GOVERNORS at a highly successful Darlington school have taken on a consultant to help them combat rumours of closure.

The unusual step comes after speculation about the future of Hurworth School, with the expert being asked to consider a range of options.

And this week parish councillors who were briefed on the governors' action said the community would be "horrified" if the school were to close.

Eamon Farrer, chief executive of the Federation of Schools, Hurworth and Eastbourne, told a meeting: "We find it odd considering we are doing so well that we wake up to headlines that we could be closing or merging.

"We know pupil numbers are falling in Darlington and that the borough council is considering measures to deal with this.

"That is where the talk has come from. So the governors have decided to employ a consultant to look at options for Hurworth.

"The government's five-year education strategy offers many ways forward and we want to make sure we come up with the right solution. We are well aware of the importance of all this to the community."

The consultant, Richard Knott, said the Government strategy was about more freedom for good schools. But there were factors which make Hurworth different.

One is location. It is in the borough of Darlington but is perceived as a rural school. It is also quite small, with some 650 pupils aged up to 16.

"There have been rumours about a Darlington school needing to close and that Hurworth could be a likely target, because of size and location not attainment," said Mr Knott.

"A recent Ofsted report called it a 'very good school,' but its buildings were criticised."

Coun Ian Black praised the school.

"My children went to Hurworth and felt they were not dragged into the gang culture of other schools. Hurworth has kept a village feel and sense of community," he said.

"People pay a premium to come and live here in the hope they can send their children to Hurworth School.

"The village would be horrified if it closed. There would be deep sadness."

"I am not engaged to urge closure," said Mr Knott. "I am here to tell the governors the way forward to preserve the school for future generations."

Chairman Coun Clive Bullock said: "To throw away a school which is delivering good practice and setting a good example so somewhere else can survive would be educationally wrong."

Mr Knott said Government strategy is about letting successful schools expand, not looking for ones to close down.

"I will be looking at expansion such as more pupils, say up to 900, or a sixth form," he said.

"Nothing is set in stone. And one option is to do nothing."

Coun Alan Gibson said: "Closing Hurworth would be sacrificing quality for the mundane if it was done due to falling numbers elsewhere."

On Wednesday Margaret Asquith, director of children's services at Darlington council, said: "Hurworth is one of the most successful schools in England.

"We value the school and its achievements and want to see that success continue and develop.

"The school is undertaking a consultation exercise on its future options. We are talking to the school and the governors and ensuring our aims and proposals for the future success of the school are fed into that consultation process."