Tony Maguire, who lives in Rathmell, looks at how the former primary school, which closed last year, has been turned into a valuable resource for the community.

The pupils may have gone, but the village school that refused to die is now on the brink of a new lease of life – thanks to an unbroken 300-year-old heritage stretching right across Yorkshire.

Like so many others hit by a devastating mix of shrinking roles and the drop in the number of young families in rural villages, Rathmell School, near Settle, saw its doors finally close last year.

But rather than wait for the inevitable redevelopment, residential conversion or – worse – slow decay, the school now stands transformed into a new hub for the community with employment and education – for all ages – the focus for the future.

“We didn’t want to sit back and wait to lose it, that would have been totally wrong,” explained Jacky Frankland, Treasurer of Rathmell School Trustees. “We’re conscious of the sacrifices and generosity that many people have shown in recent years and right back to when the school was founded.”

Mrs Frankland together with fellow Trustee Rosemary Hyslop were standing proudly outside the transformed and newly rebranded ‘Rathmell Old School’ which has already begun attracting interest from small businesses looking for smart new premises – with an edge.

“We do think we’ve got a real edge here, something different to offer not least because we are about to get what’s being described as the world’s fastest broadband,” said Mrs Hyslop who, like Mrs Frankland, is a successful Rathmell-based businesswoman.

“Thanks to the scheme rolling out across Rathmell, Wigglesworth and parts of Giggleswick we will have one gigabit of data speed as soon as our connection is completed,” said Mrs Frankland.

Digging the new digital network is led by B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) and, just like the school transformation project, backing from locals has been critical to the project’s success.

Painstaking research by the school Trustees tracked down the origins of Rathmell School to a generous businessman who paid for the education of local boys initially in a cottage on the current site and, later, the complete rebuilding of the school premises in the mid-Victorian era.

“We know that a man named George Clarke from Hunslet had assets which he wished to share and so he gave some land back into the community and we can trace that to 1716,” said Jacky. “It is amazing to think that the support he gave, and the funds that came in later years – including a £70 legacy in 1725 from Stephen Carr, a Yeoman farmer who lived just outside the village – laid the foundations of what we have now.”

Amazingly the school premises still benefits from quarterly dividends as a result of the generosity and foresight of its founders. Donations also allowed for a headteachers’ house to be built next to the school, which is now tenanted by a local family, and the 15-acre field tenanted to a local farmer all help towards running costs. Through prudent management the Trustees have been able use some of these reserves to help with Rathmell Old School’s spectacular transformation.

Around £15,000 has gone on new parking facilities; upgraded fixtures and fittings plus structural alterations together with a completely modernised, brighter decor which has left former pupils who still live in the village scratching their heads. “They hardly recognise their classrooms or school hall now!” said Rosemary. “We’ve had local people here who have also generously given their time and energy in helping with the decoration and basic labouring. It’s been a real team effort,” she added.

The Church of England Leeds Diocese supported the school from the 1950s, although ownership sits solely with the Trustees who see their role as guardians for the long-term future. “We have one new business already signed up, which operates high-energy, ‘spinnergize’ cycle classes twice a week and a summer singing course shortly,” said Rosemary. The Old School is also expected to host Pilates classes in August and on the last Sunday of every month a bouncy castle from a businessman in Settle will be installed in the hall for local families to meet up and play safely, whatever the weather. “They’ll be able to enjoy homemade cakes and refreshments which will be on sale to help to raise funds – so it’s just wonderful to see it back in use already,” added Rosemary.

Discussions are also underway about offering the fully-equipped commercial kitchen space for catering options, or particularly as a start-up business opportunity for someone interested in catering – or servicing small conferences or businesses interested in using the larger meeting rooms.

“We both feel very grateful that we’ve been able to preserve and revitalise this wonderful village resource and we plan to continue to improve it still further for future generations,” explained Jacky.