The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) has made a passionate appeal to local education chiefs to recognise the vital importance of primary schools to the life of rural communities.
Letters making the case for keeping open all the remaining primary schools in the national park are also to be sent to the five MPs in the park.
The action comes amid growing concerns for future of several schools in Richmondshire, including West Burton, Askrigg and Bainbridge.
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The following motion was approved unanimously by members of the YDNPA at a meeting last Tuesday.
“In line with the current National Park Management Plan and the new emerging Plan, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority calls upon the County Councils, Local Education Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts (with remit over primary schools in the national park) and the schools’ leadership and management, to recognise the importance of primary schools, individually or networked with others, as a key contributor to the sustainability and future of rural communities and in particular the retention and attraction of young families within them.”
The motion was proposed by one of the YDNPA’s longest-serving members, the Independent North Yorkshire County Councillor, John Blackie.
He told the meeting that up to 10 primary schools in the national park were “under threat” because of falling pupil number.
“When I was first elected to North Yorkshire County Council 20 years ago, Askrigg primary had 79 pupils, Bainbridge had 46 and West Burton had 44. Now the pupil numbers are, respectively, 40, 23 and 22. In 20 years the school populations have halved. The situation is even worse in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale.
“As a National Park Authority, we want to send a clarion call to those that have influence over the running and funding of primary schools – to remind them of the importance of protecting these vital community assets. The efforts we are making to retain and attract young families will be seriously undermined if schools are allowed to close because of short term financial issues.
“Recent history shows us that if a primary school closes, the local community is set on the road to becoming a retirement village. Keld had a thriving school in the 1960s. The school was later closed and now there is not a single child in the village.”
The YDNPA Chairman, Carl Lis, said it was important that the Authority spoke up.
“The recent closure of Horton-in-Ribblesdale primary school was a serious blow for the community, which we campaigned against.
“We do not run schools, or set schools policy, but we have a responsibility to speak on behalf of local communities. We want to make the case to those who manage primary schools in the national park that the schools should be retained.
“If they are not, young adults are likely to continue to leave the park, never to return to live, and the chances of attracting young families to replace them will be further diminished.”
YDNPA member Yvonne Peacock, who lives in Bainbridge and is the Conservative leader of Richmondshire District Council, seconded the motion.
She said: “I spoke particularly about West Burton, Bainbridge and Askrigg schools. It is vital that these schools do not close. The extra funding for schools announced by the government last month is welcome, but we need to ensure local education authorities take on board the importance of our local schools when making decisions.
“We need to encourage more young families to live and work in the Dales. Having a good local primary school is one of the factors that can keep a village sustainable. When a school closes, we know that a village can die.”
Another member, Ian McPherson, who is a governor of Dent primary school, said he was keen to back the motion:
“We cannot underestimate the value of the primary school to the community. Dent school is in a good position at the moment, with more than 30 pupils, but we cannot be complacent.”
An engagement event on the future of West Burton, Askrigg and Bainbridge schools was due to take place this week but has been postponed.
The leadership of the BAWB Federation of schools said that they would be postponing their intended public engagement on the challenges faced by the schools on the advice of officers from North Yorkshire County Council.
Education officials said the reason for the decision was that Government announcements on September 14 regarding the National Funding Formula for Schools has implications for school funding in North Yorkshire for 2018-19 and beyond and, until these are better understood, it is difficult to report with accuracy the potential impact on the BAWB schools.