There is a long tradition of debating the relative merits of small village schools versus larger central, consolidated schools. In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both, the arguments commonly fall within two camps. On the one hand, larger schools are presumed to be more efficient and offer superior facilities and broader curricular choice. On the other hand, smaller schools are often felt to afford individual teaching interactions and encourage greater integration within community life. When considering the value of a local school as a vital focal point of village life, the debate extends beyond strictly pedagogical concerns and into the realms of demography, migration, social cohesion, and child-parent experiences.
The closure of a village’s only and remaining school is clearly felt as an existential threat by affected communities around the world. This is reflected in the use of foreboding language: the school closure is the “last nail in the coffin,” or the village’s “death knell”. (Would the last family to leave please turn off the lights on their way out?) The proliferation of school closures has permeated so deeply into our media and collective consciousness that the Oxford Thesaurus of English offers “the closure of rural schools” as the main example under the entry for “closure”. The underlying argument seems commonsensical: in the absence of a local school, families with young children are more likely to move away, and others won’t move in to replace them.
Given how commonly, and strongly, this argument is expressed, it may come as a surprise that there is hardly any empirical research exploring the actual effects of school closure on local populations.. The few Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian studies that have attempted to examine the question have found remarkably little evidence of a clear-cut negative demographic effect of school closures. One problem is that schools are closed because the village (school) population is expected to decline in the future. Observing just such a decline after the closure therefore proves nothing. However, in a case study of the German state of Saxony, I have recently managed to work around this problem. Firstly, I based the analysis on local migration flows (rather than simply changes in population size) that the planning decisions leading to school closures did not, in fact, even attempt to take into account. Secondly, I noted that in the case there was anyhow no association between school closure and local migration. Closures in anticipation of depopulation would have inflated this association, so its absence clearly points in the direction of no such effect.
In hindsight, it is straightforward to explain why one would indeed not expect school closures to have a strong depopulation effect. Some arguments, such as the short travel times between villages or the housing market, are specific to the case-study context. More generally, however, it becomes clear that however much the expectation of a strong link between school closures and migration losses might agree with common sense, it actually contradicts much of what we already know about social geography: from a life-course perspective, families with young children are simply not the main drivers of flows between the periphery (as opposed to suburbia) and urban centres in either direction.
For affected communities, such findings are a double-edged sword. While it may offer some relief that the closure of a local school may not have a significant impact on the demographic decline of a community, this finding weakens what has, to date, been a key mobilising argument. Moreover, the absence of a strong effect on migration does not address, and therefore cannot call into question, potential negative impacts on children’s time, parent’s anxiety, community cohesion, or educational quality. However, the silver lining is that whatever the effects of school closures might be, they are evidently not pre-determined, but context-specific, and underlie many other influences. If people do not change their overall relocation behaviour single-mindedly because of the closure of the local school, they may not necessarily change other behaviours that “make or break” the village community either.