Kettlewell parents show their fighting spirit

Parent power saved not just a Dales village school but entire communities, as Terry Fletcher reports Photographs by John Cocks

There are all kinds of things you could do with a top-rated school but after Kettlewell Primary was judged to be ‘outstanding’ by government inspectors North Yorkshire County Council came up with a novel one. They tried to close it.

But if education chiefs 40 miles away in Northallerton thought they might have only a few disgruntled parents to deal with they were wrong. Within days a Save Our School campaign was launched and residents of three valleys spread across more than 100 square miles were up in arms.

Visitors to the poplar Dales village were recruited through a ‘roadside protest’ by figures recycled from its popular midsummer Scarecrow Festival while the fight was carried onto the internet with its own page on the social networking site, Facebook, and a video on YouTube. Hundreds joined the campaign and soon reporters from national newspapers were making their way up Wharfedale to cover the protest which locals said was a fight to save not just their school but their entire communities.

The council argued that the school, which has only 30 pupils, was too expensive to run and wanted to close it along with the even smaller primary at Arncliffe in neighbouring Littondale and bus all the pupils to Grassington, further down Wharfedale.

It predicted that numbers at the school would fall even further over the next three years and the closure could save up to �90,000 a year. But parents argued that with children from outlying communities, some as young as four, facing daily journeys to school of more than 30 miles, extra transport costs would reduce the saving by well over �20,000. They also disputed the council’s predictions of falling pupil numbers, which they said have been consistently overly-pessimistic.

Kettlewell’s fate could also spell closure for many other rural schools, it was said. Almost two dozen more scattered across North Yorkshire have fewer than 30 pupils and more than half of them cost more per pupil to run than Kettlewell. But now parent power has won and the school has been reprieved, though Arncliffe will close with pupils transferring to Kettlewell or Grassington.

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Chris Beazley, chairman of Kettlewell-with-Starbotton Parish Council said: ‘We had to win this fight. The whole life of the village was at stake here. Losing the school would be the start of a domino effect. Because of the school we have a bus service, a shop and a post office. They would have disappeared one by one and probably much more quickly than people think.’

The school, he said, has been crucial in attracting young families to the village and making it a vibrant, living community at a time when other Dales communities have become ghost villages of rarely-used second homes. Without the school Kettlewell and the surrounding villages would be stripped of children and rapidly decline into a collection of weekend retreats and retirement cottages.

‘Unusually for the Dales, we still have a lot of families moving in. Eighty per cent of the children in our school were not actually born here. Their parents may come from here but have had to move away to buy their first homes elsewhere. Then they move back with their families once they can afford it. Without a school they would not come. Who would inflict a 30-mile trip to school on a young child?

‘It may cost more to educate a child at a small school like ours but places like Kettlewell get very little back for our council taxes with few of the facilities people in towns take for granted so we are entitled to expect money for our school,’ he said.

Peter Proctor, who attended the school in the 1970s, said he would not have brought his family back to the Dales five years ago had it not been for the school. Another parent, Debbie Ambler, agrees and said she and her family moved into the village precisely because of the school.

The chairman of the school’s governors, Richard Humpidge, said: ‘The whole of the upper dale has come together. The closure made no financial sense at all. The money saved is ring-fenced and has to be spent education. Spread across the county it’s the equivalent of a few pence-per-pupil and would make no difference to them while killing our school. But the cost of extra transport would come from budgets which have already been cut nationally and actually make the council’s money problems worse.

‘Their predictions have consistently under-estimated pupil numbers over the last 10 years. They are notoriously hard to predict because things can change so quickly. When we moved here four years ago we brought three kids. That increased the school roll by 10 per cent overnight. And there are plans for more housing which will mean more pupils.’

The county council says it stands by its predictions on numbers but says, given the strength of feeling in the upper dale, Kettlewell should remain open while local people try to come up with new ways of supporting the school and cutting costs, perhaps by sharing staff with other schools in the dale.

View the website for Save Kettlewell School here

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