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School Closures

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 28 April 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the current criteria and practice relating to the closure of schools in rural areas.

My right hon. Friend considers all proposals for the closure of schools on their merits, but he would expect local authorities and voluntary bodies, in formulating their proposals, to take account of the general principle set out in the White Paper "Better Schools" concerning the size of thresholds at which schools of different types can economically deliver a satisfactory curriculum. They must also take account of the wider considerations, including the distances to be travelled to alternative schools in the event of closure and of the age of the children making those journeys.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he realise that there is a great deal of discontent about, and indeed outright opposition to, the closure of many small rural primary schools? Does he further realise that many of these schools have built for themselves sound reputations with generations of children and that they are a social focus of village life? Will the Minister take it on board that there needs to be a flexible examination of each case, because at present, particularly in Suffolk, there is a great deal of opposition and discontent about these closures?

As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) knows, I have the responsibility for meeting hon. Members from all parts of the House who bring deputations from the communities that they represent about proposals for school closures and amalgamations. The strength of feeling in urban and rural communities is not lost upon me. Under the law, the task to which we have to respond is to consider individual proposals on their merits. I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we do just that.

In view of the great importance of the village schools that are under threat, can my hon. Friend assure the House that he will treat these as special cases? Moreover, in future will he make arrangements to ensure that no closure will be permitted without specific ministerial consent?

Yes, Sir. There has to be ministerial consent to any proposal in any event, and I have to recognise the degree of support that rural schools may command in local communities. However, we have to consider the educational and financial arguments for closure, as well as the arguments that closures may affect the local community.

Is the Minister aware that in Cornwall over 100 rural schools face closure under present Government criteria? Does he not agree that it would make more sense to change those criteria so that the wider community in the villages is taken into account in deciding the future of those small rural schools?

The hon. Gentleman may care to spend some time reading our draft circular entitled "Providing for Quality". That circular talks about the desirable minimum sizes of different types of school. It was never intended for that minimum size level to be interpreted as narrowly prescriptive. The circular makes it clear that a true assessment of the viability of an individual school must take account not only of its size but of the ethos of the school, the quality, balance and expertise of its teachers and, of course, its non-teacher support, as well as links with neighbouring schools and the community.

In secondary education, is it not a fact that comprehensive schools in rural areas, such as Ongar comprehensive school in my constituency, can survive on an entirely different basis of form entry than that which applies to schools in urban areas? As the alternative can frequently be extensive bussing of children from these rural areas, will my hon. Friend give some consideration to altering the basis upon which closures of rural schools are agreed or disagreed?

I am happy to take that on board. I remind my hon. Friends that our policy allows each set of proposals to be made on its merits. The policies of the Opposition parties would require closure, the elimination of any form of variety and a move to an 11 to 16 comprehensive system with tertiary colleges at their head. We draw back from any embrace of such a restrictive policy.

Does the Under-Secretary recognise that I gained the distinct impression, after a meeting with the parents of children of the South Brent primary school in Devon, that they would like to see that 110-year-old school closed and a new one provided? Will he ensure that the local authority gets adequate financial assistance to enable it to provide that new school?

On these matters and on all other matters relating to the South Hams constituency, I advise the hon. Gentleman to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).