HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc576-82

11.7 am

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the closing of Clatter county primary school, Powys. I look upon this opportunity as something of a Christmas present, although I began to wonder whether I would get the wrapping off this morning. The closure was proposed by the local education authority, the Powys county council, and approved on 7 July this year by the Secretary of State for Wales.

Clatter is a small village situated between two larger villages. To the one side is Carno—the headquarters of the celebrated Laura Ashley company—and to the other is Caersws. Each of those villages has a school. The Carno school is to continue unchanged, but, more to the point, Caersws is to have a new purpose-built school as a so-called area school.

Montgomery district, which we prefer to call Montgomeryshire, has a total population not much in excess of 45,000. It is possible to travel from the Shropshire border on the east to the Dyfi estuary on the west, a distance of over 40 miles, without leaving Montgomeryshire. It is also a great distance from north to south. I make those points to emphasise the sparsity of the district.

That sparsity is made worse by terrible public transport. Even in the heyday of stage carriage services on the buses, travel about Montgomeryshire was not easy. As a result of the sparsity, which has largely been ignored by the present Government, the provision of primary schools has evolved into a form that took that sparsity into account in a practical manner.

The village schools grew up and were well supported in general by the old Montgomeryshire county council, which was certainly philosophically committed to the concept of village schools. The size of the village schools varies from the larger schools with well over 50 pupils to the smallest with only a handful of pupils. Those schools should be considered in the whole Welsh context. En January 1983 there were 339 primary schools in Wales with fewer than 50 pupils. Clatter primary school falls between the two extremes. There are now 24 pupils on its roll. It is of average size by the standards of Montgomeryshire village schools. There are about 40 other schools in Powys with between 20 and 40 pupils. The school has two full-time teachers, and ancillary staff in proportion to its size.

There are three fundamental reasons why village schools deserve to be retained. They give a high standard of education compared with larger schools. They offer young children an emphasis on personal attention, and a family atmosphere, as well as close attention to their eductional and social needs.

Secondly, they are economical. Transport and capital costs are kept to a minimum. Clatter village school is a good example of a well maintained old building that could serve for many years as a school. The economical nature of the service is especially evident when set against the enormous capital costs of building new schools.

Thirdly, village schools provide a focus for community life. The school is the centre point of a village, especially in a village such as Clatter which lacks any other permanent fully-staffed facility, such as a church, or a pub for that matter.

However, despite my entreaties and those of many others, neither Powys county council nor the Secretary of State for Wales has been prepared to accept the fact that a village school holds a special place in a small community. If the Minister of State cannot show us today that he accepts that view, our worst fears will have been well founded and the village schools will become yet another example of the Government's obsession with centralisation.

When the closure was first mooted by Powys county council—and it is interesting to note that a previous similar decision had been made by the old Montgomeryshire county council, but rescinded — the justification was that the roll of Clatter school would fall below 20 pupils. It was predicted that by January 1985 the roll would be at the very low level of 17 pupils. The effect of a closure proposal—let alone an approved closure—can be imagined. Closure blight sets in. There is clear evidence that potential Clatter pupils have been sent by their parents to Caersws school. I have evidence of five such cases. The school has also lost out on the acquisition of out-of-zone children on the basis of parental choice, although it is a very good school. Nevertheless, it has remained a hub of lively activity in the two languages of the area.

The present school roll, taken together with the clear intention of local parents, gives proof positive that the local education authority's estimate of the school roll is too low by 20 per cent. for January 1984, and by more than that for January 1985. It is plain that the prospect of a blight-free Clatter school roll falling below 20 in the foreseeable future was very small. In estimating the future school roll figures, the local education authority failed to have regard to two important factors. First was the number of old properties which are being renovated. The authority looked only at the number of new planning consents. Secondly, it failed to take account of the number of young couples living within or on the borders of the catchment area.

Another argument put forward by the local education authority was that the increased numbers at the new Caersws school would enable a broader and better education to be given at that school. That sticks in the throats of Clatter parents. There is no demand by them for any better education, and it is hard to imagine that their children could receive a better primary education.

The known quality of Clatter is being set by the local education authority against the unknown quantity of a new Caersws school in a very unfair way. The educational arguments are founded on the Gittins report, which was based on evidence taken in the early 1960s. The report is out of date, particularly as the qualifications, the choice, and the in-service training of teachers are much greater than they were 20 years ago. I suspect that Powys county council—and certainly the director of education of that county council — would now accept that the Gittins report is indeed well out of date. The new school would have to be very remarkable to be better than Clatter.

A third argument for closure is the economic one. A glib economic case was placed before the Secretary of State. It looked convincing enough until one started to examine the figures. However, it was inaccurate in detail and — more vitally — it failed to take account of the capital costs of the extra provision at Caersws school for the Clatter pupils, and the secondary cost of that capital. It also failed to take account of the high-expenditure that will be necessary if Clatter school is closed, for extra school transport.

One cannot kid the people of Montgomeryshire by presenting them with accounts based only on current expenditure. Our farmers can do their sums very quickly, and I have learnt from them. To overlook capital expenditure is simply unrealistic and unconvincing. The Secretary of State has reached his decision on the basis of incorrect figures and on an education argument founded on out-of-date theoretical wisdom without regard to local evidence. The decision was wrong, and the parents are right in refusing to accept it and in demonstrating against it.

There was a one-day strike recently at Clatter school. One could not say that it had 100 per cent. support; but the only child who went to school was the child of the head teacher, who did not have much choice in the matter. Furthermore, at various meetings of the schools subcommittee of the Powys county council, some county councillors have expressed a clear desire for the decision to be reviewed. Discussion has been stifled from the chair, no doubt on the basis of advice received in good faith.

The county council says, "The Welsh Office has approved the closure and that's that." But when I write to the Welsh Office, the Minister of State tells me, "It's a matter for the Powys county council." The buck is being passed from one to the other, and the children of Clatter will suffer as a result. There will be no going back. If the school is closed, we all know that it will be closed for ever.

Following a recent television interview on the subject, which I had the good fortune to be offered, many of my constituents have written to me and sent messages about the Clatter closure and the general subject of village schools. Only one person living in Montgomeryshire has declared his opposition to my views.

Fact has been made the poor relation of opinion. Accuracy has been murdered by miscalculation. There has been a poverty of research which has produced the wrong answer. We in Montgomeryshire believe that the people of Clatter are being used—and ill-used—to justify a decision already taken about the size of the new school at Caersws.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the matter in the House. I appeal to the Minister of State to use his good offices and influence to persuade the county council to rescind its decision.

11.19 am
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. John Stradling Thomas)

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). I know that this is a case in which he has taken a close interest since he became a Member of the House, and he has written to me about a number of aspects of it. I pay tribute to the vigorous way in which he has supported the views of those who made representations to him and to the cogent manner in which he argued his case this morning. In reply I should like to cover three broad issues in the short time available to me—first, the general backcloth against which any debate about school closures should take place; second, the differing statutory responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and local education authorities; and third, the particular case of Clatter.

Proposals to close schools, particularly small rural primary schools, must not be viewed as a recent innovation. There is no general policy on school closures. Such schools have been closing for many years. The hon. Gentleman referred to some statistics. Indeed, the Central Advisory Committee for Education (Wales) commented in 1967, in its report on primary education in Wales, that over 180 schools in rural areas closed between 1949 and 1965 and that in the preceding decade such schools had been closing at the rate of about 10 a year. Of course, great care is necessary in handling raw statistics of school closure proposals since on occasions there can be proposals that do not necessarily involve premises being taken out of use—for example an amalgamation of an infants' school and a junior school under one head teacher —but it seems to be the case that, allowing for such factors, the closure rate over the past four years remains around 10 a year.

It is of course true that the number of pupils to be provided for has, for demographic reasons, been falling significantly in the primary sector for a number of years. That was a major factor in the decision in July 1981 to issue Welsh Office circular 30/81. The circular drew attention to the educational and financial advantages of taking out of use school places that had become surplus to requirements.

I have already said that the closure of small primary schools in rural areas is not a recent phenomenon. I should also say that neither are the views set out in circular 30/81, which were in part a restatement of the message set out in Welsh Office circular 39/78. To put it another way, the educational and financial implications of falling numbers of pupils have received attention from successive Governments for some years. By 1981 the problems had become acute, and the 1981 circular reflected the case for urgent action. There are those who argue that it is an oversimplification to assume that it is practicable to take all surplus places out of use. I agree. That is self-evident, but that was not what we were urging. Our aim was that about two fifths of the number of surplus places should be taken out of use over a five-year period. We believe that to be a realistic and prudent response to the problem.

I referred to the educational arguments in favour of taking surplus places out of use that were outlined in the 1981 circular. In particular, the circular drew attention to the educational benefits that can accrue from the elimination of mixed age classes in the primary sector. It is frequently the case that one school with about 100 pupils will have more to offer than a collection of schools with 20 or 30 pupils each. Scale may produce not only financial economies but, more importantly, educational benefits both in terms of the avoidance of mixed age classes—to which I referred — and in terms of the breadth of experience and skill that a larger teaching force may possess in subjects such as science, history and geography. There may also be social as well as educational benefits available as a result of pupils being able to mix with larger groups of children their own age.

I must now refer to the division of responsibility to which the hon. Gentleman referred, between local education authorities and the Secretary of State in relation to this issue. The statutory duty for the provision of schools suitable for affording education for pupils of different ages, abilities and aptitudes rests with local education authorities. My right hon. Friend's powers are strictly limited. Indeed, with regard to proposals to close schools, the respective responsibilities of local education authorities and my right hon. Friend were debated fully in the House only three years ago, and are now set out in section 12 of the Education Act 1980.

Mr. Alex Carlile

is the Minister effectively saying that if a local education authority provides the Secretary of State with inaccurate information, and the proposal to close a school is approved on the basis of that inaccurate information, no remedy is available to the Secretary of State when the inaccuracies are discovered?

Mr. Stradling Thomas

I am not saying that. I shall come to that matter later.

The law provides that where a local education authority proposes to close a school it must publish a statutory notice outlining its proposals. If the school concerned is a voluntary school or if objections are made in accordance with the terms of the 1980 Act, the proposals require the approval of my right hon. Friend. Otherwise, the proposal is entirely for determination by the local education authority. For the sake of completeness, I should add that it is open to my right hon. Friend to call in a proposal for his approval, but I shall not dwell on that matter as it has no relevance in the context of today's debate.

It is time now to refer to the proposal that led to this debate—the proposed closure of Clatter county primary school. As the hon. Gentleman said, Clatter is located about three miles from Caersws in the county of Powys. On 25 October 1982 the Powys county council—the local education authority—published a proposal to close Clatter county primary school and to transfer the pupils, subject to the expression of parental preference, to a new school to be built at Caersws. The authority's intention was to implement the proposal in July 1985 as the planned completion date for the new school at Caersws was September 1985. Objections to the published proposals were received from parents and from the governors of Clatter school, and thus the matter came before my right hon. Friend as provided for in section 12(5) of the 1980 Act.

After careful consideration—I shall say something further about this later—my right hon. Friend decided that he should approve the proposals of the local education authority, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, his decision was conveyed to the local education authority and the objectors on 7 July 1983.

The new school at Caersws is to be built to replace outdated premises—although they are well maintained, as the hon. Gentleman said—currently in use and will provide for about 120 pupils. That contrasts sharply with the situation at Clatter, where the number of pupils on roll declined from 35 in 1980 to around 25 in 1983. Those pupils span the age range four to 11 years, so that with two teachers the age range for each class is very wide. At the new school it should be possible to avoid mixed age classes as well as to make specialist provision for pupils of nursery age and remedial pupils.

Proposals for the closure of schools, particularly those that are the only ones existing in small communities, often arouse opposition. This proposal was no exception. Of course, we all recognise the contribution that village schools have made to their communities and the local support that they have usually generated. Also, the disadvantages of small schools, which I have already referred to, must not automatically be assumed to apply in each case. In considering proposals that come before him, my right hon. Friend treats each case on its merits and must be satisfied that in each case the proposal will be in the educational interests of the pupils directly concerned. I cannot emphasise that point too strongly.

It is easy to envisage circumstances in which a redeployment of resources arising from a school closure would benefit, to some extent, many pupils not involved in the closure. But that would not be enough to gain approval. There must be no worsening of the provision afforded to the pupils directly concerned. The key factor that local education authorities have to consider in determining the pattern of school organisation in their area is that pupils should receive provision appropriate to their curricular and other educational needs. That is the key factor that my right hon. Friend has to bear in mind in considering proposals that come before him.

The hon. Member for Montgomery has raised detailed matters, both in his speech and in correspondence with me. Much has been made of the accuracy or otherwise of the forward projections of pupil numbers at the Clatter School. This is one of the points that the hon. Gentleman had in mind when he questioned me a moment ago. No one pretends that projecting numbers of pupils in future years is an exact science. There are so many imponderables that it never could be. However, it is not totally inexact and the disagreement really boils down to whether the number of pupils is likely to be 25 rather than 20, or 30 rather than 25. That is the order of magnitude. I have already told the hon. Member that I cannot agree that the case for closure should be fundamentally influenced by such variations. Judgments on the educational advantages of such proposals must be based on figures of broad magnitude rather than precise forecasts. Indeed in the case of Clatter county primary school, it can be argued that, within limits, an increase in the number of pupils would exacerbate rather than ease the difficulties. A small increase in numbers will not lead to the allocation of an additional teacher.

Mr. Carlile

If what the hon. Gentleman has just said is correct, does not that pose a threat to many primary schools in the county of Powys, which have two teachers and 30 to 40 pupils and provide a most admirable form of education?

Mr. Stradling Thomas

Whether there will be a threat will be entirely a matter of local education authority policy. The authority must make the judgments and bring forward, in the light of its policies, proposals under the statutory procedures. I cannot say whether a threat is posed.

The two mixed-age classes would increase in size and make the teachers' task even more difficult. No one should underestimate the difficulties, even for the best of our teachers, in providing properly for a class of 15 or so children where there is a three or four year age span.

The hon. Member has argued that because my right hon. Friend's decision was based on inaccurate projections of pupil numbers his approval should be rescinded. I hesitate to cross swords with an eminent member of the legal profession on a point of law, but the legal advice that I have received is quite firm on this point. My right hon. Friend has no power to revoke his approval once it is given. This is a matter of statute and has been passed by Parliament. More important, however — this will be clear from what I have already said—we take the view that even if such a power were available, this is not a case in which my right hon. Friend would choose to exercise it. I have already explained that his decision in such cases is rarely, if ever, based on the degree of precision in pupil projections which the hon. Member has sought eloquently to argue. In this case, a small increase in numbers may be held to strengthen rather than weaken the educational arguments in favour of closure. I merely say that it is arguable.

The hon. Member mentioned the cost savings that are expected to arise as a consequence of the implementation of the proposal and has agreed that they will be minimal or even non-existent. I freely acknowledge that financial considerations are one of the main reasons why local education authorities have been urged to review their provision with a view to taking out of use places that are surplus to requirements. I also acknowledge that there are reorganisation proposals put forward by local education authorities in which the prospect of savings being largely redeployed elsewhere within the authority's schools will be an attractive and persuasive feature of those proposals. In all cases, however, the educational provision to be made for the pupils directly affected is of paramount importance to my right hon. Friend. That was certainly so in this case since the Powys local education authority did not at any stage seek to rely very heavily on financial considerations in arguing the case for closure. Nor was it a factor that loomed large in my right hon. Friend's view.

Now that the proposal has been announced, and given that the process provided for full consideration of the objections, I hope that all concerned will agree that the right thing to do is to look forward, constructively and positively, to the new provision of Caersws in 1985 and the successful integration into that school of the pupils from the Clatter school.

I conclude by saying that I hope everyone has a very merry Christmas.