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Report: Rural headteachers caught in ‘perfect storm’ of challenges

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As head of market research at The Key, I spend a lot of time in schools up and down the country, seeking to understand common needs so we can serve our members content that makes their jobs easier.

Every school I visit is unique and memorable for one reason or another - but we were starting to notice pronounced patterns that united schools in rural areas. As a result, we decided to conduct an analysis, with qualitative and quantitative research, to look more deeply into the challenges that rural schools face, and we’re pleased to publish the results of this work here.

If you work in a rural school, or in any way support the work of rural schools, we hope these findings will resonate, helping you to campaign for more support where needed, and advocate your position among your stakeholders.

What did the research find? 

While all schools are facing tough circumstances, our research identified that rural schools in particular are struggling simply as a result of their location alone – and it’s causing several ripple effect issues to things like budgets and workforce pressures, that are completely circumstantial and out of their control.

For example, communities tend to be smaller and more dispersed, which coupled with falling birth rates, means a proportion (42%) of rural schools are under subscribed. With core funding for schools determined on a per-pupil basis, rural schools that are beset by low pupil numbers and wider socio-economic and infrastructural challenges are finding the demands on their budget aren’t covered by their funding.

Rural heads told us of challenges with local families being ‘priced out’ of the area, by second homers and people moving out of neighbouring cities - so over a third (38%) have pupils travelling as far as 10 miles to get to school. As such, budgets are being dented further from transportation costs.

In contrast to a national picture of teacher churn, we found teachers move to rural schools to put down roots and don’t leave. As a result, nearly half (48%) of the headteachers we spoke to described their staff as “very experienced” (10+ years of teaching) which means top quality teachers, but a big chunk in an already tight budget.

However, with schools undersubscribed, nearly half (45%) of rural headteachers told us that classes in their school are mixed-age, so they need these teachers to manage the complexities of teaching multiple age groups in one class. It’s also much more cost effective to have fewer classes, as it means fewer teacher salaries.

Finally, with budgets and location making recruitment for roles tricky, we found heads are taking on multiple roles. Of those surveyed, 92% have a regular teaching commitment, which takes up a lot of time. Some (81%) are also the designated safeguarding lead - some are also the dinner lady, or the caretaker or school bus driver or the cleaner - which would be unheard of in more urban communities.

What happens next?

As we state in the report, these research findings are not intended to lay blame at the hands of national or local policy, but to shine a light on the unique challenges of rural schools and invite debate around what policy makers, educationalists, local authorities, multi-academy trusts and anyone working with schools, teachers and pupils in rural communities can do to support their particular needs.

In that vein, The Key has has already begun tailoring a number of its practical resources to meet the specific needs of school leaders in rural schools, to help relieve some of these pressures.

In the meantime, interest in our report findings continues to grow. Check out The Key’s Chief Operating Officer, Rich Jewell, being interviewed on ITV Calendar. The full report was broadcast on Friday 26th October, however, Rich’s interview wasn’t aired in the end due to breaking news - but you can view the clip below.


Download The Key’s free report on rural schools here.

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