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Reduction Of School Places

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 10, in page 15, line 11, after "where" insert "( a)".

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this we may take Lords amendment No. 11.

The purpose of the amendment is to remove the duty on local education authorities and governors of voluntary schools to publish proposals when they intend to restrict admission to primary schools where the standard number of admissions is fewer than 20. It in no way affects the need of local authorities to publish notices in the normal way under section 12 if they attempt to close a school.

It was argued in another place that to include clause 15, which deals with reducing numbers by over 20 per cent., and to publish notices was not appropriate for schools with 20 or fewer admissions. The effect of the clause would have been to oblige them to go through the process of publishing notices under section 12 if, for example, they reduced admissions by four pupils a year.

The Opposition are worried about the whole of clause 15 and the new addition. We accept that in the event of a proposal to close a school the normal section 12 procedures will have to be operated. What will be the situation if a school is transferred from the wholly maintained sector to the voluntary aided sector? Will the same safeguards apply?

An example is likely to come before the Secretary of State, although admittedly it is in the secondary sector. In the borough of Ealing it is proposed that the Twyford comprehensive school should become a Church of England school, and that its management and decisions about the basis of selection or admission should be moved to a different body and from the local education authority.

I do not wish to labour the point. I hope that there will be other opportunities to discuss the matter of Twyford. There is overwhelming support in the community for those who are trying to prevent the change.

11 pm

With specific reference to amendment No. 11, we wonder whether it is possible—because of the inclusion of primary schools, especially those with a small annual intake—that a change could take place which would result in a system of selectivity which would prejudice the general provision of education in the area.

We should also like to know, if the Secretary of State is disposed to respond—we have no power to insist that he does so—with reference to the primary school provisions, but also more generally, what criteria he will employ in making his decision on whether the intention under clause 15(2) to reduce the number of pupils, either in secondary or in primary schools, is satisfactory.

I am also worried about the amendment, not simply because of its intention but because of its possible wider effects.

Lord Ridley, who was chairman of the county council in my constituency—we do not share the same party, but we share the same county—pointed out that attendance at schools with small numbers of pupils could fluctuate considerably because of a change of numbers of families in the area. That applies in many parts of my constituency.

A classic example is a school in my constituency which serves families of shepherds living in the hills. The shepherds change jobs at May each term-year, and if three shepherds with families leave the valley in one year the attendance at school can decrease from 20 to five. Classes at that school are then suspended temporarily. It reopens if the numbers increase again when two or three shepherds come into the valley at the next May term.

That is simply a natural change. The amendment would not affect it, and the amendment is not necessary to deal with it. Those changes have happened because families have come and gone. We are dealing with the prevention of administrative complications if a local authority wishes to use this procedure to reduce the strength of the school by reducing admission numbers. I cannot imagine its doing that. It seems extraordinary. In practice, when local authorities start trimming down the small schools, they do so in other ways—by narrowing the catchment area of the school. I know of one or two cases where a local authority has intended to close a school, and it has narrowed down the catchment area to the smallest area of the village and has shipped all the children from outside the village into another neighbouring school.

Schools with fewer than 20 pupils have a place in the rural education scene, and they can work effectively. Often they are one-teacher, or occasionally two-teacher, schools, or in some cases with which we are experimenting in Northumberland there is one full-time teacher and a shared teacher. It is often right to keep those schools in existence—even if attendance drops to 10 pupils in a particular year—in order to prepare them for a build-up of 16 or 20 pupils in a future year.

I hope that we can make it absolutely clear that, in trying to cut down the bureaucratic complications that would arise in the very undesirable and unlikely event of an education authority's applying the provisions of the clause to such schools, we are not trying to say that we disapprove of, or would want to discourage, these very small schools where they have a role to play in isolated communities.

In my constituency there is an island which has a one-teacher school. I have valleys where there are one-teacher schools. They exist in other parts of the country, too, They can work very well with talented teachers, and we should defend and maintain them.

To make this exception would be of academic consequence. I hope that no local authority would want to start applying this sort of provision to such schools in any case. But let us be clear that we do not want authorities to do so.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is quite right: it was Lord Ridley who first raised the matter.

I share the views that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. We believe that in dealing with schools of the size in question authorities will close the school entirely, in which case clause 12 still applies, or there will be pressure to try to enlarge the school rather than deliberately to reduce its size. Therefore, the provision in the clause was unnecessary, and we thought it right to exempt such schools.

I assure the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) that his point about the transfer of the school is in no way affected by clause 15, which relates merely to a reduction in the size of the school. Any application by a local education authority to cease to maintain a school, even if another body is taking it over, would still have to come under clause 12 in the normal way.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 11 and 12 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 13, in page 15, line 27, at end insert—

"( ) The published proposals shall be accompanied by a statement of the effect of section 12(3) or, as the case may be, section 13(3) as applied by subsection (2) above."

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment simply ensures that the rights of objectors are published when proposals are made to restrict admissions to a school. This provision is already made in relation to proposals submitted under clauses 12 and 13. The amendment clarifies the position as regards proposals under clause 15. A local authority that wants to cut the size of a school by 20 per cent. must go to the Secretary of State for permission, so schools cannot be run down intentionally.

The only reason for the amendment is to make sure that, as is already ensured under other clauses, objectors know their rights. Their rights to object are to be publicised at the same time as publicity is given to the fact that the local authority wants to reduce the size of the school.

I do not think that this is a contentious matter.

Question put and agreed to.