Beyond its few large cities, New Zealand is a land of towns, villages, farms, forests, wilderness and open spaces. It is also a land of little schools - and proud of it.

For many a village and rural community, the local school is the lifeblood, the social glue, a generator of local identity.

There are about 2170 primary schools in the country, from Te Hapua at the top of the North Island to Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island. One in five has a roll of less than 50; two in five has under 100 pupils.

No one is saying that little schools should never be closed or merged no matter how small and inefficient they become. Closures occur through natural attrition, and this will continue.

A few years ago, however, the Ministry of Education embarked on a mission to close or merge schools in selected areas - the infamous network reviews. These reviews caused great stress, disruption and confusion before they were pulled in early 2004.

Yet even without the network reviews looming ominously over them, many small schools face uncertain futures. For one thing, their rolls may be declining in response to demographic change; for another, the method used by the Ministry of Education to allocate staff is liable to compound the stress when a school gets down to under four full-time teachers.

Demographic change is not something school boards can easily address, although some are working hard to attract families to their areas.

But a less punishing staffing formula is possible - if the Government would only recognise the value of small schools.

Take a three-teacher school, for example. To retain three full-time teachers, the school requires a roll of 53. If 52 pupils is the prediction for the following year, the school will lose a teacher. In other words, it will go from three classes to two.

In a full primary school (Years 1 to 8) with two classrooms, one class might have more than 30 pupils, depending on how the ages are distributed across the school. Such a change is abrupt, unsettling and undermining of parent support.

So the triggers for cutting staff are one issue. These ought to be reviewed downwards so that small schools are not hit so drastically.

At present the formula is applied on a one-size-fits-all basis.

Flexibility is a hallmark of small schools, and all they are asking for is a staffing formula that takes account of their circumstances.

Instead of cutting a teacher from the staff - a step-change reduction - the formula could apply a percentage reduction and offer the school board the opportunity to raise funds from its community to make up the difference.

Some schools will have the resources to achieve this, and some will not. But at least they should be given the opportunity.

What is needed is a full-scale review of the staffing formula in light of demographic change and increasing pressures on small schools.

The Government's approach appears to be based on the idea that if a school is struggling, it can initiate an so-called Education Development Initiative (EDI) that might merge it with a larger neighbouring school.

But the EDI pathway ignores the place of a school in the local community and the passion of that community to have its own school.

As for how small schools stack up against larger schools academically, they hold their heads high.

The Otago University-based National Education Monitoring Project has made some qualitative assessment and dismissed the claim that "bigger is better". Its research says that size is not a predictor of student achievement. Seemingly, though, small is not beautiful in the eyes of Ministry of Education policy setters.

Perhaps this springs from the fact that size does have a bearing on running costs. Small schools tend to spend more of their Government funding on administration and support staff, and have to work harder at fundraising.

A 2002 study in the United States credited small schools with higher academic achievement, less violence and vandalism, greater teacher satisfaction and collaboration, and heightened community involvement.

Small schools should be cherished, not punished, by staffing policies. Those with fewer than 100 pupils are used to multi-level teaching - that is, classrooms catering for a range of ages. The multi-level classroom calls for co-operation, tolerance and respect.

These values are worth fostering, and the Ministry of Education would be demonstrating them if it embarked on a review of its staffing formula.

* Neville Peat, former chairperson of the Broad Bay School Board of Trustees, is a Dunedin-based writer.