A funding crisis gripping schools across rural Yorkshire has led to grave fears that countryside communities will witness a succession of closures as financial deficits spiral and pupil numbers dramatically reduce.
In the past six months, four small schools in North Yorkshire have closed and two more are under consideration.
Now, as documents seen by The Yorkshire Post reveal, every school in the area with pupil numbers between 20 and 30 is to start the coming academic year in financial deficit. And, as parents’ fears are raised over the impact on rural communities, the area’s director of children’s services admitted he cannot rule out further closures.
“The education system is facing challenges,” said Pete Dwyer of North Yorkshire County Council, adding that efforts had been made to maintain local provision, supporting partnerships and lobbying for better funding.
“We are seeing a position across the country where there are significant restructures, schools are dipping into reserves for the first time. That is particularly acute in smaller schools.” The financial position of a school isn’t the key driver for closure, he insisted. With falling pupil numbers, parents’ and teachers’ confidence is affected, with the impact being that some schools are struggling to attract the best-quality staff.
Schools are facing budget pressures of up to eight per cent, he added, while hoped-for changes to the funding formula will not “come to the rescue” as it would still be comparatively small sums.
“We are not saying that small schools aren’t viable – there are some that are brilliant,” he added.
“The focus is on the quality of teaching that can be provided. It would be remiss of us to allow the quality of children’s education to wither on the vine.”
The documents seen by this newspaper show the average deficit faced by the small schools affected in North Yorkshire is £18,500, based on budgets for the year ahead. Parents at three schools in the Upper Dales, Bainbridge, Askrigg and West Burton, have now been told an informal discussion over addressing their “concerning” financial position is to begin in the autumn.
Across this area there are seven smaller schools, many of them with pupil numbers in the mid to late teens and 20s, and county councillor John Blackie said he believed all should be retained.
“Young families are voting with their feet to leave and they are not being replaced,” he said. “With any closure, they are confining children of just four or five years old to travel up to an hour to get to a primary school.
“Communities have said that austerity in this shape and form is destroying the very fabric of society.
“I accept the pupil numbers are quite low. But they are the heart of these very rural communities, and we lose them at our peril.”