Since last year, nine small schools have been threatened with closure in North Yorkshire as pupils numbers plummet, with the Church of England this week calling for a rural strategy to address challenges nationwide.
Now, as it emerges that urgent meetings are to be held with education leaders, senior clergy say a co-ordinated Yorkshire vision is needed to protect rural communities, putting pressure on Westminster to draw up a blueprint for the future.
“We need to be shouting loud and proud about our rural communities, and making sure that people in London are hearing that in the midst of all the noise,” said Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, Bishop of Huddersfield and chairman of the Leeds’ Diocese education board. “We need our politicians, both locally and nationally, to be pressing central Government for a more coordinated approach.
“These schools are a central pillar of rural communities - this issue cannot be seen in isolation, but as part of a much bigger discussion about their future.
“Our rural communities need joined up thinking in order to be able to thrive, not just survive.”
Schools can not be run on a logic of efficiencies alone, the church warned earlier this week, as leaders called for a cross-Government rural strategy to ensure stability, while Defra has said that it is important for rural needs to be heard nationwide. A plan is needed, Bishop Jonathan adds, rather than “crisis talks” over individual schools when funding becomes untenable.
“We need a clear strategy,” he said. “This is a high priority. If a school does have to close, that has a huge impact on the resilience of rural communities.”
A number of small schools in North Yorkshire, the education authority has said, have seen falling rolls as a result of changing demographics. With funding tied to numbers, North Yorkshire County Council adds, they face “very tough” financial challenges.
“We are very aware of the crucial role village schools play in the life of their communities and are very committed to their support,” said Stuart Carlton, director of the children and young people’s service, welcoming the approach. “We have lobbied national Government strongly for better funding for the county’s schools as school reserves are reducing and this reflects the reality of pressure on public sector funding. 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.”