The Power of Imagination

The power of imagination makes us infinite.   John Muir

I’ve been much absorbed recently thinking about education.  The future of learning is important to me in many ways:  as a parent and a governor (of a major school in the National Park); because our small rural schools face a threat as never before; and because we have been re-organising the way that the National Park Authority provides education following the decision to sell Losehill Hall to the Youth Hostel Association.  

I’m privileged to be a governor of a large and very successful secondary school, Lady Manners School.  This rural school provides education to years 7-13 for nearly 1600 students, mainly from the rural areas in the White Peak of the National Park around Bakewell.  The Lady Manners catchment is one of the largest in England for a school of its size.  Being a part of a school with a strong academic record and excellent music, arts and sport is a really exciting thing to do.   I have enormous respect for the teachers  and support staff who do a terrific job and work as a great team.

Education is changing across England.  The new Education Secretary of State Michael Gove has not let the grass grow under his feet, with early announcements on schools a priority for the Coalition Government.  This was all set out in the new Schools White Paper in November 2010 which can be found here: www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/schoolswhitepaper  .  For a large school like Lady Manners there are huge issues to face with a potential new curriculum, the opportunities around academies and free schools and new aspects of schools funding, teacher training and the role of governors.   The coming months will certainly be interesting.

At the other end of the scale of schooling, many of the smallest schools in the National Park face a difficult future.  This week, councillors in Staffordshire agreed to begin consulting on closing Flash School  www.thisistaffordshire.co.uk/news/Primary-poised-shut-summer/article-3090636-detail/article.html . This school has the capacity for over 40 children but has only 9 youngsters on the role.  I know of other schools in Staffordshire with 6 and in Derbyshire with less than 20 pupils.

 I was disappointed to see that Cllr Liz Staples of Staffordshire County Council blamed the National Park for the chool closure because we would prevent new houses.  A large development of, say 30 homes in a village like Flash would probably barely double the number of children at the school.  Who would fill those homes?  Would local people welcome development on this scale? And would her council provide all of the other services needed for a development of this size?   I am sorry, Cllr Staples, the situation is more complex.   

Falling family size, a changing age demographic in our villages with more older people and freedoms for parents to choose schools mean very small schools in villages and hamlets are threatened.   Staffordshire County Council still operates a 3 tier system with infant, middle and high schools.  And there must be real economies to be made with a talented teacher managing several schools in an area, so cutting costs.  There is a real opportunity to look across the piece at schooling in the Staffordshire Moorlands and I will be writing to Cllr Staples to offer our support for such a review

Small schools are clearly expensive schools to run, Flash costs nearly £140 000 per year which per pupil is 4 times the cost of educating a student at a secondary school , and whilst there are obviously huge education and social benefits to small village schools there are downsides too.  I hope that the main criteria for deciding the future of schools in all of our villages will be the educational needs of young people. 

At a time of enormous change in education, it is no bad thing that we in the National Park Authority have had to review the services we provide.  I am really pleased that despite cuts the National Park rangers will still provide services to all of the schools within the national park.  Our promise is that any school that wishes will have a ranger to work with the school will have one  and this has led to some excellent projects that I have seen for myself on visits to schools in Flash, Parwich, Warslow, Bakewell, Bamford  and Hathersage, in the Peak 11 Secondary schools  and in many more.  It seems vital to me that young people growing up in the national park have the chance to learn about it. 

I’m really pleased that Sarah Wilks has been appointed to lead the new National Park Learning and Discovery Team. Sarah has been behind some of the most innovative projects we have run in recent years and has achieved recognition as one of only 14 Geography Champions appointed nationally by the Geographical Association.  Sarah will be leading our £230 000 programme of educational work, including our fantastic partnership with the National Trust at the Moorland Discovery Centre on the  Longshaw estate; delivery of educational visits at the Longdendale classroom  for young people; and a range of visits to amazing places in the national parks such as Stanage, Hartington and Castleton.

Key to the future of our work will be partnerships, especially with the Youth Hostels Association at Losehill Hall once it is refurbished and other Peak District hostels; with the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB and with the many educational authorities and educational and outdoor centres in the National Park.  A staggering 150 000 young people visit the Peak District every year and our aim is to make sure that these visits inspire a love of the national park, a sense of our place in nature and the ability to explore and understand it further.

Of course, learning does not cease at the point that people leave school.  I was delighted this week to hand certificates to 12 of our managers who have achieved level 3 in the Institute of Leadership and Management.  And in the coming weeks I shall be discussing the development of the Apprenticeship programme in the Peak District.  And, in all of this I am learning new things every day too!