COMMUNITIES in West Devon are being urged to sign a petition highlighting the plight of their small rural schools and the potential threat to their future, following changes in the ways state schools are funded.

A petition has been set up online which requires 100,000 signatures for it to be considered for a debate in the House of Commons.

Governor on the Dartmoor Federation of Schools Julie Lewis said it was vitally important that local communities became involved.

She said: 'In my opinion this is a time bomb waiting to happen.

'I am passionate about my local community and rural schools, of which we have many in this area with 53 pupils or less, but as a direct result of cuts in Government funding, small rural schools across the UK are under threat of closure by local authorities.'

The Government has set a new funding formula for schools which has 12 elements that can be taken into account when setting budgets — this is less than half the number of factors Devon County Council used previously in setting its own formula.

Whereas before there was a 'minimum funding guarantee' element which meant primary schools would be funded for 53 pupils even if they had 20 or 30, that element has now been taken out of the equation and funding is based on actual pupil numbers.

Mrs Lewis said many schools would struggle to operate their curriculum and undertake basic maintenance within the constraints of the significant reductions in their budget.

'Drastic cuts are already being implemented — the removal of school lunches, redundancies, reduction of extra curricular activities and budget cuts,' she added. 'The result is a decline in the educational opportunities for children in small schools across the country.

'My son goes to Lydford Primary which has 40 children. If our village schools have to close what is going to happen? Are they going to bus everyone to a great big school in the middle of Okehampton. I hate to think of four-year-olds having to travel 40 minutes each way to get and from school every day.'

Melody Nicholls is headteacher at Lamerton Primary School, which has 50 pupils.

Miss Nicholls said Lamerton, which is federated with Gulworthy Primary, had suffered as a result of the funding formula.

She said: 'It's made it quite tough actually. We counted every penny before, but it's made things really very difficult and has made an impact on our budget this year.

'There's not a lot we can do about things like electricity so the only things you can cut back on are curricular resources and the things you are buying for literacy and numeracy. It also puts considerable pressure on making sure your numbers stay up.'

Miss Nicholls backed the idea of a petition.

'The more people know how hard it is for small schools, the better. Small schools should be valued because they offer so much to the community,' she said.

Devon County Council negotiated a last-minute rescue package for small schools for this financial year, following talks with minister of state for schools David Laws.

A spokesman for the council said: 'The formula has come into affect with the changes we were able to secure with David Laws earlier in the year, but we will continue to lobby our MPs and the Department of Education about the formula for next year because we need to get it right for rural schools.'

The council has long been campaigning about funding for education in Devon. It is currently the sixth worst funded education authority out of 150 across the country, with approximately £600 per pupil lower than the national average.