The challenge of leading a rural school

The Key for School Leaders has published its 2018 report, The challenges of leading a rural school. In its wide-ranging research it found that, despite accounting for 20% of all schools in England, there’s a dearth of information concerning rural schools and the unique difficulties they face

The report highlights the different challenges faced by rural school leaders compared to those in more urban areas, bringing into focus issues of contextual factors unique to these schools’ settings, budget challenges, the complexities of a rural workforce and the multifaceted role of the rural headteacher. It highlights the bleak reality that many of these schools operate in, as well as the positive and passionate staff which keep them functioning.

Contextual insights
52% of the headteachers surveyed said they have more ‘poor families’ than just those eligible for the pupil premium grant, with many families just missing out on qualifying for this additional funding. This is symptomatic of a bigger picture, described by headteachers, of areas with low employment and low aspiration for children. When asked to what extent they and their staff have to raise pupils’ aspirations, the majority of headteachers surveyed (56%) said they have to ‘work hard’ at this.

These difficulties are further compounded by the distance many pupils have to travel to their rural schools. Over a third of headteachers said they have pupils travelling as far as 10 miles, and 8% have pupils who travel 20 miles.

The report states that these long distances are often related to families being ‘priced out’ of the area. This presents a unique challenge; some schools are having to organise transport at their own expense, further eating into already stretched budgets.

Budget challenges
Nearly half of headteachers surveyed stated not having enough funds as their most difficult challenge. In rural schools, this issue often stems from low pupil numbers which affects how schools run. Being undersubscribed impacts the per pupil funding available; 42% of schools surveyed reported having fewer pupils than places.

With additional location-based factors, such as the cost of pupil transportation, budgets are stretched in ways that urban schools won’t experience. A further example of this is the difficulties rural schools have in attracting staff; in particular, around a fifth of respondents said that location impacts their ability to attract senior leaders (17%), support staff (16%) and newly qualified teachers (NQTs) (16%).

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This means that rural school staff tend to be older and more experienced – and require higher salaries. Teachers are less likely to leave, given the lack of alternative employment opportunities locally, so these schools have fewer openings for junior staff and NQTs who would attract lower salaries; this is compounded by the struggle to attract NQTs to rural areas.

Workforce complexities
While more experienced teachers are costly, they’re needed for the challenge of teaching mixed-year classes. Nearly half of the rural schools that responded to the survey said all their classes were mixed-age.

These pressures and strains have also meant that senior leadership teams are either small or non-existent in rural schools; they rely on many of their staff members to perform more than one job. When asked how many staff members perform multiple roles, 45% of rural headteachers said ‘more than one’ and a further 45% said ‘lots’. Over half did not employ a school business manager; this was a luxury that few rural schools can afford.

The role of the rural headteacher
Lacking the requisite staff, the headteacher of a rural school performs multiple roles. In addition to teaching – nine out of 10 (92%) reported this – 81% of those who responded are the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), 53% are leading a department or curriculum area, 29% are the special educational needs co-ordinator and 8% act as the school business manager. This is in addition to other unofficial jobs listed as their responsibility, including:

  • caretaker
  • lunchtime supervisor
  • sports coach
  • minibus driver
  • gardener
  • first aider
  • cleaner

Is joining a MAT the answer?
Nearly half (48%) of respondents said they were ‘very unlikely’ or ‘unlikely’ to join a MAT. Potential economies of scale exist when a school joins a MAT, but many rural schools (39%) believed they were not financially viable for such a move. This, combined with concerns from rural schools that their ethos would not synchronise with a MAT’s more corporate approach, saw only 23% of survey respondents express a desire to join a MAT.

However, when asked what would make them consider a MAT, many rural headteachers responded with answers relating to financial efficiency, including saving money on back-office functions, e.g. a shared school business manager (45%) and taking advantage of economies of scale in procurement (51%).

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