HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1359-67 11.13 am
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of primary education in rural Scotland. It is a considerable change from the last subject, and those following the debate from the Public Gallery must be wondering what on earth is going on.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to give a clear statement of the Government's policy on village schools throughout Scotland. I say that because there is widespread belief that the Scottish Education Department has abdicated all responsibility for policy and guidance in that field, and that local education authorities have been left to muddle through in the context of Government spending cuts and the general upheaval that is going on in Scottish education at present.

I shall resist the temptation to go into the case for an independent review of teachers' pay and conditions in this debate, except perhaps to say that I have not yet met anyone in my constituency or elsewhere who supports the Secretary of State for Scotland's refusal to settle the dispute by setting up an independent review.

Many of us hoped that the recent fall in pupil numbers in Scotland would be used as an opportunity to raise standards in schools, but instead the Government have chosen to use falling rolls as an excuse to slash funds for education in Scotland. Indeed, I understand that in 1980–81 the Secretary of State for Scotland specifically told the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, during the course of the rate support grant negotiations in that year, that more primary schools should be closed.

When regional and islands councils are compelled to cut their budgets, as they have been by the Government, it is, I suppose, inevitable that they see small peripheral services such as village schools as convenient targets for cuts. That is what has been happening in rural Scotland, and all over Scotland. Between 1980 and 1984, no fewer than 102 primary schools were closed in Scotland, and councils of all political complexions have been considering the closure of village schools.

The independent councillors in the Western Isles and Highland region were at it last year. The Tories in Tayside and Lothian region were taking steps to close rural primary schools. The Labour council in Fife is seeking to close schools. The Liberal chairman of the Borders region education committee has the most ambitious scheme of all, with a hit list of 25 village schools.

I notice that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) is here. I know that he is concerned about the closures, as well he ought to be, because many of his constituents, including myself, are involved. I hope that we make some headway on the issue during the debate. I put it to the hon. Member, and to his friend, councillor Tom Burnham, a Liberal councillor in the Borders region, and to the Minister, that the whole principle of community-based primary education is now under threat in the Borders region. That could be repeated elsewhere in Scotland. It has been suggested that no fewer than a quarter of the total number of primary schools in the Borders region could be subject to review, and that is a matter of acute concern.

Policies in different areas are varying wildly. Some authorities are seeking to close schools with 50 pupils; others are retaining schools with as few as 10 children in them. I stress that I am a passionate believer in local democracy and local decision making, but since the whole matter is inspired by Government spending cuts, I believe that the Government have a duty at least to express a view on how those cuts should be applied.

There is a place for Government guidance on policies which have national implications, and I put it to the Minister that the Secretary of State for Scotland has a duty to take an interest in village schools, not only in the context of national education policy but in the context of the need for a national rural social policy.

We in the Labour party are currently working on rural policy for the next Government, but for the time being a Conservative Government are in power, and people in rural Scotland are entitled to know the Government's thoughts on the matter. As he approaches the subject, I hope that the Minister will not object to me, as a Catholic, reminding him that John Knox wrote in 1570 that there should be a school in every parish in Scotland. So the Minister is attacking principles that run very deep.

I want to illustrate the state of alarm and despondency that has been caused in rural areas in Scotland by the closure threats before I go on to analyse the case for preserving and developing community-based primary education.

In my constituency of East Lothian, four village schools, at Dirleton, East Saltoun, Humbie and Whitekirk, all came under threat of closure last year. Obviously, that threat had a disruptive effect on everybody concerned. Long-term planning and development had to be abandoned in the face of the immediate threat. The children, teachers and parents faced six months of uncertainty while they considered their position and put their case to Lothian regional council. Initially, the two smallest communities thought that they could not possibly resist a decision taken by big brother in Edinburgh, but we got our act together. We demonstrated that the parents and the wider community supported their local primary schools. We proved that those villages could and would sustain adequate pupil numbers to justify at least a single teacher school and, thanks to the steadfast support of the Labour group on Lothian regional council, those schools were saved.

However, that was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. One of those four schools had had to go through the same review procedure one year previously, and there is no guarantee that those schools will not face another closure threat next year. That constant atmosphere of crisis is bad for the education of the children and bad for the confidence of the teachers and parents. The time has come for a clear policy to resolve the issue on a permanent basis.

I have strong personal feelings on the subject. My own five-year-old son recently started his education in the village school at Hutton in Berwickshire, represented by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. That school was threatened with closure last year and the Borders regional council is now putting us through the mill again. That council's current proposals could mean that my son will be made to move to four different schools in the course of eight years of his primary education. That demonstrates the disruptive effect of uncertainty and closures in rural primary education on my own son. I hope that the House will understand why I feel particularly concerned about what is going on in that region and, indeed, in other regions.

I now refer to the detailed case for community-based primary schools in rural areas. The real case for closures is usually based on financial considerations, although the argument is usually dressed up in educational jargon. However, even the economic case for closures is deceptive. There may be a short-term gain from shutting a village school and selling the building, but at the end of the day the local education authority is still responsible for educating the same number of children. On top of that, it will have to face a permanent commitment to substantial and rising additional transport costs. That has a knock-on effect on educational considerations because extended journeys to school for young children are bound to have an effect on their concentration and ability to make progress in school. One of the proposals currently under consideration in the borders could mean that some primary school pupils in the Lammermuir area in my constituency will face 50-minute journeys every morning and evening on their way to and from primary school. That is when the roads are not blocked by snow, as they frequently are in winter. That illustrates the extreme nature of some of the proposals that are being considered.

The economic case for closures is debatable, but the community case for retaining village schools is overwhelming. It is related to the glaring need for a positive rural social policy, and has to be seen against the background of the disastrous effect of the Government's free market economic policies in rural Scotland. We know what is happening to village shops, village telephone kiosks, bus services and small businesses throughout rural Scotland. The local school is a vital component in any community. It is a focus for community activity. It helps to encourage children to identify with their home neighbourhood. The closure of the school can be a mortal blow to a fragile village community.

Apart from anything else, the lack of a local primary school has been shown to deter young families from staying in a village, which does permanent damage to the social structure and economy of that community. I can think of examples in my constituency of two comparable villages. In one village the school has been closed and it has turned into a sleepy village to which people retire. In the other village, the school has been kept open, and it now supports a mixed and active community.

However, the economic and community considerations are side issues. The real priority must be the quality of education for children. It seems to be fashionable for educational bureaucrats to run down small schools, but that attitude is not shared by teachers or parents of children at village schools in Scotland. There are certain disadvantages when a single teacher has to cope with the full range of primary 1–7 in one school, in what is in effect an extended composite class. However, there are also well substantiated advantages in the environment of a rural village school. The idea that schools with fewer than three teachers were a bad thing originated in the Plowden report of 1967, but the report failed to substantiate that case. Lady Plowden herself put the following question in a letter to The Times in 1978: Is it right to take the heart out of a community by taking away the children, Pied Piper like, thus losing the bond which is created within and between families through a common interest in the school, involving parents and even grandparents, which is both socially and educationally desirable? The closers of village schools do not get much comfort from Lady Plowden.

No doubt the Minister will have heard of Rural Forum, the umbrella organisation that represents the whole range of Scottish rural organisations, including trade unions, women's institutes, farmers and even landowners. Rural Forum held a conference on rural schools last month in Edinburgh, at which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire spoke. The clear message from that conference was that the educational benefits of village schools far outweighed the disadvantage. What are those advantages? Small pupil numbers make it possible to adopt a more flexible approach to teaching. Project work is a feature in those schools, and in that sort of extended family environment it has been shown that children develop social skills much more readily, learning to share the attention of the teacher. Older children develop a sense of responsibility towards the younger children. All in all, experience has shown that the system can work well. I have spoken to most of the secondary school heads in my constituency about the matter, and all of them without exception have confirmed that children from the smaller primary schools perform at least as well as those from bigger schools when they go on to the secondary school.

I accept that there is no room for complacency about the quality of education in small schools. I should like to see developments related to the special circumstances of rural schools. There is something to be said for clustering schools and sharing teachers and equipment, as has been done in some other areas. It is obvious that teachers who will have to deal with mixed age classes in a rural environment probably need special training. There is scope for developing parental involvement in those schools. Of course, we should continue to learn from the experience gained elsewhere, whether in England, Wales or further afield in places such as Sweden or Finland where people have been working on the subject.

I stress that I am not saying that every tiny rural school must be retained regardless of all the circumstances. Where a school roll has collapsed irrevocably below 15, it is obviously sensible to review the situation, although I would tend to concentrate on the possibility of attracting more young families into such an area as part of a broader rural development policy rather than taking the negative approach of closing the school and therefore shutting down the community.

There is something awfully final about a school closure. Closed village schools are never reopened, so the crop of closures that is now under consideration in Scotland could have permanent and serious effects on the neighbourhoods concerned. It is worth mentioning that the most recent figures published by the Scottish Office show a rise in projected primary school rolls in Scotland, so we must stop and think before the process goes any further.

Above all, there must be a genuine and credible consultation process directly involving parents and the wider community. People have no confidence in the present consultation procedure. At present the regional or islands council concerned is the combined prosecutor, judge and jury in the consultation process on the future of rural schools. Until 1981 the Secretary of State for Scotland had to sanction the closure of any school, but section 23(6A) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1981 and the associated regulations mean that local authorities can close schools that are within five miles of the alternative school without ministerial approval. That is despite the fact that the journeys for many pupils may be much longer than five miles in places where such amalgamations take place.

That is in marked contrast to the situation in England, where ministerial responsibility is still acknowledged. In a written reply on 17 March 1983 the Prime Minister herself said: We recognise the value of rural schools to their communities. This is reflected in the calculations underlying rate support grant to take account of the additional costs of provision in sparsely populated areas, in the advice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to local education authorities about falling school rolls, and in his detailed consideration of all closure proposals that fall to him to decide, which takes account in each case of local circumstances, the views of the local community, and the educational needs of the children concerned."—[Official Report, 17 March 1983, Vol. 39 c. 234.]. We have no such guarantees or safeguards in rural Scotland. Indeed, one Scottish village community threatened with the closure of its school is considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. That should not be necessary.

I conclude by appealing to the Minister to acknowledge the case for rural schools in Scotland and to consider establishing a new review procedure that will be seen by all concerned to be fair. I should like to wish the Minister a happy Easter, but I shall refrain from doing so until I have received from him a response that I hope will be positive.

11.31 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

First, in case I forget to do so at the end of my speech, I wish the hon. Member for East Lothian a happy Easter, and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), whose interest in these matters we all acknowledge.

We should place the question of rural schools in the context of the improvements that we have made in general to primary education in Scotland, which apply to rural as well as urban schools. We have embarked upon a primary education development project, stemming from the report "Learning and Teaching in P4 and P7" by the inspectorate That report followed a survey that revealed shortcomings in the primary school curriculum, including, especially, the failure to establish the relevance of skills and knowledge acquired at school to the real world.

In planning the national development programmes and the annual programme of inspection of schools by Her Majesty's inspectors we are always concerned to ensure that schools in different environments and of different sizes are given their proper place. In that way, in practical terms, we ensure that the interests of small rural schools are always covered.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister refers to the inspectorate. The inspectorate is not always much help. Dirleton school in my constituency received a glowing report from the inspectors last year but, almost in the same post, it also received a closure threat. I wish that the inspectors could save the schools, but they cannot.

Mr. Stewart

Yes, but the authorities have to take many factors into account when considering the question of school closure.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned resources. The Government's public expenditure plans make generous provision for primary school staffing. There is a flexibility factor of 8 per cent. over the basic staff complements recommended in Scottish Education Department circular 1029. The hon. Gentleman referred to expenditure. Resources are always limited. However, we have increased expenditure per pupil in real terms in each of the past few years. We have also introduced all-graduate entry into primary school teaching. Those measures will have beneficial effects in rural as well as urban areas.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the present teachers' pay dispute. The feature of the dispute that is of special relevance to the debate is the threat by the Educational Institute of Scotland of selective action in primary schools to replace, for a short period at least, targeted action on secondary schools in Conservative-held constituencies. It would be wrong for me to devote too much time to the dispute, but the management, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and the Professional Association of Teachers all recognise that the sensible way forward would be to undertake a review of pay and conditions within the Scottish joint negotiating council. The third union, the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, wants to enter the normal annual pay negotiations. Only the EIS is not prepared to take either route. I hope that the planned selective action will not be widespread in rural schools, because of the effects on the schools and the communities to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

The hon. Gentleman concentrated on the implications for rural communities when small schools close. He referred to the statutory framework which, as he said, is different north of the border. The legislation has been revised by the present Government. I will spell out the reasons for the present legislative framework in Scotland. Before 1981, the consent of the Secretary of State was required for every school closure in Scotland. In some cases there was no opposition to closure. There was a consensus that the school, for one reason or another, had outlived its usefulness or the original need. The hon. Gentleman has told us that it is not the essence of his case that there should never be any school closures in rural areas.

Education authorities had no option but to seek the Secretary of State's permission to close. The procedure was wasteful of resources, and bureaucratic. It was also wrong in principle, for it had the effect of passing to central Government a local matter that would more properly have been left to local discretion.

I found some of the hon. Gentleman's comments surprising. My impression was that the Labour party favoured the decentralising of decisions to local authorities. I believe that it was right that the Education (Scotland) Act 1981 transferred the responsiblity for closure to the education authority. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that local authorities were left — I believe that this was the hon. Gentleman's phrase—to their own devices. The Government recognised that some types of school would entail special circumstances. Safeguards were therefore introduced, especially in respect of proposing to close schools in more remote areas. The regulations made in 1981 require that the Secretary of State's consent be obtained before the implementation of any primary school closure proposal that would result in pupils having to transfer to another school five or more miles away. In the case of secondary schools, the distance is 10 miles. It was envisaged at that time that a significant proportion of closure proposals affecting rural schools would continue to require the formal consent of the Secretary of State. The 1981 Act did much more than that. One of its main features was the parents' charter, the objective of which was to give parents more say in deciding which schools their children should attend.

The education authorities are now required, before reaching a decision on any school closure proposal, to consult many people including the parents of all children in attendance at the school and of all children who, while not yet of school age, could be expected to attend the school concerned within two years of the date of the closure proposal. Those consultations are an important part of the process. They are taken seriously by all concerned, as witnessed by the hon. Gentleman, who gave examples of two cases where local communities succeeded in persuading their education authorities to abandon proposals to close rural schools.

Mr. Home Robertson

I am grateful to the Minister for attempting to cover this point, but I hope that he accepts that it is deeply unsatisfactory that the future of something as important to a village community as its school should be left entirely in the hands of the authority which has a pecuniary interest in closing it. Indeed, the interest has been imposed on it by the Secretary of State. Is there not a case for an independent inquiry procedure to be set up? I understand why the Minister may not wish to take back the responsibility for reviewing such matters, but there must be a case for setting up an independent inquiry system in areas where there are closure threats.

Mr. Stewart

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, but I believe that the decision must be made by the local authority. It must take account of all the factors involved, and it is responsible to the electorate of the area. However, as I emphasised, it is not an unfettered choice, because if the closure will involve transfer to schools more than five miles away, the decision must be made by Ministers.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), whose interest in the matter is well known, for introducing the debate. Could I press the Minister on the importance of the framework in which the consultations take place. I accept that the decision should be devolved and that the regional authorities must make the ultimate decision in each case. No one has argued against that; if we did, we should be charged with being anti-devolution, whereas most Opposition Members are in favour of it. In many of their structure plans, the regional authorities lay heavy emphasis on the fact that rural areas should be supported in a very conceivable sense, yet some of their policies, especially the primary school closure programme, go against that.

Have the Government any interest or are they taking any part in the promulgation of the ideas contained in the Armitage Norton report, which was the genesis of the present round of closures started by my local authority in the Borders region? Is it the Government's intention to encourage other regional authorities to adopt the cost-benefit analysis contained in that report? If it is, the Minister will have to answer many such debates in the future.

The Government have a duty to set out the framework in which they believe consultation should take place. They need not bring forward a statutory instrument; they could simply give guidance to local authorities, especially about consultation with community councils and with the public in general, as well as the statutory duties that are imposed on them by the 1981 Act, which, at the end of the day, amount to nothing more than writing to parents and saying what they propose to do.

Mr. Stewart

Of course, we have issued circulars to local education authorities setting out their duties and responsibilities under the Act, and no doubt local authorities will take into account the factors mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. But, ultimately, within the framework set out in the Act, this should be a matter of local discretion.

A delicate and difficult balance must be struck in relation to the use of resources. An education authority has a responsibility to the entire area that it serves, and money saved in one part of the service could be used to improve the service elsewhere. As the hon. Member for East Lothian fairly acknowledged, a balance must also be struck on the purely educational merits. On the one hand, the pupil moving from a small village school to a larger school benefits from the wider educational opportunities that become available and the social benefits likely to accrue from contact with larger peer groups. On the other hand, I do not deny the hon. Gentleman's point that a small school can have an educational richness all its own. Increased travelling time makes the child's day longer and thereby detracts from the educational advantages of attendance at a larger school.

Mr. Home Robertson

Has the Minister said that to local authorities?

Mr. Stewart

Certainly, and I assure the House that where a case is referred to my right hon. Friend for decision, the factors of educational advantage and travelling distance, including travel arrangements, and the length of the school day are carefully examined.

The position is different north and south of the border, but the different responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science do not mean that there are no rural school closures in England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that since the new Scottish arrangements were introduced in 1981, 18 schools have closed in Scotland and 390 have closed in England. The hon. Gentleman should not place too much emphasis on the different statutory provisions north and south of the border.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Hutton primary school, which his children attend and which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. He will know the position on the consultations about that closure.

I must emphasise that we always have the interests of rural communities very much in mind. We are undertaking a research project on the parental choice provisions of the Education (Scotland) Act 1981, which will include an examination of parental choice in six areas of Scotland, including a rural district, and I await with interest the result of that part of the project, which is expected within the next few months.

We all appreciate the difficulties faced by education authorities and communities about school closures. The hon. Gentleman recognised that school rolls have been falling, and he referred to the uncertainty for the future. Beyond the immediate period, there is much uncertainty about the trends in school rolls. If education authorities are properly to fulfil their accountability to the public, they must take whatever steps they consider necessary to rationalise the provision of school education. Therefore, school closures, which occur in urban as well as in rural areas, should be considered as part of a larger canvas and should not be seen as a discriminating or random measure.

We are committed to the principle of reducing direction from the centre, but we have acknowledged that, on some occasions, local discretion cannot be completely unfettered. The present legislative framework in Scotland provides the correct balance between the rights of the local authority responsible to local people to take decisions and to take account of wider considerations, which is why, under certain conditions, school closure proposals still come to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for consideration. When the closure proposals come to my right hon. Friend we shall be conscious of the basic theme of the hon. Member's speech: the special and important role that small rural schools play in the fabric of rural life.