HC Deb 02 November 1970 vol 805 cc811-22

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

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

I am glad to have the chance to raise on the Adjournment the question of the closure of these two schools—one at Rora and the other in the secondary department at Longside. I am sorry that they have to be considered together. I had hoped to have a separate Adjournment debate for each, and it is only because it would have to be balloted again and perhaps be long in coming to a second opportunity that I have agreed to taking them together.

Rora is a small primary school with 24 pupils. I understand that, according to a new policy suggestion, the limit for a one-teacher school is 19 pupils. Rora has 24 pupils. Last autumn the teacher put in her resignation, after many years of hard work, and then she said that she would like to stay for as long as she was needed. At that point, however—and perhaps because it is the staffing question that so often seems to defeat the authorities in relation to these smaller schools—doubts arose about the continuation of the school, and a petition was signed by 70 people and sent to the Scottish Secretary on 29th December last to keep the school open. The petition was acknowledged, but received no reply, except a letter about eight months later—still not from the Secretary of State but from some official who wrote on 21st August assuming the closure of the school and taking it as read that the date for the closure would be the 25th. Three days before that, on 18th August, the teacher had been told that the school would open for a week. On 20th August she was dismissed. On 21st parents started being told about the school's closure.

There was no consultation whatsoever; not even adequate information. School began on the 25th. Even by the 24th not all the parents knew what was happening, and there was no question of providing them even with the minimum courtesy of being able to say where they would like their children to go instead.

As it is, most of those children are at present going to St. Fergus, a fine school but no better than Rora. It has not even permanent teachers, but only two retired teachers on a temporary basis. What is the educational advantage there? The people of Rora have been treated as though they do not matter. Recently, the furniture was removed from their school without warning, although it is the best community centre they have. They have been asked to be allowed to send their children to Longside primary department, but there has been no reply so far. This is not good enough: it is no way to treat children or their parents.

Even now, after all these mistakes and uncertainties, it is still not too late for the authority to have a meeting with the people of Rora and work out with them the best future for their children and their community. I shall be glad to chair it. I hope that the Minister will press for this measure and possibly for an inquiry into the whole affair and how it happened.

Longside is very much the same story, although it is a secondary department with 31 children. In March this year, I had a letter from the Longside Amenities Committee along with an appeal to the Secretary of State to over-rule the authority's decision to close the secondary department. I wrote to the Secretary of State in March and April. On 8th May I attended a meeting with the parents, the local councillors and the director of education, who asked for a list of objections. This list was sent to him, and a copy to the Secretary of State, together with a petition signed by 596 people, 85 to 90 per cent. of the inhabitants of Long-side, again protesting against the decision to close the department. Still no notice was taken.

In July, I wrote again to the Secretary of State, this time a new one, again asking that a deputation should see him before a final decision was taken. However, there was no real reply to any of these genuine and permissible expressions of concern until I received a letter dated 17th August from the Minister of State, saying that the department was to be closed and refusing to meet a deputation. Note the dates—school to start on 25th August, that letter arrives on 18th August, on 19th August people are told to send their children to Peterhead or Mintlaw, on the 21st they are told what transport to use, and all after being told at the end of the previous term to go back to Longside.

Are there not continual injunctions in the educational world that liaison between teachers and parents is not only advisable but desirable? Why not apply this truism? It might help a lot. Neither the Primary and Secondary Schools Sub-Committee nor the Scottish Department of Education has been known to make any on-the-spot inquiry about this closure, although they indicated originally that such an inquiry would take place. With the exception of the Member of Parliament, the director of education and the local councillors, so far as I know, no one has met the community so vitally concerned, and then only at the request of the community.

There seems to be a feeling in Britain now, perhaps as a result of the bad example of the last six years, that, provided the normal channels have been followed, there is no need to talk to the people. For the people that sort of government is no better than sausage machines, and it always makes mistakes. There is no recognition of public feeling and no desire to try to tackle problems together, no mention in an official document that 85 to 90 per cent. of the Longside people genuinely believe that this decision was wrong.

Finance and educational advantage are the two generally given reasons for this decision. I will not deal in detail with the financial question because time is short, beyond observing that the Long-side children still have to be taught, that their teaching must still be paid for and that the only tangible economy from the decision lies in the actual closing of the building and the saving of the salary of its one permanent teacher.

Educational advantage is too bland a claim to be allowed to pass unchallenged. It is based on one of those usual, modern, unthought-out theories which is certainly not supported universally by Conservatives. The theory is that a big school is better than a small one. But as far as Mintlaw and Longside are concerned, both schools offer exactly the same course—a three-year secondary course with technical and home crafts. No language course is offered at Mintlaw, and if the pupils go to Peterhead instead, they will find what the Minister described, rather gently, in her letter as "some pressure on accommodation already". This is one reason why the parents suggest this sensible delay until new accommodation is ready and available at Peterhead and/or Mintlaw.

Meanwhile, what of the future for these two communities? I believe, in any event, that the new Conservative Government should set their face against centralisation. It is expensive. First, one gathers everybody in and then one must spend huge sums of money on new towns. It is far wiser to support the small communities that already exist than to let them decay and have to start all over again from scratch.

For Rora the future at present relates to whether they can send their children to school at least in their own parish at Longside Primary; and for Longside Secondary the immediate question is transport. The Minister said in her letter that she understood that the local residents had now accepted an assurance by the director of education about transport to Mintlaw. But the local residents do not accept such an assurance, simply because they have not had one. When their spokesman telephoned the department in Aberdeen he was told that no assurance could be given but that arrangements had been made. Those are arrangements to transport the children by bus from Longside to Mintlaw. That is fine, but the fact that there is no assurance makes the position completely unacceptable because previous experience in the county suggests that after the hue and cry has died down—after, for example, this debate has been forgotten—the transport will simply be withdrawn and there will not be a thing anybody can do about it.

Longside to Mintlaw is 2.8 miles of very busy road. I tremble to think of children forced to bicycle or walk all that way on a cold, slippery morning. I beg the Minister for an assurance tonight that transport for secondary pupils from Longside to Mintlaw will continue ad infinitum.

10.58 p.m.

The Under Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) for raising this question tonight. Although he has had some hard and rough things to say about the way in which this matter has been handled, it is not inappropriate for me to say how impressed I have been by the industrious and persistent way in which he has pursued this issue in what he believes to be in the best interests of his constituents.

The closure of these Rora and Long-side schools affects only a small number of children and parents. However, the question of the closure of rural schools generally is a matter of considerable importance to a large number of people in Scotland, and I welcome this opportunity to remedy what I suspect are some misconceptions about the policy and practice of education authorities and of the Secretary of State in relation to the closure of these schools.

First, a comment about rural schools in general and the policy which is being pursued by the Secretary of State in dealing with closures. It is against this background that the authority's decision to close Rora and Longside secondary, and the Secretary of State's decision not to overrule this decision must be considered.

A very large number of our small rural schools were established at a time when the population they served was much larger than it is now, when there was no motor transport and schools had to be within walking distance of the pupils' homes, when there was no serious shortage of teachers, and when building and maintenance costs were comparatively low. The situation today is much different. Many of the small schools are housed in buildings which would be very costly to bring up to modern standards; the rolls have declined because of declining population, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable staff prepared to teach in small isolated schools. Few young teachers are prepared to work in such schools and when older teachers retire, the education authorities often have great difficulty in replacing them. Also, modern roads and transport make the alternative of education at a larger centre a possibility which has much to commend it educationally and economically.

Many education authorities with large numbers of rural schools, therefore, have adopted a policy of centralisation, to which my hon. Friend refers, of both primary and secondary education. In districts where small schools are being closed, the authorities aim to provide elsewhere good modern accommodation with better resources and facilities, for example, for specialist instruction in subjects such as music, art and physical education. Whilst changes of school may, in some instances, cause inconvenience and upset to begin with, there is a strong argument that children benefit educationally and socially through being taught in classes of single age groups or covering a narrow age range, and especially through contact, in work and play, with a wider cross-section of their contemporaries.

My hon. Friend put the argument against this, but I think that he would accept that there are good sides to it, and certainly with centralisation we have the benefit of larger numbers of single age group classes and a narrower age range in those classes. In the larger and better equipped schools it is possible for the authorities to ensure that each pupil receives full educational opportunities appropriate to his age, ability and aptitude; and I think that it is worth remembering that the provision of these opportunities is a basic duty laid upon education authorities by the Education (Scotland) Act.

When, therefore, a teacher at a small rural school retires or moves to another appointment, or the roll falls below what the authority regards as a reasonable minimum and there is no likelihood of its increasing, or where it is impossible to postpone further essential and expensive modernisation or, as often happens, all or many of these factors are at work, the authority may decide to close the school concerned and transfer the pupils to a bigger school serving a wider area and with better resources and facilities.

Before any final decision is taken there are invariably full consultations with the parents and representatives of the local communities. When a school is closed, the education authority provides transport for the children if the school is outside walking distance. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, under the Education (Scotland) Act, no child of eight or over can be required to walk more than three miles, and no child under eight can be required to walk more than two miles to and from school. In some cases the children are collected at their old school, and in other cases at points nearer their homes. Frequently the distance the pupils have to walk after the closure of the old schools is less than it was before.

But what I have to talk about tonight, and what my hon. Friend has asked me to talk about, is the rôle of the Secretary of State in all this. Quite apart from the question of the schools themselves, my hon. Friend will know that in terms of the Education (Scotland) Act proposals for the closure of schools or departments must be approved by the Secretary of State. In submitting proposals in respect of rural schools, education authorities provide a detailed statement on such matters as the condition of the buildings, the present and estimated future rôle of the school, the proposed alternative provision, the transport arrangements, the importance of the school to the life of the community, and the views of the parents. Regard is had to all these considerations, and full account is taken of any representations received on behalf of local interests. It is already well known that it is the Government's policy not to over-rule decisions on local matters taken by the elected authority unless there are overwhelming reasons for doing so; and we certainly intend to adhere to this policy.

I want to make it clear tonight that in the case of proposals for closures of small rural schools the Secretary of State has a definite responsibility to discharge. The various arguments in favour of and against closure are very carefully considered, and it is only when in our estimation the balance of advantage lies in favour of closure that approval is given.

One feature of my hon. Friend's speech, and one which I did not expect to the same extent, was as to the way in which this was done. My hon. Friend expressed concern at the gap which existed between the first moves by the education authority and the objectors on these closures, particularly that of Rora, and the announcement of the Secretary of State's decision.

Ironically enough, one of the main reasons for the long time which was taken in communicating this decision was the consideration which was given to the cases—the very detailed and thorough consideration they receive in the Department and then finally by the Secretary of State. As it happens, in the case of both these closures there was an added complication of which my hon. Friend is aware. I refer to the timing of the General Election, over which none of the parties concerned had any control. It had the unfortunate effect of causing the final decision to be taken and announced so late that the authority, in turn, may have been rushed into making the final arrangements. In the circumstances, this was something which it was difficult to avoid, but I can assure my hon. Friend that one of the main reasons for the long time which was taken was the detailed consideration which was given to the proposals, and the difficulty which arose in the final arrangements which the education authority had to make had something to do with the election, with a new Government, and with our Secretary of State wishing to pay very careful attention to all the arguments which were advanced.

As to the particular closures, my noble Friend the Minister of State has already explained in detail to my hon. Friend in the letter the background to and the justification for the closures of these schools. I will try briefly to summarise the various considerations. Last session Rora school was a one-teacher school with a total roll of 23 pupils. The authority takes the view—I emphasise that it is the authority's view—that it is extremely difficult to provide the quality and breadth of a modern primary education in a one-teacher school and that alternative arrangements should be made when this can be done without imposing unreasonable difficulty and distress on pupils and parents.

When the teacher at Rora retired, the authority decided that the school should be closed and the children transferred to Longside school and St. Fergus school respectively three miles to the north-east and three miles to the south-west of Rora. Longside school has a four-teacher primary department which at the end of last session had a roll of 114 pupils and St. Fergus is a two-teacher school with about 50 pupils. Both schools have modern accommodation and facilities, and both are adequately staffed.

Longside secondary department—the other school which has been closed—had last session a total roll of 34 pupils and two full-time teachers. With only two full-time teachers, no matter how dedicated and capable they may be, it is difficult to provide a full range of secondary subjects for the pupils. The facilities at the school were far below modern standards and the authority proposed to transfer the pupils to the nearest available secondary department which would provide the course to which they had been allocated—either Mintlaw school or Peterhead academy, respectively three miles and six miles from Longside. Both these schools have considerably superior accommodation and facilities.

It is important to keep things in perspective. The children being transferred from Rora primary school and Longside secondary department are not being torn out of one environment and hurled into an entirely different and alien one. At the primary stage all the children are remaining in rural schools. The move of some of the children at the secondary stage to the town school in Peterhead is by no means a radical change of environment. In the case of both measures the education authority was at pains to discuss these proposals with the parents. I think that my hon. Friend will be aware that the director of education himself addressed meetings of parents at Rora and at Longside. Every consideration was given to the views of the local authorities, but the authority concluded, and in due course the Secretary of State agreed, that the proposed closures were educationally sound and were justifiable on staffing and economic grounds.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

Would my hon. Friend give the date of the meeting which the director of education had with the parents of Rora?

Mr. Taylor

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the date, though not at this moment, but within a few minutes I can arrange for him to have it. If I cannot get it in time, I undertake to write to him giving him the date and the details.

There was, in the Secretary of State's view, no doubt that the children would be likely to benefit from the greater facilities and resources of the larger schools. The new arrangements for the Rora and Longside children have been in operation for some two months now. Clearly it is premature to draw final conclusions from what has happened so far. But the authority has informed me that the arrangements are working well, that the children have settled down in their new schools, and that the transport arrangements are operating smoothly. What I think is perhaps significant is that in the two months there has been not one word of criticism from parents.

I fully understand and sympathise with the desire of the local communities to retain their schools for as long as possible. The prospect of the closing of a rural school is bound to cause disquiet locally. I recognise that the final decision may sometimes be taken in a fine balance of conflicting considerations, and clearly it will not always be possible to get the agreement of all concerned to the eventual decision. But I am sure that there will be agreement among all hon. Members about the overriding importance of the educational opportunities which are made available to the children. One cannot, and in my view one should not, try to keep the life of a community going by sacrificing these opportunities for the children of the community. Where circumstances have changed in educational terms—I think here of the new methods of learning advocated in the "Primary Memorandum"—in socioeconomic terms—and here I think of the decline which has taken place in the population of many rural communities; of the development of modern roads and transport—authorities cannot be expected to allow the previous educational arrangements to fossilise. They are bound to review them in the light of these developments to ensure that the children get the best deal educationally and that the authority itself is making a sensible use of its resources of teachers and money.

I believe that the Aberdeenshire education authority has pursued this policy constantly and sensibly throughout its area and it has applied it sensibly in the case of Rora and Longside. I do not feel that the Secretary of State would be justified in overruling the authority in the decisions that it has taken on either of these schools.

While saying this, I must say that I certainly have taken very careful note of all that my hon. Friend has said in this matter. I can assure him on the primary question which he raised, that of the delay, that this was largely because of the very careful consideration which was given to the representations which he and others have made on this matter. The actual details and the complications which are referred to were partly because of the election intervening—

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

May I ask about transport arrangements in the future? What about the assurances for the future in regard to Mintlaw and Longside?

Mr. Taylor

I am not in a position to give an assurance, apart from what the law can provide. My hon. Friend will be aware of the local arrangements—in other words, what are the requirements. The local authorities have got power, if they so desire and if the circumstances exist, to make some special arrangements for children travelling shorter distances than the statutory requirements. It is fair to say, on the information which has been made available to me, that the director of education has assured the parents that such transport is likely to be available. The authority cannot really give any more comprehensive assurance than that. It could stand simply on the letter of the law—the three miles and the two miles—but it has gone further. The consultations which have taken place will have been noted in the Department, and I am sure that the director of education and the education committee will be well aware of what my hon. Friend has said.

I have noted most carefully all the points which my hon. Friend has made. On the specific question of the date of the meeting to which I referred, I am sorry that I have not that information available at this moment, but I shall write to my hon. Friend at once about it. I thank him for raising this important matter, and I assure him once again that, although I realise that this must be a disappointing decision for him, I have taken careful note of all he has said.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.