F OR more than two and a half centuries the school at Whitfield has been a bedrock of the West Allen Valley and a bellwether of education.

Founder William Ord broke with convention in 1757, creating an institution that would teach both boys and girls, long before educational equality became the norm.

And in the first decade of the 21st century, it proudly proclaimed itself one of the first carbon neutral schools in the country.

However, history and past innovation count for little in a schools system where success is judged by results and processes, rather than social values.

So after taking a caning from Ofsted in seven inspections in the space of two years, the school is facing the very real prospect of closure.

Confronted by the stark choice from the Department for Education of academisation or closure, governors at the school reluctantly took the decision to consult on possible closure by the end of this term.

Closure is not a foregone conclusion, thanks to the unique circumstances in which the school finds itself.

Usually, a school with such a poor track record as determined by Ofsted, would see pupil rolls tumble as parents pre-empt the inevitable and move their little ones to alternative schools.

But Whitfield appears to have retained the unswerving support of parents and the local community, confident the many virtues of the school outweigh its failings and will lead it to educational salvation.

Their quest on behalf of the Church of England primary is blessed by the fact that the school buildings are owned by the Whitfield Estate – today run by the descendants of William Ord – and rent free.

The absence of both fuel and rent bills will prove attractive to those charged with marketing the school as a going concern to a potential academy trust or free school, outside the jurisdiction of local authority control.

Other small rural schools may not be as fortunate as their future comes under scrutiny amid the combined pressures from Ofsted inspections and the Government’s avowed intention to academise, no matter what their size or location.

Some of our schools have come through the rigours of Ofsted inspections with flying colours, perhaps highlighting that leadership qualities and teaching expertise are more important than size.

But it is undoubtedly true that it is more difficult to deliver what the National Curriculum demands and what Ofsted expects with a small number of staff spread over several years groups, rather than having teachers dedicated to one classroom with children of the same age.

Enforced academisation will bring about new survival issues. It remains to be seen whether single school academies will be viable in the future.

Governors at first and primary schools across Tynedale must be asking themselves whether it will be possible to continue independent of others.

While the primary federation of Church of England schools in West Tynedale has been dogged with difficulties, other partnerships have not.

The link-up between the first schools at Broomley and Whittonstall, for example, has shown the worth of sharing not only headteachers but also scarce teaching resources.

Similarly, St Mary’s RC First School, in Hexham, has just been classed as ‘good’ by Ofsted, in the wake of headteaching duties being shared between it and St Matthew’s RC Primary in Prudhoe.

Vertical integration, bringing together schools across all ages, is another option facing governors.

The marriage between the first school and middle school at Haltwhistle, under the umbrella of the Halthwhistle Community Campus, has not been a fine advertisement for either integration or academisation.

However, the federation of Hexham Middle School and Queen Elizabeth High School is widely viewed as successful and beneficial. And interestingly, it is ready to jump the gun by seeking joint academy status before being told to do so by the Government.

The road to universal academies has been mapped out by the Conservatives. But don’t forget that the notion of academies in the first place was the brainchild of Labour.

As such it is difficult to envisage a halt in the momentum towards removing local authorities from control of our schools.

Whitfield School, the great innovator of the past, may become an innovator once again. Other schools will be looking on with avid interest to learn lessons on how to survive the turmoil about to engulf them.