Agenda item

Call in of the Executive Decision - Proposal to cease to maintain Fountains Earth, Lofthouse Church of England Endowed Primary School




The Chair informed the Committee of the decision made by the Executive at the meeting held on 19th March 2024 regarding the Proposal to cease to maintain Fountains Earth, Lofthouse Church of England Endowed Primary School, which was:


i)     To cease to maintain Fountains Earth, Lofthouse CE Endowed Primary School with effect from 31st  March 2024.

ii)    To extend the catchment area of St Cuthbert’s Church of England Primary School, Pateley Bridge with effect from 1st April 2024 to include the area currently served by Fountains Earth, Lofthouse CE Endowed Primary School.


The Chair explained that after the Executive meeting, a notice was made by Councillor Andrew Murday, with support from Councillors Monika Slater, Peter Lacy, Steve Mason, Bryn Griffiths and Dan Sladden. The notice gave three reasons for the Call-In:


1)   Pupil numbers: at present there are no pupils at the school. However, if the issues that led the parents to withdraw their children from the school were to be resolved, then pupils would return. There is a strong belief amongst the parents and the local community that conditions in the school deteriorated in order to depopulate it. Furthermore, the projected numbers into the future were disputed, and this was not made clear in the reports to the Executive.


2)   Educational standard:  the school received a ‘good’ rating on inspection in June 2022. It was strange, therefore, that the governing body of the Upper Nidderdale Federation requested a month later that NYCC should consider closing the school. Although that request was withdrawn, it spread the seeds of doubt, so that parents considered thereafter that the school was under threat. This rating is difficult to reconcile with the view that the education standard provided at the school was inadequate, another reason given for the closure. The implication of this request by the Governors in 2022 was not considered by the executive.


3)   Financial: a further factor leading to the Executive’s closure decision, recorded in the minutes, was the financial cost of keeping an empty school open. At the time of closure, the school had no permanent teaching staff. The cost of maintenance of the buildings over a relatively short period of time until it reopens would be minimal. Compared to this, the costs of home-to school transport from Lofthouse to other schools in Nidderdale will be substantial and will outweigh the maintenance cost. The burden for the children, some as young as 4 years old, of travelling many miles each day to attend a distant school will be considerable. The details of the financial costs were not made clear in the documents provided or in the discussion at the Executive meeting.

The Chair stressed that today’s meeting was to consider the decision making process taken by the Executive, such as whether they had all the relevant information to hand to sufficiently inform them when making the decision, or whether other options were adequately considered in the report presented to them on 19th March.  The Committee were to determine what course of action to take.  This could include one of the following:


(a)     make no referral in relation to the matter; or

(b)     refer the matter back to the decision taker (Executive) for reconsideration; or

(c)     refer the matter to Full Council.


The Chair invited Councillor Murday to speak. Councillor Murday thanked the Committee and said he appreciated the difficult decisions that have to be made when considering school closures.  He took Members through his presentation which can be viewed under Item 7 of the agenda reports pack:  

Councillor Murday emphasised that small rural schools are very much part of the community, creating social cohesion between the different age groups. He added that prior to 2021, parents were very satisfied with the level of teaching. However, the end of on-site school lunches and the speculation around school closure led many parents to withdraw their children and move to alternative schools. He highlighted that there has been a breakdown in communication between the Upper Nidderdale Federation and parents. A added that a petition was presented to the Skipton & Ripon Area Constituency Committee asking them to halt the closure of the school until a thorough investigation  into the leadership and management of the Federation had been carried out.

The Chair of the Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee made it very clear that the Committee would not look into the closure of a specific school, but rather the process and procedures that are followed. 

The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services was asked to respond to Councillor Murday’s comments.  He explained that when considering the proposal to cease to maintain Fountains Earth, the service followed the statutory procedures, specifically school admissions, educational standards and  administration and finance.  In response to Councillor Murday’s three points:


1)   Pupil Numbers


·      The Corporate Director stated that it is correct to say that there are no pupils on roll and there have not been any during this academic year.  As a result of this the school’s financial position is weakened (but more about this will be said in response to point 3).The most recent inspection of the school reported positive outcomes for the children on roll at the time, the school was well supported through the Federation model in order to achieve this for such a small school. This was a short inspection, lasting only one day. It was the first since it was last inspected five years earlier prior to the pandemic, providing confirmation that the school ‘continues to be a good school’.


·      However, the main issue facing the school’s viability is the low numbers. The data shows a decline in numbers of children attending the school and of children living in the catchment area.The school, which has capacity for 50 children, has operated with less than 35 pupils over the last 15 years, but this has become 15 children or fewer over the last four years, and it includes some children who have attended from outside of the catchment. The decline in pupil numbers has occurred over time.

·      NHS data tells us that there are 15 primary age children registered as living in the area but in terms of pupils living in area and attending state funded schools – this number has reduced from 27 to 8 over a seven year period and there are now only 8 children. 


·      We have heard that the reasons given for parents moving on match those given in many schools: parental house move or job change, parental preference for another size school and in some cases dissatisfaction with the school. The LA, as an admissions authority, must support parental admissions applications. Furthermore, the availability of surplus places in the area facilitates movement from school to school.


·      The consultation allowed parents to be aware of the risk to the school’s future. It has created high levels of interest in the area but has not resulted in any children applying to join or re-join the school.


2)   Educational Standard

·      The Corporate Director explained the timeline of events, beginning when the Federation Governing Board approached the Council in March 2022 for discussions about the future viability of the school. On 16th June 2022 the Chair of the Federation Board contacted the local authority to confirm the governing board’s discussions, which were as follows:

On 15th June the Upper Nidderdale Federation Governing Board took the difficult and brave decision to ask for consultation to consider closing Fountains Earth CofE Primary School in Lofthouse (FEL).  The decision has been reached after several months of discussions with yourselves and at the new Federation governor meetings. We understand that this conversation pre-dates the formation of Upper Nidderdale Federation Governing Body. We have looked at the facts and figures around the school including educational targets, the social and emotional welfare of the children, pupil numbers and sensibly, budget impact.   I have visited the school to meet staff and pupils so that I have first-hand experience of the school. The fact that the school is delightful makes this decision even more difficult.  The Vice Chair also visits on a regular basis to monitor safeguarding.


We feel that we have considered all the facts carefully and diligently.  With only 11 pupils (14 potentially next year, 11 thereafter) of mixed age groups, it is impractical to achieve and maintain the right educational standards and meet the emotional and social needs of the children adequately, and certainly not to the outstanding level that we ( our headteacher, leadership team and Governors) aim for.  In affect we are failing our children.


It is also worth noting that we have tried but failed to find another viable alternative to closure. Our headteacher and her staff are giving the children support beyond the provision of one teacher and one teaching assistant, with subject leads monitoring educational progress and supporting on a regular basis. We are aware that due to a lack of pupils there is a disparity, a lack of peers for the children of each age group to have fully enriched and constant age-appropriate learning, and the correct environment for good social and emotional support and development.  The Federation Fridays are having a tremendous positive impact but can only work for subjects such as PE and music, not the full curriculum and further illustrates why the school is not viable, when we are having to take Fountains Earth children to St Cuthbert's to help support their needs. 


·      The Corporate Director explained to the Committee that the Governors informed parents of this decision and as a result of feedback about the forecast pupil numbers, they withdrew their request and worked with the community to establish whether there were more pupils in the area.  The following email was sent to an NYC officer 20th July 2022:

“I thought I would put this officially in writing to you.  We are withdrawing our application for Consultation for Fountains Earth Primary School whilst we review new information.  Parents and the wider community including the Parish Council and Cllr Andrew Murday will be informed now.” 


·      The school was inspected on 29th June 2022 and the report published by Ofsted on 21st September 2022. The LA recognise the challenges faced by leaders of very small schools to ensure that children access age-appropriate curriculum and support and that they have a range of experiences and ample opportunities to develop socially and emotionally alongside peers. This challenge becomes greater as pupil numbers reduce, but it has not been stated that the education is inadequate.


·      The added challenge faced by Fountains Earth to recruit and retain a skilled, permanent class teacher to teach across 3 curriculum phase (Early Years, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2) has been difficult and has not been possible over recent years. Over time, this will impact on pupil outcomes.


·      During the statutory school organisation process, information has been provided about pupil numbers, school finances and education performance.


·      Any discussions with the school community about potential school closure will create uncertainty and the experience of schools within North Yorkshire shows that the consultation process itself can lead to pupil movement.  In this case however, the request to consult was withdrawn, then pupil numbers declined, and this led to Governors returning to the Council again in the autumn of 2023 to request consultation for the second time as a result of there being no pupils on roll.


3)   Financial

·      The Corporate Director explained that as stated in the reports to Councillors, the DfE have not allocated any funding for the school in the 24-25 financial year as there were no pupils on roll on the October 2023 school census. Therefore, any 2024/25 formula funding allocation for Fountains Earth, Lofthouse CE Primary would need to be funded from the DSG funding allocations provided for other schools and academies within North Yorkshire.   Awarding funding to a school with no pupils, and not awarding funding to other schools in financial difficulty or who are geographically vital, and have pupils on roll, risks setting a precedent that will not gain universal agreement and may result in potential future liabilities in other potential school closures.


·      The projected cost of keeping Fountains Earth open with no pupils from April – August 2024 is £37.5k. This would reduce the accumulated surplus of c.£50k to £12.5k. From September 2024, projections show that at 3 pupils, the school would make a further in-year deficit of c.£131k leaving an accumulated deficit of £118k by 31 March 2025. Similar projections for 6 pupils and 15 pupils, show a projected accumulated deficit of £119k and £121k respectively – largely associated with the stepped-fixed costs incurred by staffing the school. The table below illustrates the projected financial position associated with 3 pupil number scenarios (funding is lagged by one year):



Although it has no income for this financial year, the school continues to have shared costs for a number of other staff including leadership and support staff whilst it remains open. There are other costs associated with the school buildings and site, such as rates, insurance, energy, routine safety checks, cleaning and utilities.


·   The Council is not expecting to pick up new transport costs in the immediate future as there are no children on roll that require transport. The Council will continue to implement the home to school transport (H2ST) policy applicable at the relevant time. The current policy allows travel assistance to the nearest and catchment schools for primary children travelling over the statutory walking distance of 2 miles (under 8s) and 3 miles (over 8s). The decision to incorporate the Fountains Earth Lofthouse catchment into St Cuthbert’s, Pateley Bridge would mean that many children living in the catchment would be eligible for H2ST assistance to St Cuthbert’s School. This is a route that is currently used for children to access travel assistance to the secondary school in the area.


The Chair thanked the Corporate Director and said that she felt that the process has been fair, thorough, and lawful. She asked Councillor Annabel Wilkinson, Executive Member for Education and Skills if she would like to add anything. Councillor Wilkinson thanked everyone from the Upper Nidderdale community for contributing to the consultation and stressed that no one ever wants to close a school. She wanted to offer reassurance that officers will continue to work with the Upper Nidderdale Federation to try and make sure that the other schools within the Federation remain financially sound. 


The following comments were made by Members:-


·      Unfortunately, it is outside of the Council’s remit and not national policy to investigate into the Leadership of the Upper Nidderdale Federation.


·      A lot of effort has gone into ensuring that the reports which have been presented are well detailed and compliant with national policy.


·      The Council has considered all the significant information which has enabled Members to make an informed decision.


·      The Executive made the right decision at their meeting on 19th March 2024.


The Chair asked Members to vote, and a show of hands unanimously agreed that no further action would be taken.  As a result, the decision made at Executive on 19th  March 2024 came into immediate effect.


Resolved –


That the Committee approves


1)       the decision made at the Executive Meeting on 19th March 2024 to cease to maintain Fountains Earth Lofthouse Church of England Endowed Primary School;


2)       the school to close as from the date of this meeting (17th April 2024).

Supporting documents: