The rewards of rural schooling
Do small schools have a place in the 21st century? Sue Bradley visits one that’s a key part of community life
Anew term dawns at Bisley Blue Coat, a small primary school that’s the beating heart of the rural village in which it’s located.
While small in size, with around 80 on its roll most years, this is a school that does not skimp on providing a wealth of opportunities that enable its pupils to learn and grow as confident and positive individuals.
At the same time all the children, whether they live in the village or not, receive an early taste of what it’s like to be part of a community, a sense of belonging that stays with them long after they move on to the next stage of their education.
A school has been a key part of life in Bisley since 1732, when a charity was founded to teach 10 poor boys to read and write. Each of these pupils was clothed in blue, a proud tradition that’s reflected by the colours of the modern day uniform.
Some of the buildings in which the children are taught date back to 1854, just under a decade before Bisley Blue Coat became a church school under the guidance of the Rev Thomas Keble. This same parish priest was responsible for an annual ceremony in which children carried flowers to the village wells on Ascension Day to give thanks for the clean water, a custom that continues more than 150 years on and involves many within the wider community, such as WI members who help with the teas and assist the children in making their floral arrangements.
The dressing of the wells is a highlight of the school calendar but
does not stand alone in terms of the activities with which the children are able to get involved.
Sport is a particular strength, with smaller cohorts of pupils leading to greater opportunities to join teams and compete against other small schools.
Archery, cross country, athletics, football, tag rugby, netball, cricket and rowing are among the activities provided during the year and music, drama and art are also well catered for, not least by the annual Class Three production when children in years five and six perform to fellow pupils, teachers and parents on the stage of a real theatre. Older pupils also have the chance to take part in residential trips.
Meanwhile maths and public speaking competitions are among the more academic activities with which pupils get involved.
Other key dates in the school calendar include singing Christmas carols at the Green Shop in the village, entertaining older residents belonging to the local friendship club, participating at Stroud’s country dancing festival and attending the annual pantomime at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury.
Parents and grandparents are encouraged to share their children’s learning experience by helping to hear them read and helping out on school trips and experience days, a practice that extends the feeling of being part of a wider community; while at a classroom level, smaller numbers allow for more attention to be given to each individual.
Several past pupils of Bisley Bluecoat are now mums and dads with children at the school. They include Kate Andrews, who serves as a governor and believes smaller schools bring a number benefits.
“Smaller cohorts of children benefit from a gentle start to school, where solid friendships are made and children aren’t overwhelmed by large class sizes,” explains Kate, who is herself a primary school teacher.
“At Bisley, parents and the wider community can be involved with the school journey and delight in raising children with a sense of community and belonging that’s often not found in larger town and city schools.
“Our school offers so many benefits, not only to the pupils and parents but to the wider community.”
Small schools across Gloucestershire are working hard to secure their future, with many now working closely with others within their localities to share resources.
Bisley Blue Coat became federated with neighbouring Oakridge Parochial School five years ago, with head teacher Lisa Austin leading them both. More recently the schools are exploring the possibilities for working more closely with Miserden Primary School.
As Kate Andrews explains, such arrangements can lead to more opportunities for staff as well as children.
“Teachers in small schools can often feel isolated as cuts to professional development across the county and nationwide have meant that many training opportunities are no longer provided,” she says.
“By working closely with another school, teachers can develop and strengthen their skills, share ideas and therefore implement better teaching in the classroom.
“We’ve also seen how working closely with other small schools enables our children to develop relationships with others and therefore begin secondary school feeling more supported by their peers.”
Spend even a small amount of time at Bisley Bluecoat C of E Primary School and it quickly becomes clear that parents and teachers regard it as a special place; and they’re not alone, with the most recent Ofsted inspection rating it as “good” overall, with “outstanding” leadership.
The behaviour of children at the school was also singled out for praise.
“They are exceptionally considerate and caring,” inspectors wrote in their report. “There are high levels of mutual respect between pupils and all adults, and between pupils themselves.”
All in all Bisley Bluecoat is more than just a school; it stands alongside local pubs, shops and churches in fostering a sense of community, both now and in the future.
Nevertheless, several of Gloucestershire’s village schools have seen their numbers decline in recent years, a situation rooted in a number of complex reasons and perceptions.
If this continues, more villages are at risk of losing valuable places of learning, along with generations of people who know what it means to be part of a vibrant community.
‘Smaller cohorts of children benefit from a gentle start to school’