News and opinion

Opinion article

Rural and coastal schools

06 January 2016

Why do coastal schools sometimes seem to face greater challenges than their city counterparts?

Keith Batty, Director of Programmes, Lincolnshire

Education Development Trust has been operating in England's second largest and mostly rural  county since 2002. Lincolnshire has 80 km of coast, no motorways and only two short sections of dual carriageway. Railway links are poor and children can live almost anywhere in the county. The annual home to school transport bill for five to 16 year olds is around £25 million.

Originally contracted to the County Council to monitor and support its state-funded schools, it soon became evident that to address some of the county’s challenges we in fact needed to start by training teachers from the outset. To begin with we did this through the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) but this was later morphed into a School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) programme preparing up to a hundred teachers a year to enter the profession.

Schools tell us that this has been of great help, but overcoming challenges and sustaining successful outcomes in this county requires a real understanding of context. For example, the rural and coastal settings for families and schools is also affected by a summer influx of holidaying families. In some cases children remain behind with relatives beyond the summer, changing again the dynamic of the school population as well as the complexity learning management. Taken as a whole, the context for Lincolnshire requires different emphases to those say found in the highly successful London Challenge where leveraging the attractions and career options for living and working in the metropolis formed part of the successful outcome. Many of Lincolnshire's more remote schools are 80 kilometres or more from the nearest arterial routes. Relocating there to start or continue a career is a big decision, often for the whole family.

All schools have pupils with a range obstacles to learning. Schools in towns such as Boston have more than most with high concentrations of European economic migrants for whom English is not a first language, drawn by opportunities in the food processing industries.

Many of the children from these populations bring with them challenging issues requiring high levels of teaching expertise that simply has to be 'home grown'. With limited local employment opportunities for young people, there is even greater need for teaching to be truly inspirational to instil confidence in pupils to look beyond their immediate horizons.

In such a large and rural county, a large percentage of the school age population live in small poorly connected communities. Local elected representatives neither wish to transport very young children several hours a day on return trips to school, not to add to the £25m annual school transport bill. Local parents often prefer the small local school concept. The result, a large number of very small schools.

Without doubt, there are some excellent small schools, but leading learning can be a real challenge when there is just the headteacher and perhaps one other professional. Despite their best efforts, there have to be very real questions about how rich the educational experience can be in such schools and how well prepared their pupils can be for adult working life, which will in many cases need to be beyond the county boundaries.

In secondary schools, the lack of specialist teachers leads to a narrow curriculum and can mean that losing a single teacher results in a loss of expertise in 3 or more subject area.

So where will that inspirational drive to improve these schools come from in the future? Education Development Trust is convinced that sustainable change can only come from within: capitalising on the strengths that lie within every school. While the city of Lincoln has 4 designated Teaching Schools [all having achieved Outstanding status prior to Teaching School status] there are none in the areas of greatest need.

Under our Schools Partnership Programme, 260 out of c. 360 headteachers are being trained in peer review, helping them overcome competitive or silo tendencies to share their challenges and improvement strategies. With some success already for remotely located schools, participation and follow through will require commitment and support. Schools do need to use these collaborations as a vehicle for collective employment and recruitment.

Relying on market forces to drive up change in our rural schools requires accessible alternative provision - accessibility is clearly the issue for rural parents.

From our experience over more than 13 years in the county, we know we need to make it worthwhile for our best teachers to set up home in some of our most remote communities; we need to acknowledge and manage their career progression. We have to ensure all our children in whatever setting have access to teachers and teaching leaders who will inspire and motivate them to be the best they can be. And while the setting for Lincolnshire children is often the very opposite of our major conurbations, their educational needs are every bit as complex. Yet per capita school funding has historically been far lower in disadvantaged rural settings than in the equivalent urban environments. There is surely no difference in the requirement resource schools to meet these complex needs but the costs can be far higher in isolated communities than in the city. The serious thought, the sustained commitment and the drive to ensure no child is left behind that we witnessed to tremendous effect in inner London over a 10 year period is very much alive in rural and coastal areas. But if we really want a sector-led model of school improvement to work in a rural setting we must be prepared to invest in it systematically through the National funding formula and to prioritise quality over simple provision at every level.