Today's news that hundreds of village schools face the axe is worrying. In 1998 David Blunkett and Stephen Byers introduced unprecedented protection for the village school, after 450 closures under the Tories, in recognition of their singular contribution to rural life. With falling rolls and shortages of primary headteachers, as well as expectations of extended school facilities, some county councils appear to be seizing the opportunity presented by the fashion for localism to shut these schools. And it is nonsense to suggest that this is all about the government's funding formula: shires have enjoyed big funding increases like the country as a whole, but costs in inner cities are always going to be higher and reflected in funding distribution. There is some unfairness between shires, but the move to a national funding formula while desirable would be too costly if it were not to create a large number of politically unsustainable losers (as Charles Clarke found to his cost in 2003).
But their closure is not inevitable. One of the big problems for village schools has been the assumption that each should exist as an independent entity. While such independence is clearly desirable for large secondary schools and many larger primaries, it is less so for small schools. So, for example, there is no good reason why a cluster of village schools should not form a trust to share a headteacher, a governing body and their specialist after-hours activities; that would improve efficiency while ensuring a school within walking distance of villagers' homes. Of course, there will always be schools where their viability is impossible, but a trust school model with several schools could preserve the village school, cost less and improve the choices and facilities for children.