School meeting fun in Bygdsiljum

We had a meeting at the school earlier. I hate writing this next bit, but it was masked as a process about what is best for the children and also how it was expensive having a school in Bygdsiljum and many options were put forward in how it could change. But for me, I'm sorry, it's just a mask.

They did put some options forward, most notably we take year six back to Bygdsiljum and I think I speak for everyone when I say that would be the best all round and not just because we get to keep our school, but because evidence suggests it is better for them also.

There was also an option about starting a free school, which surprised me a little bit, because from what I understand it's hard to get and you need the kommun support to make that happen. It suggests to me, if they are putting it down as an alternative that they would support it. It would be nice to get clarification on that, but I'm starting to think it isn't needed. But why put it down as an alternative unless they were going to support it?

And size does matter!

Okay, not everyone in every circumstance will say that is true, but in the instance of class sizes it does matter. Tonight, we were told by Anders Bergström that class size doesn't matter. I've asked for the evidence of that, because I have loads and loads that says it does. And with that research, I've also got a lot that also supports cost savings of moving children is very rarely realised, in so much that you still need the teachers and with more pupils comes more administration costs and a study in the UK shows that the average cost per child per year for an 8km journey is 15,000 kr ... imagine what it would cost to transport 30 kids to Burträsk each day.

What I'm saying is that basically the kommun tonight gave the presentation that I thought they would; better for the kids and will save money. Well, I don't think it will be better and I also don't think there will be cost savings that can even remotely justify the drop in education standards from what I think everyone will agree, is pretty impressive in our small school.

I actually think, that in the long term, our children will go on to do better at school if they keep the school in Bygdsiljum (and especially so if they bring year six back) and they'll actually go on, in 20 and 30 years time, to be paying more in tax back to the kommun, because the better education will ultimately result in better pay when they're working. A small school is not only good for the community, it's a fantastic long term investment for the country as well as kommun.

But this is me just writing this isn't it. No, actually it's not. And if I had more time (I'm on the 7am flight to Stockholm tomorrow and have to be up at 5am) I'd list more, but to get us started, here you go, twelve picked at random points of research, that admittedly focus a lot on the UK, but we can also use the models for Sweden, which is why I've asked for the financials for every school in Skellefteå that we were shown for Bygdsiljum tonight. Hopefully, I'll get these financials and the evidence that class size doesn't matter soon and I mean evidence, not just opinion or views from experience.

And for most of what follows, I have Mervyn Bedford of the National Association of Small Schools to thank. I'm listing them in numbers to make it easy and because OFSTED is mentioned I should explain that they are the official body for inspecting schools in the UK.

And while they might be English, finding this data is very rare for Sweden because school closures hasn't been something that has gone on for too long, but data is becoming available and I am collating some.

I should also mention, before I go to bed, that if the school closed (and moving children from two years is just part of their process to close the school) the short term impact is our kids don't get the best possible education and really they don't save that much money, but for our village, the implications are huge. Closure of village schools can be directly linked to de-population and while we might have a thriving economy and a great way of life, if we can't get young families to move here because we have no school, then that would be a catastrophe.

Some points of interest

1. Johnstone’s study published in Nisbet and Forsyth’s mid-80s research at Aberdeen University for the old DOE showed the most successful pupils at Scottish ‘Highers’ to be girls from sparsely populated highland and island regions with boys not far behind and both comfortably ahead of pupils from larger schools and city schools. Such pupils will have had their primary education in very small schools indeed. In August 2006 the Scottish Executive reported that pupils in just such schools had a better chance of reaching university. Pupils from remote rural areas are 25% more likely to go on to full time higher education than their urban counterparts. In effect this repeats Johnstone’s ‘Highers’ findings from 30 years earlier as 18+ results influence university entrance.

2. Some of the most glowing OFSTED reports have been from schools with handfuls of pupils, even single figures, for example Scilly Islands schools with just 4 pupils. In 2002 a 45-pupil primary school was told by inspectors they could find no recommendations for improvement. If there were any evidence that small peer groups were detrimental to children’s educational development OFSTED inspectors would have to report it. They do not do so.

3. Employers have observed that despite a proliferation of ‘A’ level success we are still producing too many people who may be academically qualified but unable to think for themselves. The 2008 McKinsey Report for the Government also notes that academic content and standards do not fully meet the demands of employers. It is not only the deprived that an education system wedded to large-scale provision can fail. During the 1980s the Royal Society of Arts “Education for Capability” award to encourage curricula in which 8 practical achievement and problem-solving i.e. thinking skills, were the goals saw five or six schools or groups a year win recognition through special projects tied to the RSA’s capability criteria but the only school to win the award for its normal everyday practice was a small village primary school.

4. Visionary local authorities, and there are several, rejoice in their small schools and work very hard to support and enrich the provision being made whose value they well recognise. A study done at Oxford’s Institute of Education identified senior officer attitude as the key factor determining the fate of small schools. The educational arguments and misleading claims in closure proposals are usually wholly unsubstantiated. Education officers shaping proposals insist they are right because of “their experience!” Yet most senior officers will never have worked in small schools, or even primary education. Most have had relatively short, albeit in some cases successful careers in larger schools.

5. Defining viability by size of roll is utterly arbitrary with no supporting evidence. That it can vary from 25 to 210 or even 420 shows a sad lack of professional understanding among some senior education officers. The Welsh Assembly’s top civil servant claims any school needs at least six subject specialists. He ignores the consistent reports by inspectors across the UK that small schools offer a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum and effective teaching and leadership.

6. A 1986 study by Cumbria Association for Rural Education reported significantly more perceived disadvantages of children being transported to school than advantages. Small size was valued in itself.

7. The 1983 Aston University/DOE study believed savings should accrue but would be modest and very dependent on transport costs. At its small schools conference a few years ago the West Sussex Deputy CEO stated that if all its 2 and 3-teacher schools closed, and despite their excellent work, there would be a one-off saving of just £50 for each of the remaining schools. Once again the attitude of senior officers proved central to ultimate decisions.

8. Scottish evidence in 2008 showed that when all spending on education in a local authority was calculated, not just money in school budgets, more was being spent on pupils in towns and in larger schools. Educational spending in Aberdeen was £5000 per pupil. In areas with a mix of small and larger schools the average was around £4300, with the lowest being £3800.

9. Rural sustainability in the face of rural depopulation is a major national issue across the UK and Europe. DEFRA and rural agencies much discuss issues of jobs, housing, transport, the environment and yet the existence of a school, with its dynamic, beating heart of young families is central to them all and until very recently rather ignored by most rural organisations. The dynamic young families associated with effective local schools lie at the heart of almost all these rural issues. When local people and politicians realise they are often being mis-led by professional officers and false political priorities they object as local community well-being is threatened.

10. We have never seen an inspection report on small schools across the UK that does not judge them good or better value for money. We do not assume none exist but we would claim the great majority receive this positive economic value judgement.

11. A study by Dijon University of 50 rural schools reduced to 28, after ten years under the new pattern, found that transport costs had almost overtaken the cost of keeping all 50 open and that as 50 they had obtained better results. This French study confirms our UK academic evidence while operating in the same world/European fuel situation.

12. US “Headstart” research, billions of dollars spent on failing inner-city schools to reach parents and try to get them on the same wavelengths found ten years afterwards that for every dollar spent between four and fifteen returned to the Treasury.  This profit arose from parents and teachers in more effective partnership reducing truancy levels and the expensive social outcomes on most public service budgets. More pupils stayed longer in the system, bringing better, better jobs and higher tax revenues.   Small schools represent wise long-term economic investment.

Now; I'm going to bed. But if anyone would like access to the research I have, feel free to email me and I'll forward it all over. I've also sent it to Karin Axelsson, so she has it all and as and when I get more, I will forward it to those interested.

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