Commissioners delve into challenges faced by rural schools and transport

This story was published 7 October 2020

“You cannot find a better school than a good small rural school”. These were the opening words of Kathryn McDonald, a North Yorkshire head teacher of two federated small rural primaries who gave evidence this week to the Rural Commission.

arkengartdale school

The Rural Commission, established by North Yorkshire County Council and the first of its kind nationally,  is an independent panel of experts tasked with helping to turn the tide on rural decline and recommend ways to help some of `North Yorkshire’s most rural communities grow and prosper.

Despite the restrictions due to Covid-19, the panel has continued to meet virtually in recent months and over the last three weeks has met twice to consider two fundamental issues for the sustainability of rural life – transport and education.

Kathryn McDonald is federation head teacher of Carlton & Faceby Church of England voluntary aided primary near Stokesley and Bilsdale Midcable Chop Gate C of E voluntary controlled primary, with just 14 on roll.  She described how a combination of expertise, dedication, detailed planning, innovative and strategic thinking, meant that children in both schools continued to have a rich curriculum and high quality teaching and learning. 

Kathryn, who previously worked for 19 years in schools on South Tyneside in areas of deprivation and who is also an Ofsted inspector said: “We have to be pioneering but the offer is wonderful in rural schools.”

At present, there are 361 schools in total across North Yorkshire with more than two-in-three, situated in rural settings, such as small rural towns, villages and hamlets. Over 50 per cent of the county’s primary schools (126) have fewer than 100 pupils and 51 schools have fewer than 50.  Three of North Yorkshire’s rural secondary schools have fewer than 400 students.

North Yorkshire County Council maintains the highest number of small schools in the country and the commission heard how the overall quality of education in smaller rural schools is significantly higher than in urban areas. In primary settings, for example, 87% of rural schools are currently rated as either outstanding or good by Ofsted, compared to 78 per cent of urban schools. 

The commissioners heard about the importance of these schools to their communities but also about the financial challenges of sustaining them, given that the national school funding formula at base is tied to pupil numbers. Falling rolls because of a changing rural demography and fewer families therefore means small schools face very tough financial challenges.

The commission heard how the number of schools in deficit has doubled in just three years, from 30 schools in 2016/17, up to 60 schools this year.

The commission listened to a range of expert witnesses from Katherine Cowell, Northern
Lead for the Office of the Regional Schools Commissioner which oversees academies for the Department for Education to Richard Noake, Diocesan Director of Education for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds.

They also heard from educational leaders in Lincolnshire and Northumberland and how they are tackling the challenges as well as celebrating and promoting the strengths of rural education in those counties.

Richard Noake said: “The key question is about the quality of provision and the nature of the whole curriculum in terms of cultural, spiritual and social experiences and how this breadth can be sustained in rural schools. Once you dip below 25 pupils that becomes a real challenge which is where we see schools trying really hard to federate.”

The commissioners agreed that strong leadership was vital in driving ambition and innovation and optimism in making the most of opportunities both in rural education and in rural transport.

Two weeks ago, the Rural Commission sat to examine transport issues and took evidence from senior managers in the national rail network right through to community transport groups. They heard that the current UK transport model is too old and too urban centred and too fragmented and does not take account of the rural dimension.

They also heard a whole series of local solutions from community groups who run community transport such as the Little White Bus, which runs scheduled services through the Upper Dales and demand-responses services run by community support organisations like Nidderdale Plus.

Commissioners have now agreed to look at more evidence from national best practice in other local UK councils as well as rural transport models in the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany.

They agreed that a national voice for the county as well as strong communities were vital to power forward this rural region.

As well as meeting virtually through Skype, some members of the Commission have also been out and about in recent weeks to look at how communities work in the village of Hovingham and the market town of Malton in Ryedale.

Commissioner Sally Shortall, Professor of Rural Economy at Newcastle University said: “We are looking closely at what works here and elsewhere in terms of both transport and rural education.  We have seen that you need communities that pull together to make things happen locally, but you also  need leadership at the community, regional and national level pulling together to revitalise rural regions. They are interrelated.”

The Rural Commission operates completely independently and sets its own agenda and topics. It has been meeting over the last 10 months to consider a broad range of subjects and evidence. 

After hearing all the evidence on the topics chosen it will make a series of  recommendations for the county to consider.

So far it has listened to expert witnesses and considered evidence on:

  • Farming;
  • The Economy and Jobs;
  • Housing;
  • Accessibility – Digital, Broadband and Mobile.
  • Transport;
  • Education, Schools and Training;

Topic to be addressed next is:

  • Energy Transition;

The commissioners:

  • The Very Rev John Dobson DL, Dean of Ripon (Chair)
  • Martin Booth - experienced community worker, project manager, trainer and social entrepreneur
  • Chris Clark - Partner in Nethergill Associates, a business management consultancy – building an eco-hill farm business – member NDNPA
  • Heather Hancock – Chair of the Agricultural Forum and former Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority
  • Jean MacQuarrie – Editor-in-Chief, Yorkshire Weeklies – JPI Media
  • Professor Sally Shortall - Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy, Newcastle University
  • Dr Debbie Trebilco - Director of Community Energy England and of the North York Moors National Park Trust.
  • Sir William Worsley - Chairman of the National Forest Company and of Hovingham Estate.