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Rural Schools, Wales (Closing)

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 11 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Po Popplewell.]

10.13 p.m.

I shall be glad if the House will remain for half-an-hour on the journey back from Ireland in order to discuss one or two matters concerning Wales. I wish to raise the question of the closure of rural schools in Wales, and I do so because early in the year I raised with the Minister of Education the position in regard to the closing of primary schools in Wales. I was then told that, since 1st April, 1945, 40 primary schools had been closed, and that of those 38 were in rural areas. My concern is that one-third of these rural schools are in my constituency.

It is also true that the Minister agreed and assured me that there are limitations to the closing of these rural schools, but I want to know what is going to be done about it. I am not altogether opposed to the closing of schools; as a matter of fact, I should welcome the closing of some schools, because of the bad condition of the buildings at the present time. I am certain that other hon. Members will agree that there are schools which ought not to be closed, or at least that villages ought not to be deprived of schools in some areas in Wales.

First and foremost, I would raise the question of the position of the junior pupils. I know that this Government, like other Governments, are doing their best, and the fact is that this Government have done more for the over-11 pupils to see that they get a better type of education, but I am mostly concerned about the junior pupils. There is an element coming in which was not thought about in 1946 when the development plans were made by the local education authorities, and that is the position of the rehabilitation of agriculture. One of the things about which people generally in the country districts are concerned is a good social service. I suggest that education is one of the vital social services. If hon. Members have not done so already, I hope they will read the Ministry of Education pamphlet on Education in Rural Wales. After reading it, and bearing in mind the desire of the Government to expand the agricultural programme, I am sure they will agree with me that they ought to do everything possible to encourage people to remain in, and come to, the areas.

The provision of rural schools is a vital one to that extent. What is the use of other Government Departments doing their utmost to get people to remain in the countryside if schools are not provided? I am given to understand that up to 31st March this year no fewer than 7,353 houses were built by rural district councils in Wales. That is a good contribution to what has been done to rehabilitate the agricultural industry. On the other hand, however, I find from the June returns for 1948 that only 1,634 additional regular workers have come into the agricultural industry since 1938. There has been a proportion of five to one of casual or temporary workers coming into the agricultural industry in Wales during the same period. I suggest that the lack of social services is one of the reasons why people are not taking up regular work in the industry.

If we look at the number of closures suggested in the development plans in Wales we would find that—I am only taking four counties—in Anglesey there were 22, in Merioneth 17, in Brecon 42, and in Radnor 49. I represent those two last counties in this House. Who is really responsible for these closures? The leaders of education in Wales suggest that it is the policy of this Government to close rural schools. I want that to be flatly denied because it is not. The development plans are put up by the local education authorities. I would also like to have from the Parliamentary Secretary a denial of what is said by educational leaders—for instance, by the Chairman of the Education Committee for Breconshire and the leaders of education in Radnor—that it was the policy laid down on 18th October, 1944, when the present Home Secretary who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, came to Llandrindod Wells and said that these schools must be closed. I hope that something will be said about that matter.

A storm is rising in Wales at the present time because of the closing of these schools. There are two schools in Wales where parents have defied this closure altogether, they are on strike at the present time. One is in Merioneth and one in Anglesey. A further strike was threatened in Brecon, but due to my intervention it did not take place; I advised against it. I submit these points for consideration. I hope that, in view of what I have said about the expansion of the agricultural programme, some review of the development plans for 1946 will take place. I suggest that because of the target date which was set at that time, these were done in a hurry. Certainly to my knowledge they were done without prior consultation with the people affected.

Secondly, I suggest that even now, before closures take place, there should be consultation with the parents and even with teachers or any other people interested in education in rural districts. The ordinary man in the street is unaware of the development plans. They are certainly not known to the people residing in the two counties which I represent unless they ask for them. As a result of agitation by those who have influence, some of the closures suggested in the development plans have been withdrawn, but they should not be withdrawn by influence but by argument. I want the Ministry, if possible, to give advice. I know they cannot give instructions, but I hope that whatever else they may do, they will circulate my remarks to the education authorities in Wales.

The first which the people in rural districts know of these matters is in a legal notice, which appears under a certain Section of the Act, in the local newspapers. As a result of that, they send in objections. When those objections are received by the Ministry they are sent back to the local education authorities, and still the local education authorities make no contact with the parents who are affected by these closures. I suggest that the Ministry or the Department responsible for Wales should try to initiate consultations before any closures are effected. It may be that after the advantages of closure are explained to the parents they will agree. There should be consultations not only with regard to the closing of the schools, but as to the best method and the best kind of transport envisaged by the Minister. On the other hand, the Minister may say that he cannot see anything in these objections. I would point out that up till now there has been no local inquiry into any closure in Wales. There may not have been a strong case for such an inquiry, but I suggest that the case which I am making establishes a need for an inquiry.

Up to the present, 15 objections have been received but there have been no inquiries. I know there may be difficulties about inquiries, but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to make it clear to people in general when a local inquiry can be held. Must they ask for one, or is it merely left to the Minister to decide? If it is for him to decide, let us have some idea of the type of cases into which he will hold a local inquiry. On 17th February, 1949, the Minister told me that representatives of local education authorities normally met parents before proposals for closures were submitted. On the information which I have I suggest that as yet that procedure has not been followed to any extent. Perhaps it will be in the future. I hope that whenever the Minister has the advantage of meeting these people he will raise the question of consultations.

I should like to quote two cases. At Velindre school in Breconshire, 50 per cent. of the pupils live over two miles away. That school is due for closure. One does not yet know where the pupils are going, but in the meantime the parents were sent a questionnaire in which they were asked why they would like to retain the school. With the exception of one parent, everyone is in favour of retaining the school. I do not suggest that from a building standpoint that school is worth retaining, but surely there should be a school somewhere or other in that village. In Ithon Valley in the County of Radnor, eight rural junior schools are due for closure. In one of these schools there are 43 pupils. The distance they will travel to a new school, which has not yet been built, will be over 15 miles one way. Amongst these eight schools to be closed is one which was built in 1928 and another which was built in 1930. The names of the schools are Llanbister and Dolau or Dolee, as the English understand it.

No case can be put forward for closing these schools because of bad buildings. These schools are centres of village communities and, in my opinion, they should not be closed at all. I know that this closure of schools will have a great effect in Wales. I am sure that the noble Lady the Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George) will forgive me for quoting the case of Llaneugrad where, I am told, the transfer is to take place of pupils from a Welsh speaking area to what I have been told is a predominantly English speaking area. Whether that is true or not, I suggest that that factor should have the serious consideration of the local education authorities. If they cannot do anything, some inquiry ought to be instituted by His Majesty's inspectors to see whether that is true, not only in this case but in any case where pupils are to be transferred from a purely Welsh speaking area. There is great anxiety about this among parents in Wales at the present time, because it must be realised that the influence of the Welsh and Christian upbringing of children by parents and churches may not be maintained. I do not say it will not be maintained, but it may not be maintained if we lose that village school, its life and everything that goes with it.

Certainly we have always regarded the village school in Wales as a centre of culture, with all its traditions. We do not want to lose that. I am quite certain that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary do not need convincing on this point. They have themselves issued a pamphlet on education in rural Wales. There is a chapter entitled "The rural school and its environment." If I could have a word from the Minister to say that every word in that chapter would be implemented I should have no complaint to the House of Commons about the policy of the local education authorities.

In my opinion it is not sufficient to have a policy of tightening efficiency and of economies. That should not be done at the expense of disregarding the personal element. But we are always told that it is either a question of tightening efficiency or of economising. But£s. d. must not always be the criterion when dealing with human beings. As I have several times said to people who represent the War Office, when they come to Wales to claim land, we cannot measure culture or tradition by a map and certainly we cannot look at the proposal to close schools merely by statistics, maps or the number of miles children have to travel to school, or whether they can catch a Good bus or bad bus.

I welcome the statement of the Secretary to the Welsh Department in his foreword to the pamphlet which I have mentioned. He said:
"It is the duty of all who care for the highest interests of rural Wales to preserve the best in its cultural heritage and through our schools to aid its rich and distinctive development."
That is what we all want in Wales, done in a proper way. I shall welcome any statement which the Parliamentary Secretary may make to this end tonight. I know he may say it is nothing to do with the Minister and that all this is done by the local education authorities. But I have great respect for the Minister of Education and the Parliamentary Secretary; they can guide these local education authorities, which consist of busy men who may not have time to go into all the aspects I have raised. This point was brought home very vividly on Saturday night, when I was president of a semi-national Eisteddfod in Sennybridge and one of the competitions was a co-recitation in Welsh of passages from the Fortieth Chapter of the Prophet Isaiah. I heard these six young children under the age of 11 from Cwmwysg School due for closure reciting this passage. I am prepared to comment to my colleagues in the Welsh Parliamentary Party that Wales would benefit more from these six youngsters reciting that passage than from even an advisory council for Wales. I do suggest that we ought to get some encouragement from the fact that I have raised this matter in the House of Commons. It is not altogether against the closing of small schools that I am speaking, but I am asking for consideration for some of the important points I have raised.

10.31 p.m.

I am glad that this matter has been raised, and I can assure the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) that he has my sympathy in regard to many of the points he has mentioned. I have been chairman of a rural education committee, and I know the importance of the village school in the village; but when he states that it is generally said that it is the policy of this Labour Government to close village schools, I would rather he had said that it is the policy of this Labour Government to give to the children of rural England and Wales the same educational opportunities as we intend to give to the urban children of England and Wales.

In the development plans for the rural areas, the size and siting of the village school is a matter in primary education of real and urgent importance. I quite agree with my hon. Friend—I know it from experience—that perhaps the most important single institution in the village has been in the past the church—and still in many villages is the church or chapel—but certainly all through it has been the school. Where the teacher is of the right type, as so many are, the influence of the village school is incalculable.

I remember, from my own experience, the headmaster of a village school who was something more than a teacher of boys and girls by day. He was, in fact, an adviser and friend of the whole village. He advised the farmers on how to do their areas, and how to make their weight calculations; and he had been doing that for well over 40 years. We find him at present responsible for organising and inspiring the young farmers' club. Surely such a man, or such a woman, who can be found in many villages in Wales and in England, is invaluable in the rural life of the country, and the happy, informal atmosphere of many village schools is immensely valuable in moral and social training.

But there is this question of giving to the rural child the best possible amenities. We have to implement the Act of 1944. We have to see that by reasonable, and I hope in most instances locally supported, reorganisation our rural children have the best opportunities we can give to them. I know that in the case of Radnorshire, looking at the development plan of that administrative authority, there is provision for the closure of a comparatively large number of existing primary schools, and if not for the closure, then the grouping of schools. I am glad to be able to inform my hon. Friend that that authority has been asked to reconsider this particular part of the proposals in the development plan. It is understood that Breconshire, too, may reconsider some of its development plan proposals involving the closure of schools. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be ample opportunity for people in the locality to raise objections to these closures and we advise local authorities that the best way of effecting educational administration in the area is by as much co-operative effort with parents and teachers as possible. So far as these two areas are concerned, both my right hon. Friend the Minister, and myself, are convinced that there will not be undue pressure either from the local authority or the Ministry for a wholesale closure of village schools.

Why should local authorities decide to close some of the village schools? Those of us who travel up and down the country will agree, as my hon. Friend has himself agreed, that many of the one or two teacher schools are housed in most inappropriate buildings. Many of these schools in England, at any rate, were built before 1900, and nearly 200 in one county in rural England were built before 1870. One hundred years ago this standard was considered adequate, but by modern standards, and certainly by the standards of this Government, they are considered a scandalous provision for rural children. But it takes time, and going round some of the rural areas almost month by month as I do, in Wales as well as in England, I am appalled by the number of gloomy and dilapidated schools in rural areas. They should have been altered or closed and new schools built years ago. I say that it should be considered almost criminal neglect on the part of those responsible in years gone by.

There is, of course, an economic argument that the functioning of a one or two teacher school costs a great deal, and I agree with my hon. Friend that that is not the only argument; but I am forced to say that where it is possible to combine schools in a reasonable area—and certainly not in a distance of 15 miles as my hon. Friend mentioned—then that reorganisation should take place. In my own experience, as chairman of a rural authority, when we built our village schools in Cambridgeshire and the senior boys and girls came from nine or ten villages at the beginning of the term, boys and girls would go into the cloak rooms and turn on the taps because of their amazement at seeing water running from a tap, which they had never seen before. That is, within a comparatively short distance of the capital of England and the capital of the British Empire. When one can reorganise in that way, one is certainly helping the education of our rural children.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not in favour of the wholesale closure of village schools that we recognise the important part that the village school, the village schoolmaster, and the village schoolmistress have played in the rural life of our country. But we also recognise that nowadays—whether this is right or wrong, it is nevertheless true—it is difficult to get staff to go into the more remote schools. They want to be neat places where there is reasonable relaxation and amusement, and therefore we think that, balancing one side with the other, there are benefits to be obtained from reorganisation.

I would finally say that my hon. Friend has our sympathy in this matter, but that we put the children first. Recognising the value of the village school, we are nevertheless prepared to go ahead with reorganisation and to agree to the development plans where the education of the rural child is to be as good as the education of the urban child and the child living in the industrial areas.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.