SMALL schools in rural Oxfordshire could be at risk of closure as they verge on 'financial ruin,' councillors fear.

As schools across the country struggle to cover rising costs, those in more remote communities - particularly those with an ageing population - face the additional pressure of filling places.

Speaking at an Oxfordshire County Council meeting last week, Carole Thomson, chair of the Oxfordshire Governors’ Association, said: "Our schools in Oxfordshire are funded lower [than neighbouring counties], that's a fact, and we have more rural primary schools. We are facing a meltdown, frankly.

"If we don't address it as a policy issue, it will hit us in the face in the future."

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Many of the county's primary schools will see their numbers dip this year, as a larger cohort of children move up to secondary school.

As core school funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis, the fewer pupils a school has, the less funding it receives.

Ms Thomson said schools particularly feeling the pinch are those with an experienced workforce, as salaries are higher, but said experienced teachers are important to support rural schools as they often have to juggle more than one year group.

She added, however: "Those schools will be far closer to financial ruin than those who've only got teachers in their second year [for example]."

Also speaking at the education scrutiny meeting, councillor John Howson said: "We have a large community of rural primary schools at a time where the birth rate is beginning to decline and the housing market is going through a very unusual phase.

"This current [school] funding formula doesn't protect rural primary schools."

The committee's chairman Michael Waine added: "We really need to look at the future of rural schools with the intention of doing everything in our power to keep them open and successful.

"There has to be a way of sustaining them and holding communities together."

In April Wootton-by-Woodstock CE Primary School announced it will have to cut staff and merge two classes into one, to cope with a dip in numbers.

A council officer who spoke at the meeting, who had analysed trends in school place demand, agreed that 'some of our rural schools have been disproportionately affected.'

She added: "We would ask schools to start talking to us now about what they are seeing on the ground and what might work to protect them going forward.

"We don't want to see them go - we want to support them."

At the meeting, which took place at County Hall on Monday, councillors quizzed representatives of the regional schools commissioner's office, which oversees academies.

Reacting to concerns, Dame Kate Dethridge, the interim regional schools commissioner covering Oxfordshire, said: "We absolutely recognise that small rural primary schools aren't 'just' there to educate children, but they are so often the heart of a community.

"We certainly have examples in this locality of [academy] trusts who take on small rural schools and do it very well, and who are financially efficient."

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County councillor Emma Turnbull said after the meeting: "I was astounded to hear [the RSC] downplay the financial pressures facing our local schools.

"The representatives seemed to see their raison d’etre as driving down costs and supporting schools to find further ‘efficiencies’.

"Schools in Oxfordshire are facing serious funding pressures and a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, resulting in reductions in working hours, narrowing of the curriculum, and the loss of specialist SEND support."

In March Ofsted praised Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust, which runs many rural academies in the county, for helping small schools to stay sustainable.

Commenting on councillors' concerns, the trust's deputy CEO Ian Elkington agreed 'we are working in extremely challenging financial times.'

He added: "ODST is strongly committed to ensuring that our small rural schools continue to thrive at the heart of their communities.

"As part of our larger family of schools, we are extremely proud of how our small schools continue to serve their local communities, including children, parents, local churches and the diocese as a whole.

"Our small rural schools have successfully shared good practice and ensured that their vision and values have remained strong."

He said the trust tries to find 'innovative and creative ways' to ensure schools stay viable.