Teaching in a Small School: My ‘Iron Person Challenge’ by Jo Luxford

02 February 2022 |

This is a blog written by Jo Luxford who is currently a participant on the SW100 programme; a school leadership programme for Devon and Cornwall. The mission of the SW100 is to identify and prepare 100 future Head Teachers to lead South West schools where all children thrive.

Shivering at the finish line, clutching flapjacks and towels ready to greet my mud-spattered, exhausted and exhilarated husband after one of the crazy, obstacle filled 20-mile races he loves, I got to thinking. People my age or thereabouts seem to sign up in their droves to compete in the latest gruelling physical challenge. The punishing training regime leads to a level of fitness never before attained, the act of ‘digging deep’ to find ‘hidden strength’ is incredibly rewarding, the sense of achievement when the race is done is unparalleled… I felt a confusing mix of superior smugness because it was obvious to me how ridiculous it all was, and envy because I could see the reality of how rewarding it was to those taking part. Handing over the towels and escorting my endorphin addled husband to the car it dawned on me…I signed up for my own version of an ‘Iron Person Challenge’ the day I accepted a job as a class teacher in a tiny, two class primary school on Dartmoor.

If, like me before I moved to Dartmoor, you’ve never lived in a village community, perhaps you were only hazily aware that schools with less than 60 pupils even existed, let alone were common in rural and coastal communities.

You might imagine that this hidden network of tiny schools were populated entirely by the children of the well-to-do middle classes; those who could afford to live in houses with names instead of numbers. The reality is very different. Our intake is often incredibly varied. Pockets of rural poverty are tucked right alongside relative affluence and the lack of infrastructure means that job prospects are extremely limited and families often have to travel some distance to access basic services such as doctors, pharmacies and supermarkets. Our small schools are the beating heart of our village communities therefore, acting as hubs for families and fulfilling a unique and important role. It is an honour and a privilege to teach in a tiny school because if we get it right we are a window on the world, a social space and a beacon of hope for the future in areas where these things are few and far between.

Some of our small schools are blessed with quirky, beautiful buildings, some with spectacular views, some with access to swathes of incredible countryside and often with unparalleled support from our families and communities. Easter bonnets, cream teas, duck races and cake raffles abound. Take a job in a small school and you might sometimes feel you’ve slipped and fallen into an episode of ‘The Larkins’. The challenge is for teachers to embrace the idiosyncratic beauty of village school life while remembering that we are not a living history exhibition. It’s our moral duty to take what we’ve been given and work to use it to provide the best possible education for every pupil we teach. The children we teach today will be adults in the 2030s. They are going to need more both happy, idyllic childhood experiences and a world-class education to equip them for this.

Taking the job here was a return to full time work for me after several years of working part time after having children. I knew I was ambitious and wanted to move towards school leadership and I honestly couldn’t have chosen a better place to start.

As one of only two teachers onsite I am responsible for the school when the principal is off-site. This might mean every other day, every day for a week, or in the instance that the principal is off on long term absence as mine was in 2018-9 it can mean stepping up and running the school indefinitely. I am the DDSL, the EYFS and Science lead across six small schools, I work across the team of teachers in my trust who, like me, teach classes of mixed Reception, 1 and 2 children. I often unlock the school in the morning and lock it in the evening. I have learnt about the systems for everything as I have stepped in and taken on every aspect of school life at one time or another over the time I have been at the school.

Leading in multiple areas is demanding, even with small pupil numbers. Combining the two is the biggest challenge you will face in your teaching career. I write this in a state of mud-spattered, exhausted exhilaration in the last week of half term. I have been pushed to my limits and I have loved every minute of it. So if you’re looking for your very own ‘Iron Person’ challenge and you’re ready to build your experience base with a view to moving into Primary School leadership you could do worse than to take a job for a year or two in a rural small school because if you can do this, you can truly do anything.

Jo Luxford
Jo Luxford