Rural headteachers caught in “perfect storm” of unique challenges governed by their setting

Rural headteachers caught in “perfect storm” of unique challenges governed by their setting

●        New research finds rural school budgets are being strapped by low pupil numbers, “rural poverty” and high salary costs

●        Already-stretched heads under added pressure from increased “parent power” and having to fulfil multiple time-demanding roles to keep the school running

Schools in rural communities across England are struggling to cope under the pressure of challenges unique to their location, according to new research released today by The Key, the organisation providing leadership and management support to schools.

Two-thirds (67%) of rural school headteachers surveyed reported that their small budget, linked to low pupil numbers, negatively affects how they can run the school.

Budgets are hit further by location factors beyond the headteachers’ control, including high salaries for staff with much-needed experience, high transportation costs just to get pupils to and from school, and much-cited “rural poverty”.

Nicola West Jones, head of market research at The Key said: “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.”

With the setting of these schools often idyllic, most ‘local’ families are priced out of the area by retirees and second homers. As a result, over a third (38%) of rural heads surveyed have pupils on roll who have to travel as far as 10 miles to get to school, and budgets are being dented further as a result of transportation costs to facilitate this.

Additionally, headteachers interviewed for the study repeatedly used the term “rural poverty” – where pupils’ families are just below the eligibility threshold for free school meals1 and pupil premium funding2 for their school, but still struggling to get by. More than half (52%)3 of those surveyed said that they have more “poor families” than just those eligible for the additional funding.

With falling pupil numbers and communities smaller and more dispersed, 42%4 of rural heads said their school is under-subscribed, reducing the funding available to them, and increasing pressure on headteachers to keep parents happy with the school, or risk losing more pupils.

One rural headteacher told The Key: “There is often a need to walk a diplomatic tightrope with parents. Many schools are not at capacity, so if a relationship with a family breaks down, they often just move their children elsewhere. Approximately 30% of my pupils in years 1 to 6 are mid-year admissions”.

Putting further strain on the budget, nearly half (48%) of the headteachers surveyed described their staff body as “very experienced (10+ years of teaching)”. This means top-quality teachers, but also high salary costs. In contrast to a national picture of teacher churn, rural school heads find their teachers stay in post for a long time, usually having relocated to the area, and due to a lack of alternative employment opportunities locally.

However, with low pupil numbers, nearly half (45%) of rural headteachers in the survey reported that all classes in their school are mixed-age. A further 24% have “some” mixed-age classes. This makes recruiting newly qualified teachers (NQTs), to freshen things up with new talent, almost impossible, as they do not have the experience needed to support this kind of set-up.

One rural head said “Experience is important for teaching across year groups. NQTs need to be exceptional to succeed at a school like this – we don’t have the capacity to support them in the way a bigger school would.”

Headteachers in rural schools are talented, tenacious and able to fix most challenges. However, with all these circumstantial issues combined, heads are facing a perfect storm of challenges that they just don’t have the capacity to deal with.

More than 9 in 10 (92%) of the heads surveyed said they have a regular teaching commitment, which takes up a lot of time. Furthermore, 81% are also the designated safeguarding lead, and 53% lead a department or curriculum area. Some also do everything from driving the minibus to cleaning and lunchtime supervision.

Another rural head commented “I will have to teach 4.5 days a week from September to balance the budget – which is just not achievable.”

With a dearth of research conducted on this sub-sector of schools, The Key’s report aims to lift rural school challenges into the spotlight and provide a platform for informed debate and policy development for the future.


A full copy of the report is available here. 

Notes to editors:

For more information contact:

Laura Scott, Head of PR, 0203 907 8076

[1] Free school meals are available to disadvantaged pupils aged 5 to 16 years. Families can claim if they receive one or more benefit(s) from a set list. Department for Education (DfE) – GOV.UK

[2] The pupil premium is additional funding given to publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils of all abilities and close gaps between them and their peers. DfE – GOV.UK   

[3] The Key asked rural headteachers what percentage of pupils in their school were eligible for the pupil premium and what percentage of their pupils they would class as “poor”. In 52% of cases, the percentage of poor pupils was higher than the percentage of those eligible for the pupil premium.

[4]  The Key asked rural headteachers how many pupils their school has capacity for and how many pupils it has on roll, allowing them to select from the same number ranges in each case (1-25, 26-50, etc.). In 42% of cases, respondents selected a higher number range for the capacity of their school than for the number of pupils on roll, indicating that their school is under subscribed.

About the research:

Stage one – face to face interviews:

●        We carried out qualitative research over a 3-week period in January 2018, involving face-to-face interviews with 18 school leaders from 11 rural schools in the north west, Yorkshire and the Humber, the east Midlands and the east of England.

●        We met with headteachers and school business managers from maintained schools and schools within multi-academy trusts (MATs), as well as some MAT central staff who were based in the schools. Our interviewees spanned the primary and secondary phases, and settings that varied in size between fewer than 30 and more than 1,000 pupils.

Stage two – online survey:

●        We pulled the central themes arising from the interviews into an online questionnaire, which was reviewed by Ipsos MORI. We sent this questionnaire to 5,231 headteachers of rural schools throughout England. Responses were collected between 19th March and 16th April 2018. A total of 542 rural headteachers nationally (approximately 10%) took the survey; not all respondents completed every question.

About The Key:

The Key provides leadership and management support to 45% of schools in England. Our market-leading information services, professional development and online platform solutions help busy professionals work with increased confidence, knowledge and capacity. At the heart of everything we do is a passionate commitment to helping organisations save time, work smarter and deliver better results for the communities they serve. Every day we answer new questions from school leaders and governors, every week we visit schools and meet with those at the forefront of education, and every year there are over a million clicks on articles on our websites. These deep connections give us unparalleled insights into the concerns, trends and good practice in the sector.