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

Cotswold Life - - NEWS - PHOTOS: Grace Fuller-watts

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’

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