HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1236-46

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

9.14 a.m.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

A number of right hon. and hon. Members cannot understand why I, as a former Minister and a former Whip, should be involved in the Adjournment debate at the end of the Consolidated Fund Bill. In spite of the inconvenient hour, I welcome this opportunity of raising an issue which, for the small group of people involved, is very important.

I have strong views about education and about the place of schools in the community. I shall deal with that and then turn to the particular circumstances at Oakenshaw in County Durham, which is only a mile from where I was born and brought up, so that I know the village and its history very well.

I sat on the Government Front Bench when the Labour Government were in office and I advanced the economic and education cases for the closure of certain small schools. I understand the background of the arguments that I have no doubt the Minister will advance

I have come to the conclusion that for young children—the school in question is a primary school with children from the age of 5 years to 11 years—we should avoid, if it is at all possible, requiring them to travel on public transport to unfamiliar surroundings, even though on the map the distance may seem short. We should avoid young children being away from home for long periods every day. I know that there are children who can adapt themselves and can survive those difficulties, but the very children whom we should be most concerned about often experience great difficulties. When they are moved to a school that is away from familiar surroundings and to a much larger community than that to which they are accustomed, they are conscious that mam is a long way from them and not very accessible, especially during lunch time. Therefore, children who already have difficulty in learning find that their education is very much affected.

I have come to the conclusion that public transport is a menace for young children. They seem to go berserk when they get on public transport. We should avoid the hazard of moving them from familiar surroundings if that is possible.

Oakenshaw was a mining village. I well remember it before the war when there was an all-age school which was the centre of the community. After the war the planners in Durham, with the best of intentions—I have no quarrel with the planners because there was nothing sinister in their motives—took the view that people would no longer want to live in a small village, especially when there was a pit heap and difficult housing circumstances. The planners believed that everyone would want to move to new towns and to conurbations where all the facilities would be available. In fact, there has been a move in the opposite direction.

Over 25 years ago Oakenshaw was designated by the Durham council as a D village, which meant that no development could take place. For example, house improvements were not allowed. The council was not prepared to invest because the village was designated to die. It is understandable that there was a decline in morale. People were moving out and no one was moving in. There was a diminution of the number of children attending the village school.

I am glad to say that the blight has gone. The D category has been removed. Oakenshaw is now a pleasant village in which to live. Some houses have been demolished, roads have been improved and new roads have been constructed. People have bought their homes from the National Coal Board. A great number of houses are now owner-occupied and improved. Younger people are moving into the village.

It is true that there is an economic case for closure. There are 20, 21 or 22 children attending the school, and there is argument about whether in two or three years there will be 25 or 27. These figures indicate the difficulty. I understand the argument that the Department will advance. However, a community association has been established. There is a pre-school playgroup. Even those who lived in the village through the blight have found a new spirit and fresh morale. That has happened because the blight has been removed. Once again a closely knit community is growing, which I am anxious to help if possible. I regret, especially in Durham and in my constituency, that dozens of small closely knit communities that were grouped around the coal pits have gone. That is no reason why we should assist in destroying the closely knit community which meant so much to me when I was a boy.

As I have said, younger folk are moving into the village and there is an active community. There are some empty houses, but I think that they will be filled by younger people. They are findiong the community association to be a focal point and they are anxious not to lose the school.

Another aspect is parental involvement. I am sure that the Minister shares my view on this. Perhaps the key factor in a youngster's progress is the parents' involvement and encouragement. When a village school is closed and the children have to travel to the nearest town, it makes the parental involvement all the more difficult.

I can see the economic case for closing schools. I no longer believe that there is an educational case for closing schools. There are questions related to grading. There is the fact that the teacher has to take three, four or five age groups all at once. But I think that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The local council has allocated land and it is hoped that 36 private houses will be built. The village is about six miles from the beautiful city of Durham. I think that it will be attractive to folk who want to live in the North. Frankly, I cannot understand anyone wanting to live south of Darlington if he has the opportunity of living in the county that I love so much.

I am not opposing root and branch, as I do with some schools. I believe that the change in category, the new morale and the change in circumstances demand that we give this little community the opportunity to prove itself as a warm community where children will feel secure and will be happy and therefore progress educationally, which is an aim that the Minister and I both share.

I am asking, therefore, for what I might call a two-year stay of execution so that we may see whether the new homes are attractive to people outside the village, so that we may see whether the community can grow and offer the kind of stability and security which are so important as a basis for good education. I do not think that that is asking too much. A two-year stay of execution will not make or mar the Government's economic strategy. It will not cripple the ratepayers of Durham if they have to pay a little extra in order to give this community the opportunity that I think it deserves. Its work over the past 12 months has, I believe, given it the right to a stay of execution.

I notice that the Minister's letter to me expresses the hope that integration will be done as smoothly as possible". I also notice the statement that free transport will be provided". I hope that if the worst happens and transport is necessary, that undertaking will be honoured, because I have been reading certain reports which alarm me somewhat as to the future.

I was trained as a teacher. I grew up with certain ideas about education, about intelligence quotients, and so on. But my experience over the years has changed my mind on certain aspects. I know this village well and I know the folk in it. I know that statistics can be produced to make a strong case—certainly on economic grounds—for the closure of the school. This used to be an all-age school and so there is ample room. The county spent a considerable amount of money on it 12 to 15 years ago and it is a very pleasant school. Indeed, I am embarassed to find how pleasant some of my schools are in comparison with some of those in the inner cities. They were built as all-age schools and they now house a very much smaller population. Often a new hall has been added, and I am sure that many of them are a pleasure to work in and to be taught in.

As I have said, this will not cripple the Government's economic strategy in any way. Even at this inconvenient hour, I was thinking what a tremendous boost it would be for these folk if we said "Yes, there is an economic case, but because we are concerned with very young children indeed, and because we regard them as more important than statistics, balance sheets and so on, we shall give the community an opportunity to prove itself over two years". I ask the Minister not to close the door.

Only yesterday I was interviewed on television, and the commentator asked "Do you not think that you are wasting the time of the House of Commons?" My reaction was that he did not understand the House of Commons. In a way, it is unique that I am able to raise on the Floor of the House of Commons the case of a very few people, in a very small, remote village in a beautiful part of the country. That is something worth while. I know that the Minister will share that view.

If for once we accepted the human side, considered these children and gave that community a chance, what a tremendous boost it would be for people who are working hard to establish a stable community, to which the school is absolutely essential if it is to survive and prosper.

9.28 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I concur with one of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong). It is certainly not a waste of time to discuss the closure of a village school which I appreciate matters greatly to the families there, the area and to the right hon. Gentleman himself.

I have certain things in common with the right hon. Gentleman. We were both school teachers. We both went to village schools. I went to a small Church of England school in a mill village, not very different from the mining villages in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. In addition, in a previous incarnation, the right hon. Gentleman has stood at this Dispatch Box and has undoubtedly answered Adjournment debates of this type.

I would not write off everyone who lives south of Darlington as unaesthetic or uncultured. I can inform the right hon. Gentleman that I have a daughter who lives in Darlington, and I shall inform her of his views. I also have a daughter who did her postgraduate certificate in Saxon archaeology on the banks of the river at the university of Durham. However, I do not want to explore what we have in common any further.

We certainly have in common a concern for the village school. The attitude of certain enlightened opinion, about which I have had doubts from time to time, has changed about the size of school and its value to a community. The Plowden report referred to a figure of about 80, but that has certainly come down. A village school fulfils certain distinctive functions. It holds together the life of the community in the village—again I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—and the family life. Children can easily return home at lunch time. Similarly, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's point about less travel, particularly in times of inclement weather in winter.

In many cases, there are educational arguments for the village school. For instance, the teacher knows the children, has taught the elder brothers and sisters and, in many cases, the parents as well. Such a school is part of the social cement and fabric of such a community, and I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman's view in that regard. However, the point must be raised as to the level at which decisions can be made, and at what size village schools should be kept open, particularly if there are other schools within reasonable travelling distance.

In Oakenshaw, near where the right hon. Gentleman was born, there is a pleasant three-classroom school, with a staff of a head, a full-time teacher and a part-time teacher. In September last year, when the procedure began—the section 13 notice ran from December under the Durham local education authority—there were only 20 pupils on roll, taught in two teaching groups. agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the numbers may be flexible over the next four or five years, but they are bzetween 18 and 25 each year; we shall not quarrel over two one way or the other.

The point about this village school is that one and a half miles away, as the right hon. Gentleman will say—or 1.3 miles away, as I shall say, because it makes a better case by 0.2 of a mile, though I am sure that, again, we shall not argue about this—there are two other small schools. Those schools, the Willing-ton county infants and county junior schools are bigger and have more facilities than are needed for the number of children attending them. Last September an infant school that could cope with 210 children had only 85, and a junior school that could cope with 245 had only 198. It is estimated that by 1981 there would be only 137 children in that county junior school.

I have no doubt about the beauty of the Wear valley, but I did not realise that the school was only six miles from Durham. I should have checked my geography more carefully. I looked at an Ordnance Survey map, but I must have got the scale slightly wrong.

By 1981 there would be in the Wear valley two schools with 300 spare places, when spending on education in Durham county, as well as in the rest of the country, will have to be carefully examined. The question of the distance between the two villages is important. I realise that communities exist and that there is a border where one moves from one to the other. Indeed, as a Northerner with a London seat, I have learnt that even London is made up of a series of villages. Even in my constituency, people do not live in Brent, North. They do not consider themselves as living within the new local government boundaries, if they can find any excuse. Certainly they do not use the new names given to the new areas. People do not even live in Wembley; they live in Kingsbury, Tokyngton Friern or little places. If one asks people "Where do you live?" they never reply "Wembley." They rarely say that they live in Brent, North or Boysonland.

However, my point is that the distance from Oakenshaw to the Willington schools is only 1.3 miles. What the right hon. Gentleham said about transport is important. Durham has said that it will provide free transport, even though the distance is below the two-mile and three-mile limits. The right hon. Gentleman was wise to underline that.

I checked whether the road was closed at all in the inclement weather of last winter. I know that it is always dangerous to say things when a constituency hon. Member knows better than those who advise us, but I was informed that in the very inclement weather the road was open, so there is no difficulty in getting to the Willington schools in a normal winter.

Mr. Armstrong

I know the argument about the roads being open. More important is the fact that sometimes a bus will be late and parents will become anxious. That is a greater hazard with mothers, who are beside themselves with worry.

Dr. Boyson

I take the right hon. Member's point. It applies to the cities, too. The No. 83 bus route runs through my constituency and I have continued complaints along the same lines.

I have no doubt that when the right hon. Member reads the report of this debate in Hansard he will sideline the part about the bus, and will see that every member of the local education authority has his own copy so that he realises how important it is that the bus should be reliable. This is an integral part of the agreement.

The decisive point in the argument is the financial one. There would be a net saving of £23,000 achieved through closing the school. Having spent 11 years in local government, I know that figures worked out by local authorities do not always turn out to be correct. There is no doubt that there will be a considerable saving. The figure includes the cost of the transport.

Turning to the question of the pupil-teacher ratio, the point has to be made that a low pupil-teacher ratio in one school means that another school elsewhere in the authority—perhaps a city school—has to have larger classes to pay for the priviliges of that village school. These days urban deprivation is more acute than rural deprivation. There were 20 children in that school last September with two full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. I do not know whether the part-time teacher was .1 or .10 or whether she was three-legged. If it was a 2.5 figure, the pupil-teacher ratio is eight. The average for the country is about 23.9. I do not suppose that the Durham figure is much different. That means that elsewhere in the authority class sizes have been inflated.

This will not be the last Adjournment debate concerned with school closures with which I shall have to deal. It may he a good idea if I keep my notes for future occasions. What has to be made clear to the country is how large is the fall in the child population. Not many people realise the size of it. In 1977 we had 4.7 million primary schoolchildren. By 1986 we shall have 3.4 such children—a fall of 1.3 million. In certain areas it is a fall of 50 per cent. It is a fall the like of which has never before occurred in our lifetime.

There is a balance to be struck between the village-type school and the schools such as those operated at Willington, between the security of one and the variety offered by the other. Unless there is an overriding reason for keeping small schools open, the penalty in teacher numbers will be very high. All local education authorities will have to consider the economic costs of their schools, which include teacher and energy costs, and which have to be carried by the ratepayers.

I should like to refer now to extra building—the D notice. D notices have been mentioned in other connections in other debates. Apparently there was a blockage on development, but it has now been taken off. We were told that there would be about 24 houses. The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be about 36 private houses. However, we shall not argue about the figures.

But, even if 36 houses are built and they are occupied by virile and fertile families—I am sure that with such a right hon. Member to represent them they will be virile and fertile families—it will take some time to achieve the increased numbers to make this an economic proposition. It will take at least five or six years. As I said, even if these houses are built and young people go into them—we should like to see the revitalising of village life—the scene is not likely to change in the next few years.

I respect the right hon. Gentleman's sincerity in this matter, but the closure of the school has been agreed. It was not done by a naughty Government in London. It was not brutal Londoners who said the school must close. The recommendation came from the right hon. Gentleman's local authority on a section 13 notice and the Minister of State sent out the letter of closure recently.

The news that I have to give the right hon. Gentleman will not send him cheering back to the Durham area for the Summer Recess. We shall have to stand by the closure notice. The cost of maintaining a school of that size would be out of all proportion to the pupil-teacher ratio throughout the county. It is only 1.3 or 1.5 miles to the next village schools, which will be half empty by 1981, and the local authority has promised that regular transport will be provided.

The closure will not take place rapidly. We must be fair to the Department. The closure is scheduled for 1980, so that should give time for the integration to take place. We hope that the closure will not have a serious effect on the development of that village which the right hon. Gentleman knows so well. The movement of the children to Willington will save £23,000. In addition, it will be easier on the pupil-teacher ratio for the Durham area and to some extent it will broaden the curriculum at Willington.

I do not suggest that a new brass band will come into being by bringing the two villages together—it is an area for brass bands, as is the Rossendale valley in my area, which also has the Rossendale Singers—but in the long run I think that it will be for the good of both villages, the county and the children themselves.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Ten o'clock a.m.