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Primary School Closures

Volume 33: debated on Tuesday 7 December 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many proposals for primary school closures submitted by local education authorities he has approved during the past three years.

From January 1980 to the end of October 1982, my predecessor and I approved proposals for the closure of 344 primary schools. In the absence of statutory objections, proposals in respect of a further 79 primary schools were determined by the local education authorities concerned.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the strong public opposition to the closure of many primary schools? In reaching decisions about proposed closures, will he ensure that the onus is placed firmly on the local education authorities to prove their case rather than on the objectors to prove the reverse?

I thoroughly understand the strong feelings involved, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. The proposals are made by the authorities and it is for them to demonstrate that they are soundly based. However, the issues are often not clear-cut and I have to decide where the balance of advantage lies. I take full account of the strength and nature of all objections to statutory proposals, and my priority will always be the best interests of the children concerned.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his decision not to permit the closure of the village school at Beadnell in my constituency is widely welcomed by those who are concerned with rural education? We hope that the Government now accept the viability of small well-run village schools. Would the right hon. Gentleman think it odd for local authorities immediately to resubmit applications in cases where he has refused to approve closures, as the Labour leadership on the Northumberland county council has said it wants to do?

Odd it may be, but I think the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that it is not for us to interfere with the legal rights of local education authorities. I am always grateful for appreciation of any decision that I make, but under the statute I have to take into account the merits on both sides.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rural deprivation can be just as great a problem for individuals as the problems associated with inner cities? Does he further agree that the village primary school not only provides a good education but is one of the stable anchor points in the local community?

My hon. Friends and I have to cope with all the arguments from both sides in each section 12 proposal. We are well aware of the passions that are aroused when proposals are made to close rural schools. The issues are serious, of course, but sometimes it is against the educational interests of the children to keep very small rural schools open.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in considering applications to close schools, not on the ground of absolute numbers, but where the apparent capacity of the school is greater than pupil numbers, he will look carefully at the way space is used and consider whether, in the best interests of the children, the notionally empty spaces should be used to benefit many of the auxiliary activities that are now common in primary schools?

Yes, but the issue also includes benefits to the children of the size of the age class with which they work. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to take many such issues into account.