New Onward research: The decline of small schools and village schools

On Wednesday 17th July, Onward published ‘The decline of small schools and village schools’, by Neil O’Brien OBE MP.

Read the full research note here | Tweet about the research note here

In a report for Onward published this morning, Neil O’Brien OBE MP calls for ministers to increase funding for small primary schools after our analysis reveals that the number of small schools has halved since the 1980s.

In 1980, there were 11,464 small primary schools in England with 200 or fewer pupils. In 2018, there were just 5,406. In contrast, the number of primaries with over 600 pupils has increased from 49 to 780 over the same period. There are now over 100 primaries with over 800 pupils.

This partly reflects the fact that smaller rural schools have been twice as likely as urban schools to close without replacement than urban schools. Since 2010 nearly two thirds (61%) of primary schools which shut were rural.

Since 2000 alone nearly 150 rural primaries have closed. Where village schools have closed in recent years the next nearest school is 52 minutes walk away, so the taxpayer is hit with higher transport costs, while parents and children spend time commuting by car.

Neil’s report for Onward reveals which nations and regions are most affected by falling numbers of small primaries. Since 2002 alone, Wales has seen the number of schools with fewer than 200 pupils fall by over a third (36%), while the North East and Yorkshire have seen declines of 29% and 28% respectively.

Village schools are typically good schools. Only 8% are not good or outstanding, compared to 11% nationally and 15% in towns and small cities. the very smallest schools are most likely to be good or outstanding. One in eight schools is really small, with 100 or fewer pupils. They are slightly more likely than average to be good or outstanding.

Report author Neil O’Brien OBE MP said:

“With no discussion or public debate, a dramatic transformation has come over our schools in recent decades. Small schools and village schools have been in dramatic decline, and more and more small children are attending really huge schools.”

“Many people will feel uneasy about these trends towards large scale institutions for very young children, because they regard small schools as a more human scale for the very young. Others will be concerned about the effect on community life or on commuting times and congestion. Village schools are often much-loved institutions, at the heart of their community. Places where the community gathers for special occasions, where people meet new friends, and community life gets organised. A village loses a lot when it loses its school.”

“We don’t make developers pay enough towards the infrastructure that’s needed to go with new housing. Bitty, piecemeal development allows developers to avoid shelling out for a new school.”

“The new National Funding Formula for schools is a great improvement overall. But the “lump sum” element, aimed at keeping small schools afloat, has been reduced under the formula. The next PM must reverse this and back our small schools.”