Closure threat is a lesson in vital role of small rural schools to village life

When Gervase Phinn is asked about the importance of rural schools, he has an armoury of stories to hand.

After 14 years in the classroom, his days as a school inspector brought him face to face with the good, the bad and the occasionally ugly realities of the education system.

It's a while now since he hung up his official title, but when he was asked to lend his support to a campaign which could determine the future of Yorkshire's rural schools, he didn't hesitate.

"Rural schools are a precious thing," he says. "Let me tell you about a visit I made to Bishop Thornton School in Harrogate. It's a little Catholic school with only about 20 or 30 pupils and two members of staff. They are taught in one big room with a partition down the middle to separate the infants from the juniors.

"While I was there, one of the youngest girls fell over in the playground and hurt her knee. Immediately she was comforted by one of the older boys who waited with her until one of the teachers came. That's what rural schools are about. They are like a little family."

It was the same sentiment which 50 years ago inspired the Rev Harry Isherwood to campaign against the closure of his tiny parish school in the hamlet of Oughtershaw, near Skipton. Believing good education was about quality not quantity, the vicar proved a formidable opponent and, thanks to his efforts, Oughtershaw got to keep its school.

Half a century on a similar battle is now being waged a few miles down the road in Kettlewell and Arncliffe. The two villages currently have their own primary schools, but under a shake-up of education services in Upper Wharfedale, North Yorkshire County Council has earmarked both for closure.

Like authorities up and down the country, savings must be made, but Gervase, like many of those involved in the campaign to prevent the schools from shutting, fears the council are not seeing the bigger picture.

"Rural schools don't just provide an education," he says. "Often it's where the Women's Institute meets, it's where fundraising takes place and it's the central heartbeat of the village. We have to do everything possible to ensure they continue. If these schools close, pupils as young as four-years-old, could face a 34-mile round trip to the nearest school.

"I know I wouldn't want my child having to go such a long way on a dark morning and, after the recent snowfall, it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to realise how difficult and treacherous those journeys might become in the winter."

The county council has already launched its formal consultation process and two proposals have been put on the table. The first involves the creation of a single school, with pupils from Arncliffe and Kettlewell moving to Grassington. The second would see the area's primary school provision split across two sites in Grassington and Threshfield. Under either of the schemes, Kettlewell and Arncliffe would both close.

The problem, according to the county council is simple – numbers. Upper Wharfedale has seven primary schools, which currently serve around 347 children. However that figure is projected to fall to 303 by 2014 and, in four years time, Arncliffe may only have six children on its roll and Kettlewell just 15. With such low numbers, the council says the schools won't be viable.

With numbers at Arncliffe having dropped to below five recently, the remaining pupils have already been moved into Kettlewell's classroom and the school itself is currently mothballed. However, some parents have questioned the validity of the council's predictions and claim they know of families who are keen to move to the area, but only if the primary schools remain open.

"The predictions are simply that, predictions," says Gervase. "However, we can't be too blinkered. I think most people would admit the school at Arncliffe may not be viable.

"It's terribly sad. The last time I went there I was greeted by two children who welcomed me into the school and explained that Miss Clayton was in the middle of teaching. I sat at the back of the classroom and watched as she taught the pupils how to make curry.

"It was a lesson which included maths, domestic science and also talked about the multicultural aspects of the dish.

"Afterwards I was scribbling something down and one of the children turned to me and said, 'Mr Phinn, if you were in our class, Miss Clayton wouldn't let you write like that'. The atmosphere there was simply wonderful, the children so well-behaved and I left thinking that I had just seen the perfect school in action."

Aside from the declining numbers, the county council has also raised concerns that decreased funding for schools in rural areas may mean that under the current system pupils may miss out on the best possible education and range of experience.

"We recognise the long history of education in small schools in the area and that these schools are highly valued by their communities," said county councillor John Watson, when news of the likely closure broke last month. "But we have to think about the future and the best means in the circumstances of providing the highest quality education for our children."

It's an argument which has become familiar to Gervase over the years, but it's not one he believes is supported by anecdotal evidence or previous research.

"We did a survey a few years ago in North Yorkshire to see if small schools were viable and whether the national curriculum was being taught as well as in the bigger schools," he says.

"The feedback was incredibly positive. Kettlewell has shown it is equal to any school. It has been given an outstanding bill of health by Ofsted and its achievements are significantly higher than the norm."

The governors at Kettlewell, who successfully managed to extend the county council's proposed consultation, are currently looking at the possibility of part-financing the school for the next three years or forming associations with other schools in the area to save costs.

A final decision is due to be made by the county council executive in February next year, but until then the fight will go on.

"I have seen small schools work in places like Norfolk and have spoken to the schools minister, Nick Gibb, who himself benefited from a small school education. North Yorkshire County Council need to decide on their priorities," says Gervase. "The fact is that if these schools close they will never reopen and the buildings will likely be sold off to some millionaire. If places like Kettlewell lose their school they will cease to be working villages and will instead just become a tourist attraction."

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