Small schools in the Yorkshire Dales are facing a “critical” financial picture, authorities warn, as it emerges parents in some areas may have to finance their survival for the first time in history.
New figures, detailing capacity within National Park schools, reveal the stark reality faced by deeply rural communities with some schools operating at less than a quarter full.
Now, on the second day of an investigation by The Yorkshire Post into an emerging crisis faced by Dales communities, governors at a federation representing four small schools have revealed they may face seeking financial support from parents and sponsors to survive.
“This is against the principles of a free education,” said Anne Vetch, chair of governors at the Upper Wharfedale Primary Federation. “But if we want to keep our schools and there isn’t enough money from central Government, do we try and keep them open ourselves? It’s a very tense situation.”
North Yorkshire County Council, lobbying Government for fairer funding for small schools, has said it is “absolutely committed” to supporting them.
But Andy Lancashire, head of school improvement, has said a debate into what more can be done is to welcomed. “Financially, for a lot of small schools, the picture is quite profound,” he said.
The Yorkshire Dales faces “losing its spirit” unless young people can be attracted to the area, national park chiefs said on Saturday as a five-year vision is drawn up for its future.
But as figures lay bare a stark picture of low pupil numbers at some of the county’s remotest schools, governors say they are faced with an unprecedented financial situation.
“The Dales is in crisis now,” said Anne Vetch, chair of governors at the Upper Wharfedale Primary Federation representing Burnsall, Crakoe, Kettlewell and Grassington. “There is no doubt about it. And our schools are so critical to communities up here. If the school goes, we lose a lot of the community life that we have.
“We run the risk that our villages become retirement homes.”
The national park authority, in discussion documents drawn up to shape the park’s strategy, has said there is a trend towards fewer children living in the area. Now figures from North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) show that the 18 schools in the area are operating at, on average, 60 per cent capacity. Burnsall School, with 17 pupils, is 80 per cent empty. Arkengarthdale, with 14 pupils, is 75 per cent empty.
Across the area, there are 1,200 pupils - while capacity is more than 2,000. Within the Upper Wharfedale Federation, twins are set to move to the area, said Mrs Vetch. Their arrival - and the £6,000 they will bring - will mean the four schools can stay open for another year.
“It goes down to that level of detail,” she said. “We go from a position of thinking ‘can we stay open’, to ‘yes, we can, for another year’. Pupil numbers fluctuate, as people move in and out. When it goes down, our budgets show deficiencies, and we don’t have enough money to pay the bills.”
Across the Dales, a number of federations have been formed, sharing headteachers, training and teachers, in attempts to cut costs. The Upper Wharfedale Federation has now said it has turned to parents and sponsors.
“They said if it’s financial woes that are the biggest problem, then we could look at some programme of giving in the community,” said Mrs Vetch. “If we want to keep our communities going, these are the things we have to do. Even when it comes to funding education ourselves - to a point.”
North Yorkshire County Council, the local education authority, has said it is “absolutely committed” to supporting the area’s small schools. It is working with a number to create federations and strategies, a spokesman said, and continues to lobby central Government for a fairer funding system to acknowledge the sparsity of these communities.
Andrew Dixon, strategic planning manager for children’s and young people’s services, said while the numbers appeared stark, a lot of the Dales schools such as Arkengarthdale were already in secure federations which enabled sustainability. “Finance is a critical issue, in terms of how small schools move forward and how they are funded,” he said, adding that the authority is working with schools to support them.
And Andy Lancashire, head of school improvement, said a healthy debate would be welcomed. “There are some significant issues facing our most vulnerable rural communities,” he said. “As a county council we are absolutely committed to rural communities and doing the best we can to support them.”
A Spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Our National Funding Formula, supported by an additional £1.3 billion, has been widely welcomed for putting an end to historic disparities in funding. “Under the new formula, schools in North Yorkshire will attract an increase in funding of 3.6 per cent on average by 2019-20, representing a total increase in funding of £11.7 million. We recognise that some schools are necessarily small because they are remote and do not have the same opportunities to grow or make efficiency savings as other schools.
“These schools may be eligible for additional support from the £26m we have made available through the ‘sparsity funding factor’.”