Action needed to stop rural areas becoming child-free zones

Rural schools could be at risk unless action is taken
Rural schools could be at risk unless action is taken

Many rural areas could become child-free zones unless concerted action is taken to stop the closure of schools, shops and community facilities, a meeting has heard.

North Yorkshire County Council’s young people’s scrutiny committee was told while 57 schools in the county were expecting to be in deficit next April, only part of the issue was down to the lack of government funding.

In recent months the authority has repeatedly dismissed claims that it is aiming to cut education costs by closing small rural schools as they are relatively expensive to run per pupil.

The meeting heard a survey by the authority of school funding earlier this month found 83 per cent of schools expected to make reductions in classroom support staff in the next 18 months and 73 per cent expected to cut learning resources.

The study also found by Christmas 2020 63 per cent of schools expected to make reductions in teaching staff, 86 per cent expected to increase class sizes and 93 per cent of schools stated they had a reduced capacity to meet the needs of young people with special needs.

The council’s assistant director of strategic resources Howard Emmett told the meeting the authority was lobbying the Department for Education and ministers for “a fairer funding deal for North Yorkshire schools”.

He said: “We are still of the view that North Yorkshire schools, particularly at secondary level, are not funded sufficiently compared with higher funded local authority areas.”

The meeting was told the authority felt schools funding was weighted towards urban areas.

Councillor Joe Plant asked what the council’s strategy was to support rural schools.

Stuart Carlton, director of the authority’s children and young people’s service, said it encouraged schools which were having financial issues to form a federation with others.

He said: “Fundamentally we have demographic changes. I describe it as blaming your toe for bleeding when someone hits it with a hammer. We don’t close schools because we want to. We close schools because there aren’t any children going to them.”

The council’s executive member for education, Councillor Patrick Mulligan, added schools were sometimes the last community facility to close in a village, with families leaving after pubs and shops closed. He said the solution for rural schools was to attract families to live in the area.

He said: “We really do need to be working on rural sustainability as a whole.

“Everyone will say ‘the school is closing, you are destroying our community’. That is one little slice of what is happening in the rural areas. There are a lot of initiatives going on about rural sustainability.”

The committee’s chairman, Councillor Janet Jefferson, said further action was needed to tackle the issue.

She said: “We are going to be left with certain areas within North Yorkshire that are non child-bearing age. There are going to be villages where there is not going to be any children. It will be like one of those Disney films where there are no longer any children in the town.”