Changing picture for Yorkshire's rural education

IT PROVIDED an idyllic picture of rural life, set in flickering images that played out across the nation's television screens.

29 November 2018.  Picture Bruce Rollinson
Arkengarthdale. 29 November 2018. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Remote Arkengarthdale, as it was in the opening scenes of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, has long illustrated the character of these deepest Dales.

Hamlets of homes, acutely isolated, have been built on ancient mining and farming industries and the centuries-old traditions that form the very fabric of these rural communities.

Nearly a century after these scenes were set, it is once again representative of this remote society. But it is a community in dire need, as across the Dales a crisis simmers.

Arkengarth Primary School Head of School Helen Ring with pupils at the school. 29 November 2018. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Young families are leaving. There are too few job prospects, local leaders warn, too few affordable homes. Nine small schools in North Yorkshire have closed, or are under threat.

With the loss of schools comes the loss of a draw to young families, sparking a cycle that spirals. The cost, say communities, will be at the character of these Dales.

“There aren’t any children coming through,” said Charles Cody, chair of governors at the under-threat Arkengarthdale school. “That is just a fact of where we are.

“Over the past decade or so, the number of pupils in this area’s schools has halved. The number at Arkengarthdale has dropped 80 per cent. That is just a sign of our times.”

Arkengarthdale School has eight primary school pupils. Next year this will fall to five, and then potentially to three. Last week, a consultation over its closure was launched.

“We have no choice but to look to the future of our school,” said Mr Cody. “To provide a challenging environment for education, but also to meet our financial obligations.

“We can’t do that with this few children.”

The crisis over the future of small schools across North Yorkshire has been brewing for some time. The first, in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, closed in August last year. Then it was Drax, then Rathmell, Ingleby Arncliffe, Skipton Ings, Swainby and Potto. Burnt Yates near Harrogate followed, then the future of West Burton was thrown into doubt.

Now, it’s Arkengarthdale. Seven of the nine are Church of England schools, all with too few pupils.

This week, the church’s senior education lead called for a rural strategy to protect education. Children’s futures cannot not run on the logic of a supermarket, the church warns, schools serving the greatest number of students in the most economic way.

Measures are being put in place. Federations, shared resource.

One headteacher, serving several schools, can cut costs. Moving children to different sites means that there may at least be someone else in their class that is of a similar age.

In February, The Yorkshire Post revealed that many face financial struggle, arguing sparsity funding from central Government isn’t enough to counter costs.

Many, it emerged, are operating at less than a quarter of their capacity.

At one federation, governors revealed, they were looking to parental donations to keep the schools open, despite it going against the fibre of a free education.

North Yorkshire County Council said it is working to maintain the life and economic viability of rural areas.

There are investments in superfast broadband, in road maintenance, in supporting volunteers to keep libraries open.

It is also lobbying central Government, over sparsity funding and its diverse needs.

In Arkengarthdale, plans were passed just weeks ago to secure the first community housing for rent, in the hope that it could bring new families to the area. Governors have turned to inventive measures, attempting to draw in the children of refugees based at Catterick, some 45 minutes away. This too was thwarted, by yet another story of the pressures on these communities. There is no transport for them.

“We have tried,” said Mr Cody, who is also a local businessman running the CB Inn. “The last thing we want is for these schools to close.

“The fact is the children here are getting a better than private school education - the amount of teaching time they are getting is amazing. But the underlying issue is how many children have we got. We haven’t got enough. Not just for next year, but for the years after that.

“That is a reflection of what is happening in the Dales. I don’t think it’s necessarily just the picture in North Yorkshire, it’s a change in society in general.”