To be clear from the outset, there is no nationally agreed definition of what constitutes a small school. The National Association of Small Schools defines a small school as having 100 or fewer pupils – in England alone, there are estimated to be around 2,000 such schools.
The government’s ambition, outlined in its recent White Paper, is that: “By 2030, all children will benefit from being taught in a family of schools, with their school in a strong multi-academy trust or with plans to join or form one”.
This said, it’s important to remember that:
- nothing has changed yet
- the legislation has not been passed
- it’s right that school leaders and governing boards should be thinking about what this might mean for them in the long-term
- take all the time needed and try to avoid rushing into taking precipitative action
- ensure that your governors are well briefed on their powers and responsibilities, particularly in ‘church’ schools.
Strategies for the efficient running of small and rural primary schools
In the meantime, one of the strategies recommended by the government is the creation of cluster models of schools, either as MATs or federations, which allow for the sharing of school leaders to reduce expenditure. Although this approach may provide substantial savings in the short term, this strategy may not be sustainable over a longer period of time, due to the possible impact it will have upon the roles of remaining senior leaders, who may be required to ‘act up’ in the absence of the senior leader.
The increase in workload for senior leaders who become responsible for more than one school may also be significant and can impact upon the effectiveness and well-being of the whole leadership team across all of the schools.
In many cases, the option of sharing roles across middle management or main scale class teachers is recognised as being a more viable option. Through this approach, clusters of schools can maximise the specialist skills of teachers in areas such as music, PE or languages to ensure high-quality teaching across a school curriculum. It can also help small schools where the need to employ a greater number of more experienced staff may be necessary to ensure the delivery of a high-quality curriculum across all subject areas.
Another strategy often used across clusters of schools and MATs to maximise savings involves securing the services from external suppliers at discounted prices. However, opportunities can be limited when the nature of the product being supplied, such as school grounds maintenance, dictates that a local service provider is used.
Nevertheless, where purchasing from suppliers is not subject to such limitations, there are often opportunities to secure savings through achieving volume discounts from external suppliers for other services such as payroll and insurance.
Further small school strategies
Winning ‘hearts and minds’
By all accounts, the future of small schools will be, in large part, determined by the capacity of the school leader to win the hearts and minds of local stakeholders and, in equal measure, the capacity of local stakeholders to contribute to the overall and effective running of the school.
Parents favour their children to be taught in smaller classes where lower ratios of adult to pupils allow for greater individual attention and enable higher rates of progress. Parents are, therefore, powerful allies for small school leaders.
Investment in continuing professional development
Staff members are often provided with greater opportunities for on-the-job continuing professional development, and they will be exposed to a greater variety of job tasks and professional responsibilities in a school where they will effectively have a large stake as well as a job.
A small but perfectly-formed governing body
Governors will be an important resource to the school leader, and each may perform a number of roles. Of all the functions governors perform, making sure the school’s governance and structural arrangements are ‘fit for purpose’ will be critical. And being open to opportunities for self-determined school modelling, joint and federal working, and collaboration will be increasingly important functions for a small school’s governing body.
Capitalising on the curriculum
How a school organises its curriculum, timetable, and teaching and learning will be critical for it to operate effectively and efficiently. For example, small schools often do well in designing the curriculum because they need to combine year groups, which increases the differentiation of lessons delivered to mixed-year pupils in a single class.
Provision of a broad curriculum offers new experiences through lessons and after-school clubs. In these circumstances, it’s vital small schools work with local providers – say in music and physical education – to offer varied and exciting opportunities, and at the same time, optimise costs and achieve value for money.
Assessment in context
How a small school organises itself for assessment will also be a key matter for the school leader and the governing body, especially against the current inspection framework. It’s often the case that data cannot provide an entirely accurate picture or reflection of how well a small school is performing. This is because the school may only have a handful of pupils taking part in key stage two SATs on which Ofsted rely when inspecting a school.
The deployment and utilisation of resources and the overall financial stewardship arrangements of a small school will be important to get right. Fewer staff members at small schools mean such resources will need to be able to adapt to meet the individual needs of pupils, especially those with SEND or behavioural needs.
Schools will need to be creative in their resource planning. And they will need to access support from small school hubs, develop collaborative working relationships with neighbouring schools, or share resources across more than one school.
Such principles and practice will, in all likelihood, need to extend beyond the sharing of human resources to the sharing of buildings and other local community facilities.
So, if you’re thinking about applying for a headship at a small school or would simply like some suggestions of practical ways of saving money, here are some tips that have been provided by a leading, passionate and experienced head teacher of an established and consistently successful small school:
- Work closely with other small schools to provide pupils with a variety of activities
- Generate income by setting up breakfast and after-school clubes
- Share staff and governors’ CPD/training/events with other schools
- Share physical resources where practicable to do so, e.g. the school minibus
- Apply for small school grants and stay alert to other funding opportunities
- Pack your school’s website with images of school trips and activities so that parents see beyond the physical limitations of a small school site
- Fundraising events such as summer fetes or letting out premises to evening classes
- Promote the school whenever you can to build profile and parental appeal.
In equal measure, be aware that small schools may often need to meet additional costs:
- Hiring the village hall for PE, school productions and other whole school events
- Paying to use local facilities, such as recreation grounds, tennis courts and so on
- Paying for mobile catering services to provide lunch and refreshments to pupils
- Meeting the costs of additional parking for staff and visitors to the school.
We hope this guide has been thought-provoking and helpful as you look to lead your school to be at its best, whatever its size.
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