School on ‘fast track to closure’ after standalone bid refused

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A refusal to de-federate a small school within remote North Yorkshire has placed it “on the fast track to closure”, a county councillor has warned, marking a sad day for primary education throughout the Upper Dales.

Talks have been ongoing for many months to secure a future for three struggling Wensleydale primaries, Bainbridge, West Burton and Askrigg. Parents and campaigners at West Burton, forming a shadow board, had submitted a formal bid in May for the school to be released of its ties, but this was dismissed by governors on Thursday.

Now County Coun John Blackie has argued that such a move will result in the school’s imminent closure and is not in the best interest of children’s education.

“A school with just 13 pupils is very vulnerable to almost immediate closure,” he said. “If instead it had been allowed to de-federate then there would have been 30 pupils there next term, more than enough to keep it successful and sustainable in the future.

“Clearly, there is a real sense of disappointment, and a degree of unrestrained anger. This is an issue close to parents’ hearts.”

Coun Blackie, who serves on the shadow board and represents the Upper Dales at North Yorkshire County Council, is to raise the issue at the authority’s executive on Wednesday.

“This marks the beginning, not the end,” he said. “They will appeal. Small schools are the future of the Upper Dales and are absolutely critical to the survival of rural communities.”

Consultations over the three school’s future had begun in the spring, but decisions were delayed until after Easter amid concern over the proposals.

To go forward as a group, parents said, would see pupil numbers plummet, with children facing disruption and lengthy travel.

The de-federation bid had followed a public meeting earlier this year, and was backed almost unanimously by parents. But at the decision meeting on Thursday, governors decided they could not support it, deciding instead to press ahead with the preferred option which would see lower school classes held on one site with Key Stage 2 divided between the other two. This, they said, provided the best educational and financial advantages.

“We worked very hard as a governing body to agree a sustainable solution which involves the least disruption and continues to offer a very high quality of education for the children of Wensleydale,” said Derek Walpole, the federation chair of governors. “It was a very tough decision for governors to make and was never going to please everybody. We recognise the concern of West Burton’s parents and have listened very hard to what they have had to say. But we believe it is better if schools work together and we must also consider the sustainability of all three schools and what is in the best educational and social interests of children.”

Across North Yorkshire, seven small schools have closed in the past year, amid rising deficits and low pupil numbers in remote, isolated areas. North Yorkshire County Council has written to MPs in the area pleading for them to back calls to Government for fairer funding.

“This very difficult decision was one taken by the federation governors,” a spokesman for the authority said.

“The county council is committed to working with all schools and to keeping village schools thriving wherever possible.”