With rural schools facing pressure from low pupil rolls, budget cuts and declining birth rates many small schools are struggling to maintain high standards. Kendra Bolton, headteacher at Stewartstown Primary, recognised internationally for its excellence in mathematics, explains how technology has helped her school meet these challenges and embrace its rural environment...
Rural schools have been the latest institutions under the spotlight, with the combination of distance, low pupil numbers and subsequent budget cuts leading to unsustainable conditions for many. Declining birth rates and difficulties recruiting are also problems; often schools experience a high percentage of older, experienced teachers but a low proportion of younger (and cheaper) staff.
Rural poverty is also an issue, with more emphasis in recent years placed on driving standards in urban schools with high proportions of EAL and pupil premium grant students. In contrast rural heads report high proportions of students just above the requirements for free school meals, with a recent report in The Key finding that 52% of heads said they have more “poor families” than just those eligible for the pupil premium grant.
Despite these challenges there are a still a proportion of rural schools that outperform their urban counterparts. Once such school in Stewartstown, County Dungannon in Northern Ireland has managed not just to survive but to thrive in its rural environment. Despite having less than 50 pupils Stewartstown Primary has gained international acclaim for its excellence in maths with no pupils underachieving in a subject in the midst of a fierce drive to raise standards. Kendra Bolton, Headteacher at the school says that key to their success is placing technology at the heart of learning as well as using the school’s rural environment to their advantage.
“Our main challenges here in Stewartstown Primary School result from budgetary constraints.
“Whilst cuts aren’t an issue for rural primaries alone, we experience a different range of financial pressures to schools in urban areas. Transport for example is a huge cost both for the school and for parents. Additionally, our low pupil roll directly impacts our funding - though we have fewer pupils many of our overheads are the same as those in a medium sized school. Similarly, because we don’t benefit from massive economies of scale, resources are often more expensive per pupil than in a larger school.
“Another challenge is the distance between school and home for a number of pupils. This has the potential to make engaging with parents harder, though at Stewartstown we have been able to make this work to our advantage through a number of initiatives including the breakfast club hosted at school.
“A lack of diversity could be another challenge. Many of our pupils’ families have lived locally for generations and this means there is a lack of different experiences amongst the children. It can therefore be harder to get them to understand the lives of other children and as they grow older this can lead to a dangerous lack of aspirations amongst children – however talented they may be!”
Despite the potential challenges, Stewartstown Primary has found technology the solution to many of the pressures of working in a rural environment.
“We find that technology allows every child to access the curriculum in a supportive and differentiated way through a different medium, allowing learning to be personalised to the needs of individuals. Technology is an instant motivating tool, keeping the child engaged on the task whilst furthering their knowledge and learning of key concepts. We are fortunate at Stewartstown to have a full class set of iPads and laptops in school, and shared amongst only three classes overall, every child has access to a good range of resources.
“We take advantage of a great variety of apps and resources including some great free ones and a few excellent paid-for resources which the children love. Technology is a great tool for enhancing learning, particularly those which motivate children to stay engaged on topics such as mathematics which are often perceived to be harder.
“Though the distance between home and school can be a struggle for some parents, we find that we are able to use our small size and the school’s position in the community to our advantage.
“Being a small rural school allows for high engagement levels from parents. We open our doors to parents daily and they support us fully where possible in school, whether it be with fundraising activities, helping supervise on school trips or assisting with the breakfast club where children are able to access our online resources. Our strong relationships with parents’ means they are fully informed with their child’s academic performance and the children know and understand that both parents and teachers work as a team to help them reach their potential.
“Through our online maths resources Mathletics we have been able to engage the pupils in activities like the November Numeracy Challenge which we have entered for the past two consecutive years with excellent results. Last year we were the worldwide winners with the highest average pupil score, and this year we were placed second worldwide, but topping the UK leader boards. Quite a remarkable achievement for such a small school!
“As pupils compete in the Live Mathletics section of the resource against other pupils in real time they are to see where in the world their fellow competitors are located giving a real sense of excitement to maths and helping them to gain a sense of other children around the globe learning in the same way that they are. The pupils can also compete against their own classmates in live, head-on challenges. It can be very competitive at times, but it is very stimulating for the pupils!”
“We are always making exciting plans for the future, exploring ways to keep our classroom practice innovative and fresh. The pupils are the heart of our school, and together, working as a team, we endeavour to continue to give them an excellent experience of school life, with a wealth of high quality teaching and learning opportunities on offer. Technology and continuing our use of Mathletics of course will be part of this!”