School closure moratorium branded ‘utter nonsense’

Arkengarthdale C of E School after its closure.

A proposal to arrest the stream of closures of rural primary schools across North Yorkshire until the first county-wide plan for housing developments is adopted has been dismissed as “utter nonsense”.

Leading members of Conservative-led North Yorkshire Council said the authority could be left facing multi-million pound bills to maintain empty schools if they agreed to a Liberal Democrat notice of motion for a moratorium on school closures until at least 2028.

The proposal follows Department of Education figures revealing North Yorkshire has seen the highest rate of rural school closures in the country in recent years and numerous unsuccessful community-led campaigns to rescue village schools hit by finances, losing pupils and staff or receiving poor Ofsted ratings.

Proposing the motion to a meeting of the authority, Councillor Steve Mason said the county was suffering from “a lack of strategy” and once the first North Yorkshire-wide Local Plan development blueprint was in place, the authority would be in a much better position to decide where schools were needed.

He said the move was designed to highlight the loss of not only schools, but core facilities such as pubs and shops in villages before houses which would support them to be viable get built and for the authority to start examining ways and levers which could be used to protect them.

Coun Mason said: “It is important we have these facilities in place now, even if we have to mothball some of them, just to make sure we retain some of the facilities for when the development plan comes forward.

“I think as an authority with significant reserves over the recommended amount it’s not too much to ask that we start protecting our community infrastructure.”

Councillor Andrew Murday added he had spent two years in a struggle to maintain the school in Lofthouse, which had failed despite it being key to the Upper Nidderdale community and some seven miles from Pateley Bridge.

He warned councillors: “You will be in the same position as me over the next period of time unless you are very fortunate. If we have no young people in these rural communities they will surely die.”

However, the meeting heard the Department for Education had forbidden the authority from using its general funds to “prop up” schools.

A number of Independent councillors then questioned whether a moratorium would help address the situation as the council could not determine the age profile of house-buyers or which school parents wanted to send their children to.

Executive member for education Councillor Annabel Wilkinson said not allowing school closures to be considered by the council would fall short of statutory guidance and it would be “completely irresponsible to put a halt on all closures and maintain empty schools”.

She said the council had closed nine schools since April 2019, before adding other schools had “technically closed” as the result of “other statutory school organisational changes”.

Coun Wilkinson said the extrapolated cost of maintaining schools with no pupils could be up to £6m and on the assumption two schools closed every year for the next five years the council would have to pick up all the premises and grounds maintenance costs.

Ahead of a large majority of members voting against the moratorium, children’s services executive member Councillor Janet Sanderson added school closures also brought positive impacts for pupils, such as a broader curriculum and easier transition to secondary schools.

She said: “With the local authority not having, in effect, any alternative other than to fulfil its statutory duty I regard the content of this motion as utter nonsense. It would be a clear failure of the council’s legal duties. We would leave school governors stranded with no support, no policy and no funding.”