The difficulty of sustaining small, rural schools in an increasingly challenging economic climate is a major national issue. But PETER BARRON reports on a pioneering new model that has proved to be the solution in North Yorkshire…

MUM-OF-TWO Georgie Szikora admits to having concerns when she first heard about the planned changes affecting her village primary school.

A pilot scheme had been unveiled in September 2019, bringing four of North Yorkshire’s tiniest, most idyllic, primary schools under the leadership of one ‘executive headteacher’.

They included Barton Primary School, where Georgie’s son, Heath, is a pupil, happily following in the footsteps of older brother Layton.

“I chose a rural school because I wanted my children to learn in a small, personal place, where teachers would really get to know them,” explains Georgie.

When the pilot was launched by the Dales Academies Trust, experienced headteacher, Helen Dudman was tasked with the challenge of overseeing primary schools in Barton, Ravensworth, East Cowton and Kirkby Fleetham.

Georgie, along with other parents, had understandable questions: Would the personal touch be lost? And would the executive headteacher be spread too thinly?

“I remember saying ‘Who is she – Wonder Woman?’ But I really needn’t have worried – because she’s proved that she is!” laughs Georgie.

“In small schools, you’re used to seeing the head, and we wondered if that would continue, but it has. Not only that, but Mrs Dudman’s always on the end of a phone, or replying to emails, whenever you need her.

“It’s been seamless, and the standards have stayed high, even during lockdown. Nothing’s changed – in fact, it’s better than ever.”

The pilot was intended to be a year-long, until lockdown led to an inevitable delay, but it has now been declared a success, and will be a permanent arrangement from January.

And, with the sustainability of rural schools being an enduring national problem, the Dales Academies Trust’s four-school model – one of only a few in the country – has been written up as a case study in the hope of sharing best practice for small schools nationwide.

Helen Dudman has no doubt about its merits: “It means we’re able to experience the advantages of a larger staff team that bigger schools have, whilst retaining the small school identity and character of each school,” she says.

Despite being Yorkshire born and bred, Helen began her teaching career in Aberystwyth in 1993, before returning to her home county in 2000, and it’s been a case of “small is beautiful” ever since.

She found a permanent teaching job at Thornton Watlass – a primary with just 40 pupils – and rose to acting headteacher. From there, she became acting head at the even smaller Eppleby Forcett Church of England Primary School, before being appointed headteacher at Kirkby Fleetham in 2013.

Kirkby Fleetham federated with East Cowton Primary School two years later, with Helen taking over as headteacher of both, and they joined the Dales Academies Trust in 2017. Meanwhile, Barton and Ravensworth schools had collaborated in 2016 and, when their joint headteacher left in 2019, thoughts turned to a different leadership model.

The four schools involved in the pilot all have fewer than 50 pupils, and the smallest has fewer than 30. The number of teachers totals 11, and a key part of the new model’s success has been in maximising their specialisms.

For example, Kirkby Fleetham has just two teachers, specialising in English and music, East Cowton’s has just two teachers, specialising in geography and English, yet they had to juggle leadership of every curriculum subject. Now, the sharing of expertise across the four schools has not only eased workloads but raised the overall quality of teaching in all curriculum areas.

Another illustration is that Barton has a phonics lead – Rebecca Verity – who has been able to model lessons, and write an action plan, for the four schools. Following the same principle, PE leader, Corey Irons, has organised cross-school events, including a bike day, and skip to be fit sessions.

Under the reorganisation, each school has a ‘base leader’: Andrew Weighman, at Barton; Marie Mann, at East Cowton; Kirsti Hume, at Kirkby Fleetham; and Kirstie Petch, at Ravensworth.

Mrs Dudman spends a day a week at each school and rotates the fifth. Kirstie Petch is also deputy headteacher across the four schools, and leads on curriculum and assessment. A dedicated special needs co-ordinator, Amy Crisp, works across all four schools.

“Amy leads on training, and ensures appropriate interventions and support are in place, which is a massive weight lifted,” says Helen.

With each school having pupils coming from farming families across a large area, she passionately believes in the importance of protecting rural schools that are within easier reach for many families.

“Lots of rural communities have lost post offices, and local pubs, but children should be able to go to school as close to their homes as possible,” she says.

“It’s like one big family, with teachers knowing the children’s individual needs. Parents also get a lot more say, so they’re more engaged.”

That commitment to local communities was underlined just before the summer holidays when Holmedale Pre-School, in Ravensworth, faced closure due to the village hall being refurbished. Alternative accommodation was quickly found at the primary school.

And, although the pilot scheme began before the Covid-19 pandemic, the new model has also proved to be an advantage during the lockdown. With pupil numbers being small, and mixed-age classes in operation, each school has become its own bubble, with Helen maintaining social distancing during her visits.

As she watches children having fun in the playground, against a backdrop of rolling countryside, she reflects on a challenging but rewarding year: “It’s all gone better than we hoped and, apart from anything else, I arrive every day, thinking how lucky we are to work in such lovely locations,” she smiles.

Today, it’s Ravensworth. Tomorrow, it might be Barton, East Cowton, or Kirkby Fleetham. Whichever school it is, the new model is working.

It was tried on for size, found to be a perfect fit, and now it’s being worn with pride.

THE past week has brought very good news on the effectiveness of vaccines to overcome coronavirus.

But we must remember the heartache that many families are still having to endure.

This week, I had the sad duty of writing a tribute to Tracey Donnelly (pictured below), a carer at the North East Autism Society, whose funeral takes place tomorrow after she died of Covid-19.

Her husband, George, told me: "I loved her the first time I saw her, and I always will."

Amid the optimism, let us not forget.

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