diss is one area where a school federation is in place, with the Infants School and Junior School under the banner of the Diss Primary School Federation, led by executive headteacher Karen Sewell.

But, Chrissie Smith, Joint Division Secretary at Norfolk National Union of Teachers (NUT) and a member of the Small Schools Steering Group, said she had “serious reservations” about executive leadership for small schools.

She told the Diss Express: “The federation way forward leaves gaps because there is not a leader in each school.

“I don’t see a problem with having an umbrella management but if schools are left without leaders who have time to spend with the children, it has an enormous impact.

“The big problem is people no longer want to be school governors. They put in a lot of time, they are actually legally, morally and financially responsible for the school, but there is no remuneration.”

The county council previously conducted a review of 40 primary schools in Norfolk that had less than 50 pupils back in 2013, with south Norfolk’s Eccles, Hargham and Wilby Primary having since closed.

But Mrs Smith said the public uncertainty around these schools had only exacerbated the problem of parents sending their children to larger schools, and said the council had a lot more issues to look at.

“I think they (the council) are looking at the finances more than the education of the children,” she added.

“Children from poorer families or who have special needs have been shown to do much better in smaller schools.

“I support strategies to keep them open, particularly when it might be the only community facility in the village.

“There is no question there are advantages to larger schools, but I don’t want to see any more small schools closing.”