HC Deb 18 February 1992 vol 204 cc306-12

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

12.10 am
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

I wish tonight to discuss the situation concerning small schools in west Norfolk. The Minister will be aware that in the western area of Norfolk county council there are 26 schools, each with fewer than 45 pupils. Many people regard schools with between, say, 45 and 70 pupils as small. In the Norfolk context, a small school has fewer than 45 pupils.

We must not overlook the role of small schools in our rural communities. In many cases, the school is all that villages have left. We in Norfolk have seen a tremendous decline in employment in agriculture. Farms that used to employ 20 or 30 people now employ two or three, or perhaps even one person. Many shops and small businesses in villages have closed. Many villages are often left with just one pub. That has meant a considerable decline in the rural economy in the past 50 years or so.

I am confident that the rural economy will be revived in the future. A focal point of village life is the school. The local community can unite around that focal point, which is a social centre and is often the very heart of the village. So the argument whether small schools are socially desirable has been won, and we must go on to examine the educational aspects of the matter. Can a small school with perhaps 35 pupils deliver the national curriculum in the 1990s? Can it, in a building that is restricted, meet modern educational demands?

Nor can we overlook the cost of such schools. I recently asked county hall for the figures, and there is no doubt that the cost of educating children in very small schools is expensive. In a school with 20 pupils, the cost per capita per annum is £2,777, whereas the cost in another primary school with 463 pupils is £1,039. Those figures are based on revenue costs only—day-to-day running costs—and do not take account of other important factors. The smaller the school, the more it receives from the LEA out of centrally held resources.

We must keep an eye on the cost, because time and again, when the argument is about whether a school should close or remain open, the issue of cost per pupil is raised. But we must look beyond the cost—at education and the role of small schools in the community. I have been examining carefully the way in which small schools have been gearing up to deliver the national curriculum and how they are delivering it in the early days. My findings are encouraging. Across the board, smaller schools are able to deliver the national curriculum, and their results—in terms of the number of pupils who have gone on to secondary schools—are, in the main, extremely creditable and compare favourably with larger schools in the locality.

I shall tonight focus on one school in particular—Harpley, a small school with 29 pupils which two years ago was subjected to an inspection by the inspectorate and advisory service. The report from that service is dated November 1989. After the inspectorate went into all aspects of Harpley school and examined every detail of the education on offer, it concluded: The staff at Harpley V.C. Primary School have made exemplary progress in preparing to implement the national curriculum. The children are receiving an excellent education and excellent experience across the core curriculum, and some very high quality work is being achieved. The final conclusion was: As has been shown, the three schools are at a very different stage of readiness. One school's preparations are as thorough and as advanced as any seen in the county by members of the inspection team. In this case, Harpley, it seems reasonable to conclude that the professional commitment and enterprise of the two members of staff, and their skill in harnessing the talents of a wider community, will continue to ensure a lively core curriculum for pupils.

Harpley school came out of that report with flying colours. Until recently, however, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the school because the county council had said that it was one of the schools that it was considering closing, largely on the grounds of cost and because over the next few years the numbers would probably fall. The county council's projected figures are refuted vigorously by the chairman of governors, but I am pleased to say that, at a recent meeting of the area sub-committee, the school was given a definitive reprieve. It has decided to go ahead and appoint a full-time head on a three-year contract, so the cloud of uncertainty has been lifted and there has been much rejoicing in Harpley.

I had a chance to go around the school yesterday and I met local County Councillor George Pratt and the chairman of governors, Neil Steed. They were extremely pleased that the "siege mentality", to use their words, has now disappeared. They are now looking to the future because they feel that they can build on the foundations of that encouraging inspectorate report. They also feel strongly that they have the total support of the community. Councillor Pratt was recently given a petition signed by every person on the electoral roll in Harpley and the village next door, Houghton. There is every possibility of the school's drawing on those resources in the community. For example, Harpley has a skilled piano player who teaches at the school, and other parents and welfare assistants help in the school. That is all part and parcel of a community rallying round and turning a small school into a great success.

The consideration of standards and the national curriculum must underpin all that. I shall be watching carefully how the results progress over the years now that the cloud of uncertainty has been lifted. Its progress will be combined with the prospect of future development in Harpley. The village has recently attracted a growth in the number of small firms and is now reviving. I mentioned earlier the decline in rural economies, but Harpley has attracted eight new small business in a managed workshop yard in a disused farm. There is a prospect of more young families moving into both Harpley and Houghton, which is primarily an estate village that belongs to Lord Cholmondeley, who has taken over the estate since his father died. There is a strong possibility of more young couples moving into Houghton, and that in turn will mean a greater demand for places at Harpley school and, we hope, the numbers will grow.

Building on the foundation of the inspector's report and on what the local management of schools has to offer, the governors are looking forward to the autonomy and control over the school's affairs. In all such small schools, governors have been faced with the burden of paperwork. There has been a flurry of education reforms and governors have been deluged with paperwork. The time has now come for a period of consolidation. Will the Minister comment on that?

I believe that Harpley's future is bright and encouraging. Clearly, it lies in the hands of the community. The school has an excellent team of governors with a tremendous amount of commitment. It has the prospect of a full-time head, for whom it will advertise shortly and I hope that someone suitable will apply.

I am pleased that Norfolk county council has moved away from too rigid and didactic an approach to small schools. It now says that a figure cannot be laid down to determine whether a school should be vulnerable to closure, but that every school must be considered on its merits. I pay tribute to the chairman of the education committee, Mrs. Francis Rohalle, and the county education officer, Michael Edwards, for their pragmatic, sensible approach, which will be widely welcomed in many quarters.

I congratulate Norfolk county council on the target that it has set for the devolution of money to schools for this financial year. It is to be 85.3 per cent., which is above the 85 per cent. target, which will mean that it will have £500,000 a year for schools ahead of target. I welcome that, and congratulate the council on being in the vanguard of devolving money to schools under the local management of schools.

Norfolk has always spent its capital funds wisely. In the current financial year it will spend £5.25 million on the schools capital programme. It receives £3.1 million in Government grant, although it asked for much more than that, as one would expect—it asked for £13 million. The formula currently used by the Department of Education and Science for the allocation of capital funds militates against Norfolk, which is unsatisfactory.

As the Minister will know, the formula used lays down two key criteria: basic needs and surplus places. I understand that improvements and the need to put repairs in progress rate low down the list or priorities. Will the Minister comment on that, as the formula militates against counties such as Norfolk, Suffolk and Yorkshire, where there are large numbers of small primary schools where, by definition, there are significant numbers of surplus places? It does not make sense for a school to be penalised for having surplus places.

The Minister may well ask whether schools such as Harpley can deliver the standards of education required. One is talking about the science curriculum and teaching languages, and the fact that a much more demanding set of standards will be asked of staff, teachers and parents. One way forward lies with the federation concept. In Norfolk there are already six federations for small schools, whereby a number of small schools are grouped in a loose federation and answer to a high school in their district.

Until recently, each region contained a federation co-ordinator. The federation of which Harpley was a member was based at Litcham high school. The idea behind the federation was that the schools should pool resources, help one another and have a full-time co-ordinator running the scheme. The small schools could plug into the resources of the other schools in the locality. If two or three of the schools were short of a language teacher but there was an excellent language teacher in one of the other schools, the skills of the teacher could be shared throughout all the schools. The concept behind such a federation makes a lot of sense.

However, the post of co-ordinator of the Litcham federation was funded 60 per cent. through the DES education, support and training grant. It worked extremely well for three years, until the Government decided to withdraw the grant, which was regrettable. I know that the money has been reallocated elsewhere in the overall education budget. The Government have put more money into education in real terms, and I congratulate them on that, but in terms of targeting resources, holding back a small amount of expenditure and not making it all over to the local education authorities can result in good value for money. The Litcham federation was one such example, but it has fallen victim to a change in Government policy, and I should like to ask the Minister why.

The Minister would be surprised if I did not mention one school in my constituency—Syderstone school. He had the misfortune of having to confirm its closure. The Minister will remember only too well that numbers at the school fell to a ridiculous level, from about 50 some two or three years earlier to about 20. Parents were voting with their feet and sending their children to nearby Sculthorpe airfield school.

When we met, the Minister was candid enough to say to me, "The village of Syderstone effectively has two schools, yet you are saying that those schools should remain open." He was right in many ways to say that that did not make sense, although it was a bitter blow to the community. We understood the logic behind the decision, although we obviously opposed it and fought hard to keep the school open.

The situation has moved on. The Ministry of Defence has decided that it will definitely close RAF Sculthorpe and RAF West Raynham. If those two bases close, the position in which Sculthorpe airfield school finds itself will be dramatically altered. My plea to the county council is that it should keep its options open at all costs. If it sells the Syderstone school building and the playing area, the option of one day reopening the school could be closed down for ever. I do not want to cast seeds of doubt over Sculthorpe airfield school. The situation is volatile and continually changing. It would indeed be unfortunate if the county council acted precipitately and sold the buildings or grounds. It must find alternative uses for the school, perhaps as a day centre. The playing area might be let to the local community or soccer team. The council should at least keep the school and grounds in mothballs for the future.

In the 1990s parents want choice. The small schools of this country can play an important part in what is on offer. As long as they can deliver high standards of education and deliver the national curriculum, there must be a role for them, especially in a county such as Norfolk. I believe that Norfolk county council sets some of the highest standards in the country. I believe passionately that we must ensure that parents are guaranteed choice. One of the ingredients of that choice will be in the form of a number of small primary schools, in which numbers will never be able to build up beyond certain levels. Within the confines of their restricted numbers, these schools can offer high standards. I believe that they have an important future in Norfolk; I hope that the Minister shares my view of the future, and my concern.

12.26 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) on having secured this Adjournment debate. It is typical of the diligence with which the represents the interests of his constituents. I know how highly he values the small primary schools in his constituency, because he comes to see me about them, and I am glad of this opportunity to add my own tribute to the dedication and professionalism of teachers in small primary schools, not only in north-west Norfolk, but throughout the country.

Whenever small rural primary schools are discussed, emotions tend to run high. That is a pity, because experience shows that, just as there are good and bad large schools, so there are good and bad small schools. It is important for local education authorities to consider each school on its merits, rather than to seek to lump together all schools of a particular size or type when considering change. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend again that when proposals for change fall to be determined by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, he invariably considers each proposal on its individual merits.

It has to be acknowledged that small schools are much more costly than larger schools, and it is to my hon. Friend's credit that he did not shrink from this part of the argument. It must be right for rural education authorities such as Norfolk to consider, from time to time, whether their charge payers are getting good value for money. Not so long ago Norfolk calculated that its small primary schools—those with around 30 or fewer pupils on the roll —cost twice as much per pupil to run as their larger schools: £2,000 per child a year against £1,000 a year in schools with 200 pupils. Norfolk has more than 100 primary schools with up to 60 pupils on roll, so the cost of maintaining them will be significant. The authority would be failing in its duty to its charge payers if it did not look at ways of reducing costs by, for example, amalgamating some of those schools or clustering them in the way that my hon. Friend helpfully suggested.

It is also possible to look at the situation in another way. For every additional pound spent on maintaining an expensive small school, there will be a pound less spent on other, larger schools. Thus, those schools will be less well equipped, and their pupils less well served.

Small schools can also give rise to problems beyond those of cost. One of the most important factors in the learning process, especially for children of primary age, is the need to mix with others of their own age. Pupils learn not just from their teachers, or their parents, but from their peers, and it is an important part of the process of child development that children learn to mix with others of their own age, from different backgrounds and different environments. Such mixing also stimulates learning in the classroom. Brighter pupils encourage others to emulate their achievements. Debate in the classroom becomes livelier and ideas are sparked as each contributes in his or her own way. How much better it must be, in general, for a 10-year-old to develop in a class of, say, 20 or 30 other 10-year-olds than in a varied age group, in which he or she may be one of only two or three 10-year-olds.

Many of the smaller primary schools in rural areas such as Norfolk were built 100 or more years ago, and have now reached a stage at which, necessarily, the education authority will sooner or later be faced with the question whether to modernise them—not least to meet the needs of the national curriculum to which my hon. Friend referred —or to close them.

We are bound to ask whether we can afford to modernise all the small rural primary schools. They are already costing much more than larger schools and they are likely, in many cases, to be lacking in terms of the education they can provide compared with larger schools. Because of their considerable age, they are likely to be relatively expensive to modernise.

On top of that, we have to query the justification for keeping some schools open when there are empty places in other nearby schools. Norfolk is not alone in having many thousands of unoccupied school places. Even accepting that it is not always practicable to remove all surplus places in a county, the issue clearly needs regular review. I congratulate Norfolk on its commitment to keeping its surplus places under regular review.

So much for the adverse aspects of small primary schools. I shall now look at some of the positive factors, most of which my hon. Friend has already highlighted. Perhaps the most important plus is the wider role which the smaller primary school typically plays in the local community. The village school is not just the place where children go to learn to read and write, or to add and subtract. It is, like other important institutions—the village church and the village pub—a place in which people come together, in which is fostered that community spirit which is the envy of all who live in large towns and cities. It is no accident that serious misbehaviour is almost unknown in small rural schools, and that truancy is almost non-existent. Traditional school events such as the Christmas play, the annual sports day and the harvest festival, mean so much more in a rural setting, and it is easy to see why those lucky enough to live in such communities often fight to retain their schools when they are under threat of closure.

That brings me directly to the two schools about which my hon. Friend spoke, the first of which is Harpley controlled primary school near King's Lynn. I confirm our understanding that the education authority, following considerable parental opposition to the possibility of that school closing, has now decided on a partial reprieve and has agreed to fill the vacant headship for three years, after which I understand the school's future will be subject to review.

Perhaps I should not add to what my hon. Friend said about Syderstone school. His appeal was not to me but to the county council to consider carefully before disposing of the buildings following the decision taken last year.

It is undoubtedly true that in small schools children are likely to receive more individual attention than they could hope to obtain in larger schools. This ought to benefit pupils at both the top and bottom of the ability spectrum and, with a wide age range, teachers can frequently match their input much more closely to individual needs.

Many small schools also benefit from the kind of clustering arrangements to which my hon. Friend referred, which help to make up for some of the deficiencies which might otherwise prevail. We recognised, long before the Education Reform Act 1988 and the national curriculum, that small rural primary schools had real difficulties in providing a rich curriculum experience for their children, that they suffered from being isolated, and that teachers and head teachers all too often had little opportunity to compare notes. That is why we launched the rural schools education support grant programme, the benefits of which are now widely seen in counties such as Norfolk, which took part in the programme, and where so much has been done to overcome the inherent problems faced by small rural primary schools.

My hon. Friend asked what had happened to that programme. It was, of course, a pump-priming programme, as are so many of the activities under the education support grant. The recently published report by the research team from the university of Leicester, which we asked to evaluate the rural schools programme, shows quite clearly that it is possible for many small schools to cope with the national curriculum and to provide a full and varied curriculum for their pupils. I shall let my hon. Friend have a copy of that report.

My hon. Friend mentioned local management of schools. Norfolk certainly seems to appreciate the value of its small schools because it altered its local management scheme in two ways earlier this year, both to the benefit of small schools. First, it amended the formula to provide greater protection for schools with fewer than eight teachers. Secondly, it amended the age-weighted pupil unit, on which funding is largely based, to allocate proportionately more resources to younger pupils. To my mind, that is an intelligent use of the scope that is available under the local management of schools system.

It is clear, therefore, that there are many factors that have to be taken into account when considering whether a particular small school is doing a good job, whether it should be closed or amalgamated, whether it should be modernised and whether it should continue to be supported, albeit at relatively high cost. The important feature is that each case must be considered on its individual merits.

My hon. Friend referred to Norfolk's capital allocation. I was able to increase the part of the annual capital guideline that refers to schools alone from £2.3 million in the current year to £2.8 million in the year beginning in April. Together with the additional resources that my hon. Friend told me about, which were realised last year and which I hope can be realised next year, Norfolk should be able to continue to tackle any outstanding backlog.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I have carefully noted all the the other points that he has made and I shall certainly ensure that they are taken fully into account in any consideration of the future of small primary schools in north-west Norfolk that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State may be called upon to undertake in future.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents —indeed, all those who live in rural communities—that the Government are as concerned as he is to see the quality of rural life safeguarded and enhanced. As William Cowper pointed out, God made the country, and man made the town. There can be no better reason for wanting to maintain and enhance the quality of rural life.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to One o'clock.