EVEN THOUGH the number of pupils and families affected by the latest raft of small school closures in North Yorkshire is relatively modest, this issue does, in fact, extend far beyond the communities most affected by these difficult decisions.
It is actually about the future of this county’s rural heartlands – and the realisation that villages will become increasingly unsustainable unless local, regional and national policy-makers can find a way to halt the erosion of key public services.
Schools are vital to this. They are the rural economy. If they shut, and pupils are forced to travel excessive distances in remote areas, more families will up sticks and move away.
The consequence? Even fewer people to support those services, amenities and businesses that do remain, perpetuating a cycle of social and economic decline in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
And the long-term repercussions? More properties becoming ‘second homes’ and therefore out of the financial reach of those local families, born and bred in North Yorkshire, who want to stay, and eke out a living, in an area that their ancestors were proud to call home.
Yet, while it might be impractical to keep some schools open, closure should always be the option of last resort as parents are consulted on the future of Arkengarthdale School which dates back 360 years.
With just eight pupils, and this number due to fall to five in 2019-20, its governors have concluded, regrettably, that the school is becoming unsustainable and that there is no viable alternative open to them.
However, while their assessment may, sadly, be proved to be correct, other villages could, potentially, avoid a similar fate if there is a concerted plan put in place by North Yorkshire County Council, the Church of England, Department for Education and other relevant bodies to help rural areas to survive and, hopefully, thrive.
For, without one, the rate of closures will inevitably intensify – and to the long-term detriment of the social fabric of North Yorkshire and a farming industry which is totally dependent on families being prepared to live and work in the countryside.