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Village Schools

Volume 22: debated on Tuesday 20 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many small village schools have been permitted to close in the last 12 months.

Seventy-nine, in the period 1 March 1981 to 28 February 1982.

Is that not a disturbingly large number? Will the Secretary of State make it clear that he does not want his programme of dealing with falling rolls to involve the wholesale closure of village schools? Remembering the position of Northumberland, where viable schools such as Beadnell, Embleton and Craster are threatened, will he make it clear that the Government recognise the community and educational importance of village schools?

Yes, Sir, emphatically. My colleagues and I take the most intense care to take all social, as well as educational and financial, factors into account when making decisions. But the House must recognise that the pace of the fall in school populations, particularly at the primary phase, has accelerated sharply in recent years.

Will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention to the proposals affecting truly rural village schools? In view of the vast number of village schools that have been closed in Staffordshire, will he look with special care at the proposals that come from that county?

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is "Yes". Certainly in Staffordshire, but no more in connection with Staffordshire than with anywhere else, my colleagues and I thoroughly recognise the social and community factors involved in these decisions.

Does the Secretary of State recall that at the time of the general election he made great play of the fact that small schools should remain open? Is he aware that because of Government cutbacks authorities such as Derbyshire county council are now experiencing difficulties in providing the necessary finance to keep such schools open? Will the Secretary of State ensure that the village school at Wessington in my constituency is kept open and that Derbyshire county council is provided with sufficient funds to keep it open?

I cannot comment on individual proposals, but areas, particularly counties, where there is sparsity of population receive extra money from the taxpayer just because of such factors as rural schools. Besides, the educational interests of children can suffer severely if the schools become too small.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is a hero in Bolton by Bowland, a village in my constituency, whose primary school he has just saved from closure? Is he further aware that there must be at least 100 other villages in the country prepared to bestow on him a similar honour if only he would make his Bolton by Bowland decision the rule rather than the exception?