HC Deb 04 November 1953 vol 520 cc293-302

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

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

The subject that I wish to raise tonight is one that is exercising the minds of people in many parts of Great Britain as well as in my own constituency. It is the closing of the village schools. It is right that the older children, when they come to the age when they need something in the way of secondary education, should have the advantage of that education and should be taken to larger schools, but the small village schools should be retained for teaching the infants.

An extraordinary thing is that the battle going on at the present time in the educational world seems to be a three-cornered one. The local education authorities want to close the schools; the local school managers and the parents are almost unanimously opposing the closing of the schools, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education has to come in rather as an umpire. I am very glad to know that in my constituency quite recently she had not approved the closing of three of the six schools which the local education authority wished to close.

I am quite unable to undertsand some of the arguments put by the local authority for the closing of these schools. I noticed that, according to a report published in a local newspaper, they claim that the closing of six of the village schools would have saved the county £3,500, but almost in the next breath they give notice that the transport of school children in the county would rise from £40,000 to £53,000 per annum. It seems to me that to close six schools to save £3,500 and to increase the cost of transport of the children in the county is hardly a good argument.

I should like to read a few of the letters of protest which I have received from school managers and others with regard to the closing of their schools. One letter says: We have had excellent reports from H.M. Inspector, the last one expressing shame at the thought of closing this school. All visiting instructors, doctors, dentists, nurses, have commented, every time they have visited it, on what a happy family atmosphere exists. Another one says: From the educational point of view it is better for little children to have the individual attention that they receive in small classes in small schools such as Almeley. The advantage of the teacher's knowing the whole background and family history of each pupil is lost in large villages some distance from its home. From the mother's point of view there is the objection that the children are away from eight o'clock in the morning until 4.30. Another says: No one in a large school can imagine the really personal care given by our teachers to infants of from five to seven years of age. They inspire trust and happy confidence. Those are typical of the letters I have received from my own constituents in response to this claim to close down these small schools.

I want to reinforce what they say. I think that perhaps my views of education and the views of some of my colleagues differ very considerably. I think that what small children want at that early age is motherly care and attention, and if I were responsible for the appointment of teachers in such schools I should appoint the teacher much more on her character than on her academical qualifications. I think children of that age want teaching in the fundamentals. In latter years, I think, we have lost sight of what our forebears taught and made good use of, and that is teaching in what I call the four R's, writing, arithmetic, reading and religion.

By religion I do not necessarily mean what is absorbed out of the Bible. By religion I mean teaching a child the difference between right and wrong, the qualities of a good citizen. I would also include the teaching of tidiness, which, as I go about the country, I think has been lost sight of. We have only to consider what happens on a half-holiday when people go out of the towns into the countryside. We have only to compare their tidiness or untidiness with what we see of the tidiness in other countries. I think it shows a great want of teaching of tidiness amongst our schoolchildren.

If children are taught tidiness when they are young, they grow up to be tidy. That is my experience. I do not think untidiness is something which is necessarily peculiar to the working population. I have often been filled with disgust when motoring and following behind some luxury car, to see the people in it throwing out empty cigarette packets and so on. I think that if they had been taught tidiness in their early days at school, they would not do that sort of thing.

These small units can teach these things. As one of my correspondents has said, if they are taught those things in their youth, such is the impression made on the children that this fundamental teaching is never forgotten in after life.

I should like to read what was said by the Home Office and the Ministry of Education in a circular a short time ago discussing juvenile delinquency. This circular said: It is an established fact that a large number of the children who are brought before the courts are often educationally sub-normal or very dull. In fact, in 1948 to 1949, 37 per cent. of the juvenile offenders in a large west country city were in this category. That is a big percentage and it is in a large city; it is not the product of a village school, but of a large city where apparently our children are to be taken for education.

If those children had been educated in the village infants school, then the teacher, knowing the home life and able to study the characteristics of each child, would have discovered which was subnormal, and the children could have been treated accordingly. In these large schools the children are taken away from the villages, herded into a huge school and lost in the mass. That is where difficulties frequently arise. In the larger schools the brighter children are given full opportunities; they pass their examinations and help to advertise the school. But that is not what is important. What is important is to see that the mass of the people are educated, not just a few.

I recommend to the House a speech by the Duke of Edinburgh on his recent installation as Chancellor of Edinburgh University. I wish everyone could and would read that speech, because it is a very good indication of what his feeling is toward education. In the course of his remarks he said: Some people term education as the ability to absorb book learning and pass examinations. He went on: Real education is the formation of character and the preparation for citizenship. That is something I want to emphasise; it is the sort of teaching our young children need.

I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with much of what I have said and I congratulate her on taking a stand against the demand of local authorities and refusing to close certain schools. At the same time, I remind her that these schools are still on the danger list and, as she promised quite recently, I want her to see that these small village schools are brought up to a decent standard. It is disgraceful, going about the country, to see the sanitation conditions at some of these village schools. In some cases children have to go a long way when they want a drop of water to drink. In some cases the flooring of the schools is in a very bad state.

It seems to me that unless local education authorities can spend vast sums of money on erecting palatial buildings, they will not entertain the idea of spending a few hundred pounds on each of these schools which need bringing into a condition which would be of inestimable advantage to the children who have to attend them. I hope that my right hon. Friend will continue to see that what she has recommended is, in fact, done. She needs to keep her mind and eye on these local education authorities to see that they are doing their job properly and are not being led away by the fantastic idea that the amount of education which a child receives is determined by the amount of money which is spent. That idea is entirely wrong.

May I also point out the effect of closing these village schools? The Minister of Agriculture is calling for an increased production from agriculture, and very largely that increase must come from the marginal and thinly-populated areas. If we continue to close village schools and local railway lines, we shall very soon find that the sparsely-populated districts become almost depopulated. I know for a fact that many young wives will not allow their husbands to take jobs in a remote area, not only because of the difficulty of transport but because their young children will be taken from them early in the morning by bus and not returned until late in the afternoon. That is entirely wrong from the point of view of both the children and the parents.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give this matter serious consideration and see that the closing of these schools is stopped forthwith. It is not a political matter. I am not blaming this Government or the last Government. It is something which has been going on for a number of years, and I think that the time has come when we should stop what I consider to be a very bad practice. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree with much that I have said.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I am extremely obliged to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) for raising this matter, and I think that everyone throughout the countryside will be grateful that he has done so. t do not want to waste time, so I will say that I agree with almost everything that he has said. The particular point to which I want to direct the Minister's attention concerns Scotland. She has a certain interest in Scotland and I hope that she will draw the attention of the Scottish Ministers to what is a universal problem of Great Britain.

Everywhere we find that there is a tendency to drift away from the countryside. One of the causes of that drift and one of its effects is the break-up of local communities. In that break-up one of the important things is I think the removal of the children and also the removal of the teachers, because the teacher is a most important person in a local community. I do not think that this is an easy problem and I am certain that we must not penalise the children and there is a danger of doing that by having very small schools. There is also the question of economy. Nor do I wish to penalise the teacher who may be reluctant to lead too lonely a life.

I should like to make three suggestions. I am speaking chiefly of the primary schools. In primary schools specialised subjects are not much taught. But where specialisation is necessary I think that more use could be made of travelling teachers. In the Highlands and Islands, where whole districts have been depopulated sometimes because parents, when their children come to school age, will not stay in places where they are taken from them early in the morning and come back to them late in the afternoon, I ask the Government to increase the inducement grant for teachers. Thirdly, it is not so much intellectual education which is needed in the primary schools as a good, sensible motherly teacher. I think that more use should be made of the part-time teacher, the teacher who combines teaching with something else. I realise that it is very important not to debase the standards of the teaching profession. There are only a few of these isolated places, but in these cases I think that there is a place for the part-time teacher.

10.19 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Miss Florence Horsbrugh)

I want to say at once how much I agree, and I believe every one in this country agrees, with many of the points put forward by both hon. Members.

I think that we all wish the village schools to go on. We realise that these schools are a vital part of the village community and what an enormous advantage it is that young children should go to schools which are as near to their homes as possible. The home and the school must be looked upon as one in dealing with the small child, and the parents and teachers as partners in the child's education.

I thoroughly agree with nearly all the points which have been put forward. I should, however, like to remind hon. Members of the procedure in dealing with this difficult subject of closure. I should like to discuss the problems of Scotland but, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. J. Grimond) knows, I am prohibited from doing so, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be informed of what he has said.

Under Section 13 of the 1944 Act it is laid down clearly what the procedure must be. I assure my hon. Friend that I do not believe the local education authorities as a whole want to go about closing these schools. They have a very difficult job to do, and there are certain special difficulties with which they are faced in the case of some of those schools. If a local education authority propose to close a school, they must publish the fact in the local newspapers. There is then a delay of two months, during which objections can be sent to the Minister by the managers or governors and by 10 or more local government electors. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said that the Minister was then the umpire. The statutory duty is on the Minister of Education to make the final decision.

The reason I particularly wished to reply to this debate myself is that during the last 18 months, because I felt that this was a problem of such importance and I wanted to learn more about the details, I have arranged myself to see all the papers connected with every closure, and it has been my personal decision whether a school should be closed.

I have, therefore, had the proposals from the local education authorities, together with the reasons, or I might have had to ask for more information, which the education authorities have always willingly given me. I have examined the objections which have been sent in by the local electors and I assure the House that these are carefully considered. I have also had a report from Her Majesty's Inspector for the particular district, both on the subject of the school that it is proposed to close and on any other school to which it is proposed the children should go. With all those facts before me, I have tried on each occasion to make the best decision that I could.

My hon. Friend spoke about the expense in education. We must realise that when the local education authorities submit to me a proposal for closing a school, they realise what the saving will be. In calculating that saving, we always consider how much the transport will cost, if there has to be transport, and deduct that from the other savings. The arithmetic, therefore, is not as faulty as my hon. Friend seemed to think.

To explain What has happened, I should like to give the figures, first, for England and Wales, from 1st November, 1951, when I took office. Since that time I have had proposals from local education authorities for the closing of 123 rural schools. Six of those schools had actually been closed and it was merely a technical or formal arrangement to say that the procedure under which a school is closed was being followed. Nine of these schools had been replaced by new schools. We are left, therefore, with 108 proposals.

Of those 108 proposals from local authorities, I have approved 82. Of those 82, however, 37 proposals only were objected to by the local people, and so it seemed as though everybody was agreed upon 45 of the proposals. I have agreed to the proposal to close in 82 cases and I have not agreed in 26 cases, in 25 of which there were objections. I have tried to look at each case, and during the time that I have been examining them I have tried to see whether I could suggest some way in which priorities could be laid down to govern this subject. I have as yet found no such scheme, and I think that each case has to be considered on its individual merits.

I know that at this year's conference of the Association of Education Committees a resolution was passed deploring what they called my increasing tendency to override the views of authorities and also that when proposals seemed to be refused, no better cause was shown for the refusal. The difficulty is that so many things have to be weighed up, but I have given as much consideration as I could to all the different points.

Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to know the figures for the County of Hereford? From the local education authority I have received nine proposals. I have agreed to four of them and I have not agreed to five. I know quite well that in not agreeing to the proposals for the closing of five schools I have made it difficult for that particular local authority. But it is not only the saving of money when the schools are closed that is my concern. There is also the provision of teachers, and the getting of a better distribution of teachers. One gets the case of a teacher with a small school and a school in another parish nearby where that teacher could be employed with a larger number of children if the schools were amalgamated. One has to consider these particular things.

This is what I have tried to take into account in dealing with this matter. My first proposition has always been—and the local authorities are well aware of it—that the onus must be on those who propose the closure of a school to prove that the educational advantages for the children in closing that school and taking them to another school outweigh what are manifestly the disadvantages in removing them from their homes and their village. I start with the idea that it is very much better if we can keep the village schools and the children near their homes.

Some cases, of course, are quite clear. If we have the case of a school that is in really bad condition and past improving and there is a good school in a neighbouring village where there is room for these children, then in all probability it is better to face the fact and let the children go to that other village school. I would assure my hon. Friend that in a great many cases it is not taking children to a town or to a large school; we have in a great many cases been able to send them to a neighbouring village school, and that is what I prefer.

Then we have to look, from the educational point of view, at the teaching that can be given in one particular village school. Is the age range too wide? Have we got children of ages which are too far apart really to get them a good education if they are taught together? I have always said we have got to put that into the scale and set the advantages of the small class and the individual teacher against the larger class and the children being divided exactly according to their ages.

I think we are all agreed that there has been something of real educational value done in the small village school where, as my hon. Friend says, the teacher knows the children and she knows their families. Probably she knew the children before they came into the school, and can keep in touch with them after they have gone from school. The sad thing today is that, with the housing difficulty in so many cases, there is no house at the school for the teacher and the teacher has to come from some neighbouring town on the bus. The ideal would certainly be that the teacher of the village school should live in the village, and that the school should be the centre of the community with the interests of the teacher and the interests of education of great concern to that community.

The other point I would touch upon is the improvement of schools. It is the case that a great many are being improved at the present time. I have seen some examples of really good work done in improvement to village schools when I have been to the various areas. But there are some schools which are beyond improvement. It would simply be a waste of money to try to patch them up. I have increased, as I have explained to my hon. Friend, the allocation for what we call "minor works" for improvements, and the rural areas under the new arrangement should benefit more than they have ever done before because the amount of money allocated for this minor work has been increased.

I want to see improvements in schools. Equally, I want village schools. But there are some occasions on which there must be closures if we are really to look to what we all want—the real benefit and advantage of the children who are being brought up. I hope that in these few minutes I have been able to assure both hon. Gentleman of my intention and desire, and also to assure them of my realisation of the difficulties of the local education authorities. I hope that we shall all work together to get the best possible decision.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.