The challenges facing our rural primary schools

Written by: Imogen Rowley | Published:
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As new research sheds light on the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges that rural schools face, Imogen Rowley provides some practical tips on keeping your rural school afloat

Rural schools make up more than 20 per cent of the schools in England, yet there’s little real acknowledgement of the array of unique challenges they face, and scant focused support for them.

A new report from The Key highlights that many leaders of these, often tiny, village schools feel that “nobody’s interested in us unless we’re closing down”.

We hear much about how schools’ budgets are shrinking across the board, but for rural schools these financial pains can be even more acute – 44 per cent of rural headteachers interviewed chose funding as their most difficult challenge. An already depleting pot of money is put under extra strain by problems unique to school life in a rural setting – not least, low pupil numbers, high transportation costs caused by pupils travelling long distances to get to school, parental incomes dangling just above the threshold for free school meals, and a never-ending battle to attract NQTs to remote areas.

With pressures on budgets and wider socio-economic and infrastructural issues at play, stretched rural headteachers are having to become increasingly more creative to ensure their schools remain viable.

Read on for three tips to help keep your rural school – and you – above water.

Get savvy with your marketing

This is a vital need for rural schools with falling rolls, and important both for attracting new pupils and keeping the ones you’ve got. With places available in surrounding schools there’s an increased risk of pupils leaving to take up a place elsewhere if they or their parents are dissatisfied with your current provision, in turn reducing funding for the school.

Shout loud and proud about what makes your school great by making your website the best it can be and maintaining links with local press to promote any achievements or events as soon as they happen. Participating in local events gets your name heard and ensures prospective parents think of your school first. It also helps to befriend the local estate agent to make sure they promote your school to home-buyers and renters moving into the area.

Niche grants

Apply for niche grants that cater to a specific audience, and make use of your local community. Grant-funding schemes are becoming increasingly over-subscribed, but there are some that support schools in areas of deprivation or that specifically serve rural communities, such as the Trusthouse Charitable Foundation Community Centres and Village Halls Fund, so focus your efforts there.

Contact your local authority or local council for voluntary services for more information about local schemes you may be eligible for. Applying for grants can be time-consuming but there are some schemes (usually for smaller amounts) that only require filling out a simple online form, so if time is precious, seek out these. If you have a particular resource you are raising funds for, let everyone in the local community know about it – you never know where offers of support might come from!

Connect with others in the same boat

Headteachers in rural settings wear many hats – often being the designated safeguarding lead, a classroom teacher, the caretaker, lunchtime supervisor, minibus driver, first aider, and more roles besides – and 97 per cent of those in The Key’s survey said that they suffer from work-related stress.

Connecting with like-minded people using tools such as Twitter (use hashtags like #SLTchat or #teacher5aday) provides a way for school leaders to share both the highs and the lows of the job and to get helpful, non-judgemental advice from others experiencing similar issues.

Professional coaching or supervision through online services such as the Education Support Partnership can also help you regain a sense of perspective and provide practical solutions that would be hard to reach on your own. And then there’s the little things – set aside designated time to chat with pupils and colleagues at lunchtime to remind you of why you love your job.


Staff in rural schools are doing outstanding work to provide the best possible education for pupils in these communities, often in the toughest of scenarios. This enthusiasm, hard work and dedication – often out of the limelight – should be celebrated far and wide. There are certainly challenges, but the overwhelming majority of individuals involved in the research said that running one of England’s 5,000-plus rural schools was incredibly positive and rewarding. Let’s keep it that way.

  • Imogen Rowley is a content producer at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools. Visit

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