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Village Schools

Volume 24: debated on Wednesday 26 May 1982

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

11.10 pm

It is just over five years since I last introduced an Adjournment debate about village schools. That was in April 1977. Since then many debates and many questions that I and other Members have asked have related to this issue, which is of great concern to rural communities.

During that period of five years, informed opinion has moved towards the rejection of size for its own sake and a greater appreciation of the positive merits of small schools in village communities. A growing body of research, particularly in America and Scandinavia, has supported the education of children in small groups, and the assumed advantages of larger schools have been questioned. The Plowden report used to be the Bible of education administrators who advocated closures, but since then Lady Plowden herself has said:
"Since the report I have come round to thinking that small country schools should be kept open because of their social value, and because of the continuing community involvement they provide."
Yet in those five years, despite the shift of opinion in favour of village schools, closures have continued. In the past year, there have been 79 closures. As education spokesman for my party, I receive many representations from parents and groups trying to support village schools. Only yesterday, I received a well-documented and superbly produced statement of objections to the closure of a village school at Dilhorne, in Staffordshire. Scarcely a week goes by without such representations coming to me, and Ministers' desks must be weighed down with cases brought to them for appeal.

In my own county and constituency, we had something of a respite in that five-year period. Of the four closures during that time in my constituency, only one was contested. The axe has now come out again, however, and closures are once again being demanded by the education administrators. Why have the pressures for closures continued throughout the country, despite the improved recognition of the merits of such schools?

One reason is that old education fashions die hard. In the depths of many education authority offices, there is always somebody ready to blow the dust off an old closure plan, especially if a new political or economic situation creates the opportunity to put it forward. The Government may therefore have to make a more positive effort to reinforce the appreciation of the merits of small schools that has developed among informed opinion during the period that I have described.

In addition to the slowness of old fashions to die out, the financial pressure of the present cuts has sent local authorities searching for economies. If they set about closing village schools, however, they will find that these are often false economies. So often they fail to consider the other side of the balance sheet, which contains a great many items. The transport costs of taking the children to a more distant school is a major item, and it increases as fuel prices increase. Closures also usually involve an increase in staffing at another school as the numbers go over the threshold for the appointment of extra staff. The loss of parental and community backing also makes the education process more expensive in a more centralised school which does not enjoy the same degree of support.

In addition, there is often the need to replace the meeting place that the building provided for the local community. In one case in my constituency, the county council openly admitted that closure would lead to the removal of a meeting place and said that it would be ready to consider offering maintenance grants to allow the building to continue as a village hall. The admission is there that yet another cost arises on the other side of the balance sheet, but out of the budget of a different department.

Social costs arise in a village that no longer has a school. There is a tendency for younger families not to stay in the village or not to move to it, so there is an ageing population more and more dependent on State services without village support and all the benefits that flow from a village that has a wide range of ages and types of people.

Education authorities have been slow to recognise the ways in which they can reduce the cost burden of village schools. They could be much more flexible about staffing arrangements than they have been. In my county there have been experiments in that area. In one case two village schools have one teacher each but share a headmaster between them. There is much more scope for experiment. It is often much easier for a teacher to get into a car and drive between two schools five miles apart than for a lot of 5-year-old children to make that journey every morning of the week through the winter months. It can also be easier to move resources, such as books and equipment, than children. Authorities have not always been ready to exploit the potential in the community support of village schools, which can help to reduce some of the financial burdens without infringing upon the responsibility of the authorities to make the basic provisions.

The falling birth rate has also increased the pressure on the authorities. The Government's response to projected falling birth rates was the requirement that surplus places should be taken out of use. However, I do not think that the Government intended that their advice on surplus school places should be taken as meaning that village schools should be closed widely.

Circular 2/81 is specific on that point. It states that the numbers will fall in many small rural schools
"whose future needs to be considered in the light of the effect of closure on the length and nature of the journey children would have to make to alternative schools. Authorities will often find, therefore, that they have to make most of their savings in larger schools … authorities may wish to consider closure of some medium-sized schools in closely built-up areas as an alternative to closure of a number of small schools."
I am not sure whether that message has got home. I ask the Minister to reinforce it and to remind the authorities that the closure of village schools was not the intention of the circular.

In my county of Northumberland and some other areas other factors have been added to the ones that I have mentioned. One is depopulation and the difficulty of young families in getting houses in our attractive coastal and country villages, which immediately starts to distort the age range in the villages. Property is in great demand for holiday homes in many of our coastal villages. In one of the Northumberland villages affected by a proposed closure, half the names on the electoral register are of nonresidents. That pressure is one of the factors that is causing greater difficulties for our village schools. It often means that young families cannot afford to stay in the area and cannot get a house that they can afford if they work locally.

A further difficulty has been created by the choice in Northumberland of a three-tier comprehensive system with children going to middle schools at 9 years of age. That has removed one-third of the pupils from every first school in the county. I opposed that system, but now that it has been established it would be difficult to change in the short term.

The only compensation is that it is easier for a very small school to operate on the 5 to 9 age range than on the 5 to 11 age range. When school numbers are reduced, as they have been by the 5 to 9 system, we must revise our judgment of what is a viable small school. It is more feasible for a one-teacher or two-teacher school to cope with a 5 to 9 age range in one or two groups of children than with the 5 to 11 range. The whole attitude to what is a viable small school must be adjusted.

In Northumberland five closures were proposed this year. One has been withdrawn. Two have been reluctantly accepted, but two are vigorously contested. One is Beadnell, which is now the subject of a statutory notice. Objections will come to the Minister as a result of the notice. It was agreed on a majority of only two votes in the county council. The vote largely followed party lines, with the Labour majority members from the urban parts of the county narrowly defeating the Liberal, Conservative and Independent members from the rural areas.

The county's projection of the Beadnell school population indicates that after a dip this year, it will return to a viable level of about 20 and will be likely to remain at that level for the forseeable future. The quality of education in the school is acknowledged to be high. Parental support for it is very strong and the parents, the governors and the parish council are determined to keep their school.

The other case that I wish to mention is Craster. Cramer is an attractive working village, traditionally a fishing village, and famous for its kippers. If the Minster is fond of kippers he will certainly have heard of Craster. The school there is only 14 years old. It is on the sea shore, and it must be one of the most beautifully situated schools in the country. The closure proposal has yet to be considered by the full county council and the full education committee, but the majority leaders on tile county council seem determined to press ahead with it. If they do, the parents have already decided that they will appeal to the Secretary of State.

Craster is another village where private property is snapped up for holiday accommodation, but 50 per cent. of its housing is council housing, and as houses now occupied by elderly people fall vacant, younger families will return and school numbers will increase in the coming years. That factor must be considered.

I realise that the Minister cannot comment on those two cases at this stage because the Secretary of State has a duty to consider the objections at a later stage in a much more formal way. I would not invite or encourage the Minister to comment on the individual cases now. The parents will have a great deal to say at that stage. I shall take the opportunity to put a more detailed case to him. I ask him to consider those two cases on their merits carefully when the time comes, to examine all the objections to closure including the narrowness of the vote in the case of Beadnell—a mere two-vote majority—and to examine the education record of the schools and their importance to the local communities.

Will the Minister give a more general indication of Government policy towards village schools which could profitably be studied by education authorities? I am encouraged by what the Minsiter of State has said in the past. When he addressed the National Association for Small Schools in 1978 he said:
"Your association must be very wary of false economic arguments. Whilst there may well be the exceptional case where a village school has become totally uneconomic, too often we find political and administrative reasons for closure cloaked in tables of figures which on close analysis show that the true savings are negligible or even non-existent. The costs of rural transport are likely to rocket further and much 'bussing' of children is disadvantageous to young children."
I hope that this robust attitude will be reflected in subsequent decisions on appeal about village schools. I hope that the Minister will confirm that circular 2/81 was not intended to signal a general policy of closing small village schools. I hope that he accepts that the positive advantages of small group teaching in the family atmosphere of a village school can, with a good teacher, outweigh any of the alleged disadvantages of small schools. A great deal depends on getting teachers of a high quality, but many teachers who want to teach in small village schools have just the abilities that are needed.

I hope that the Minister recognises that parental and community support for village schools gives them a tremendous advantage. If parents are determined to fight for a school, it is a sign that they appreciate its qualities and are ready to give that type of support. That is a powerful illustration of parental choice about which the Government have said a great deal. I hope that the Government recognise that when parents choose to back a school they deserve the Government's backing.

Village schools make an enormous contribution to the local community which is hard to replace. Closure is usually an irreversible decision. Once a school is closed, it is very hard to reopen it. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will re-examine all the cases carefully and that the Government will say that they recognise the positive value of village schools. There are many social problems in our urban areas which, thankfully, are largely absent from the rural scene. It would be tragic if we were to throw away the tremendous positive advantages that village school education can provide for the early years of childhood.

11.25 pm

Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the Minister?

indicated assent.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for allowing me to intervene briefly. He knows of my concern about this matter. Only in the last month, the schools in Tarrant Keynston, Melbury Abbas and Pamphill in my constituency have been the subject of delegations and meetings.

I urge just two points on him. First, he should view with great suspicion the concept of an area school in rural areas. In Dorset, and no doubt elsewhere, there is a concept among educationists that instead of a large number of small rural schools we should have area schools of 120 pupils. I view that with the same suspicion as the concept that, regardless of local need, all secondary education should be on comprehensive lines.

Secondly, like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) I urge my hon. Friend and his colleagues to devolve and produce a positive case for small village schools, which are so important educationally and economically to rural areas and communities.

11.26 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for raising this matter. It is the second time in five years that he has done so, which is more than most hon. Members have done. I congratulate him.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) for his intervention. I know of the strength of feeling that exists in the House and the country about village schools.

I wish that it were possible to give a categoric definition and a clear line of conduct to local education authorities. Unfortunately, it is not. When it comes down to it, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said many times, each case must be decided on its merits.

I must emphasise our awareness of the value of the village school, not only to pupils but also to the rural community as a whole. It plays an important part in our heritage and in the development of the education system in England. It has played a valuable part in preserving important qualities and values of rural life—for example, stability, tolerance, friendliness and a sense of tradition.

We are today a predominantly urban or suburban society, and some of those values are under pressure. Their sustenance in rural England is, therefore, a matter of comfort and promise. I am sure that both hon. Members agree that these schools are central to the life of rural England as they play an important role in transmitting and inculcating these values.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern for the future of village schools, and appreciate the force of what he said about the effects of village school closures on rural communities and on the children themselves.

It is vital that we should see such closures in a national context. We must recognise that one of the key factors affecting education provision today is the persistent decline in pupil numbers. By the end of this decade, the size of the school population will have fallen by a quarter, and demographic changes on that scale inevitably present new challenges and problems for the education service. Furthermore, even on the highest assumptions of numbers of births, the present school population will not be reached again before the very last years of this century, and perhaps not at all—certainly not in our lifetimes or even the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren.

This fall in the birth rate compounds the effect of the longer-term fall in the rural population. We must remember that village school closures are not a new phenomenon. Far more closures occurred in the 1950s than are taking place now, but I accept that that is not a good argument for saying that they should take place. I merely make a point of fact.

I turn for a moment to the hon. Gentleman's constituency for which he argued with such understandable vigour. He does not need me to tell him that his constituents—indeed, the inhabitants of Northumberland as a whole—seem to be a race apart. It is one of the few areas in the country where the decline in the pupil population is slow and much less severe. I understand that it is very much less than elsewhere in the country.

Of course, overall figures can be misleading. The general stability of Northumberland's population probably masks a shift away from already sparsely-populated areas and into the more industrialised districts in the South-East particularly the areas of new development. Moreover, there is in any case a considerable amount of surplus capacity in Northumberland's schools, especially in the first school sector. The upshot is that in many rural areas very small groups of children are being taught in schools designed to accommodate larger numbers.

I shall be talking about the difficult process of balancing the advantages of small local schools against some of their educational and economic disadvantages. There are two sides to the picture, but Northumberland cannot be exempt from the general principles at issue.

I have no doubt that the LEA is as aware as we are of the loyalties inspired by village schools, and of the fear that the closure of a school may mean the death of a community. I understand that it has a number of broad criteria when considering the future of schools, and that it will look closely at schools with fewer than 50 pupils where closure would achieve savings and pupils could fairly easily attend neighbouring schools. I accept that that must be a matter of judgment.

It is vital that local people should know what has been proposed and why, and I think it significant that, of the five Northumberland first schools closures implemented in the last year, four received no statutory objections from local people.

Northumberland is continuing its review of school stock, as we have asked. I am told that the Alnwick district within the hon. Member's constituency is one area currently under consideration, and that notices have recently been published for the closure of two first schools there. The hon. Member will know that I cannot comment on the details of particular cases, in view of my right hon. Friend's quasi-judicial position if objections are received, but I can assure him that we shall take very careful note of any representations that he wishes to make about these proposals or any others.

I wish to say something about the Government's policy in the light of the demographic changes that I have mentioned. These mean that, as a country, we have a large number of surplus school places. A 1977 study estimated that in 1986 there would be more than 3 million surplus primary and secondary places in England and Wales. The Government's target is to remove 1·3 million of the excess—two out of every five surplus places. This is a target that will leave schools with plenty of spare space for educational developments, plus a reserve against any future upturn in the birth rate.

The retention of unused and unwanted school places usually entails an uneconomic use of resources and can have harmful educational effects. Clearly, some action must be taken to avoid that. The Government's expenditure plans assume that, nationally, 470,000 surplus places will have been eliminated by March 1983, thus allowing savings to be made in recurrent expenditure. Most of those will be in urban and suburban areas, but rural areas will, in certain cases, also be affected.

If savings are not made by taking places out of use, local education authorities will need to look elsewhere to achieve the savings that they are all required to make. If other savings have to be made, it will affect what goes on in the classroom, far more than the closure of excess places would do. An example of the truth of that is that the cost involved in keeping two temporary classrooms open is equivalent to the cost of employing one teacher.

The savings to be made will vary from area to area, but it has been estimated that they will average about £100 per place. Conversely, every 100,000 surplus places retained will mean additional costs equivalent to one-sixth of what LEAs now spend on books. In emphasising that, I do not say that rural schools will necessarily be affected, but I draw the House's attention to the problem facing education authorities. Rural schools cannot be exempt from the solutions that have to be found to that extraordinarily difficult problem.

Debates on village schools are frequently obscured by the difficulties in defining the scale of the problem. Let me shed some light on it. The Department does not keep separate statistics on the numbers of village schools and their pupil numbers, but a useful proxy is to look at the figures for the smallest schools, the great majority of which will be schools serving village communities. In January 1981, 275,092 pupils, or 7 per cent. of the total primary population were being educated in just under 5,000 schools with fewer than 100 on roll. Of these, only about 7,000 children were in schools with 25 and fewer on roll. That gives an idea of the reduced number of very' small schools.

The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently of the advantages of small village schools. I believe that there are benefits in smallness. Teachers can get to know their pupils well and smaller classes give more opportunity for a caring atmosphere and individual attention. However, the children can suffer educational disadvantage. The smaller number of teachers can make it difficult to provide a full curriculum. We know these arguments and we have rehearsed them on other occasions. Classes may have a wide age range. A survey of primary education in England conducted by Her Majesty's Inspectorate concluded that there was clear evidence that the performance of children suffered when classes of mixed age groups of 25 or more had to be introduced.

The HMI's report referred to wide-agerange classes of 25 children or more. As we are talking primarily of schools with only about 25 children in total, teachers who are teaching a wide age range will necessarily be teaching groups of less than 25.

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. However, there are some small schools where there are about 50 youngsters and, for example, two teachers. There is then a fairly wide age range with perhaps 25 children in each class. There is an enormous variation and the small school presents a host of advantages and disadvantage s, which means that it has to be considered on its merits I am trying to reinforce the hon. Gentleman's case that it is important to the community and that because it is small it is not necessarily bad. If a small school is destroyed, its replacement is not necessarily better. I accept that there are financial considerations which rest on the number of empty and unnecessary school places which have to be taken out of circulation if local education authorities are to meet their budgets. Like everything else in education, it is not an open-and-shut case.

The hon. Gentleman referred to circular 2/81 on falling rolls and surplus places that was issued last year. It underlined the educational and financial arguments for removing surplus places and asked for details of removal plans. I stress that the circular acknowledged that the scope for further village school closures was limited. That reinforces what the hon. Gentleman said.

If the matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North raised come to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be sympathetic and welcome any representations that my hon. Friend might like to make.

I hope that I have succeeded in the short time available to me to reassure the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to some extent that we take a sympathetic attitude to village schools. We accept that they are important to children, parents and local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Twelve o' clock.