HC Deb 28 January 1981 vol 997 cc1048-56

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

12.27 am
Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Shortly before Christmas I took part in an "Any Questions" broadcast in Cranborne, Dorset. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) is likely to be in the Chamber shortly and I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It transpired that the charming people of that very pleasant place were deeply troubled by a proposal to close their village school. A question was asked and, with other members of the team, I gave my view.

My constituency has lost a number of village schools over the years and it may lose additional schools in the near future, because closure notices have been issued for the schools at Stawley, Brompton Regis, in my constituency, and Selworthy. Therefore, I know something about this problem and I care deeply about it. I said then that I was opposed in general to the closure of more village schools and that it was time for the process to stop.

I have had considerable mail ever since. Because I have become aware of the widespread and deeply felt anxiety about this problem, and because I object to the local closure proposals in my constituency, to which I have referred, I am raising the subject tonight.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, for being here this evening. I regard him as one of the most able and conscientious of our colleagues in the Government. He always has my warm support, and I know that this is a subject that is very dear to his heart.

I seek a single assurance from the Government, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give it. Although the system under which the Government must give authority for closures was sensibly altered and simplified in the Education Act 1980, which in common with my colleagues I supported, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to declare plainly that henceforward no village school will be permitted to be closed where there is a well-proved objection on the part of a majority of persons and parents living locally. Thereby, local democracy will become more relevant than many people feel it is today.

Too often in the past, consultation has meant only information—mere chatter about a decision that has already been made; a decision that will not be altered by authority, never mind the local arguments. The centre where decisions are made seems increasingly remote from local interests. When that is the position in counties, it is a tragedy.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put it well a little time ago. I quote from a written answer that she gave in the House last May. She said: We recognise the special place which village schools occupy in the community"—[Official Report, 15 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 637.] "Special place" is right. They are indeed a precious asset to be cherished and kept.

Already we have lost too many. Between the ending of the Second World War and 1974–30 years later—we closed 139 out of approximately 500 schools in the county of Somerset. That is too many by far—an appalling decimation of local educational effort. Nationally, the rate is as follows, and I am sure my hon. Friend will confirm my figures. In 1978, proposals to close 49 rural primary schools and four rural secondary schools were approved by Ministers. In 1979, 26 rural primary closures were approved. None were refused. In 1980, 41 approvals were given to close rural primary schools and one to close a secondary school. That was a total of 122 nationally—about one a week in each of the last three years.

The problems for the Government and local education authorities are recognised. They are not easy. I have nothing but praise for these devoted people, the elected members of the Somerset authority, and most particularly for the officials. We have an outstanding chief education officer in the county of Somerset, and I know how devotedly the authority tries to solve the problems on its table—problems that are indeed not easy.

There is a shortage of money, although I believe that the statistics show that the cost of educating a child at a village school is not necessarily so much more than the cost of educating a child elsewhere when everything is taken into account. There is the difficulty of establishing priorities when there are so many demands for funds. Last, but by no means least, there are falling rolls. In primary schools it is expected that the number of children will fall from 4.2 million in 1979 to 3.2 million by 1986. As we all know, about 750,000 places at schools will have to be taken out by 1982.

Not every closure of a local school is occasioned by falling population. That is the trouble. In the case of the school at Brompton Regis the population may increase. I hope that as we build more houses in that remote and lovely part of Somerset, and perhaps even get industries there, that will happen. At Stawley, the proposal that has been on the table for some time to close the school has cast a blight upon its future. Although there are 40 children available to go to the school, unfortunately, because people believed that it would be closed, a number of the children eligible have gone to other schools. So it seems to me that some of the problems are of our own making. The point that I am trying to make, which I am sure my hon. Friend will accept, is that a number of the closures that may be scheduled to take place in the immediate future are not inevitable and should not be regarded as inevitable.

To be fair, there are sometimes disadvantages in small schools. If the teacher is bad, there can be a deleterious effect that is entirely disproportionate. Children in a local area can vegetate. Staffing may present problems. Staff who are remote and isolated may become a little stale. There is no argument about those potential disadvantages. But there is not one of them that it is not possible, through leadership and determination, to overcome.

The disadvantages are small by comparison with the outstanding advantages of the smaller school: the caring atmosphere, the opportunities for individual attention, the fact that school premises are often a focal point for the community, the ease of physical access for the children, and the easy regularity of social contact between the parents and teachers.

Alas, as we all know—it is a matter of fact—village life is often in steady decline in the United Kingdom, sometimes including Somerset. There is a strong need to reverse that trend. It is the duty of our Conservative Government to lead.

What are the chief characteristics of a thriving local community? They are a local church or chapel, a public house, a village green, a cricket team, prospects for good employment, young married people—right hon. and hon. Members may choose their own recipe. I would say without any fear of contradiction that a local school stands high on that list.

I view with some cynicism the devoted efforts that so many people make, and which the Government so rightly encourage through bodies such as the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas. They are worthy and good, recognising the need to import a new vitality into local life, village life, community life, but I view those efforts with cynicism if at the same time we are careless about the future of our village schools.

I speak of what I know in my constituency. The school at Stawley, for example, is in my home village. I should like to quote from a letter that I received from the people of the village of Brompton Regis. They said: We are very much opposed to requiring small children to travel upwards of 10 miles daily in all kinds of weather, leaving home at an early hour and returning seven or eight hours later. Brompton Regis is on the Brendon Hills. I do not know how many hon. Members know it. It is at an altitude of 1,000 ft., and sometimes the village is cut off for periods in the winter. Such journeys are likely to be impracticable in hard winters. They could be injurious to health as well as to the children's capability of benefiting from education. Surely that is undoubted.

My correspondents conclude: Finally, the closure of the village school would be damaging to the viability of the village as a balanced and cohesive unit, and could as a result contribute to rural depopulation at a time when the contrary should be the objective of national policy. The school at Brompton Regis has played, and can still play, an important part in our community life. Those quotations speak for themselves. As to the first point that my correspondents were making, I believe that bussing will become an even dirtier word than it did in the United States over a period, and for better reasons.

There is a need for a new initiative. I hope that my hon. Friend, with his determination, wisdom, and capacity for imaginative hard work, will give it. The Government and the counties must give a lead. I recommend my hon. Friend to discuss with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State the publication of a circular on this specific subject. Its theme should be that the maintenance of village schools on social and educational grounds is infinitely preferable to their closure almost exclusively on mathematical or statistical grounds. Let my hon. Friend launch, if he will, a "Keep the Village School" campaign. I assure him that he will have universal support.

One of the things that might be done in this circular, if my hon. Friend thinks it a good idea, is to provide a list of the constructive proposals that might help to keep village schools open. I have in mind such ideas as bringing in visiting teachers, grouping schools together to improve facilities, their use as projects centres and the encouragement of PTAs, local groups such as Rotary, the Lions, even the skittles team, to play a larger part in the life of the schools by helping to keep them clean and using them as places for local activities. There is a host of ideas that could be proposed that would involve financial saving and undoubtedly help to enhance the position of schools in the community.

These village schools are a precious inheritance. It is the duty of our generation to preserve and enhance them. I remember as a boy at school—and that was a long time ago—being educated to read Cobbett's "Rural Rides". I remember that Cobbett wrote of how necessary it was to keep alive the traditions and the manners of the countryside, which he complained were in constant danger of corruption by the morals, the manners, the outlook of the cities. Perhaps that is an over-cynical view. There is, however, still some truth in it.

I recommend to my hon. Friend another quotation from Cobbett's "Political Register", written 150 years ago: From a very early age I had imbibed the opinion that it was every man's duty to do all that lay in his power to leave his country as good as he had found it. This is my hon. Friend's opportunity, and I raise this issue tonight in the confident hope that he will live up to those inspiring words.

12.42 am
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for giving me a minute of his time to add a word of support. Like him, I am extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for being here tonight, because I know that if anything can be done he is the sort of person who will see that it is done.

My complaint concerns a school in my constituency upon which the axe has fallen in the last few days. Like my right hon. Friend, I believe that the village school is the heart of a thriving rural community. Remove that and to a large degree that community dies. That is why, in December, I took a deputation to see the Minister—a deputation representing all grades of political representation in the area—the local county councillor, the district councillor, and the chairman of the parish council. We all pleaded with the Minister to keep open Medbourne village school, in Leicestershire. Unfortunately, in the last few days the Minister has confirmed that this ancient and well-preserved school must close. This closure is occurring despite the fact that there is a growing pupil roll, and despite the fact that the school is housed in admirable buildings and has a pupil potential in the immediate future of 25 to 30, due to increased housing development in the area.

I shall not trespass any further upon the time of my right hon. Friend except to say that I am intensely dissatisfied with what is going on and look forward to my hon. Friend doing something to help keep open that invaluable heritage of Britain—the village school.

12.45 am
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

The gratitude of my constituents to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute very briefly to the debate, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), will last much longer than my remarks.

I believe that village schools play a unique part in the life of the community. Certainly the closure of village schools is a very important issue in Dorset, and in my constituency in particular. My constituents are very worried about closures in the Tarrant and Winterborne valleys, and in Cranborne they, too, are disturbed about the prospects for their schools.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister of State to put three points in any general directive that is put out on this subject. First, parents and people in the villages should be encouraged to participate, both by providing financial assistance and by time and any other services to help these schools survive.

Secondly, I hope that local education authorities will accept that rural and urban community needs are different. The standards of curriculum and finance that are applied to schools in different types of community are different and should be regarded as such. Thirdly, I question the role of education advisers. When we are looking for savings in education, because of the question of finance that is uppermost in the closure of village schools, let us look hard at the administration and its cost. I urge my hon. Friend to do all he can to preserve this very important part of rural community life.

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

I am sure that the Irish business went through so quickly because it was realised that the Adjournment debate was so much more important.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has introduced a debate which, judging by the attendance, demonstrates the concern throughout the country as well as in the villages of England. I was also struck by his quotations from Cobbett. It shows what a good rural education can do. Twenty thousand copies of Cobbett's letters to the countrymen of England were sold in my native Lancashire, all within five years. Sometimes, when one wonders about the State education system in those days and learns that 20,000 copies of that pamphlet were sold in Lancashire, one goes on to wonder where we have got today.

My right hon. Friend not only has a national reputation for his work in this House; he has a reputation as a good constituency Member, looking after the interests of his people. His constituents will join with the public at large in their enjoyment of "Any Questions", in which this topic came up.

I am also grateful for the comments made by my hon. Friends the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and Harborough (Mr. Farr), who share the concern about the village school.

I should declare an interest. I went to a village school. It was a small Church of England school in Lancashire. People say that it did not do me any harm. I am sure that I got a good, firm basis of education there. There was a sense of continuity and honour.

I remember that at the age of 6 I got into the only fight that I have ever been involved in. As usual, in good, healthy, rural life, a ring was formed by the older boys; they had their own rules. I think that the fight was about a girl. I cannot remember who it was, or what happened to her. Nor do I remember what happened in the fight. I remember that I got thumped by my father when I got home because of the state that I was in. I am sure that that was the basis of good political life. In many towns children never had the privileged beginning that I had there.

The advantage of the village school lies in the identification of the pupil with it. He knows where he belongs. He is not wasting a lot of time travelling backwards and forwards, particularly in difficult weather. There is also the question of teacher commitment. I should not be surprised if research showed that teachers stay longer when they become part of a community instead of moving around as they do—or did until recently—so rapidly in our city schools.

There is also parental commitment. In the raising of money for maintenance or extra facilities, the village schools seem at least to be equal to, if not ahead of, schools elsewhere.

The point made by my right hon. Friend about the effect upon the village itself is particularly important. It is part of the way of life; that is why my right hon. Friend's Cobbett quotations were so apt. It is part of a way of life which, if we lost it in England, would mean that we had lost something very dear to our heritage and to our present and future.

There are comments from Her Majesty's inspectors from time to time that disadvantages can occur with classes up to 25, or 25 and more, bridging three years of teaching. Again, children often gain academically if brought into contact with children of similar abilities, which is sometimes not possible in a village school.

The question of finance has been raised. If special advantages are given, this can mean spending a disproportionate amount of money per pupil compared with the town school. That is a decision to be made by the authority. I feel that sometimes there is a place for the part-time teacher. The vicar's wife is often a trained teacher as well as a voluntary social worker in the area. An imaginative local authority—this is obviously the case with the authority concerned—can introduce part-timers in order to diversify the curriculum.

Over the next 10 years there will be 29 per cent. fewer children in our schools—a falling-off almost unequalled since the first census, I believe, in 1811.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

It was 1841.

Dr. Boyson

I must not start an argument with my hon. Friend. We can agree on village schools. I have an idea that there was a census in 1811. We must find the right answer. If this goes into Hansard there will be concern throughout the length and breadth of the country that we are not masters of our facts.

This is a matter that authorities have to examine to ensure that within the money available, at a time of restraint, they can provide the facilities in all the schools. My right hon. Friend was right about the number of schools closing. In 1978, the figure was 49; in 1979, it was 26; and in 1980, it was 41. It is interesting to note the rise in the number of small city schools being closed as a result of depopulation of the cities. Twenty-eight primaries closed in 1978; the figure reached 39 in 1980. At the same time, 29 secondary schools have been closed. In many cases the depopulation factor in the inner cities is much more intense than the depopulation of the countryside.

My right hon. Friend stressed that consultation should mean consultation. I also feel strongly on this matter. It seems to me that there have been times in the past—I am not referring to any particular instance—when people have gone round a county, having made up their minds what they intend to do, and the meetings have simply been a whitewash. If there is to be consultation it should be genuine consultation among parents, teachers and governors.

A circular was issued by the Department in June 1977 saying that before a closure order was put out there should be full consultation with parents and teachers. By parents, I also mean potential parents who represent the school's future. I believe that closure notices have gone to two of the schools mentioned by my right hon. Friend. There are two months, from 15 December in this case, during which people can object. In the case of a voluntary school, the matter goes to the Secretary of State in any case, even if there are no objections. In the case of a county school, objections are considered by the Secretary of State. I imagine that in the second of these cases—a voluntary school—it will come to the Secretary of State. In so far as the matter may go to the Secretary of State, I have to be careful about what I say tonight.

The Secretary of State considers such matters carefully. He has to take account of education provision for the children. He receives reports from HMIs. He considers whether the school offers the children a full curriculum. He has also to consider finance.

In passing, I should say that I have received information that the first census was in 1801. Honour is satisfied on both sides. My guess was a little nearer.

The Secretary of State will consider carefully not only the two particular schools but schools throughout the country. He will consider the effects of closures on village life, county finances and the education of the children.

From the costings, we expect about 750,000 school places to be taken out up to 1982–83. Several small schools in one area can be expensive to run. Although each classroom costs the same, the basic structure has to be heated. Each case must be carefully considered on its merits. All objections will be carefully scrutinised. Closures will not be merely stamp transactions. I know that from my own experience. What has been said tonight will also be taken into consideration.

The future of the village school must be in the balance. The village school is central to the continuity and completeness of village life, like the public house and the village green. However, we are under financial constraint. We must be fair not only to village education but to education in the towns. We have to balance the two. It is not an easy decision. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will take careful note of the debate. He will endeavour to save money, but also to save village schools where they can be saved, where they are fulfilling a financially viable commitment and where they are providing an excellent education.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to One o'clock.