We’ve heard much about the budget challenges schools are facing, but for rural schools these financial pains can be particularly acute.
44% of rural headteachers surveyed this year by The Key identified ‘not having enough money’ as their most difficult challenge. In many cases, their already-stretched budgets will face extra strain from problems unique to rural schools – not least low pupil numbers, high home-to-school transportation costs, parental incomes dangling just above the threshold for free school meals and a battle to attract NQTs to remote areas.
There are no quick fixes, but if this sounds familiar, here are three ways in which rural schools can ease those pressures…
1. Market creatively
Savvy marketing can generate healthy pupil numbers. Showcase your school in places that families new to the area might visit, such as estate agents or doctors’ surgeries, by leaving flyers promoting what you offer and your unique culture or ethos. Your school website is your digital shop window, so make sure it’s up to date.
Think about innovative things you can do to get people through the door, since nothing beats actually visiting a school for helping parents to imagine their child being happy there. Pick a ‘main’ event each term that you can invite the whole community to, such as a summer fair or bonfire party. Approach local businesses to secure enticing raffle prizes, and sell said raffle tickets door-to-door and in pubs and community centres.
Those tips might not seem revolutionary, but combined with other steps they helped Snape Primary School in rural Suffolk steadily double its pupil roll over several years and become sustainable again.
2. Apply for funding
Focus your efforts on grant-funding schemes that support schools in rural communities or areas of deprivation. Applying for grants can be time-consuming, but some schemes (typically for smaller amounts) only require completing a simple online form. You can also contact your LA for further details about voluntary services or information about local schemes.
3. Tackle your transport issues
Some of your pupils may be eligible for free transportation provided by the LA. If you decide to organise your pupil transport yourself, your main options are to outsource or use a school minibus. Neither will be cheap, but you can recover at least some of the costs via pupils repaying the school for bus passes (usually subsidised a little) weekly or termly. Outsourcing to a bus or coach company typically involves setting up a contract whereby you pay the cost upfront and pupils then pay you for passes.
If you don’t have your own minibus you could buy or lease one, but this will need to be factored into your cost estimates. Also bear in mind the additional costs and processes this will entail, such as appointing a driver (which will require relevant background checks), obtaining insurance and planning a route.
The challenges faced by rural schools are many and varied, and largely out of schools’ immediate control. These tips aren’t necessarily a solution, but suggested as positive steps that are helping schools such as Snape Primary keep their heads above water – and may just help you too.
Imogen Rowley is a content producer at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools; its full research report on the challenges faced by rural schools can be downloaded for free from here.