AN appeal to education chiefs by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to recognise the importance of primary schools, has been welcomed by North Yorkshire's education authority. Lesley Tate reports.

IN the last year, we have seen the sad closure of Horton-in-Ribblesdale Primary School. Falling numbers were blamed for the closure of the school, on a well-trodden track to Penyghent, and passed by thousands of visitors every year. Parents and friends of the school campaigned long and hard to stop the closure, and were supported in their efforts by the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and Craven District Council - both authorities arguing that it was vital to the life and sustainability of the village. It seemed a no -brainer - but it was to no avail, and the school closed at the end of the school year. In addition to Horton, Rathmell Primary School, on the outskirts of the national park, also closed in the summer - a similar victim of falling numbers, while Ings Community Primary School in Skipton, 'gateway to the dales' is also expected to close at the end of the year.

Concerned about the impact closing schools has on its villages - and not only if they actually close, but from the very minute there is a threat, the national park authority has made a passionate appeal to all the education authorities whose schools are within the park.

It wants all remaining 23 schools in the park to remain open, and it has written to all of the five MPs, including Skipton MP Julian Smith - to support it in its appeal. In Craven's part of the national park, there are schools at Burnsall, Grassington, Kettlewell, Cracoe, Threshfield, Embsay, Beamsley, Austwick, Kirkby Malham, and Long Preston.

Just outside the park, there are also primary schools at Settle and at Ingleton.

A motion, supported unanimously by all of the authority members at its meeting at the end of September, read: “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 authority'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 numbers:

“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," he said.

“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."

Cllr Blackie said it had been shown, that once a primary school closes, the community was set on the road to becoming a 'retirement village.'

Authority chairman, Carl Lis, who is also a member of Craven District Council said it was important that the authority spoke up.

And although the authority was not responsible for schools, he felt it had a responsibility to fight for its communities.

“The recent closure of Horton-in-Ribblesdale primary school was a serious blow for the community, which we campaigned against," he said.

“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.”

National park member Yvonne Peacock, who lives in Bainbridge and who is the Conservative leader of Richmondshire District Council, seconded the motion.

“I spoke particularly about West Burton, Bainbridge and Askrigg schools," she said. " 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. "

And she said more young families needed to be encouraged 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," she said.

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.”

Responding to the plea from the authority, North Yorkshire County Council welcomed it, but added it also needed a change in policy from central government.

North Yorkshire is the largest rural council in the country, and says it understands more than most the crucial role rural schools play in the life of their communities.

And, it says it goes to greater lengths than many other education authorities to support village schools and to offer quality education.

Across the whole of the county, almost 50 of its schools have fewer than 50 pupils.

It has lobbied central government for better funding for its schools, and for small village schools in particular, where the funding formula is tied to the number of pupils.

And it points out falling rolls because of changing demography in rural areas, due partly to a lack of affordable housing for young families, means small schools face very tough financial challenges.

For this reason, the council says it takes every opportunity to remind planning authorities like the national parks and district councils that if village schools are to survive then communities themselves must remain sustainable through a range of housing provision.

But along with school governing bodies facing increasing concern about growing financial deficits and the ability of their schools to continue to offer a good and vibrant education, it has a responsibility to take those concerns seriously. The fundamental issue is that very low numbers lead to lack of curriculum breadth caused by overwhelming funding pressures as well as very limited social experiences for pupils. Quality and breadth of education and financial viability are not unrelated.

County councillor, Patrick Mulligan, North Yorkshire's executive member for schools, and also a member of Craven District Council, said: "“The sustainability of rural schools is a responsibility and a commitment that all must share. Education and planning authorities as well as central government – we all have our part to play.”