HC Deb 31 March 1993 vol 222 cc347-8
11. Mr. Kirkwood

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what further assistance he proposes to enable local authorities to maintain small village schools in rural areas; and if he will make a statement.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My right hon. Friend already has regard to the needs of rural areas by taking sparsity of population and the percentage of pupils in small schools into account in distributing Government support for local authority spending. We are issuing guidelines for devolved school management today.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the Minister acknowledge the value of village schools in underpinning rural communities, notwithstanding the way in which consultation processes have been carried out by local authorities and notwithstanding their excuses in terms of educational need? Does the hon. Gentleman understand that rural education authorities are strapped for cash and cannot afford to keep some rural schools open? The Borders education authority is thinking of closing St. Abbs school and Heiton school in my constituency. Will the hon. Gentleman look very carefully at those proposals from the point of view of the Scottish Education Department? Will he come to the villages of St. Abbs and Heiton and talk to regional councillors, villagers and parents to assess for himself the damage that would be done by the closure of either school?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I realise that rural communities attach the greatest importance to their schools, but such areas are not immune from decline in school rolls and it is for local democracy and local authorities to determine provision of education in their areas. The Secretary of State is not entitled to intervene, except in a few cases in which the Secretary of State's consent is required by statute; for example, in the case of primary schools, such consent is required if a school to which it is proposed to transfer pupils is more than five miles from the school proposed for closure, or where a school is 80 per cent. full. I will be visiting schools in Scotland, and if the hon. Gentleman has particular proposals to make, perhaps he could let me know in due course. However, the Secretary of State has no plans at present to change the statutory arrangements.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

In the case of my former primary school, I do not like the mathematical approach that the Scottish Office appears to adopt towards investment in primary education. There is a vast dividend in decency, manners and public responsibility to be derived from teaching in primary schools in rural areas. If we are to prevent crime, it would be very wise to spend much more in that area than is proposed by mathematics.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Expenditure per pupil has increased by more than half in real terms since 1978–79. Expenditure on educational building has increased from £61.3 million in 1988 to £82.8 million in 1992–93. However, we will bear the comments of my hon. and learned Friend very much in mind.

Mr. Foulkes

Does the Minister recall that there are a large number of small village schools in my large rural constituency? Does he agree that there is much greater likelihood of those rural schools staying open if, under the reorganisation of local government, we have an all-Ayrshire authority as recommended by four out of five Ayrshire Members, by three out of four district councils, by Enterprise Ayrshire and by the vast majority of the people who wrote to the Secretary of State, as I did? And is the Minister aware that I would have made all those points if I had been called on the last question?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

We will certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's bid, but that will, of course, be a matter for a future decision. With regard to rationalisation in Ayrshire, local circumstances and educational considerations will have to be a top priority so far as the regional council is concerned.