Yorkshire Dales school ‘condemned to closure by out-of-touch governors’

COMMUNITY FEARS: Campaigners outside West Burton Church of England Primary School.
COMMUNITY FEARS: Campaigners outside West Burton Church of England Primary School.
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It is an uncommonly civil dispute yet one that strikes at the heart of rural Yorkshire, as communities which for generations have been family hubs are picked off one by one, and lost to holiday cottages.

In the picturesque corner of Wensleydale that is now the front line in the battle to save those traditional village schools that remain, the former Army officer manning the defences could only look on aghast as a panel of governors handed down their judgement.

It amounted, he suggested, to a death warrant on the little church primary that has stood on the green since the 19th century.

“There’s no mischievousness here – these governors are honourable people,” said Anthony Faith, who commanded regiments in Ulster and was an instructor at Sandhurst.

“They have the interests of the children at heart. But the effects of having no school in the community are obvious. If families can’t settle here it will become a holiday-let village very quickly.”

His fellow campaigner, Sue Ryding, the parish clerk and a former teacher, went further.

“I’ve lived in this village for 33 years and I don’t know a single person on that governing body,” she said. “What you have got here is a group of people who don’t live in this community, and know very little about us, yet who are dictating to us what we do with our school. They had advice and they ignored it.”

The disharmony is centred on the quintessential Dales village of West Burton, just two miles from the triple waterfalls at Aysgarth.

Its Church of England Primary is part of a federation with two other schools in the nearby villages of Bainbridge Askrigg.

But numbers at West Burton have halved since the merger in 2014, with only around 20 children left on the roll, and parents and council officials alike forced to conclude that its best hope of survival lay in breaking ranks and going it alone.

Last summer, the governors decided, against the wishes of parish, district and county councillors, to deny de-federation. This week, despite appeals behind the scenes, they announced there would be no about-turn.

Because their decision does not immediately force the closure of the West Burton school, councillors – despite pulling the purse strings –have no power to intervene.

But John Blackie, who represents the Upper Dales on North Yorkshire County Council, said there was no doubt that the decision would set in train a destabilisation which would further affect numbers and lead quickly to closure.

“There is a crisis here,” he said. “Young families are voting with their feet to leave the Dales, through a lack of housing and perhaps a lack of quality jobs, and everyone is 100 per cent committed to doing all they can to retain our young families and attract new ones. This decision by out-of-touch governors hardly sends the right message, does it?

“They have treated us with contempt. I’m sorry but there’s no other word for it.”

Money had not been the problem. A whip-round in West Burton had raised pledges for school funds of £90,000 in the space of 10 days. But the Bishop of Huddersfield, Jonathan Gibbs, who attended a meeting with campaigners as chairman of the Diocesan Board of Education, told them the gesture might be seen as unfair to less well-off communities.

The suggestion was “ludicrous”, Mr Faith said.

“You could draw an analogy with fundraising for a church or a cathedral – would the priest or the Dean object to the money because another diocese or parish was poorer?”

Derek Walpole, chairman of the school governors, told The Yorkshire Post its “many and varied reasons” for refusing to release West Burton from the federation would be published in detail in the next 10 days.

He said: “We sincerely hope we can continue to work together in the interests of the children and focus our energies on ensuring that we continue to deliver a high quality education.”

The Anglican Diocese of Leeds said it had been “an integral part” of the debate, but would not seek to influence the governors’ decision.

A spokesman said the Bishop would “do all he can to find the best way forward for the children” and would discuss the future of rural schools with council officials.