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Yorkshire village dispute with diocese goes to court

05 April 2024


The former primary school in Rathmell, near Settle

The former primary school in Rathmell, near Settle

A DISPUTE between Yorkshire villagers and the diocese of Leeds will be the subject of a High Court hearing on 23 April.

It concerns the ownership of a former primary school in Rathmell, which was closed by its governing body in 2017, owing to unsustainable pupil numbers. The building has since become a community centre, operated by locals and the Rathmell School Trust (News, 27 November 2020; 28 July 2023).

Because the school operated as a voluntary aided school with a Christian ethos, the diocese of Leeds argues that it was part of the diocesan provision, and should be transferred “into a restricted fund to be used solely and for the benefit of other Church of England Schools. This is normal practice where schools close and is provided for in the Education Act 1996 (s554).”

The school, however, operated as part of an established trust, with active trustees, who say that the school has reverted to them under the original terms of the trust deed. “This school was a longstanding feature of the village, and was never church land,” Jacky Frankland, one of the trustees, said. “We have maintained it for years, and we’re not going away now just because they want us to.”

The trustees and their supporters say that the school was endowed by a local landowner, Christopher John Geldard, in 1869. The Victorian school initially operated in a cottage on his estate, then gained its own purpose-built school building through investment by his son in 1874.

Additions were made over the years: the trust now comprises the old school building, the former schoolmaster’s house (which is let), and a 15.5-acre field, some of which is rented for arable farming. Revenues have been remitted to the trust and controlled by the trustees, who have, over the years, given funding to the school for equipment and activities.

The diocese says that it has “always treated the school as a Church of England School and has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in it. In the ten years before it closed, over £550,000 was given to fund improvements to the building (which are benefiting everyone still). All of this was done on the basis that legally it was a Church of England school and to help the trustees meet the aims of the Trust.”

Voluntary aided status was introduced by the 1944 Education Act. In the 1950s, Rathmell village school entered into an arrangement with the then diocese of Ripon. It is understood that the local vicar served as chairman of the trust by convention, although that is no longer the case.

It appears, however, that these assets were not correctly logged with the Land Registry. Since the dispute arose, the trustees have taken steps to rectify that, and have gone through the necessary procedures.

Mrs Frankland, who describes herself as a farmer’s wife and drives a school bus, is proud of the school’s continuing use as a community centre. “We have a Sunday lunch club that regularly collects £500. A recent 100th-birthday party for someone had guests from all over the world, and the youngest was three years old.”

She also points to the centre’s use for social and educational initiatives such as sewing, cooking, singing, land management, and first aid.

Because the trustees have operated the site responsibly throughout its history, Mrs Frankland believes that they should continue to do so, for the benefit of the community and educational purposes. Otherwise, many local people fear that it will be sold by the diocese without regard to the impact on the local area.

The diocese, she says, has suggested that the trustees “sign over the premises so that we, the locals, can lease it back for 15 years on a peppercorn rent. But why should we do that?”

A spokesperson for the diocese of Leeds said: “At no point has the diocese said it would flatten the school and sell it to a developer. This is simply not true. In fact, several years ago the diocese suggested to the trustees there may be a way to lease or sell the site to a new community trust so it could continue to serve the community. The trustees decided to not follow this through.”

Mrs Frankland alleges that a former school near by in the village of Horton, in Ribblesdale, which also closed in 2017, is now in a state of “rack and ruin”. It was a diocesan school with local trustees, and, as a result of disputes, the site has suffered neglect and disrepair, she says.

The diocese considers itself to be following the correct procedure with Rathmell. “We have sought to work with the trustees throughout. The school closed seven years ago, and all we have sought to do is to ensure that the legal responsibilities of all parties are met.

“The diocese remains willing to work to find a resolution and ensure the school site is available for community use; but it cannot do so whilst the trustees continue to claim as invalid the terms of the original trust.”

The Education Act 1996 (s554), which the diocese is referring to, allows the Secretary of State discretionary powers to vary the terms of an endowment or school trust where “the premises of a voluntary or grant-maintained school (within the meaning of this Act) have ceased to be used for such”.

It is unclear why the diocese has not applied to the Secretary of State for an adjudication, but instead has filed for a hearing in the High Court.

Under the 1841 School Sites Act, any land grant of up to an acre to trustees for use as a school could immediately revert to the original donor’s descendants should it cease to operate. This principle was tested in 2006, when the diocese of Canterbury lost its claim over St Philip’s C of E Primary School, in Maidstone. That school had closed in 1995, and its land was sold on for £120,000. Ten years later, it was sold again for £400,000 (News, 2 November 2006; 27 September 2007). In Rathmell, one of the Geldard descendants is a school trustee.

The diocese of Leeds has also declined to say how much the litigation has cost to date. Its filed accounts for the 2022 financial year showed a shortfall of £1.6 million. It has clarified that it “would not itself benefit financially from taking responsibility for the trust’s assets. These would legally have to be reinvested to benefit children’s education within our many schools in the diocese.”

The Rathmell trustees say that their own costs have exceeded £63,000, which have been met by fund-raising and donations. They hope to raise another £50,000.

Mrs Frankland says that she has been contacted by “numerous others” around the country who have experienced similar disputes with dioceses over land rights and ownership. She accuses diocesan leaders of having “no morals, no ethics, no care and kindness”. The diocese of Leeds has dismissed many of the trustees’ claims as “deliberately misleading and misrepresentative of the facts”.

The diocesan statement says: “This is a dispute of fact which, regrettably, can only be resolved in a court. This is the subject of current proceedings before the High Court, which will be determined later this year.”

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