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Small Schools

Volume 473: debated on Monday 17 March 2008

Local authorities have legal responsibility for determining the pattern of school provision most appropriate to their areas, taking account of parents’ wishes. Small schools that are popular with parents must have a place in our educational system, and many serve rural communities. We will continue to support small rural schools through the presumption against closure, and by allocating funds to take account of the sparse population in rural areas.

That is all very well, but up and down the country small schools are being closed by local authorities. If the Minister wants his “presumption” to be taken seriously, will he withdraw the guidance that was issued to every local authority in December, which threatened to withhold money for primary school buildings and renovation from authorities that did not close schools or remove so-called surplus places?

The hon. Gentleman should note that we have reduced the number of rural school closures significantly, from a peak of 127 in 1983 to an average of just six a year over the last 10 years. The guidance to which he referred should be read in its entirety: it makes clear that if access for young children is to be preserved there may be a need for more surplus places in rural schools, and acknowledges that it will not always be practical or desirable to remove all such places. Somerset county council’s work on federation of rural schools provides a model for how the situation should be tackled.

Will my hon. Friend give a cast-iron assurance that when it comes to maintaining small schools—rural schools, in many cases—he will not necessarily be swayed by the views of parents, but will take a stance on what constitutes the best solution for the children? Multi-age classes are not always the best solution. They may make it possible for a school to be maintained, but the outcome is not good. Will my hon. Friend give that assurance that he will put children first?

As my hon. Friend knows, we always want to put children first, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). These are decisions for local authorities, and although we want them to listen to the views of parents, obviously we also want them to ensure that the individual needs of all children in their areas are met.

The Minister said that the number of closures of small schools in our rural areas—against which the Government made a strong commitment in 1998—had declined to only six a year, but the fact is that we now have some 1,200 fewer small schools in our rural areas than we had in 1997 when the Government came to power. I have the figures in front of me. The Minister shakes his head, but I will happily show him the figures later. They are as plain as the nose on your face.

We need more than just words and the paying of lip service to schools. What about cutting the bureaucracy, initiatives and general messing around that makes small schools so difficult to maintain?

The hon. Gentleman should consider his own bureaucracy when he quotes completely false figures. Statistics of that kind do not relate to the number of schools that have been taken out of communities. They relate to the closure of schools as a result of mergers between infant and junior schools to form primary schools, and to a range of factors that do not feature in the rurality classification used by DEFRA. The statistics that we use are consistent. The hon. Gentleman should remind himself of the trend that we saw when his party was in power, which, as I have said, resulted in a peak of 127 closures of small rural schools in 1983.

Will my hon. Friend commend the track record of Leicestershire county council? It has never been under the control of the Labour party and has only been under the control of any party for the last seven years, but in a generation or more it has never closed a rural school, with the single exception of Tilton on the Hill, east of the city of Leicester. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that enough funds are being allocated to local education authorities in rural areas to allow them to skew their budgets to meet the recognisably higher cost of enabling smaller schools to exist in the medium term?

I am happy to commend the job done by Leicestershire county council in managing its schools against the background of a relatively difficult funding arrangement, although even in Leicestershire funding has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and its dedicated school grant will include funds for sparsity. I do not have the Leicestershire figure in front of me, but Somerset, for example, receives £5.48 million in sparsity funding.

I am reassured by the Minister's emphatic statement that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Does he accept that, often, the school in a village is the only major facility, so keeping it open is of great importance? Does he believe that federation of some schools is a good way of getting over the problem facing many local education authorities? Perhaps a merger between a Church of England school and a Catholic school to make an all-faith school can help in keeping small schools, village schools and rural schools open.

I never thought that I would say that I hope that local authorities have the imagination of the hon. Gentleman. He is entirely right that we should be looking more at federations. In my own constituency, hard federations have resulted in school buildings remaining open in two villages, but under a single head teacher and a single governing body. That has been extremely successful. In Somerset, as a result of a move towards federation that encompasses all but five of its primary schools, just 9 per cent. of primary school places are surplus places. That is the kind of thing that we want to see, alongside co-location of services, so that a range of children's services and other services can be offered from a village school to keep village communities alive.

The Minister will be well aware of the value of small schools, particularly in his constituency in Dorset, where a view has been taken to keep schools open for the wider community benefit, as he has stated. I congratulate him on reducing the number of small school closures over the past few years. That is absolutely right. Will he help me on Canvey Island, where one of my small schools is under threat of closure from Essex county council because of low numbers, even though much more building will be forced on Canvey Island, which will increase the capacity requirement on the island? What is more, that school is making excellent progress. Will he ask the county council to declare a moratorium on that closure?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman needs all the friends he can get right now, and I am happy to have a chat with him about what is going on in Canvey Island and about how he can have a constructive conversation with his former friends in Conservative-controlled Essex county council.