Church of England calls for Government strategy to safeguard future of rural schools

Bishop Stephen Conway
Bishop Stephen Conway

THE CHURCH of England has called on the Government to act to protect the future of education in rural communities.

Lead bishop for education, Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely, said proposed solutions were “insufficient” to safeguard the future of schools in rural areas and has called for a cross-Government rural strategy following a summit held at Lambeth Palace today.

The warning came a week after plans were announced to close Arkengarthdale Church of England Primary, a school that has been at the heart of a Dales community for more than three centuries but which has now seen pupil numbers fall to just eight.

Attending the event was Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, who would now be considering the points made, the Department for Education said.

Bishop Stephen said: “We have been reassured that the Government has a presumption against the closure of rural schools, which is a positive foundation for the future.

“We have also heard from a number of stakeholder organisations, as well as those who are working with schools and communities across the country, who are exploring innovations in collaboration and the use of new technologies to improve pupil outcomes.

"However, it is clear that these steps alone are insufficient, and an overarching rural strategy is now required for the issues facing our countryside communities to be seen together.

“Such an approach is needed not only to give longer-term stability to our education provision, but for housing, infrastructure, broadband, agriculture, business and industry to be seen in the same lens.

"Over the past 200 years Church of England schools have adapted to significant changes in society and we are confident they will continue as rich expressions of their communities long into the future.

“But the countryside is not uniform, and requires a joined-up approach to give its communities the opportunity to thrive for generations to come. We are committed to working with the Government to achieve this.”

Also at the summit were representatives from Ofsted, the National Farmers’ Union, the Prince’s Countryside Fund and local authority and education leaders from across England.

The threat to schooling in deeply rural areas has prompted dire warnings that villages in the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors will no longer be able to survive for future generations without key services being preserved.

The Yorkshire Post reported in July that seven small schools had closed in North Yorkshire in the past year, amid rising deficits and low pupil numbers.