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Tackling the threat to small CofE primary schools

Let’s just start this piece about an admissions crisis for small Church of England schools by diving straight into some ‘nice’ numbers.

According to the Church of England:

  • Approximately one million children attend Church of England schools.
  • About 15 million people alive today went to a Church of England school.
  • A quarter of primary schools are Church of England.

 

The numbers demonstrate how important CofE schools are to the education of our children.

The downside of this is that when a fundamental problem develops in the school system, it is unlikely that CofE schools are going to avoid being affected by it.

It is, therefore, no surprise that many, many CofE primary schools are suffering as a result of the falling birth rate across the country – a drop of ten per cent over the last decade.

In fact, many CofE primaries, particularly the smaller ones, are suffering even worse than the average school because of the nature of the communities in which they are located.

These smaller schools, often located in desirable villages where young families have been priced out of the housing market, are facing – it is no exaggeration to say – an existential crisis.

To make matters even worse, these small primaries with small intakes have small budgets because of the way that schools are funded (on a per-pupil basis).

So, they cannot even begin to think about investing in securing their future on their own.

Sadly, however, they are in a situation where they cannot afford NOT to invest.

Without investing in increasing pupil numbers, they are condemned to a nightmare scenario of just watching pupil numbers evaporate – knowing that they need to act but aware that limited resources are paralysing them.

Over the last few years we have spoken regularly to the head of one CofE primary school – a fantastic school in a beautiful village within a couple of miles of a city where the schools are not uniformly good.

The school has a PAN of 20 but had seen admissions wane and then dip suddenly to seven one year.

The headteacher knew exactly what the issues were (falling birth rate in the area and also families being priced out of the village) but they said they could not afford to do anything about addressing it.

The numbers rose to 12 the next year (bad, but better). This year, however, they are nine again.

It really is not going to be long before that school is not viable in its current form and very hard decisions have to be made.

Very soon a headteacher who could not afford to invest in his school’s future might not be able to afford to open its gates.

This is not meant as a criticism of decisions taken, rather it is the highlighting of an issue and the proposing of a solution.

That solution is collaboration.

Headteachers of small CofE schools and the people in charge of education within dioceses don’t have to cross their fingers, ignore the problem and hope things will get better (spoiler alert No 1 – they won’t get better).

They can come together to share the burden of delivering a solution.

In 2014 the Church of England, recognising the problems many of its smaller schools faced, put together a document called Working Together: The Future of Rural Church of England Schools.

The study noted, among others things, 

  • “The need for schools to form effective structural partnerships and collaborations if they are to survive into the future”
  • “The days of the individual autonomous small school are numbered”.

 

The report concluded that: “It is only as our schools work more intentionally in structural collaborations that they will find the strength and resilience they need to continue to offer an outstanding education in the heart of local rural communities.”

Is there any evidence that this has happened?

Almost certainly in terms of the way schools deliver education.

But in terms of the way they identify potential pupils and then market themselves?

There’s little evidence of that.

Gradually, schools are waking up to the fact that we are no longer in an era when it is good enough for schools simply to be good.

Schools used to be able to (borrowing from the film Field of Dreams) “build it and they will come”.

But that is not the case any more – and schools are realising this.

What schools have not yet worked out, however, is how to reach out to the right people with their story.

Which means working out the kind of people to reach out to.

It means finding out where those people are and how best to reach them

And it means making sure your message is inspirational but also coherent and uncluttered.

In practice, this means analysing your catchment and surrounding catchments for opportunities – certain demographic groups within broad or narrow physical areas.

Then it means finding the right medium – the most appropriate social media, the most impactful physical form of communication.

It means getting your message right and it means sorting your website out so that it focuses on engaging with the people who are going to secure the future of your school (prospective parents) and doesn’t just engage with existing parents (spoiler alert No 2 – very few school websites do this effectively).

This is all hard and difficult work, and most schools won’t have the time or expertise to do it.

That means paying for it – something that is unaffordable if you are a small, rural school, but not if you are a collaboration of CofE schools 

Is it worth the expense?

Just consider the situation in Oxfordshire, where there are 600 places available every year for reception children at CofE schools with PANs of less than 20.

This year, those schools have received only 483 first preferences (117 pupils down on capacity).

At around £4,000 per pupil, that is £468,000 in lost funding for small CofE schools in the county this year.

By the time that this September’s cohort has passed through its seven years of school, that is £3.28 million in funding lost.

If the birth rate does not rise soon (and the signs are it is still falling and will continue to fall as a result of the enduring economic upheaval of the pandemic) then every single year those small CofE schools in Oxfordshire are going to be £3.28m down on funding.

So, the question is this – how can small, rural schools NOT afford to invest in their future?

The tragedy is that this is entirely avoidable.

Church of England primaries usually offer an excellent, traditional and intimate education.

There are parents crying out for this sort of school for their child.

But if the schools don’t know who they are and how to reach them with their compelling narrative, then the only story being told will be a sad one about the disappearance of Church of England primaries.

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