A renewed push to make West Norfolk’s small schools more sustainable for the future may see more forming of partnerships as a way of preserving them while boosting the quality of education.
The push comes as education chiefs revealed the biggest restructure of Norfolk’s education system for generations, which could affect half of Norfolk schools.
Paul Dunning, head of education partnership services for Norfolk County Council, said: “The Good School for Every Norfolk Learner scheme is not a new one, but we are looking to deliver on this promise and this is difficult with schools of under 50 pupils which might not be able to give the specialist help.”
Across Norfolk there are 38 primary schools with less than 50 pupils and 133 with 51 to 140 pupils.
Now up to half of primary schools across Norfolk may face pressure to form federations with several schools led by one executive headteacher and under one governing body with up to 200 pupils.
Mr Dunning said: “It’s making it very difficult to drive up standards and that is the driving force behind what we are doing, using all the different strategies available to us such as federations, academies or co-operative trusts.
“Each solution will be different because there is no one size fits all option. We have 80-90 schools already working in that arrangement.”
These collaborations might mean the closure of some sites if others have the space to accommodate the pupils from more than one school – as is the case for Great Bircham’s King George VI Primary School where pupils are set to move to Docking.
Mr Dunning said: “If you have two or three schools with one headteacher each, often there is the space to have one executive headteacher overseeing the running of all three, which means you will no longer be paying three headteachers.
“It also opens up a lot of other opportunities for the children – for some, in a small school they might go out to play and have very few children their own age to play with. A bigger federation will give children the opportunity to mix with a wider community through sporting or other shared events.”
He added that fears over losing local schools could actually be stopping the children from getting the education support they need.
Mr Dunning said: “I have been brought up in rural Norfolk so I don’t underestimate the value of a local school, but there is often a misconception that a small school gives a better education when in fact schools like that cannot offer the best environment for specialist support.”
County officials also say that schools of under 50 pupils are underperforming compared to larger schools, at 61.8 per cent compared to the Norfolk average of 71 per cent.
He added: “We understand it is a shock to parents, but we are charged with improving standards for the longer term. This is us being proactive and speaking to governors about what can be done and what is sustainable for the future.
“There’s a pragmatic, financial side as well, but I want to make it clear there’s no saving money involved, the money that we do save in one area will be dispersed elsewhere through different staffing structures or in the classroom.”
There are also plans to reorganise staffing structures through these partnerships, which will not only help in filling positions, but also providing staff with the room to move up in the ranks.
He said: “Filling many vacancies across West Norfolk is a real challenge, especially with so many schools with under 50 pupils.
“We are looking at ways of giving career opportunities to those looking to climb the career ladder, but who might not have had the opportunity in smaller schools where there is only a few teachers.”
Eighteen West Norfolk schools have already formed six federations, while there are six primaries which have been paired up for partnerships.