Arkengarthdale Church of England Primary School will close at the end of the school year as numbers of children attending have fallen to just five.
The school’s governing body wrote to North Yorkshire’s Director of the Children and Young People’s Service, Stuart Carlton, late last year to request the county council begin consulting on a proposal to close the school at the end of the current academic year.
Pupil numbers had fallen to an unsustainable level despite all efforts to attract more children to the school.
“We took this step with very heavy hearts,” said Charles Cody, Arkengarthdale’s Chair of Governors, “as nobody wants to see the closure of a village school, especially one that is the heart of this small community and has been with us for 360 years. But there are only five children on roll and we simply do not have numbers of children in the dale and the area to keep this school open.
“This is a very good school and we have maintained a great curriculum for our children, but we also have had to keep in mind the crucial importance for children of social interaction and the educational benefits of learning with a peer group. With just five children this is not sustainable.”
“This is a very sad day for the Arkengarthdale community,” said Cllr Patrick Mulligan, North Yorkshire’s Executive Member for Education and Skills. “We have done everything possible to support the school and its governors to sustain school provision for the dale. The governors know all their families extremely well and are very knowledgeable about the area, but it appears there simply are not the children out there for the foreseeable future to keep this school going.
“As a county council we are only too aware of the crucial role village schools play in the life of their communities and we are very committed to their support. The fact the county has over 50 schools with fewer than 50 pupils is a sign of this commitment. Indeed North Yorkshire has more small schools than any other authority in England. But in this case we had to act in the interests of the school’s children.”
The county council has agreed to extend the catchment area of Reeth Community Primary School, 3.5 miles away, with effect from September 1 2019 to serve the area currently served by Arkengarthdale.
“Reeth is also a very good school,” said Mr Cody, “”and we are supporting parents and children all the way to make a good transition.
“Despite our great sadness, the whole Arkengarthdale community will be coming together in July to celebrate the school’s long history. All who have a connection with the school, both past and present are welcome.”
In a bid to make Arkengarthdale sustainable and to retain or attract young families to the area, the Upper Dales Community Land Trust recently secured planning approval for the very first social housing in the dale. However, this has come too late to save the school.
County Cllr John Blackie, local member for the Upper Dales and chair of the trust, said the plans were intended to provide housing for young families. However, he reluctantly accepted it was impossible to fight to keep the school open given the very low numbers on roll predicted for the next two years.
He said: “In 21 years of being the local County Councillor this is the first of our seven primary schools here to close and I very much hope it will be the last. We are born fighters not quitters here in the Upper Dales but the battle has already been lost, and so quickly as 5 years ago there were over 30 pupils on the roll at the School.
“Arkengarthdale Primary School will proudly remain a centre of educational excellence to the very day it closes its doors for good, and has been an institution faithfully serving its deeply rural community for 360 years. Sadly though its stock-in-trade, the children who have graced its classrooms and corridors over its distinguished history, are no longer present in the Dale.
“We had hoped that the 4 affordable houses to rent in perpetuity, which are soon to be built and will be owned by the local community, would provide some new entrants but alas it seems it will be too late; but at least the Dale will benefit from having some young families in its midst.”
He added: “All credit to all those involved with the School for trying their very best to keep it open and I am grateful to the County Council for its patience in waiting to see if numbers would recover. This is a very black day for the Upper Dales.”
North Yorkshire’s small schools
North Yorkshire does not take the decision lightly to close small schools. We fully recognise that where possible children should be educated locally in a school that provides high-quality education.
To maintain local provision we have done a great deal in recent years to broker and support school partnerships and federations to maintain the sustainability of small schools. We continue to do so.
If a school closes there are no financial benefits to the county council. On the contrary, it can create additional costs through home-to-school transport for children travelling to schools further away.
We have lobbied national government strongly for better funding for the county’s schools. Although the proposed national funding formula would lead to gains for some shire authorities, increases in funding are not enough to offset underlying financial pressures for schools, such as national insurance contributions and employer pension contributions. School reserves are starting to be eaten into for the first time and this reflects the reality of pressure on public sector funding.
For this reason we continue to press the Government for fairer funding. At secondary level, for example, North Yorkshire is funded at £4,954 per pupil (ranking 129th out of 149 local authorities). In comparison, Hackney is funded at £7,873 per pupil (nearly £3,000 per pupil more). For an average 1,500 pupil secondary school, this is a difference of approx. £4.4m.
The National Funding Formula has effectively downgraded the financial support provided to rural secondary schools.
Also, the funding formula at base is tied to pupil numbers, so falling rolls because of changing demography in rural areas, due partly to a lack of affordable housing for young families, means small schools face very tough financial challenges.
We work with planning authorities to emphasise the importance and need for affordable and suitable housing to attract families into rural areas. We have made our views very clear that if small schools are to survive, then communities must remain sustainable and planning authorities must take this into account.
For our part, and despite challenging budgets, we are working with many partners to maintain the life and economic viability of rural areas - investing in superfast broadband for hard-to-reach areas; aiming to put Extra Care housing for vulnerable and elderly people into every market town; supporting volunteers to keep libraries open; investing additional sums in road maintenance to support local business - in order to sustain communities. It is hoped these new ways of working will in turn help to sustain the county’s schools so that schools remain local enough for children to get to and large enough to offer a first-class education.