Education bosses who have been repeatedly been accused of allowing small rural schools to close to cut costs have outlined a range of measures being undertaken to stabilise more than 100 primary schools with 100 pupils or less on roll.
North Yorkshire County Council’s children and young people’s scrutiny committee heard the majority of the county’s smallest schools were in rural areas, many of which were seeing a decline in pupil population, in contrast to urban centres where growth was the norm largely due to new housing.
Members were told in some small schools, the council’s experience over the last few years suggested that, in some cases, financial sustainability issues could quickly turn into viability issues, often linked to challenges in school improvement and leadership issues.
While there were more than 170 primary schools in the county in 2004 with fewer than 100 pupils, the council now oversees about 110 small schools.
Last month, the authority approved a consultation over the closure of St Hilda’s Roman Catholic Primary School, in Whitby, which has seen its roll fall to 24 pupils, despite it having the capacity to take 105 children.
School closures in recent years have included those at Arkengarthdale, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Drax, Rathmell, Ingleby Arncliffe, Skipton Ings, Swainby and Potto and Burnt Yates.
The authority’s assistant director for education, Judith Kirk, told the meeting: “Some of our smallest schools are seeing declines in populations, but the schools are taking this extremely seriously.
“Some of the schools are in positions by which they are in very rural communities and are very needy. Schools are starting to come up with all sorts of different ways to manage the changes in numbers and changes in demography as well.”
She said while collaboration between schools was being seen as a way of overcoming numerous challenges, creating school federations, with one or two governing bodies, was an increasingly popular solution.
Mrs Kirk, a former teacher, said: “When they start to collaborate you can start to think about sharing staff, sharing resources and different ways of operating.”
She said while recruitment was a national issue, the county was trying its very best to “really promote rural or coastal areas” to attract teachers and teaching more than one year group in a class would not be off-putting for many as it was quite common.
Mrs Kirk said while the teaching profession in North Yorkshire was dominated by middle-aged women, the council was trying to market the area as “a lively, vibrant place where anyone could work”, but she added schools had a responsibility to offer opportunities to attract teachers.
Stuart Carlton, the council’s director of children and young people’s service, said while the authority was prevented from spending schools’ funding directly on recruitment, it had given some schools experiencing recruitment issues “additional funding to bring in an incentive”.
He added: “Recruitment has been incredibly successful by us marketing the area better, looking outwards more and bringing people in, celebrating what we do really well.
“There are some lessons for us to think through, but some of these things do come down to funding.”