Usually we talk about schools being state schools or fee-paying schools. However St Mary's Church of England primary school in Dilwyn has been operating, since September 2011, as an independent school which charges no fees and is run by volunteers. It only has 22 pupils but still achieved a favourable Oftsed verdict and has now become a free school, in the official sense, the first in Herefordshire. This gives it a more secure future and it is optimistic it will soon fill up its full quota of 56 places.
The headmaster John Gerrish says:
Over the last five years, every attempt by Herefordshire Council to bring to an end over 165 years of schooling in Dilwyn has been strongly resisted by the local community. Indeed, in the recent statutory consultation required under free school regulations 96 per cent, from a very large response, supported the proposals for keeping primary education alive and well within the village.
It was this sort of determination that led, after the closure of the council-maintained school, to the opening of the non-fee-paying independent school in September 2011, staffed entirely by volunteers and supported by donation. This has run so successfully for the last four terms that both Ofsted and the Department for Education were most impressed by what was being achieved.
Reading the Ofsted report St Marys sounds idyllic:
The school makes good use of the local environment including farms, woods, streams and historic buildings to add enjoyment to learning. For example, all pupils attend forest school each week. This helps to develop an understanding of the natural environment, raise self-esteem and confidence, and improve social skills.
Pupils talk enthusiastically about the wide range of experiences and the skills and knowledge they gain through these activities.
If I lived in Dilwyn I would be pleased for my children to attend.
Why has Herefordshire Council got it in for them?
I can understand a council wanting to close one of its own schools which has lots of spare places rather than allowing it to run at a deficit which the council funds. That is a positive duty where a school is failing educationally. (Indeed yesterday I noted how councils often avoid this instead "top slicing" money for extra subsidies to allw failing schools to carry on failing.)
It is a much tougher decision where it is a village school short of pupils through no fault of its own but due to local demography. But that would still be an understandable decision for a council to take on financial grounds.
If a school is operating independently financially this objection ceases to apply. For the school to have remained viable without charging fees or any money from the taxpayer is a remarkable achievement. The spirit that makes us proud to be British. Perhaps a truculent, a bit eccentric, rather Ealing Comedy. But a quality that I regard as deeply admirable. It could be described as the Big Society.
The objection, voiced by Cllr Graham Powell, the Council's Cabinet Member for Education, is that free schools provide competition to the Council's schools. Er, that's the idea, Cllr Powell. That parents exercising choice will be an administrative inconvenience. Then let the council get out of the way. Let all the council schools become academies and welcome new free schools opening. Those that are viable will survive, those that are not will close. In neither case will it be any of Cllr Powell's business.