Improving the sustainability of small schools

Few schools are as small or as basic as the one shown in the photo below.  Comprising just two small rooms with straw on the floor for matting, no glass in the windows, sheets of corrugated iron for doors, thin bamboo thatching for walls, and having no furniture, this school is administered by the congregation of the tiny Bethel Church, located beside the Wamena-Kurulu Road in Punakul village of Libarek District in the remote Highlands of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), Indonesia.  I visited on a Sunday, which explains the absence of the school’s 30 students despite the presence of the two teachers.

this school is administered by the congregation of the tiny Bethel Church, located beside the Wamena-Kurulu Road in Punakul village of Libarek District in the remote Highlands of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), Indonesia.

Anyone who works in a small school knows what magical places they can be.  Class sizes tend to be small, classroom instruction tends to be individualised, management has immense flexibility to respond to local needs, and the close-knit sense of community is palpable because everyone knows everyone else by sight if not always by name.  Many small schools are destined to remain small because they serve the needs of geographically isolated communities or sections within larger communities that have specific social, ethnic, religious, disability or other needs and preferences.

On the other hand, small schools can face significant challenges that are seldom encountered by larger schools.  There are often fewer opportunities for career advancement available to the staff for example, and more limited sporting and academic challenges available to the students.

For the sake of a definition, I see a “small school” as one that has 300 or fewer students in a combined primary-secondary setting, or 200 or fewer in a stand-alone primary or secondary setting.  Although small schools do not account for a large proportion of overall students’ numbers, they do comprise a significant proportion of the total number of schools in most countries around the world, such as 39% of independent schools in Queensland (Australia) and almost the same proportion (38%) of independent schools across the United States.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by small schools is the existential challenge of viability – maintaining their existence on a sustainable basis.  When I refer to sustainability, my background as a geographer comes to the fore – I define “sustainability” as the capacity to continue functioning in the present form in perpetuity.  For a school, sustainability therefore embraces financial sustainability, demographic sustainability, regulatory sustainability, governance sustainability, administrative/operational sustainability, and sometimes even physical sustainability.

Several of these “sustainabilities” are interwoven, and it is possible to identify five key challenges that most small schools must confront to maintain sustainable viability. 

Challenge 1: School fees.  For any school that is reliant on income from fees, it is inevitable that fees must increase at least at the general rate of inflation in the wider economy if the school is simply to maintain its financial position.  If median school fees are not rising at a rate which at least keeps pace with inflation, then the quality of educational provision must decline (in the absence of new alternative income sources).  There is no easy solution to this challenge, although one possibility is to generate new auxiliary revenue sources, such as renting facilities like the auditorium or gymnasium to outside organisations.  Another possibility is to add programs for the wider community such as child-care, adult education courses, vacation camps, and so on, that use existing spaces on the campus out of normal hours to offset some operating expenses, and perhaps also create new opportunities to market the school and increase enrolments.

Challenge 2: Staff salaries.  Like school fees, staff salaries must remain competitive within the wider “market” for a school to survive.  However, statistics in most countries around the world show that over the past decade or so (including the COVID-19 pandemic), staff salaries in schools have not kept pace with the rate of inflation.  Under such circumstances, it is little wonder that many schools are struggling to attract and retain a high-quality staff, and this is especially so for small schools in remote areas.  Solutions are difficult to find.  Some school boards have considered entering into consortium agreements with other nearby small schools to try and pool staff, but difficulties with scheduling and travel often seem to create insurmountable barriers. Other school boards have considered forming consortium agreements with other schools to cover services such as health care, salary sacrificing benefits, child-care, and grounds maintenance to free up resources that can be diverted into competitive salary and benefits packages for staff.  Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no effective, long-term, sustainable examples of this concept in practice.

Challenge 3: Financial planning.  It is good practice for every school to develop forward-looking (say, five-year) financial plans.  Such planning is especially important for smaller schools that have less “fat” or “wiggle room” (to use two non-technical but widely understood terms) than larger schools.  Boards must have data-based financial information if they are to achieve an appropriate balance between income on one hand, and recurrent and capital expenditure on the other.  Despite their evident importance, many small schools seem not to have developed these plans, or if they have been developed, they aren’t adequately updated and maintained, arguably because the school’s leadership is so busy addressing more immediate needs.  The sad reality is that well-kept financial records, accurate minutes of meetings, and records of leadership team meetings are notably absent in schools which have become non-viable and are thus forced to close.  The solution here is fairly straightforward – do not neglect financial planning at either board or management level, even in small schools.  Develop, maintain and use a workable five-year plan, and eventually work towards developing a sound 25-year financial plan.

Challenge 4: School facilities.  When finances are tight, it comes as no surprise that small schools struggle to find sufficient resources to expand, renovate, or even maintain their current facilities.  Pressure on boards increases as deferred maintenance become more and more urgent and difficult decisions must be made about which projects are to be made a priority and which are to be delayed further or abandoned.  The pressures become increasingly acute as the school matures and its facilities age and deteriorate.  Clearly, school facilities must be maintained in good order for legal, health and safety reasons (not to mention aesthetics).  Young schools must resist the temptation not to set aside funds for future maintenance or to short-change depreciation in the annual budget.  Schools that are heavily in debt or do not have deep reserves of funding might consider renting facilities until they are able to build up their financial reserves.  Having said that, it should be remembered that owning infrastructure does provide the potential to generate extra revenue by renting school facilities to outside groups.

Challenge 5: Enrolments.  For small schools, failure to achieve enrolment targets can quickly create a life-or-death situation.  Even minor fluctuations in enrolment numbers represent large percentage changes for small schools, with consequent implications for fee income, staffing requirements and government support.  For such schools, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the school’s mission – its enduring purpose.  Why was the school started and why is its continued existence important?  Which students’ needs can be met more effectively by THIS school than any other?  If the school’s mission can be articulated clearly to community, then enrolments are much less likely to decline, all else being equal.  Clearly, meeting enrolment targets is critically important in meeting financial targets, which in turn are the means of ensuring the school’s continuing viability.  Most small schools present a compelling value proposition to parents – a value proposition based on its mission and a caring learning environment where every student is treated as an individual who is loved, known and valued.  The best advice to maintain enrolment numbers is to make sure everyone knows what the school stands for, what it offers for the students entrusted into its care, and to make sure every promise made to parents is fulfilled abundantly. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We offer mentoring and critical friendship support to boards and leaders, and this can be especially helpful for small schools.  You can find out more HERE.

Detailed advice on school leadership and management is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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