Rural schools have been in the spotlight since Forest of Teesdale avoided closure last year. Martin Paul looks a few miles across the border to again demonstrate why big isn’t better
A UNIQUE method of teaching, forced on a remote school because of its low pupil numbers, might be just the thing that attracts more pupils.
All 13 of Arkengarthdale CoE School’s children, from reception through to year five, are taught in the same classroon, at the same time.
Until last year the children in key stage one and key stage two were taught in separate classes but after losing a large group to secondary school and having a small intake, teaching staff decided to make a change which they say has been extraordinarily beneficial.
Teacher Hannah Burrell said: “We think we are the only school in the country to teach this way.”
She says a major benefit to having all the children in the same classroom is the way they interact with each other.
Younger children are challenged, Ms Burrell said, because they are exposed to what the older children are learning, and, in turn, the older pupils’ learning is boosted when they mentor the younger ones.
Sometimes the children are split into groups between Ms Burrell and the school’s only other teacher, Amy Metcalfe, depending on what they think is best for their lessons.
Previously the different key stages were taught in two separate classrooms at the 357-year-old school but now the classrooms are separated by function – in what Ms Burrell described as a free-flowing setting.
One is dedicated to art, English and science, and also houses the school library, while the other is a maths and topics room, which is also used for assembly.
But it is outside where a lot of the learning takes place. While many schools boast a forest school scheme, Arkengarthdale School literally has its own wood next door – and the pupils have their own special entrance to it.
Ms Burrell said plans are to build a pond in the forest, complete with pontoons.
She added: “It is a brilliant setting for them.”
The school hasn’t always had such small numbers. During the height of lead-mining in the mid 1800s the school boasted a roll of 239.
Numbers were high again during the war years due to an influx of evacuees.
But numbers frequently fluctuate at the rural school and it was only through community action that the school was saved from closure in 1968.
Now the school shares its headteacher, Helen Ring, with Richmond Methodist Primary School which, the teaching staff think, is of added mutual benefit.
Pupils from the Richmond school get out to a rural area and enjoy the forest, while the Arkengarthdale children enjoy visits to Richmond where, most recently, they learned about growing up.
Teachers too share knowledge and recently shared a twilight meeting at Arkengarthdale.
Ms Burrell said: “We try and make it as collaborative as possible.”
With such low numbers, the school has a very low adult to child ratio, made even lower by the community help they receive.
Along with help from teaching assistant, Clare Martin, the curate at the local church comes in to teach music and French, and a coach from Swaledale Alliance comes in for sport lessons.
The teachers joke that there are almost as many adults at the school as pupils.
Offering full wraparound care, the school also boasts a ukulele club, which meets every Wednesday and recently put on a concert, and a sports club.
Most of the pupils, who come from a ten-mile radius of the school, from Reeth to Tan Hill, move on to Richmond School and surprisingly the children make an easy transition to the much larger school.
Ms Burrel, who also attended a small school as a child, attributes this to the confidence they build in their small environment.
This was demonstrated most recently when the children impressed with their nativity play, Are We There Yet, in front of a large audience of people who came from as far as Reeth.
She said: “It is phenomenal to watch.
“You do just adapt because of the confidence.”
For more information about the school, contact the school by calling 01478 884335.