HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc971-2
14. Mr. Farr

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what has been the number of closures of village schools in each of the last three years; and if he will take special steps to retain them.

Dr. Boyson

In 1978 approval was given to 53 secondary and primary rural school closures, in 1979 to 26 and in 1980 to 45. My right hon. and learned Friend will continue to consider all such proposals on their individual merits, taking account of educational and other considerations, including any objections from those affected by the proposals.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, but bearing in mind that the village school occupies a special place in our national picture, will he see whether there is any way in which a scheme can be formed so that, when a village school gets into difficulties, special steps can be taken to keep it open and alive?

Dr. Boyson

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern on this matter. He and I have talked about it on a number of occasions. However, we must face the fact that by 1986, clue to the falling birth rate, there will be about 3 million surplus places in the schools, costing £100 per place in service and maintenance. One cannot keep every school open. It is estimated that to cut back those places would require the closure of about 1,000 primary schools, which is only 5 per cent. of the number. I take on board what my hon. Friend has said. Wherever possible, knowing the disastrous social effects of the closure of village schools, we shall encourage those which are economically able to do so to remain open.

Mr. David Watkins

Will the Minister take special steps to try to retain village and other schools in the Consett and Stanley areas of County Durham, where the Government's policy of massive industrial closures now seems to be being followed by a policy of massive school closures?

Dr. Boyson

I cannot comment on the hon. Member's point about the places that he mentions. It is likely that the closure of small primary schools will affect city areas more than rural aeas for the next five to 10 years because the inner cities are most affected educationally by a fall in population.

Mr. Wickenden

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that one of the ways in which school closures might be avoided is by permitting parents to contribute towards the cost of that education? Many parents wish to do so, but are prevented by the contents of the Education Act 1944.

Dr. Boyson

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. In many cases, parents wish to help, but it is important to see how that fits in with the 1944 Act.

Mr. Allen McKay

Does the Minister realise the concern of parents of children affected by school closures? Those children, already travelling 10 miles to the existing schools, will have to travel perhaps a further six miles. Will he take into consideration that some of those villages, during inclement weather, are snowbound and therefore those children will lose about five or six days' education a year?

Dr. Boyson

I certainly take note of what the hon. Member said. Any proposals come from the area. We do not propose the closures nationally. They are recommended to us. When closures are considered, questions of transport, schools being closed by inclement weather and so on are taken into consideration before my right hon. and learned Friend makes a decision.