Figures obtained by The Yorkshire Post have revealed that schools in North Yorkshire are predicting a £21m deficit within just two years.
Rural campaign groups have admitted that long-running problems of dwindling pupil numbers and a critical lack of funding has left many rural communities facing the prospect of losing their village school.
In North Yorkshire, eight schools have shut in the past three years, with the threat of more to come. A consultation is underway on the planned closure of Clapham Church of England Primary School after pupil numbers are due to fall from the current 10 to just six in September.
The Rural Services Network’s chief executive, Graham Biggs, said: “No-one should be disadvantaged by where they live. However, until the Government looks properly at the needs, not just of education, but of affordable housing, transport and broadband provision in these areas, then it will continue to be the case.”
Following complaints that school budgets had become a postcode lottery, the Department for Education (DfE) introduced the National Funding Formula (NFF). Based on the needs of schools and pupil numbers, the initiative was set up in 2018-19.
However, the formula fails to adequately take geographical considerations into account and with many rural schools struggling with dwindling class sizes, many fear they will be unable to keep pace with cost pressures.
According to North Yorkshire County Council, the area’s schools have forecast their total reserves will by £4.7m at the end of this financial year. However, this is predicted to drop to a deficit of £6.8m by 2021 and £20.8m the following year.
The council’s director of strategic resources, Gary Fielding, said: “While forecasts are often overly pessimistic, it is a worrying trend. North Yorkshire is a vast area and that inevitably impacts on how education is delivered.
“Equally, many of our primary schools have a small number of pupils. That isn’t a reflection of their quality, it’s again down to geography. However, we feel it isn’t something which is properly recognised by the NFF and if they don’t get the right funding their ability to meet the needs of their pupils will be compromised.”
The DfE said it will look at the NFF for schools after North Yorkshire County Council has been at the forefront of a national campaign for reforms. A spokesman said: “The Government recognises the essential role that small schools play in their communities, especially in remote areas.”
"Policymakers have long been biased in favour of urban centres"
A leading campaign group dedicated to championing rural areas has branded the plight of North Yorkshire’s schools as a clear example of how Britain’s countryside communities are being unfairly sidelined in favour of major towns and cities.
Concerns are escalating that years of under-funding in rural education are reaching a tipping point, with fears that the rate of school closures will escalate.
Campaigners from the Rural Services Network (RSN) have claimed that the way the Government calculates the money it gives to local authorities is skewed in favour of large towns and cities and it has accused successive administrations of letting the rural population down.
The RCN’s chief executive, Graham Biggs, said: “Sadly, this isn’t a new problem. I have been working in this sector for 30 years and the truth is, rural communities have always spent the money they have, rather than the money they need.
“Policymakers have long been biased in favour of urban centres and this is starkly illustrated by the bleak future facing many primary and secondary schools in these more remote areas.
“More than a third of rural schools have fewer than 110 pupils, compared to just five per cent of urban schools. The reality is that per pupil, school running costs increase as the roll call shrinks and they rise sharply where schools have fewer than 50 pupils.
“Core costs, such as teaching salaries, energy bills and catering, are also all typically above average in these schools and home to school transport costs are many times higher.
“Add to that the fact that many rural schools are housed in historic buildings, which are expensive to maintain and costly to heat, and it’s easy to see how they can end up in financial deficit.
“The Government should make a commitment to ensure these schools are fit for purpose. However, they often miss out on capital funding for maintenance or modernisation, with expenditure being focussed on larger school development projects.”
The RSN claimed that the problems being experienced by many primary and secondary schools in North Yorkshire are replicated in the further education sector, with young people from rural areas often experiencing major difficulties in accessing colleges or sixth forms.
Mr Biggs said: “Four years ago, the Government began a rolling review of post-16 education and training facilities across the countryside and this has resulted in a number of colleges merging onto a single site.
“While on paper this makes economic sense, the knock-on effect for some students in rural areas is that they now need to undertake long or complex journeys to get there and back - for others it has meant compromising on the course topics they take.
“The real danger is that decisions like this dampen young people’s aspirations and curtail opportunities. Offering subsidised travel to these students would remove one of those barriers to education, but it is often seen by those at the top as unnecessary.”
With latest figures showing that 17 per cent of the population in England live in small rural towns, villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings, the RSN is now renewing its call for the Government to publish a formal Rural Strategy.
Mr Biggs added: “Those living in rural areas pay on average 22.7 per cent more per head in council tax than those living in urban centres. However, while they might pay more they receive far fewer services. That can’t be right.”
However, the New Year has brought a glimmer of hope.
As part of the national F40 fairer funding for education initiative, North Yorkshire County Council has been a vocal campaigner for change and following a consultation on minimum pupil funding, the Department for Education has now promised it will listen to education leaders’ concerns.
A spokesman said: “The Government recognises the essential role that small schools play in their communities, especially in remote areas.
“While the National Funding Formula (NFF) does account for the particular challenges faced by small schools, we acknowledge that there is a case for further support.
“We will therefore consider ways to ensure that the NFF better supports small schools from 2021-22 and will engage stakeholders further in the coming months.”