“I very much hope that the Department for Education will not resort to a philosophy of “the weakest to the wall” with these small schools because small rural schools are so often worth their weight in gold, as the heart and hub of our rural communities. The Church of England will publish a report very soon on how to support our rural schools effectively” – Bishop of Oxford, 3/7/14.
On 3rd July, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, took part in a debate on the rural economy, lead by the Earl of Shrewsbury. The Bishop spoke about the need for intentional support for the many micro-businesses that make up the rural economy, and also for greater personal investment in rural schools, particularly through an increase in the number of foundation govenors supporting rural schools.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for giving us this opportunity to debate this matter. We all approach this important subject from different angles. I want to emphasise one that is economic and the other that is personal in the sense of our own personal investment and commitment. I serve a diocese which is largely rural although it has large centres of population such as Oxford, Reading, Milton Keynes and Slough. However, the rural expanses of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire are considerable, with 815 churches and 650 clergy, all of whom are strongly connected to the all-round flourishing of our diverse communities.
The economic vulnerability of many rural areas is well known and has already been rehearsed this afternoon in different ways. I simply wish to highlight one particular element of that vulnerability, which is the plight of micro-businesses, which I come across a lot. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees make up half the employment in rural areas, yet it is these businesses that find it most difficult to access the appropriate advice, training and relatively small-scale grants and funding which they need to develop and expand. It appears that there is limited practical help for micro-businesses and business start-ups, with advisers tending to be professionals rather than entrepreneurs, which means that their advice is not always appropriate. However, the Centre for Entrepreneurs says that micro-businesses have been the largest contributors to new jobs in the United Kingdom over the past five years.
It is very good that the rural growth network programme has operated pilots in five areas to reduce barriers to economic growth in the countryside such as shortage of work premises, the slow internet connections we have talked about and business communities being spread out over wide areas. The churches’ contribution in this connection is through the Germinate! programme at the Arthur Rank Centre, which seeks to encourage micro-businesses. This is a highly practical six-session rural business start-up course, the pilots of which were very well received. It will be rolled out into a national programme to be delivered locally through community groups and churches. This programme is being delivered and developed alongside something with the rather evocative title of beer mat mentoring. This initiative has been established for some years and comprises monthly meetings in pubs of new entrepreneurs and old hands who offer practical mentoring accompanied by liquid refreshment—orange juice, I assume.
I said that I wanted to emphasise two angles—one economic and the other personal. By personal, I mean the investment that comes from people of good will investing their time and talent in the future of the countryside and the communities in which they live. That is where our churches and schools come into their own. So often the church and the school are the focus of community life, particularly when, as we have said, the village shop and pub have vanished. The school is often the hub of the community and needs our investment of time and talent. Sixty per cent of village schools are church schools and in the new educational landscape that we have not all of them are safe. However, they can group together in voluntary clusters or multiacademy trusts, and in that way they can gain the advantages of economies of scale and so on. For all sorts of reasons, we need to protect these schools. I very much hope that the Department for Education will not resort to a philosophy of “the weakest to the wall” with these small schools because small rural schools are so often worth their weight in gold, as the heart and hub of our rural communities. The Church of England will publish a report very soon on how to support our rural schools effectively.
A practical appeal that I often make is for capable people to volunteer to be school governors. Such people are key to ensuring success in this uncertain environment. I think that the Church of England already has 22,000 foundation governors in its schools but obviously community schools need high-quality governors just as much.
Our rural areas need both kinds of intentional support: economic—I have just highlighted micro-businesses—and personal—people who will make that personal investment in schools and communities. There is much more to be done.