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Rural Schools

Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

Today is not the first time that we in this House have discussed the future of small rural schools and I do not believe that it will be the last. I have to make it clear—this view will be shared by colleagues—that I am not interested in listening to any redundant polemic. Instead, I want to illustrate the plight of small rural schools, particularly the crisis facing Captain Shaw’s Church of England school in the village of Bootle in my constituency, and suggest some potential policy solutions for small rural schools, which I hope that the Government will be minded to support. The Minister will state that such decisions are for local education authorities and he would be right in part to identify that accountability, but I hope that pressure can and will be brought to bear by him and his Department, not only on this policy area, but on Cumbria county council with regard to its treatment thus far of Captain Shaw’s school and the community of Bootle.

My constituency of Copeland is the English constituency most remote from Westminster. Whether by plane, train or car, it is a minimum journey of six hours from Whitehaven, the constituency’s largest town, to Westminster. As the Minister knows, Copeland sits within Cumbria, the second largest county in the country, with a population just below 500,000 people, 50% of whom live in rural communities. This poses unique policy challenges in every area, from health to economic development, and many of those require unique local solutions, which a Government of any colour are required to get behind. However, none of that removes the Government’s obligations to the people of Cumbria and, in this instance, the people of Bootle.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister was in Cumbria this week. I hope it is not the last time that we see him there.

Bootle is an outstanding community. Situated within the Lake District national park, it is a truly beautiful place. The village—I use that word despite some residents telling me that it was essentially given town status by Edward III with the granting of a market charter in 1348—is an incredibly beautiful place that was described by the renowned writer and social campaigner, Doreen Wallace, in her landmark book, “English Lakeland”. She stated:

“To see Bootle is to love it.”

She was right, but Bootle has seen huge change in recent decades. Its employment base has been threatened and it has faced the same challenges faced by other rural areas throughout the country, but these have been amplified given the unique nature of Cumbria and Copeland.

Right now, Captain Shaw’s school is the centre of Bootle: it is its beating heart, its focal point and, in many ways, its pride. If Captain Shaw’s school is taken away from Bootle, the consequences will be profound. Not only will the village suffer a huge blow in terms of status and civic pride, but the message given to the pupils at that school will be one that is frankly cruel, even brutal. The message is, “We don’t back you, we don’t believe in you, we don’t share your aspirations, we don’t understand your ambitions; you are on your own.” I cannot accept that, the people of Bootle cannot accept that and the children should not be subjected to the psychological impact of that.

The reality is—I will touch on this issue again later—that we see the ambitions, aspirations, qualities and hopes of our communities in our schools. I have visited Captain Shaw’s on a number of occasions. It is a unique school: the smallest school in the country’s second largest county, in the furthermost English constituency from Westminster. It currently has a roll of 16 pupils from 4 to 11 years old. Every time I have visited the school I have been impressed by it. There is a genuine warmth and passion about the school and the pupils demonstrate a tremendous sense of pride and belonging. The building that they occupy is more than 180 years old, yet it is in very good repair inside and out. It has excellent ICT facilities. It is modern on the inside and has a good play area outside.

The school, as I have mentioned, mirrors the community. It is doing more than simply getting by. It is handsome, notable and unique. It is supported by an indomitable community spirit and is proud of its past and ready to take on the challenges of the modern world. I could wax lyrical about the school for a long time, but the independent Ofsted evaluation puts it even better than I ever could.

In the latest Ofsted report, Captain Shaw’s school is rated as a good school. In fact, the inspector noted that,

“this is a good school which has an excellent ethos of care, guidance and support. It is a highly valued member of its local community, with which there are excellent links benefiting pupils. On leaving Captain Shaw’s, pupils are confident, independent and self-assured young people. They possess excellent social skills which contribute to their outstanding behaviour and positive attitudes to others”.

The report is glowing in other areas too, rating the school as outstanding in the effectiveness of its care, guidance and support for pupils, but it is in lead inspector, David Byrne’s, letter to pupils and parents after his inspection that the true nature of Captain Shaw’s school and its place within the Bootle community is revealed. He wrote:

“Your school is quite special. It is very much at the heart of your village and local area and makes a vital contribution to the lives of many, not just those learning or working in the school.”

I really could not put it any better than that.

Despite the school’s small roll, it is viable. Development plans are already under way, supported by the national park, to develop Bootle sympathetically with new housing, including some affordable housing, which would make the school even more viable. In addition, the pupil-teacher ratio at the school is very good indeed, at a level that many people around the country would choose to pay for in an independent school. I do not hold independent schools in higher or worse esteem than our other schools, but it is perverse that anyone would seek to remove from a community such as Bootle the kind of provision that would be valued, privately paid for and even envied in other parts of the country. This really is the worst kind of policy-making myopia. With that in mind, it is entirely relevant to mention that the decision to close Captain Shaw’s school has been taken by a county council that is headquartered 62 miles and a one and a half hour drive away from the community in question.

Before issuing its closure notice, Cumbria county council undertook a consultation on what it called

“proposed changes”.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Julia Morrison, Cumbria county council’s director of children’s services, who has begun to make a real difference in Cumbria since her recent arrival, but I think I speak for everyone in Bootle when I state that nobody believed that this consultation was ever going to result in anything other than the closure of Captain Shaw’s.

I speak as a former press officer for Cumbria local education authority. There have been a number of attempts to close Captain Shaw’s over the years, none of which has ever been successful because the case for closure—I have seen this from the inside—could never be made.

My first request to the Minister is as follows. The Government have a presumption against the closure of rural schools and have stated that they want to protect them. I share that ambition. Captain Shaw’s is strong and viable and I call upon the Minister to put this policy into effect and intervene in this instance. Even in its closure consultation, Cumbria county council recognised that the number of pupils at Captain Shaw’s is likely to rise and euphemistically acknowledges that

“village life would clearly not be enhanced by its closure”.

Small rural schools can be outstanding. The outstanding St Bridget’s school in Parton, also in my constituency, is proof of that, as are many others. I pay tribute to the work done at St Bridget’s and, in fact, to everything that that school does, not just for its pupils and their parents and some pupils’ carers, but for the village of Parton as well. Once again, the case is made that schools like this are the key to the success of the communities that they are based in.

In one of its final reports, the Commission for Rural Communities published “Small school: Big Communities —Village schools and extended services”, which I commend to hon. Members, including the Minister. The report focuses upon extended provision as a key policy solution with which to help sustain rural schools. It is right to do so. It also mentions that extended services help to break the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes.

The report states that rural poverty is often hidden. I should like to dwell upon that for a moment, because despite its obvious beauty and despite some obvious individual affluence, Bootle is not a rich village. Poverty exists in parts of Bootle and is magnified by its rurality and peripherality.

I am sick and tired of redundant notions of rurality running riot across the House, in all political parties. In the mind’s eye, some in the House see rural areas as occupied by corpulent farmers chewing blades of grass and leaning on gates and, moreover, as simply a playground for those who have wealth and who have left urban areas to gentrify the countryside with large homes and Range Rovers. They never see the young farmer struggling to stay afloat and they rarely consider what it means for people who have no access to public transport and, as a result, to the schools, hospitals and other services that their taxes pay for as much as anyone else’s. They never see the struggling villages that are fighting every day to stay alive, which have never known affluence, and the pensioners, parents and children who occupy this forgotten country.

In that context, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some of the public debate about planning policy has suggested that people in rural areas do not want to see any building or development at all, whereas actually having some houses that local people can afford—usually to rent—so that we have children in the schools is very important to them?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. All too often, people—especially those who live in or adjacent to national parks—are treated almost as living museum exhibits. That policy attitude has to change and to change fundamentally.

That viewpoint, to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded, must change. As the economic squeeze worsens, as the public sector and the state retreat further and as areas of market failure become ever more prominent, all of us need to pay urgent attention to the plight of ordinary people in that forgotten England, because they need our help and they have little or no interest in the colour of our rosettes. That is why village schools are so important. They can act as the lynchpin for extended services in a community, through the provision of other public services such as general practice, citizens advice, tourist information or even banking. By doing that, they give us the best possible chance of reaching all the people I have mentioned and more, but particularly those most at risk of social exclusion.

The CRC report states:

“Small village schools are in close contact with families and have a track record of providing good outcomes for children. Based in isolated communities, small schools may hold the key to engaging the most disadvantaged families, but their numbers are decreasing.”

Ultimately, that is the crux of the issue. The closure of small rural schools such as Captain Shaw’s is perhaps not seen as a problem for those with private transport and steady employment, but delivers another significant contradiction with regard to the statutory responsibilities of the local education authorities and others in relation to child poverty.

The Child Poverty Act 2010 creates a duty for local authorities to reduce child poverty. As the CCR report points out:

“If poverty is to be tackled effectively, it must be a priority to identify and consult with those families who don’t know about or are prevented from accessing services.”

Village schools have a critical role to play in supporting individual families in need, or as a hub for activities that will promote learning, economic well-being and social cohesion. More than that, it is clear that the choice is becoming binary. Maintain small village schools such as Captain Shaw’s in rural areas and extend their provision of services, and we can tackle the problems of poverty, aspiration and lack of economic opportunities in those areas. Close the schools, and the evidence would seem to be clear that we cannot do any of that. Closure is effectively a choice to worsen the lives and life chances of the people in any community facing the loss of its school. As the report points out, that loss is “felt to be irreparable.”

I therefore make three specific requests of the Government today. First, to intervene in the process to close Captain Shaw’s school. Allowing the smallest school in the country’s most beautiful national park to close would destroy any credibility of the Government’s presumption against the closure of rural schools—it could scarcely be more symbolic. Secondly, to ensure that local education authorities and other responsible bodies in the case of academies or free schools, nationwide, are acting in a manner consistent with the statutory obligation to reduce child poverty laid out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. Thirdly, to bring forward as a matter of urgency a streamlined process whereby small rural schools can provide extended services, whether public, private or both, so as to secure the viability of those schools and to reach the most excluded people in our communities.

While I have the Minister’s attention, it is only right that I raise the issue of school investment more broadly in west Cumbria. I have written to the Secretary of State, and I hope that he or the Minister will be able to meet me as a matter of urgency. Some of west Cumbria’s secondary schools, which had been allocated more than £60 million by the previous Government as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, are reaching crisis point with regard to their physical fabric and infrastructure. That affects standards, attainment levels, teaching and the aspirations and ambitions of their pupils. We urgently need major funding for the fabric of our schools, whether from a public or private source, or the consequences for education and my community as a whole will be dire.

The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate case. Does he agree that it is not only the capital funding that is important, but the ongoing revenue funding for schools? A fairer funding formula, which does not discriminate against rural areas, is vital to keeping small rural schools viable.

The funding formula does need to be looked at and, given the inconsistent definition of rurality to which I alluded, we need to have a more sophisticated approach to the funding of pupil places, rather than the blanket, catch-all provision for rural areas and the blanket, catch-all provision for urban areas. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which needs urgent attention. Whether it is as simple as introducing a one-size-fits-all approach for rural areas, I am not so certain—we would need to look at the evidential base.

I was about to conclude. We are an ambitious community, as I am sure the Minister is aware, with an incredibly prosperous future before us if we make the right decisions, but we require the reinstatement of the money that the Government took away. I hope that the Minister will meet me as a matter of urgency to explore how and when that can be done.

I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for securing the debate and for all his leadership on Cumbria. Central to the issue is rurality and sparse population, and if he represents the constituency in England furthest from London, I represent the constituency in England with the most sparse population. We have about 1,200 square miles and some 1.5 million sheep, but not many people.

The central issue to do with rural schools is simply an aspect of the central problem of rural communities. That problem is the relationship between population and area. Since 1997, we can see a consistent pattern throughout almost every area of rural life: a steady push and a clear, unstoppable trend towards the hollowing out of rural areas.

We have two hospitals in northern Cumbria serving 350,000 people. That is normally difficult for the Treasury to justify, and our Cumbrian hospitals have been in receipt of emergency funding from the Government every year for 19 years, bailing out that fundamental structural problem. Our ambulances in Cumbria find themselves drifting endlessly south, towards the population centres. In fact, every morning the ambulance sets off bravely from Brough, but because it is obliged to pick up the nearest possible case and that always tends to be further south, it is somewhere south of Blackpool by the time it has to turn around and go back up to Brough in the evening. The same extends to old people’s homes, post offices, pubs, farms and broadband—we have some of the slowest broadband in Britain—and to issues such as flood protection, which I discussed with the hon. Member for Copeland earlier.

Since 1997, therefore, we have seen a cataclysmic hollowing out of rural areas throughout the country. Nationally, there are now 2,200 fewer schools in Britain than in 1997, 550 fewer clinics and hospitals, 350 fewer police stations and, famously, almost 10,000 fewer pubs—mostly gone from rural areas. It is, therefore, something of a miracle that our rural areas survive at all, when so much of the structure in the modern world seems to be set against them. In the Pyrenees, one can walk through abandoned village after abandoned village, and the same is true in the central United States. It is a miracle that Governments have managed to fight the endless centralising power of the market that tends to drive people out.

My hon. Friend is making some powerful arguments. Is not part of the problem—it certainly is in my region—that small rural communities are classified as unsustainable by their local authorities and local development plans, so they cannot expand and support local schools, post offices and so on? The problem is that communities in such areas want to expand, but are not allowed to, and the unsustainable tag becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The slogan of sustainability is used to cover up a whole series of crimes perpetuated against rural areas by local authorities. Local authorities imagine that there is an incredibly unfair structural system whereby rural areas are continually subsidised by more densely populated areas, and they demand to know why that should be. The reality, of course, is that rural areas are often in receipt of less funding than urban areas, despite higher costs. For example, education provision in Cumbria is £4,840 per pupil, compared with a national average of £5,140, despite the structural problems that the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned, and which I shall continue to discuss. Our communities put incredible energy into trying to keep those assets open, providing volunteer time and free land, but that is swept aside by the centralising tendency.

My hon. Friend seems to be talking about small schools receiving more than other schools in Cumbria, but the schools that receive much more are those in towns and cities. It is not a Cumbrian fix; it is a national fix.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Perhaps I was not clear enough. The national average of school funding is £5,140 per pupil. Cumbria is in receipt of £4,840, so the point is exactly the one that he makes. If sparsely populated rural areas such as Cumbria are compared with urban areas, we receive less.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, and I endorse it by pointing out that we have exactly the same problem in Gloucestershire, where there is the same funding difference between rural and urban areas. Gloucestershire is launching a campaign to put that right, and rightly so.

I thank my hon. Friend. The point about Gloucestershire is key. There are many reasons why things tend to get bigger, and why small shops give way to supermarkets, small dental practices give way to bigger dental practices, and small schools give way to larger schools. That is partly because of the regulations that we impose on such institutions, and partly because of pupils expectations and the variety of teaching that they can receive. That is difficult to deliver in small schools. When I look out of my window in Cumbria, I see a school in Bampton that had run continuously since 1613, but has had to close because it was considered to be unsustainable. It is an odd world where something that was affordable 400 years ago is no longer affordable when we are spending so much more per capita on our government.

The problem is size, and we have extremes. Samuel King school in Alston has only 161 pupils, making it the smallest high school in Britain. Why should it remain open? It remains open because it is more than 20 miles from Penrith, across a pass that is closed for many days during the winter. One simply cannot get to Alston, which is the highest market town in the Pennines. A school is necessary there, because students would otherwise not be able to get to school at all. Kirkby Stephen has the smallest high school in the country. It has 406 students, but only 70 are in the high school. Its catchment area covers 400 square miles of countryside, and whatever some fantasist would like to do in the name of rationality, that school provides an essential service.

Such schools face difficulties, because the lack of affordable housing, and the limited demographics mean that it is difficult for them to increase their numbers. Kirkby Stephen school breaks even with about 410 students. It makes money with 415 students, and if the number drops below 400, it loses an enormous amount of money, but it has little control over that because its catchment area is so limited in terms of population, although its size is large.

Almost every one of our outstanding schools in Cumbria—those that I mentioned are predominantly rated as outstanding by Ofsted, and are eagerly signing up for the Government’s academy programme—have continual financial problems. They have generally had to be bailed out by the county council year after year, and are in an uncomfortable position. When they become independent as academy schools, the funding they take on is the base level that they received from the county council, and does not include the emergency bail-outs that they received year after year, so they find themselves running up increasing deficits. That is so in Alston, and in Kirkby Stephen, where the debt is approaching £500,000—the £140,000 a year that it used to receive from the county council was discontinued at exactly the time it embarked on its, hopefully positive, future as an academy school.

I want to make two requests of the Minister. One is that we address seriously the issue of the rural funding formula. We should not allow that to be seen as a selfish attempt by sparsely populated areas, such as Cumbria, to steal money from more deserving people. It is consistent with our general attitude towards rural areas, and our general desire that rural areas should not be seen as places that we want to be hollowed out in relation to health care, transport or education. It is a fundamental commitment of our civilisation to rural areas.

My second request, which is smaller and technical, is that I would like the Minister to provide someone from the Department for Education to work with the boards of governors, particularly at Kirkby Stephen and Alston, on their budgets. They have launched themselves to academy status, and they have great governing bodies with great head teachers, but they could do with a lot of help to understand the budget. They are in a difficult situation because they hear one thing from the county council, and another with their new academy status. They need someone to compare their per capita funding with that of other schools around the country, and to provide technical advice on what would be reasonable reductions. That would be of enormous assistance to our schools.

On those two notes, and with acknowledgement to the hon. Member for Copeland, I thank you, Mr Weir, for calling me.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate on the future of rural schools.

I represent a constituency in Suffolk, and when I moved to the constituency, I was impressed to discover how many small rural schools were able to survive. In my patch, I have seven schools with a roll of fewer than 50, and the smallest has about 20 pupils. A further six have a roll of fewer than 100. I have been impressed by the head teachers’ leadership in doing what they can to ensure that they keep the schools going in the communities. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is not a question of the rich rural message. People in urban places are often surprised at how many of our small rural schools have upwards of 40% of pupils receiving free school meals, which reflects the fact that poverty is spread throughout the country and not concentrated in urban areas.

Suffolk has managed to survive. I believe that it was the county council’s policy to try to keep as many schools as possible open. That is different in one of our neighbouring counties, where a deliberate attempt was made to close as many schools as possible and to consolidate primary schools. An interesting way that schools have got around that is by starting to share head teachers. I point to Peasenhall and Middleton schools, which have 56 children between them and share a head teacher, and that seems to work.

I grew up in Liverpool and went to a classic primary school, which had 30 or 60 kids a year and was all one school. When I lived in Hampshire and was a school governor in a rural area, I was introduced to the concept of mixed-age classes—combinations. I then went to schools, such as Peasenhall, where key stage 1 pupils were together and all the key stage 2 pupils were together. Trying to differentiate pupils—admittedly a small number —across a wide range of abilities and progress creates challenging teaching conditions.

I am sure that it is a great pleasure to step out of school and, instead of the hard concrete that I remember playing netball and other things on, have a view of beautiful fields and playing fields. That natural environment is impressive, and perhaps I did not share that experience where I grew up in Liverpool.

There are also financial aspects. We heard the eloquent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). Funnily enough, I have a village called Brampton in my constituency as well, which also has a very small primary school that suffers similar challenges to those that he mentioned. We get even less money than Cumbria does; the county of Suffolk gets £4,676.

I hope that the Minister recognises the challenges of sparse population, which include the costs of school transport. Shipping children around is expensive, and towns or cities in particular do not have those costs. I remember getting the bus to school and it was fine because there were buses every 10 minutes or so, but those of us with rural constituencies know that that just does not happen in those areas, and nor would I expect it to. I am not suggesting that someone who lives in the country should have the same public transport service as someone who lives in the middle of the city, but the additional cost pressures are a challenge for rural schools.

It would interesting to hear the Minister’s understanding of the progress on educational challenges for rural schools. People are hugely surprised to hear that somewhere such as Suffolk is pretty low down in its progress towards GCSE targets. That is not unique to my county, but is also true in other rural counties. I hope that the Minister and his officials are working on something to ensure that children across the country get the same support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) eloquently pointed out, there definitely seems to be a bias towards urban schools, which is perhaps tradition given the more conventional aspects of social deprivation and the indices. He pointed out to me that there are ongoing revenue challenges, because children with additional languages are not being identified quickly enough. More people are coming from eastern Europe with their children and settling in parts of rural and agricultural England, and that is not recognised. Some of the indicators are a few years old, so the revenue is not keeping up quickly enough.

I do not intend to detain the House for much longer. Plenty of right hon. and hon. Members want to stand up to ensure that rural schools get a fair share of the funding, but I encourage them, especially the hon. Member for Copeland, to encourage parents in their areas to find out whether a free school is possible. [Interruption.] Perhaps his nodding indicates that that has already happened. It has certainly happened in Suffolk. West Suffolk is going through a schools organisation review, which I fully support—I support the move towards a two-tier model, because it has been statistically shown that children can make more progress that way—but understandably, significant communities would have their schools removed, and we all know that when a school is lost, an element of vitality is lost as well.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, a lot of countryside villages want more building because they want more families. They want a viable community, not to lose a school and see children transported 15 miles. A child transported to school has one minute to get on the bus, which significantly limits their opportunities for after-school activities. There is something to be said about hearing a positive message from the Minister, who I am sure, in his constituency in West Sussex, is constantly asked to ensure that the countryside is not forgotten.

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in the debate that the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) so helpfully introduced. I must tell him that my constituency is even further from London than his and at least as sparsely populated as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart). It is therefore an area with a lot of very small schools, and I have several with fewer than 12 pupils.

I want to clarify that point. The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, geographically much further from London than I am, but I think that he can get here an awful lot quicker than I can.

I commend the east coast train service in that respect.

As I said, quite a number of schools in my area have fewer than 12 pupils. There is a unique school on Holy island that much of the time is combined with a school in Lowick on the mainland, but when the tide is over, the children are educated in a little village school on the island itself. That arrangement must continue or they would not be able to go to school without boarding at the age of five—of course, they board later in their educational career.

When a previous Conservative Government were in power and there was grant-maintained status, the county council threatened one school with closure. It went grant maintained and saved itself, and is still there to this day. It made a rather shrewd move. That was an exception to the pattern, and I will explain how school closures come about.

In my constituency, we have lost 10 rural schools in 10 years. Villages such as Kirknewton, Millfield, Chatton and Eglingham have lost their schools. Two schools are threatened at Cornhill and Brampton, and in both cases there are very small numbers of children at each school—just three or four. In the past, we lost schools in the Cheviot hills that served the communities of shepherds at places such as Windyhaugh and Southern Knowe.

The current policy of the county council is certainly not to bring about school closure, even though, like other authorities mentioned today, it gets much less per pupil than some urban communities, despite the high costs of educating pupils in a much larger number of schools scattered over many communities and the high costs of transport for children in rural areas, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) referred. Closures in rural Northumberland have invariably happened because the governors have concluded that a school is no longer viable. That view is not always shared by the local community, which sometimes disagrees with the governors and would like to see a school retained.

In all cases, closure is to be regretted because of the impact on the community. The school is a meeting place. Some places where schools have closed have managed to retain them as community meeting places, but the loss of children from the village during the day is serious. They no longer put on the events they used to in the villages where the schools were situated—dramatic activities, re-enactments and so on, and music at church and chapel events. Many people prefer to see children in the village, morning and afternoon, going to and from school. The village becomes very quiet when there are no longer children going to and from school or voices from the playing fields at break time. That takes something out of a village.

The problem, in Northumberland at any rate, is not some bureaucratic and draconian policy of getting rid of schools, but a shortage of children and young families. Young families cannot afford to live in many of our villages; with low local wages and the price of houses, property is well beyond their reach. Houses are attractive to people coming to retire and those who want second homes and so are beyond the reach of local people.

Of course, many rural council houses have also been sold over the years. We therefore need to replace housing stock for young families in our villages. I repeat the point that I made in my earlier intervention: we must not let a sudden panic about planning policy lead people to the conclusion that no development can take place in rural areas. We need communities to have a life in the future, and that means having affordable housing for young families in villages, as well as workshops and other places where trades and activities can continue. It also means ensuring that we have other housing in villages, because we want communities to be mixed. Newcomers often bring life to a village and are often among the most active supporters of local institutions. We need to sustain our villages.

There are always a few children left—those of farmers and farm workers—but life becomes that much more difficult for them when there are no other children in the village, and the village is almost devoid of young families.

I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s analysis that we cannot allow our rural communities to become fossilised and our villages to stop moving forward in time. Does he agree that the Localism Act 2011 and the community right to build represent an avenue that some villages will enjoy exploring as they grow? The register of assets of community value is another important provision that local communities can use in safeguarding some of the services, in addition to schools, that hon. Members have talked about.

Those measures, which the Government have introduced, are very welcome. People in the villages in my constituency are actively pursuing all those angles to ensure that local services continue to be provided. They have put a lot of effort into improving village halls, turning former schools into village halls and putting together schemes to help remaining schools, to work closely with them and to use community assets jointly with them. An awful can be done, but there need to be people to do it and young families to participate.

Let me give one salutary warning. The school in one village in my constituency closed many years ago. Later, there was some housing development. As a result, a busload of children now go from the village to another one five miles away because there is no school. Circumstances change, and we should think more often, when the situation allows, about reopening schools or even opening new schools in village communities that show real growth. That will be the exception, not the norm, but there are cases where such measures are appropriate. However, we need to try to sustain villages, so that our schools can continue.

Even in an area such as Northumberland, where no policy is being pursued directly to the detriment of village schools—that has been the case for some years—village schools are under serious threat. The threat comes from the decline of villages and the way in which the average age in villages is increasing year by year because of a shortage of young families. Safeguarding our village schools is therefore not just important, but part of a wider policy towards rural communities, and it will require great effort in years to come.

The Minister would be surprised—he can see what is coming—if I did not finish by referring to the high school that serves a large rural area of my constituency. Children go to the Duchess high school, in Alnwick, from villages from many miles around. I simply remind him that we are all waiting with bated breath for the school capital programme announcement. We are determined that the school—it is on a split site and in an appalling physical state, but it is a good school—can benefit from that programme as soon as possible.

I did not come to the debate expecting to make a contribution, and I am grateful to you, Mr Turner, for allowing me to do so. I want quickly to refer to several points, which sprang to my mind while I was listening to the debate.

The first is that the Government are consulting on school funding, and that is absolutely right. It is important that rural school supporters, of which I am one, make absolutely sure to get across the point that these schools should be able to spend their budget with few prescriptions. We also need to sort out the argument over equality between rural and urban schools and, indeed, in rural areas. That is a fundamental issue, and the Government are rightly alive and alert to it.

The second dimension to the question about the future of rural schools is that some wish to expand. In my constituency, that is, to some extent, a pressure. The Government need to make it easier for schools to understand how they can expand and what mechanisms they might use to rise to the challenge of providing extra classrooms. The second issue, therefore, is letting existing schools expand.

The third point that we should discuss is the scope academies have in terms of primary schools and small schools. Giving schools additional independence and autonomy from local authorities addresses some of the issues that have arisen in the debate. It is critical that we send out the message to small rural schools that academy conversion is a way forward.

That leads to me to a point that struck me while I was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). She was talking about shared heads, and that is very much a direction of travel. Academies should be thinking very much about federalising structures, where appropriate, and about sharing facilities.

In my constituency, some very innovative academy chains are being created. That is allowing exactly the kind of economies that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, with a chief executive overlooking a number of primary schools. I therefore endorse his point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much—I do like to be endorsed every now and again, and that was firm and fair.

Let me reiterate the point about free schools, which are obviously an alternative when a local authority is unwilling to countenance the continuation of schools. It is essential that local communities take hold of the powers and opportunities that the coalition Government have given them to voice what they want.

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points, but one issue underlying a lot of the contributions that hon. Members have made is that school failures, for want of a better term, occur in areas of market failure. That is a fundamental problem, and we need to grasp it. It has been evident in England’s rural areas since the war, and it has been accelerating since then. These areas of market failure often have little, if any, real social capital. Are we really telling them, “You either have a free school or an academy, or we withdraw provision”? I do not think that we are, are we?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting intervention—I do not think that it was an endorsement. I am challenging the old way of doing things, with local authorities providing schools and everything that was necessary. We have to take a step away from saying, “The local authority must do this, because it’s always been there, and that’s the way we like it.” We have to move towards a situation where we encourage communities to decide for themselves what they want and to move in the appropriate direction, seizing the opportunities and the tools that the coalition Government are providing. I am saying we should think of a different way of looking at this problem; we should not just go back to the local authority and say, “You must do this.” Instead, we have to go down the academy and the free schools route, if that is what communities want, because a sustainable community will be even more sustainable if it is in charge of its destiny. That is the point that I would make in response to the hon. Gentleman.

I am a great supporter of rural schools. They are absolutely important. They are a part of the rural fabric, make villages work, encourage farmers to be farmers and encourage local people to stay in local areas. However, we need to be more alert to changes that are already in train that will make it easier for many schools to prosper. We also need to address the fundamental and clearly most important question, which I raised initially, about the funding formula.

I support small rural schools. I have plenty in Gloucestershire and I want to see them thrive. The critical point that all of us must understand—I will end on this—is that all schools must strive to be really good schools. It is not good enough to say, “We have a rural school. Great.” Rural schools must provide first-class education. That must be the key test. That is what governs me and that is what I always think when I go around schools in my constituency of Stroud.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing today’s interesting and important debate and on making a powerful case. He told us about the proposal to close Captain Shaw’s school in Bootle in his constituency, which has 16 pupils. I think we would all agree that, in bringing the matters before the House today, he has represented his constituents with great passion. Such decisions can be made only at a local level, but it is right for my hon. Friend to seek to raise the profile of the issue by securing today’s debate. The points that he has raised here should be fully considered by the local authority before making any final decision.

We also had interesting contributions from a number of hon. Members today, including the hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and—in a rather impromptu manner, but no less interesting and important —the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael).

Before I start, I should set out my own credentials and declare that I live in a distinctly urban area of Newcastle upon Tyne, and it takes me only three hours to arrive here by train. None the less, there is a strong case to be made here in today’s important debate about the issues that face rural communities, especially in relation to schools.

Contrary to the assertions made by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, Labour had, within a year of coming into government, introduced a presumption against closures of rural schools. The year in which the number of rural school closures was the highest was 1983, when 127 were closed. The rate of closures continued at about 30 a year until 1997. The measures taken by Labour reduced closures to an average of seven a year throughout the period we were in government. Furthermore, under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, the presumption against closure was strengthened by requiring that the closure of rural schools must take the effect on the community into account and look at alternatives.

Will the hon. Lady tell me whether the closure of schools under the Labour Government could have been stopped at the national level?

I am trying to ask whether under the previous Government, closure of schools could have been stopped, as it had been before 1997, by the Government.

That is a point to be debated. I think the hon. Gentleman was asking whether the Secretary of State could have intervened to stop the closure of state schools.

I do not wish to debate statistics, but I am afraid that the idea that the average rate of school closures since 1997 is seven is a severe underestimation. I could name, off the top of my head, seven schools in my own constituency that were closed in the past five years.

No, but I agree that the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for the concerns in the area, regarding the decline that he feels he has witnessed in his area. I feel that all hon. Members today have made a powerful case for state intervention, particularly in such areas, and for serious consideration to be given to how the state can intervene in the market to try to ensure that rural areas do not suffer disproportionately, particularly in the cuts environment that we are facing at the moment. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to the concerns that have been raised today.

I do not think I was making a case for state intervention. I was making a case for empowering our local communities to take charge of their own schools and to take hold of the opportunities given by the Academies Act 2010, autonomous schools and active, vibrant communities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. The overall impression that I got from hon. Members’ contributions today is that there clearly is a powerful case for concern about a purely market-led approach to education and the impact that that can have on rural communities.

There is a world of difference between allowing communities to flourish and determine their own future, and throwing areas of market failure further to the forces and whims of the marketplace. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are all struggling with the following point? We are all debating different notions of rurality, and we are not considering some things that she will be aware of—as this is writ large in her own constituency—which are issues and notions of peripherality? They are the big issues that are driving the problem.

That is something we have witnessed not just in rural areas, but in urban areas. We need to ensure that taxpayers’ money and state support goes to all areas and all children—at the end of the day, they are what we are talking about today—that they benefit equally, and that that support is distributed equally across the country. We are debating that important wider issue.

Sometimes, when we consider all the factors, including the cost of additional school transport and the extreme case that was mentioned, in Alston in Penrith and The Border, it can make the case for closure of a small rural school more marginal. We were clear about the need to presume against closing rural schools when we were in government. In January 2008, the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, now Lord Knight of Weymouth in another place, wrote to local education authorities. He said:

“Over the last 10 years, we have made it a statutory requirement for councils to presume that rural schools should stay open. There is not, and never has been, any policy for closing rural schools...We require councils to assess the full impact of closure on rural communities and allow every single parent to have their voice heard—and I am writing to local authorities to underline their legal duty to protect popular rural schools. This is not about funding. This is caused by falling birth rates coupled with families moving from rural to urban areas, which leaves some communities with falling numbers of pupils.”

He also said that local authorities should think creatively about their future planning and look at forming federations or consider collocating with other services to ensure that their buildings are viable.

Labour’s record was to reduce significantly the rate of rural school closures and to make it more difficult for failing ones to automatically lead to the seemingly easy option of closure.

One way of keeping rural schools open is to ensure that there are more opportunities for them to collaborate in an imaginative way. Despite the rhetoric that the Government sometimes spout, no school is an island. In the case of rural schools, that is particularly important—a point that has been highlighted by hon. Members today.

Under the previous Government, the Department for Children, Schools and Families undertook a research study in 2009 to look at case studies of formal collaborations between small rural primary schools in ways that could improve their services and viability. We saw examples of that occurring in sharing business managers and head teachers, creating patterns of executive leadership and sharing governance through federations and shared trusts. The study found a rich variety of informal collaborations but less awareness of formal collaborative models. It found that many of the 2,500 or so small primary schools in the country could benefit from more formal collaborations.

The main recommendations of the report include: producing better information and guidance of statutory models of collaboration; local authorities should develop strategic plans to promote formal collaborations; local authorities and Church of England dioceses should co-operate more closely; and local authorities should advocate formal collaborations more effectively through governing bodies and local communities.

One of the collaborations that was looked at involved shared trusts. In the unbalanced debate that there is at the moment because of the obsession with free schools and academies, not enough attention is being paid to the potential of trusts not only to keep open small rural schools, but to provide a coherent and integrated model of education in rural areas.

One of the most exciting developments is the spread of co-operative trusts. There are now more than 150 co-operative schools across the country. Particularly in areas such as Cornwall, there is real interest in that approach. Supporting co-operative models was a policy of the previous Labour Government and a commitment in “The Children’s Plan,” launched in 2007. By embedding what is essentially a social enterprise ethos in schools, co-operative schools can be based on values of collaboration and partnership, rather than the negative forms of competition between schools that the Government sometimes seem to advocate.

I shall put to the Minister questions that follow on from the points that I have raised and that respond to the points highlighted by other hon. Members. What are the Government doing to promote and encourage co-operative schools, particularly in rural areas? What are they doing to permit resources to promote the co-operative school model in the same way as they have earmarked funds for their pet project of free schools? How much money in total has the Minister allocated to the free schools policy? To what extent could that be diverted to other proposals? How much does it work out at per pupil? How many rural school closures could be prevented if money allocated to free schools in areas where there is a shortage of pupil places were diverted to small rural communities such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is so concerned about? Will the Minister retain the previous Government’s presumption against closing rural schools? Will he guarantee that the current Government will ensure that the rate of rural closures does not go up on his watch? I have concerns and, indeed, there are many concerns among Labour Members that an over-focus on peripheral projects means that the Government are in danger of forgetting about the real issues that face rural schools. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this important debate. Cumbria in general and his constituency in particular are clearly among the most beautiful parts of the country. It was a pleasure to be in Cumbria this week, visiting schools—they were not in his constituency, but in a neighbouring one. There were times during this debate when I felt that there was an almost Mr Bounderby-esque competition to represent the constituency that was the furthest from London and the most sparsely populated. Of course, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) conceded that she would be in last place in such a competition.

The Government share the hon. Gentleman’s views on the importance of small rural schools. We recognise the contribution that they make, and that often they are at the heart of their communities. Rural schools play an important role in our education system. Of the 18,500 maintained schools, 5,400 are rural schools. As of this month, there is a total of 312 rural academies, including converters, and 1,294 urban academies.

Small schools are classified as state-funded primary schools with fewer than 100 pupils and state-funded secondary schools with fewer than 600 pupils. There are 57 small academies, of which eight are rural schools, and 2,800 maintained small schools, of which 2,300 are rural schools. Of those, 525 schools have fewer than 50 pupils on their roll, of which only 14 are not rural schools.

There are many high-performing rural schools that are popular with parents, and the Government want to see good and accessible schools in every community. However, as we have debated today, schools in rural areas face particular challenges, including smaller pupil numbers, budget and resource pressures, greater difficulty in recruiting head teachers and teaching staff, the technological challenges of ensuring adequate broadband, and less peer support from schools in neighbouring areas. All those pressures can lead, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), to the hollowing out of rural areas. He made a powerful speech in defence of rural areas.

However, although it is true that some rural schools are isolated, there are good examples of effective collaboration —something referred to by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North—and a growing trend towards federation, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Some schools in her constituency share head teachers. That helps to preserve the focus of education within the locality, while allowing the operation of a larger management unit and offering some economies of scale.

There is also a growing trend for good and outstanding rural schools to convert to academy status. We encourage such applications, in line with the Government’s overarching ambition for all schools to become academies—that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael)—so that more children can benefit from the improved standards and autonomy that academy status brings. To support that intention further, the new academy presumption in the Education Act 2011 requires local authorities first to seek proposals for an academy or free school where they consider that there is a need for a new school. The Government’s free schools policy supports rural school provision, as it can respond directly to local parental demand—that was also pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—and it adds diversity, innovation and commitment to the school system. Again, we encourage rural groups and parents to consider applying to establish a new free school where they think there is a need. There are already three small rural free schools, with a further 18 in the pipeline.

Home-to-school transport will invariably be part of any discussion about rural schools, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. That will be the case particularly where a school is proposed for closure and the pupils will need transportation to a different school in a different village. We know how crucial transport is to rural communities. The Department for Transport has provided £10 million of extra funding for community transport in rural areas. Of course, local authorities need to consider transport costs when they consider the projected savings from closing a school.

I was struck by the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) about a rural school in his constituency. It was a village school that closed. Later, a new housing development was built, which required all the children from that housing development to get on a bus to a village several miles away, at considerable cost to the local authority.

The Minister is making a very informed and intelligent series of comments, but how can we expect academies and free schools to flourish in the areas that we are talking about? The areas facing these difficulties and problems with school closures are typically areas where there is no social capital and where civic society has either withered or largely gone, yet we are expecting the people in those areas to take up the cudgels and run schools. There is a tension and a problem there. How do we get around that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but there are very determined parents in all communities in all parts of the country. We have seen that. Many people have been surprised by quite how much demand there has been to set up free schools. The number of applications has been in the hundreds, and although there is a very rigorous vetting procedure that needs to be gone through before people can continue on to a business case, those applications have come from a wide variety of parts of the population—rich and poor, north and south and rural and urban—so if I was the hon. Gentleman, I would not be too pessimistic about who might come forward with such a suggestion. Also, some of the academy chains may wish to establish new free schools in areas where they perceive that there is an educational need, particularly in areas of deprivation, which can of course, as he and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North point out, be rural as well as urban.

Local authorities are responsible for the maintained schools in their area and as such they can propose changes, including closures, to those schools. Where changes are proposed, the local authority must follow a statutory process that includes consultation of those likely to be affected by the proposals. The proposals are then decided on under local decision-making arrangements by the authority. The Government have repealed the so-called surplus places rule, which obliged local authorities to remove surplus places in their school estate above 25%. Of course, local authorities are still obliged to ensure value for money. When considering whether to approve proposals to close a school, local authorities must have regard to DFE guidance for decision makers. That includes the presumption against closure for rural primary schools. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, such arrangements were introduced by the previous Government, but in answer to her specific question, this Government continue to support such a presumption. Although it does not mean that rural schools will never close, it does ensure that a local authority’s case for closure must be strong. Of course if local authorities are under a regulatory duty to eliminate surplus places, that would—and did—act as a countervailing pressure to close schools. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made an important point about how circumstances can change.

Will the Minister explain what is happening with this long-term trend? Contrary to the claims of the shadow Minister that an average of seven schools a year were closed during that 13-year period, the Department’s figures suggest that the number of schools nationally has fallen from 26,362 in 1997 to 24,605 in 2010. If all these safeguards and formulae are in place to prevent schools from being closed, why have nearly 2,000 gone?

I stand to be corrected, but I think that my hon. Friend is citing the figure for schools overall. There was a considerable number of school closures, and we were concerned in opposition about the number of Titan schools that were developing. The average size of a secondary school, and indeed of a primary school, increased during that period. Much of that was driven by the regulatory statutory requirement on local authorities actively to eliminate surplus places beyond 25%. That has now led to problems. The birth rate has risen and there is an increasing demand on primary school places, and we now have to rebuild, purchase or expand primary schools to cope with the rise in numbers.

There is a case for saying, “Why don’t we mothball classrooms, because in several years’ time we could see an increase in the birth rate?” However, that comes at a cost, which local authorities must take into account when they make such decisions. As far as rural schools are concerned, my understanding is that the introduction to that presumption did reduce the numbers of rural school closures from about 30 a year to an average of 11 in recent years. None the less, I stand to be challenged by my hon. Friend at any point.

I am so sorry. I hesitate to quote, but the Conservatives’ own manifesto on rural areas based on freedom of information requests to local councils established that more than 400 rural schools were closed between 1997 and 2010.

I am rapidly trying to calculate 400 divided by 13. I will come back to my hon. Friend when I am sure that I have all the mathematics absolutely correct, that we are both defining rural schools on the same basis, and that we are not conflating rural and small. I will write to my hon. Friend because I want to know the answer to this question as well.

The protection for rural academies lies in their seven-year funding agreement with the Secretary of State, which requires his consent before it can be terminated.

Let me turn to the issue of school funding. The main funding issue faced by rural schools is that, as they are generally much smaller than schools in urban areas, they do not benefit from the same economies of scale. Our analysis shows that it is small primary schools in particular that need additional support to remain viable. The hon. Member for Copeland and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border pointed out the discrepancy in funding that Cumbria receives—£4,828 per pupil compared with £5,082 on average nationally. That puts Cumbria 105th out of 151 local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) has taken an active role, as part of the f40 group—the Campaign for Fairer Funding in Education—in trying to address these issues.

I thank the Minister for his kind words and for giving way. Given that the Government are preparing to respond to their consultation on the funding formula and that the previous Government recognised that the funding formula was in need of reform, would he agree to meet me and other MPs representing f40 constituencies to hear the concerns of the group ahead of the Government’s official response?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are part of the f40 group to discuss their concerns about the funding. We do want to address these disparities in our funding system. That is why proposals in the “Consultation on School Funding Reform: Proposals for a Fairer System,” which we undertook in 2011, looked at how small schools could be better protected, as well as at the underlying discrepancies and unfairness that are in the current system. We would like to address the disparities in the rural schools either through a sparsity weighting or, in the case of primary schools, through a lump sum figure. The lump sum suggested in the consultation—I emphasise that it is only a consultation at this stage—is £95,000.

We have published a summary of responses that we are considering and we will make a further announcement in the spring. We had better arrange this meeting with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members before that response; otherwise, the meeting might seem a little superfluous.

In the interim, for 2011-12 and 2012-13, we have set a cash floor of minus 2%, which means that, in practice, no local authority will see a drop in its dedicated schools grant allocation of more than 2% regardless of pupil numbers. That is to protect local authorities that have falling pupil numbers.

I understand the local community’s passion for Captain Shaw’s school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Copeland. I can see why it is the “beating heart” of the community and why it is supported by an “indomitable community spirit.” As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, people prefer to see village children attending their local school, being heard at playtime and being seen walking home instead of arriving home half an hour or an hour later on a school bus. I understand that the local authority in Cumbria has provided small school support through its funding formula and that the school has received a one-off schools in financial difficulty allocation to protect its budget concerns.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

It is nice to be back after that short interlude to vote in the main Chamber. I see that we are now a little more sparsely populated than earlier, but I understand the pressures on hon. Members, and their commitments in the House.

I want to finish by commenting on the local authority and Captain Shaw’s school. It is concerned that the school has a capacity for 56 pupils but is now teaching only 16, which indicates issues about the popularity of the school. The local authority undertook a consultation on the proposed closure of Captain Shaw’s school and on Monday, after consideration by its scrutiny committee, it took the decision to go ahead and publish statutory proposals for the closure. Now a statutory process must be followed, and that will be decided by the local authority. As a voluntary school, Captain Shaw’s has a right of appeal to the independent schools adjudicator if it does not agree with the local authority’s decision.

The hon. Member for Copeland asked whether Ministers can intervene in the closure process. The Secretary of State cannot normally intervene in closure processes, but can do so under the general powers, where the local authority has not performed the statutory duty or has behaved unreasonably in that judicial review legal sense. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this, general funding issues for schools in rural areas and the other matters that he referred to in his speech.

Finally, I can confirm that the Department for Education is very committed to and ambitious for rural communities and their schools. We recognise the importance of preserving access to a local school for rural communities, and that is why we will be contributing to the Government’s rural statement, recognising the importance of ensuring that rural communities thrive, benefit from and contribute to sustainable economic growth, and are able to identify and address local needs. As part of that, we are working to ensure that there is greater choice in rural areas, that standards are improved by increasing the number of academies and free schools, and that the number of rural school closures is kept to a minimum.