HC Deb 26 March 1970 vol 798 cc1676-87

1.5 p.m.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

In the past I have raised in this House the failure of the Government to build new primary schools in place of congested and out-of-date schools, particularly in the area of my constituency north of York. These schools, as the House well knows, and as the Plowden Report showed, are a blot on our educational landscape. This afternoon, however, I am on a different point. I am protesting against the decision of the Minister to allow a new primary school to be built and three village schools to be closed.

There is a remarkable history to this decision. It is one which, in my submission, is quite foreign to our conception of democracy and is apparently the product of a hierarchical system that resembles the 16th century rather than the 20th century.

At Wath and Kirklington, there are at present two-teacher primary schools with 41 and 21 pupils respectively. Six and a half years ago, it was learnt that the Ripon Diocesan Board of Education planned to close these two Church of England schools and, with the use of funds of the Wath Educational Charity—the Samwaies Trust—to build a new school somewhere in the parish of Wath.

After a certain amount of dispute over the selection of a site, one on glebe land by the railway station was, on 13th December, 1966, unanimously approved by the school managers, the trustees of the Samwaies Charity and the parents' association. It was understood that the local education authority agreed with the selected site.

No more was heard of the matter and no local consultation took place before suddenly, in March, 1969, the Ripon Diocesan Education Committee announced that it had decided to build a new school at Burneston, seven miles away, with the help of money from the Wath Charitable Trust, and, after closing the three schools, to teach 110 children from this wide area in the new building. There are two aspects of this decision that cause concern. The decision itself, and the procedure under which it was reached.

I take the latter first. If this had been a local education authority school, the local councillor would have been a party to the selection of the site in 1966. He would have been in constant touch with the county education committee and its officers. If he had learnt of the change of policy towards the three-school merger, he would have arranged a public meeting at which the views of the parents and voters could have been freely expressed. He could then have followed that up by raising the matter in the county council before a final decision was reached.

But, as these are Church of England aided schools, the villages had no representation on the body that decided the fate of their schools. The Rector of Wath, who is chairman of the school managers, has no position on the diocesan education committee, and no right of audience before it. In fact, I believe that the Minister will confirm that he was refused a right of audience. The decisions are taken by clerics with no concern for, and little local knowledge of, the villages, and, as happens in these circumstances, the decisions tend to be the decisions of the Committee's officials.

No opportunity for a local public meeting was provided to enable the diocesan education committee to hear the views of the teachers, parents and inhabitants. After a silence without contact for two-and-a-quarter years, the diocesan education committee announced its surprising decision without any form of local consultation.

When I wrote to the Minister of Education in September, 1969, asking him to arrange a public local inquiry, he replied saying that it was not his …practice to hold local inquiries in dealing with Section 13 cases". I appreciate that, but the majority of Section 13 cases deal with L.E.A. schools and follow the normal democratic procedure. This allows for public meetings to take place before the Ministerial stage is reached. The result of the procedure adopted in this case is that Wath, which has had a primary school since 1864, is to lose its school without a public meeting or inquiry.

The Minister wrote a courteous letter to me and claimed that the move was educationally and economically sound. She will, no doubt, be able to prove that to sweep small children from a wide area into one school is the cheapest course. I admit that she is probably right to say that it is economically sound; that is, only from the point of view of saving money.

But how can the right hon. Lady maintain that it is right, educationally, for these small children to have to make long bus journeys, so that they arrive tired for their lessons and, in some cases, do not get home in the evening until an hour after the rest of the primary schoolchildren in the area? The Minister maintains that a 20-minute bus journey is involved. If she cares to accompany the children on some of these journeys to and from school she will find that a rate of progress of 30 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h. cannot be maintained when traversing these villages. I assure her that, on average, these journeys will take a full hour. Many of the parents desire to give their children a mid-day meal at home. This will now become impossible.

I stress that this plan has the additional disadvantage that it is mixing up children from two quite distinct districts. Wath, Melmerby, Kirklington and Hutton Conyers, which might have supported the original scheme, are villages which use Ripon as their market town, while Burneston uses Bedale.

By confirming the diocesan education committee's decision, the Minister has not only condemned these young children to long bus journeys, but has also made parent-teacher co-operation very difficult and, by taking children out of their neighbourhood at such a very early age, will undoubtedly unsettle them. I ask the Minister to reconsider this decision. If she refuses to do this, will she consider as an alternative, providing at Wath or Kirklington an infants' schools for children from 5 to 7, so that these very young children may be educated near their families and have a shorter period away from home?

Whatever the final decision is in this case, I beg the Minister to give further thought to the procedure for closing aided schools, to secure that the views of the parish and parents are canvassed before decisions are reached.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

I rise with some diffidence, because I have had more than my fair share of time in the House this week.

I support the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) because I live about two miles from the Kirklington school and about three miles from the Wath school. Indeed, a child who lives in my house attends the Kirklington school. I therefore have close knowledge of the area. I join my right hon. Friend in protesting on this issue and I endorse everything he said.

I am appalled at the decision and attitude of the diocesan education committee, which seems to display a sort of feudal arrogance which one is surprised to find receiving any support from the party opposite. This must be one's view if one reads the current Education Bill which is now in Committee upstairs, and which deals with the comprehensive reorganisation of secondary schools. Clause 2(3)(b) of that Measure says: …at such stage in the preparation by a local education authority of any such plan and in such manner as the authority consider appropriate in the circumstances or as the Secretary of State may direct, the authority shall convey information about the measures proposed to be embodied in the plan to parents of pupils who in the opinion of the authority would be affected by the execution of those measures. The Government there set down a proposition to do exactly what, in the case raised by my right hon. Friend, has not been done. Further, an Amendment to that Bill which stands in the name of the Secretary of State proposes to add to the words I have quoted: …and shall consider any representations relating to those measures which may be made to the authority by parents of such pupils". If the Government condone what has been happening in the case raised by my right hon. Friend, then they are going exactly against their proposals in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend said, this amalgamation is totally at odds with the anthropological state of the area. The district of Burneston is entirely separate from Wath and Kirklington from the communications' point of view.

I support my right hon. Friend in protesting at the long journeys that children will be obliged to undertake to and from school. My constituency is even more scattered from the most part than this area of my right hon. Friend's constituency. However, I have not yet had a case of a school closure which would involve so much travelling. I endorse what my right hon. Friend suggested as a compromise, about the need for a nursery school at Wath or Kirklington for very young children in this part of Yorkshire. It would mean that, instead of having to use two buses to take the children to and from school reasonably, one bus would do and virtually no new facilities would be required as the school would already be there.

The situation is extremely unsettling to the teachers at present teaching in these two schools. It is very unfortunate that they should not know what is happening and that the local parents should be as upset as they are by the situation. I hope that the right hon. Lady will have another look at it.

1.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) began his speech by referring to the old primary schools in the North Riding. As he knows, I have met a deputation from the North Riding County Council. I admit that, like other rural areas, the North Riding has more than its share of old schools. It has been said that 90 of them are over 100 years old. I am only sorry that previous Governments have not managed to replace some of them.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that in the special £15 million programme for replacing old schools which is to be announced in the next few days, we are including three in the North Riding: the Strensall Primary School, the Le Cateau Primary School at Catterick Camp, and Kirklevington Primary School. The cost in respect of those three schools will be about £200,000, which is a good share of the £15 million available for the country as a whole.

In August, 1969, the Ripon Diocesan Education Committee, with the support of the North Riding local education authority, submitted to my Department a proposal to establish a new Church of England aided primary school for 120 pupils at Burneston to replace the two Church of England controlled schools at Burneston and Kirklington and the Church of England aided school at Wath. The decision of the diocesan education committee to submit this proposal was not taken in haste. Replacement of the unsatisfactory premises of the Wath school had been under consideration since about 1963 and various possible sites were considered in the period up to 1967.

By that time, however, the number of pupils at Wath school had dropped to 34, thereby greatly weakening the case for its replacement on the same site. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that in the rebuilding of rural schools, especially those which have been in existence for 100 years, we cannot possibly say in 1970 that the position is exactly the same as it was in 1870. There will have to be some amalgamations, and possibly schools will be built on different sites.

Mr. Turton

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the number is now 41 and not 34?

Miss Bacon

My information is that at the time that the proposal was considered the number was 34. Nevertheless, it is a difference of seven only.

The diocesan education committee decided that, in view of this, it must broaden its consideration and try to find the best educational solution for the area as a whole. After discussions with the local education authority, which must be brought in—it is not simply a decision of the diocesan authorities—the diocesan authorities formed the view that the educational needs of the area could best be met by the provision of a single aided school at Burneston to replace the three existing schools.

I am informed—and here there seems to be some discrepancy with what the right hon. Gentleman said—that local opinion was canvassed at meetings arranged by the local education authority with the school managers and parents in the three villages. I understand that at Burneston there was unanimous support for the proposal. I know that the right hon. Gentleman would say that that was to be expected.

At Kirklington, the idea of a single school appeared acceptable, although there was regret at the prospect of losing the village school and a suggestion that the new school should be located at Kirklington. At Wath, there was some, but by not means unanimous, opposition.

After considering the results of these meetings, the diocesan education committee decided to go ahead with a formal submission of its proposal to my Department. At the same time, it published public notices of the proposal, which it is required to do by Section 13(3) of the Education Act, 1944, to give those affected the opportunity to submit objections to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. A substantial number of objections were made to my right hon. Friend, including two petitions signed respectively by 59 residents in the Kirklington and Howgrave areas and 72 residents in the Wath and Melmerby areas. In addition, objections were made by 14 individuals and by the managers of Wath Church of England school, and representations were received from the Wath Rural District Council and the district committee of the National Union of Agricultural Workers as well as from the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton.

When I realised that the right hon. Gentleman and my good friend, Mr. Brocklebank, were in agreement on this matter, I looked at it even more carefully. The statutory period of two months within which objections may be made expired at the end of October last. All the points advanced by the objectors were carefully considered, together with the local education authority's comments upon them. After a very full study of the arguments for and against the proposal, we concluded that the case made out by the objectors was not sufficiently strong to justify the withholding of approval from a proposal which seemed to be sound both educationally and economically. My right hon. Friend accordingly approved the diocesan education committee's proposal under Section 13(4) of the 1944 Act on 9th March.

The promoters' case—that is, the case of the diocesan authorities—for their proposal is essentially an educational one. Although everyone respects the traditions and past achievements of small rural schools, the developments of recent years in primary education—the richer curriculum and more varied teaching methods—have made it increasingly difficult for them, with their unavoidably wide age range in each class, to operate as viable educational units in the circumstances of today.

A larger school of, say, between 100 and 150 juniors and infants makes possible a better deployment of teachers and can afford its pupils the benefits of a wider range of curriculum, activities and resources and, if it is a new purpose-built school, of modern facilities for teaching. The children also benefit from meeting more children of their own age groups and—this is important, also—the teachers are not isolated from their professional colleagues.

The diocesan education committee was of the opinion that its proposal would afford all these advantages while, at the same time, satisfying the important conditions that the new school would remain essentially rural in character, serving a group of communities of a similar kind, and that the travelling involved would not impose undue strains on the children.

The objectors' arguments against the proposal centred upon the loss to the village communities that would result from the closure of their schools, the burden of the daily travelling that would be imposed on the children now attending the Wath and Kirklington schools, the unsatisfactory nature of the transport arrangements proposed and the difficulty of establishing and maintaining parent-teacher contact at a more distant school.

It was suggested that there were enough children of primary age in the area to support two schools of viable size, one of which might serve Burneston, and the other the villages of Kirklington, How-grave, Wath, Melmerby and, possibly, Hutton Conyers. It was also suggested that if the area was to be served by a single school Burneston was an unsuitable location.

We went very carefully into all the arguments put forward by the objectors, and we sought the local education authority's comments on each of them. As regards distances and travelling times, the objectors, as the right hon. Gentleman has done today, quoted a variety of figures, one or two of which suggested that for some children the journey to school at Burneston might take as much as an hour in each direction. The local education authority assured me that the maximum distance involved from Melmerby to Burneston was just under seven miles. I know this area, too, and it seems to me that to go seven miles in an hour is rather slow going. The maximum distance is just under seven miles and I am assured that a special bus will be provided to take children from the other villages to Burneston, the full journey from Melmerby to Burneston taking 20 minutes.

The bus will be timed to arrive at Burneston a few minutes before the beginning of school, so that there is no question of the children being subjected to an unduly long school day. Indeed, Melmerby children who now have to walk about a mile to school at Wath are likely, if anything, to have a rather shorter and less tiring school day than at present, because instead of walking a mile in very bad weather they will do the journey by bus, and, while it may be a longer distance, it will be a shorter and less unpleasant journey for them.

Some of the objectors were concerned that the transport provided would be shared by older, secondary school pupils. I have inquired about this, and I am assured by the local education authority that the bus on both outward and return journeys will be solely for pupils attending the proposed Burneston school and that feeder transport will be provided, if this should prove necessary, for children living off the bus route, which will run from Melmerby to Burneston through Wath, Sutton Howgrave, Kirklington and Carthorpe.

As to the contention that there are enough children of primary age to support two schools of viable size, the position is that in January of this year there were 42 pupils at Burneston, 25 at Kirklington, and 39 at Wath, of whom about half were from Melmerby.

Looking ahead, the local education authority estimates that the number of pupils at Burneston may rise to a maximum of about 50 to 55 but that no increase can be expected at either Wath or Kirklington.

I am told that at Burneston there is a sewerage and drainage scheme which does not apply to the other two villages, and two separate—

Mr. Turton

Is it not a fact that at Melmerby there is an old Ordnance depot which has been turned into a trading estate, and that light industry will be there and, therefore, many more children?

Miss Bacon

I have inquired about that, too, and I am told by the local education authority that the possible development of the Ordnance depot site for industrial purpose is not expected to lead to residential development there, and that it is anticipated that the population will remain virtually static. I am also told that, of the villages concerned, Burneston is the only one likely to expand significantly, as a drainage system is now being laid down.

Two separate schools catering respectively for some 50 to 55 children, on the one hand, and 60 to 70 children, on the other, could not afford pupils the educational benefits which can be derived from teaching groups with a narrower age range.

It was suggested by some of the objectors that children from the village of Hutton Conyers might attend a school at Wath, thus increasing its numbers to a viable level. Hutton Conyers is nearer to Ripon than to Wath and its children at present attend the primary schools in the nearby village of Sharow in the West Riding. The North Riding local education authority does not propose to change these arrangements, and it seems reasonable that the Hutton Conyers children should continue to attend the Sharow school, which is clearly convenient to them.

As to the most suitable location for a single school, it is true that Burneston is the northernmost of the villages concerned, but it has the largest primary school population, and a school located there offers the simplest and most economical transport arrangements. A new school more centrally situated—at Kirkington, for example—would substantially increase the total number of pupils using transport without significantly reducing travelling time for the children from Melmerby and Wath.

Finally, there is the objectors' point that the proposal would make it more difficult for parents to have contact with their children's school and teachers. I have considerable sympathy with this argument which, in my view, is the most cogent of all that have been put forward by those who oppose the proposal, but I am sure that, given co-operation and good will, this difficulty can be overcome, and that it would have been wrong to have rejected, on this ground, a proposal which was otherwise sound and calculated to provide a better primary education for the children of all the villages.

I have been able to deal only with the main arguments advanced against the diocesan education committee's proposal, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we examined with equal care all the other points which were mentioned by objectors. It would be quite wrong to think that this is a case of the diocesan education committee and the local education authority imposing their solution without regard to the merits of the objections put forward.

Those who oppose the proposals have had full opportunity to state their case against it, first, as I am informed, at the public meetings arranged by the promoters and the local education authority last spring, and, later, by making their objections to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. All these objections received the closest consideration, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that approval of the proposal under Section 13 (4) of the 1944 Act would not have been given had we not been fully satisfied that the proposal was educationally sound and would impose no undue strain upon the children.

I sympathise with the feelings of the residents of Wath and Kirklington, and I can understand the regret with which they view the proposed closure of schools which have served them so well for many years. I hope that, when the new school is established, they will give it their full support, and the opportunity to demonstrate the educational advantages which it can offer to their children.

The proposal has been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman that there should be a nursery school. I take it that they mean an infants' school for children from 5 to 7, for a nursery school is for children under 5. An infants school would make the units very much smaller and would make the primary school much smaller, but this is a new proposal which has not been put forward to me officially. My immediate reaction, as I say, is that it would make the units perhaps much smaller, but the proposal, if it were officially made, would have to come from the diocesan authorities.

We have given permission under Section 13(4) which we could not withdraw. If the education authorities wish not to proceed with this proposal, that is entirely up to them. I want to make it clear that it is not something which we have imposed upon them. We have acceded to the request which has come to us, and we have examined the proposal and the objections. We have had to weigh one against the other and we came to the conclusion that we would give them permission to go ahead if they wished to do so.

Mr. Turton

Could the right hon. Lady make this clear? If the school managers were to persuade the diocesan education committee to amend its proposals so that the very smallest children from Kirklington and Wath could continue to have their education in the school, would she be ready to reconsider the matter?

Miss Bacon

I do not want to build up the right hon. Gentleman's hopes. All I am saying is that we have not received this officially. Anything that we receive officially we consider with the greatest possible care. This is an entirely new proposal and my immediate reaction is that it would make the units much smaller, not only the infant school units, but the primary school units at Burneston.

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