HC Deb 22 March 1983 vol 39 cc713-4
12. Mr. Hicks

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science, in the past two years, how many applications he has received from local education authorities to close village primary schools with school rolls of 35 pupils or fewer; and in how many cases he has refused to give his consent.

Dr. Boyson

In the two years ending 31 December 1982, 163 proposals to close village primary schools were approved by my right hon. Friend and his predecessor or determined by the local education authorities concerned; 120 of these schools had 35 or fewer pupils. Over the same period proposals for 10 schools were rejected; five of these had fewer than 35 pupils.

Mr. Hicks

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. Does he agree that the standard of educational provision in these schools is by far the most important criterion, followed by the impact that any such closure would have on the local community? Are not those two aspects far more important than dubious economic criteria?

Dr. Boyson

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the children's education and the continuation of village life are important. One must accept also that there has been a tremendous drop in the birth rate. There are about 1 million fewer children in schools now than there were four years ago. If one continues to spend large sums of money on schools whose pupils are almost disappearing, one must spend less elsewhere.

Mr. Beith

When the Minister considers again Beadnell school, which is one of those with fewer than 35 pupils, where he refused permission to close, will he take into account not just the good reasons that led him to refuse permission when the application reached him last year, but the undesirability of local authorities resubmitting, at great detriment to the school, closure proposals when there has been no change?

Dr. Boyson

I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman. Schools like stability, and if schools have threats of closure hanging over them continually parents cease to send their children to that school. The law allows the local education authority to return to us, but we should expect a local education authority to come back a second time within a short period only if it could place new facts before us.

Mr. Crouch

Can my hon. Friend assure me that neither the figure in the question nor the figures that he mentioned in his first answer will become the rule and that smaller schools will be closed automatically? Will he also bear in mind that village schools, sometimes smaller than those mentioned, can still provide good education, a basis for learning responsibility and good discipline?

Dr. Boyson

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend will bear all those points in mind. The Government have sometimes preserved schools with 12 or fewer pupils because of the case that is put up and the education that is being given. We have more schools now with fewer than 25 children than we had last year. The birth rate is dropping faster than closures of small rural schools.

Mr. Skinner

If the British economy can prop up television stations with fewer than 35 viewers, why cannot the Minister allow schools to operate with fewer than 35 pupils? They are more important than the breakfast television operation run by his hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken).

Several Hon. Members


Dr. Boyson

I shall answer. A significant question such as that must be answered. I believe, though, that there is a slight difference. In the schools, pupils are in one place, but, as far as I know, the 35 viewers to whom he refers are not sitting in one room.