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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 12:30 GMT
The death of the village school
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

Pupils
The children will have to change schools in the new year
The children are looking forward to Christmas.

The desk is covered in black paper and crayons as they excitedly prepare their classroom decorations.

But they know this will not happen again - not here, at least.

Their primary school, St Mary's of Hope, is to close at the end of the term.

'Snobbery'

The pupil roll has fallen to just 11 and the governors have decided it is no longer viable.

As of next year, the village of Hope-under-Dinmore, in Herefordshire, will be without its own school for the first time in almost 150 years.

According to head teacher Gail Richards, too many local people are sending their children to be educated elsewhere, for reasons of "snobbery".

She said: "They are thinking that other schools in the area have a more middle-class intake and that, if their kids go there, they will be more middle-class.

Gail Richards outside the school
Gail Richards admits Christmas celebrations will be difficult

"It's very sad for us. The children are getting more used to it but they say they don't like it. They are scared.

"We are a good school. Inspectors have said so, but parents seem not to notice."

St Mary's of Hope has often had to fight for its existence since it was built in the 1860s.

Descendants of the self-taught 18th Century inventor and industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright gave the money for its foundation.

Living in nearby Hampton Court, a stately home, they wanted to give the children of farm labourers a basic education.

An excuse note written in 1888 by one pupil's mother shows how much things have changed.

It reads: "Sir, Will you please excuse Elizabeth for staying at home today? Her mother wants her to help her. We are having the pig killed."

Further afield

These days, parents are more likely to work in the Cadbury's chocolate plant or the Little Chef restaurant, both just along the A49.

Modern transport also means parents can look further afield for schools.

St Mary's pupil roll has dwindled.

Bethany
It's good being in a small school. We get to know each other better
Bethany, pupil

Four years ago it fell to 17, prompting an inquiry into its future by the county council.

A campaign by parents and staff meant it was retained. To celebrate, the school changed its name from Dinmore Primary School to St Mary's, the same as the adjoining church.

The uniform and logo changed too, but still pupil numbers declined.

The children, aged four to 11, are taught in just two class groups.

Mrs Richards, the only full-time member of staff, is helped by two part-time teachers and a classroom assistant.

That means plenty of one-to-one classroom attention; it also means expense.

It has long been thought the children could not develop properly with so few peers.

Earlier this year, the governors decided St Mary's had to close.

'Lovely spot'

Their chairman, Neil Ramsay, said: "It was also a case of pre-empting the county council. It would have been hard to justify keeping a school open with just 11 pupils there.

"I can't see another school ever opening on the site. It might become housing, as it's on such a lovely spot overlooking the fields.

"This could mean the death of the village. There's no pub here and the village hall closed down six months ago.

"The school was all that held the place together."

As the autumn leaves fall on the grounds outside, Mrs Richards looks at the school photos from years past.

One taken in the 1970s shows 47 smiling children.

Neil Ramsay
The school was all that held the place together
Neil Ramsay, chairman of governors

Mrs Richards said: "If everyone in the village kept sending their kids here, we would stay open. But they think 'Why should we?'.

"We attract from the immediate locality. A lot of the parents of our children don't have cars and some don't have jobs.

"It's almost like a snobbery. People think 'We've got a car, so we can take them elsewhere'.

"As they get to choose their school, the children go elsewhere and so people living in the village don't mix."

When St Mary's closes, the pupils will go to other schools, all at least three miles away.

Taxis

Bethany, aged seven, said: "I like it here. The teachers are nice and I've got lots of friends.

"I feel sad. I feel it's good being in a small school. We get to know each other better."

Kade, also seven, said: "I'm half happy and half sad. There will be more people my age there but I like it here too."

Skipping
The children have to play together, whatever their ages

St Mary's packed lunches are delivered by taxi from a secondary school in the area every day.

It is a quaint reminder of rural communities "making do" with limited resources.

In the 19th Century, part of the job description of the teacher's assistant was "church organist".

The making do is about to end, though.

Mrs Richards, who is looking for alternative employment, said: "The village won't know what it's lost until it's gone.

"It might be like the railways that were closed in the 1960s. Everyone regrets that now."

It is hoped that some former pupils will attend the final assembly and Nativity play in the Victorian building's tiny hall.

Mrs Richards said: "We are trying not to be too downbeat for the sake of the children.

"We want to give the school as good a send-off as we can. It will be Christmas after all.

"We've got to go out with a rendition of Away in a Manger."


SEE ALSO:
School facing Christmas closure
03 Nov 04 |  Hereford/Worcs
Schools 'add thousands' to houses
16 Sep 04 |  Education
Starting school 'less stressful'
02 Sep 04 |  Education


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