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Village Schools (Northumberland)

Volume 929: debated on Monday 4 April 1977

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

12.18 a.m.

I am glad to have the opportunity to bring before the House the future of village schools in Northumberland. The need to retain local primary schools is keenly felt in the rural areas, and where the distances between the villages are as great as they are in Northumberland, the case for the village school is particularly strong.

Two factors have made me feel that the problem should have urgent consideration in this House. One is that further school closures have been contemplated in Northumberland, and even in those small schools which have not been proposed for closure, teachers and parents are getting uneasy that they may be next on the list.

Last week the county council gave a three-year reprieve to one of the threatened schools, Glanton, and agreed to a shared headmaster experiment which could save another—Harbottle. But in each case the security of knowing that closure plans have been shelved indefinitely is what is really needed.

Schools threatened with closure tend to suffer a slow death, and when closure is eventually seriously discussed it becomes almost inevitable. If there is a fear that schools will not survive teachers will not stay. They look for places in schools with secure futures. Parents start to send their children to other schools since they do not want a change in the children's education. I saw that in one school at Elsdon, a school which was closed. I hope that it will not happen to Glanton. I hope that the managers of that school will fight to secure its future. The sword hanging over a school often brings a situation in which formal closure proposals, when they come, are treated as inevitable.

The Secretary of State has issued a draft circular on the closure of small schools which, unless it is modified, could be the writing on the wall for thousands of village schools all over England. If that is not the Government's intention—and I sincerely hope that it is not—the House would be greatly helped by some positive assurance from the Minister that she recognises the importance of village schools.

In my constituency there are 50 primary schools. Many of them are small because the villages are small, and are separated in many cases by long distances. Half of these schools have fewer than 50 pupils, and there are many with between 15 and 30 pupils. North Northumberland has been faced with steady depopulation for many decades. The elderly represent an increasing proportion of the remaining population, and that fact threatens the future of the remainder of these schools.

The situation is made worse by the fact that when the Conservative-controlled county council decided to go comprehensive some years ago, it chose the "middle school" system under which children leave primary schools at the age of nine instead of 11. That decision has meant that every village primary school loses one-third of its pupils, and in a school of only 25, that brings immediate fear of closure.

Northumberland County Council has many village schools of which it can be proud. So have the education authorities of the Newcastle Diocese of the Church of England, which are involved in the running of a great many village schools. These are fully integrated, and in no case are there Church and State schools side by side. I have had occasion to criticise both bodies in the past over school closures, of which perhaps the worst was the closure of the village school at Elsdon, which I have already mentioned. This case illustrates all too well that if the threat of closure hangs over a school for long enough, it becomes almost impossible to prevent it. The fact that the Church authorities, which had such difficulty in keeping the school in good repair, have now found that they can afford to turn it into a conference centre is viewed with understandable resentment in the village.

There have been other damaging closures, such as Carham School, at Wark-on-Tweed, as well as some for which a better case can be made. I do detect, however, that the opinion of the council is swinging firmly against the closure of viable schools, as the reprieve of Har- bottle and Glanton illustrates. The county councillors recognise the positive advantages of small numbers, which outweigh the disadvantages. These positive advantages are not mentioned in the draft circular.

Surely it is desirable that children, particularly the under-nines, should be educated in their own villages near their own homes without having journeys of many miles to school. The individual attention given to pupils in small schools outweighs the disadvantages of not having many other children in their own age group. I remind the House that many primary schools have moved over to all-age-group teaching which it is supposed to be such a problem in small schools.

The involvement of parents can be close and fruitful if the school is in their own village. If it is many miles away it becomes difficult for parents to keep in touch, go to meetings, and make themselves helpful to that school.

In a village school the education of children can be integrated much more effectively with the life of the community through involvement in local activities and local community projects. The village school often plays a big part in the life of the village and in local activities to the benefit of both the village and the children.

It is said that it is difficult to find suitable teachers for teaching a wide age range such as that found in a village school. I do not believe that argument is well founded. We have serious teacher unemployment at present. Local authorities can obtain good staff and can be selective about it. There are many teachers of outstanding ability who are prepared to forgo some promotion prospects and salary benefits offered by bigger schools in exchange for the satisfaction of running a small school in a small community.

I can point to many teachers whom I know in my constituency who could have got on very well in larger schools, to their financial advantage, but who enjoy working in the small school and stay there from choice. It is only when the future of a school is in doubt that it begins to have difficulty in keeping staff, and such teachers move on, because they want to ensure that they have a job in the future.

The loss of the village schoolmaster or schoolmistress is one of the many consequences communities suffer if the school closes. Very often he or she is an active worker for the church or chapel, or takes a leading part in village organisations, and cannot be replaced. He or she is often one of the key members of the community. Often when a school closes the building ceases to be available as a meeting place for local organisations, although in some cases in Northumberland we have been fortunate enough to retain old schools as village halls.

Perhaps the most important of the adverse effects of closure is that it speeds up the vicious spiral of decline and depopulation. Young families look for council houses in the towns, because they know that there is a school for their children. The absence of a school tends to be used as an argument by the planning authorities and other authorities against any attempt to maintain other community services. They begin to say "This is no longer a viable community. It has no school, so there is no logic in maintaing public transport services to it. We must treat it as a village that will die a natural death."

Newcomers with young children are reluctant to go to a village with no school. Recently we spent nearly two years looking for a vicar for one of our isolated villages. Several of the potential applicants did not come because there was no school for their children, or because they feared that the nearby school would be closed before they got there. The problem becomes worse if newcomers do not come, and the village dies. Nowadays it is not so much an obvious death as a kind of living death, with the village becoming a weekend retreat consisting of townspeople's holiday cottages and the houses of a few remaining elderly residents.

I recognise that there are practical difficulties when school numbers fall. What worries me is that the Ministry slide rule in the form of the draft circular will take the place of a commonsense approach which recognises the special problems of rural areas. "Economies of scale", the supposed
"educational advantages of large schools".
and other figments of the bureaucratic imagination loom large in the document.

Flexibility of approach should be the key. There are various things that can be done when numbers are low. One is that the opportunity can be used to provide some nursery education, which is often greatly needed in rural areas when children come from isolated farms and benefit from the company of other children from an early age. Northumberland has already shown flexibility in admitting four-year-olds, and this should be encouraged when it can be done economically with an existing school.

Secondly, staffing arrangements could be more flexible. Here I mention again the shared headmaster experiment at Harbottle and Netherton, which deserves encouragement. It is easier for one teacher to travel between villages some miles apart than it is for a whole class of young children. Nor is it right for the one-teacher school to be dismissed out of hand, as is sometimes the case. There are two one-teacher schools in my constituency, and they stand comparison with any of the larger schools for the quality of education they provide.

If the hon. Lady the Minister would care for a pleasant day out, I could take her up into the Cheviot Hills to the tiny hamlet of Windyhaugh, where she would find a one-teacher school doing a magnificent job with only about 10 children, all from extremely isolated shepherds' cottages miles up in the hills. She would see one teacher doing a first-class job in a very small school. There are circumstances in which the one-teacher school is perfectly acceptable and every bit as good as a larger school.

There may be scope for that, but parents feel that the retention of local schools is the first priority and to seek to reduce ancillary services, such as school meals, which add greatly to costs. There is scope for experiment in those situations where the alternative is no school at all. This is not a matter to be advanced as a general proposition, but it is worth trying in one or two cases where parents feel that they could provide the meals, and would prefer to have no school meals service than to have no school at all.

I put these points to the Minister in the hope that she will give positive encouragement to the retention of village schools and will reconsider her draft circular in order to make sure that it is not taken as the signal for wholesale closures. Perhaps the circular was conceived with only urban areas in mind—indeed, I believe its starting point was the Secretary of State's reference at Newcastle to
"the half empty classrooms in the infant schools of some of our new towns and big local authority estates as well as in inner city areas."
However, the draft is not limited to town schools and it contains the disturbing phrase:
"The Secretary of State expects that authorities will look resolutely"
at the possibility of closing schools, it then goes on with the apparent intention of discouraging parents or school managers from exercising their right to object to the Secretary of State when a closure is proposed; it lists factors which will be taken into account in such cases in such a way as to make closure the odds-on favourite, and makes no reference at all to the community importance of village schools. Their only hope is in the phrase
"in some instances other factors not listed may be important."
I hope that the Minister will redraft the circular so as to correct the impression that she wants to apply the axe to village schools, and will give strong positive encouragement to education authorities to retain village schools and to adopt a flexible approach to the problems created by small numbers. I hope that she will not allow the opportunity provided by this debate to pass without giving to the village schools of Northumberland, and to the parents and teachers for whom they are so important, some sense of security for the future.

12.32 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for giving me this opportunity to comment on the subject of the closure of village schools in the context of this debate. As the hon. Gentleman said, in the light of the dramatic fall in the school population expected over the next 10 to 15 years, local education authorities and other bodies were asked to comment on a draft document on school closures. Their comments were sought by 31st March, and we are now considering their observations. That matter was announced in the House on 21st February.

When we have considered those observations we shall decide whether to issue further guidance on the main factors my right hon. Friend will take into account when considering closures. We have no wish to give the impression that we are pre-empting the objections of parents or any other group in respect of any school closure. We merely intend to issue guidance to indicate to local authorities the sort of issues we shall expect them to consider. I repeat that there is no wish to seek to pre-empt the situation. We shall merely outline to local authorities the factors we feel they should consider when envisaging the closure of a school.

Local circumstances dictate whether it is necessary to consider schools individually or in groups, and whether it will be necessary in each case for local education authorities to assess the unit cost of providing education in a particular school. Where this is significantly higher than in the rest of the area, the authority will need to consider whether there are special reasons why the difference should be borne or whether the school should be closed.

I emphasise that it is a matter for the authority to decide whether there are reasons for embarking on extra expenditure or whether it should close the school.

It is also necessary to look at detailed projections of the numbers of pupils—not only those in the schools at present, but those likely to be there, and to compare the premises of the schools involved. Factors such as unit costs are not the only ones to be taken into account. They are only factors in guide lines and are by no means a set or rigid rules to be applied without consideration to any given situation. Although the draft document asks local education authorities, in consultation with the managers or governors of voluntary schools, as need be to examine systematically their stock of schools my right hon. Friend fully recognises that in some cases it may be desirable to keep schools open which when judged on educational and economic factors alone, might be suitable for closure.

Northumberland is a very sparsely populated county and it has for some time had to face up to the effects of a declining as well as scattered population, which produces, on the one hand, small pockets of school-age children and, on the other, problems in trying to bring communities together for their mutual benefit. So for some time the authority has had to decide between keeping travelling to a minimum, thereby accepting several small educational units, and requiring children to travel to provide them with a broader educational experience in fewer but larger units. I gather from the Northumberland county structure plan that a considerable number of first schools were closed between the end of the war and local government reorganisation but that the rate of closure has declined in recent years.

I understand that the Northumberland local education authority has no hard and fast rules about village schools. Before it comes to a conclusion about the desirability of keeping a village school in existence or closing it, I am told it carries out a very full investigation in the area of the school concerned, consulting parents and managers of the school. One of the general considerations that guide the authority is that it would not normally expect a child of first school age to be required to undertake a journey of more than half an hour by school transport. Because of the geography of Northumberland and the low population density, this means that some small schools need to be retained and for this reason there is no minimum size for a school laid down by the authority. Here again, we understand that the Authority adapts its view and recognises the need to deal with particular situations.

There are in Northumberland 22 schools with fewer than 30 pupils. Some of these are extremely small, with fewer than 20 pupils, which means an average of three or four pupils per group, or even fewer.

Clearly, in Northumberland, as elsewhere, finance and the economic use of staff must play their part in decisions on the future of village schools. I have no doubt that the Northumberland local education authority and my right hon. Friend, when proposals for closure come to her for approval, as they must, will attempt to strike a balance between what is reasonable in financial terms and what is desirable from the point of view of the children's education. The need in nearly every case of a school closure in Northumberland to provide transport for the children to the next nearest school may offset some of the financial advantages associated with closure and put more weight on the educational considerations, which is by no means a bad thing. It has worked to the benefit of village schools in Northumberland.

As the hon. Member realises, my right hon. Friend can take no initiative on school closures, and it is for the local education authority to decide whether to propose the closure of a school. If it decides on closure, it must publish notices of its intention in accordance with Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, which provides for a two-month period during which objectors may make their views known to the Secretary of State. The final decision on closure rests with her and each proposal is considered carefully on its merits. In addition to the educational and economic factors she will consider other factors, such as the effect of a school closure on a small community.

The hon. Member commented on the form of the circular and the fact that it made no reference to considerations other than structural educational and financial.

I agree that the references were a little cursory, but the last section of the draft circular states that it must be shown that "due consideration" has been given to any social or other problems that may arise, and that these appear to be out weighed by financial and education benefits. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as one who looks at these cases when they come to the Department, that there is no question that these cases are ever passed over or treated lightly, or that we take into account only or primarily financial and educational considerations. We are well aware of the tremendous importance that the village school may have in a community. We try hard to look at each case completely on merit weighing carefully all the factors involved, including those such as travel by children who may be transferred to another school, and the importance of the school to the community.

The decisions are never taken lightly and without careful consideration of all the factors and objections, and, indeed, every conceivable comment which could have relevance to the question of closure. The question of the closure of a school is one that we take very seriously.

I hope that I have managed to reassure the hon. Gentleman. We must, since we are using public money and seeking to do so efficiently, look at the financial factors. We must, in the interests of the children, look at the educational consideration, because there is no question that sometimes there can be a balance of advantage to children in being with larger groups. But we look at all these factors in the light of the circumstances involved, and we take fully into account any other circumstances, such as the role of the school in the area and the community life of the village.

As I have said, we look at every case on its merits. I will look again at the draft circular in the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments. I hope that he will accept that neither we nor, as far as I know, any authority has rules that are inflexible and cannot be changed. We seek to examine these cases as fully and sympathetically as we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to One o'clock.