HC Deb 08 July 1998 vol 315 cc1038-45

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Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

It is a great privilege to secure this Adjournment debate on village schools and rural communities—it is disappointing that not a single Liberal Democrat Member is present to listen to it.

When I became the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk more than a year ago, I was unaware of the extent of rural deprivation. I knew what poverty was like in cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Glasgow because I had lived and worked in such places. Poverty is much less obvious in small rural villages, but it is just as serious. Industrial areas have suffered great change, but, to some extent, have been cushioned by inward investment and Government spending. Rural areas have faced similar changes, but without the cushion.

The change has been insidious; village life has progressively had the heart torn out of it. In my village, there is no longer a school, a pub or a shop. The church is hanging on by its fingernails. Public transport in many areas is a joke. Market towns are facing competitive challenges from supermarkets and big-city shopping complexes, and as a result of changes in agriculture. Housing, especially in coastal and other tourist areas, is being priced out of the reach of local people. Some villages are in danger of being populated solely by retired people and holidaymakers.

That is the social background against which politicians must assess the importance of village schools. The Minister for School Standards will know that I intend to raise the future of Potter Heigham first school: I visited the hon. Gentleman only 10 days ago with the school's chairman of governors and head teacher, the vice-chairman of the parish council and a parent of a child at the school. I raise the subject of Potter Heigham both because I feel passionately that the school and its children deserve a future and because it raises wider issues.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

On such wider issues, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision whether to keep open a village school is often taken purely on financial grounds, without giving proper consideration to the children, who, on the closure of their school, must be bussed much greater distances to another school in the local town, thereby making their school day very long and their schooling programme much less satisfactory?

Mr. Prior

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I shall draw out some of those points later.

Potter Heigham parish council has written as follows: The whole structure of our village and way of life would be gravely affected by the loss of the School. We would be condemned to a retirement village with an ageing population. Young people with families would no longer come and live here, and those already here will move away to where there is a local school. We feel that children are an essential ingredient in a balanced society and the children and School play an important role in the local community. The School holds a Nativity Play, a Harvest Festival and a Carol Service. They sing regularly at the Old People's Home and appear every year in the Christmas Pantomime run by the local drama group—all this will be lost to our village if the School is closed. The loss of young persons in the village will also affect various Village Hall-based clubs:—Playgroup, Brownies and Cubs will all fold through lack of numbers … There would be a domino effect on local amenities and societies". The parochial church council has written: The PCC has always had links with the School. The village children have held their own services in the Church … Closing the School will result in those village children whose parents do not take them to services, never having the opportunity to get to know the Church building and its associated activities. Whichever school they attend will naturally have links with its own village Church. The Church and other village organisations would lose the vital energy that young adults bring to them, besides the enjoyment of young children participating in village life. The result would be a steady and unstoppable decline in village activities". Elderly residents of Potter Heigham have written: As elderly residents of Potter Heigham, we realise the value of having a School in our village. Young families are vital to small rural communities such as ours, otherwise a village dies. We enjoy visiting the School several times a year for functions such as shows, fetes and the School's Nativity Play. A group of past pupils has written: The presence of the School in the village engenders a community spirit which stays with children throughout their education, and helps provide a sense of identity. All children and parents know each other, and can provide support for each other; for example, pupils have familiar adults present if their parents are late. Those statements are more eloquent than any words of mine could be.

I should add that transport is another key consideration. in the debate. In Norfolk, home-to-school transport costs £11 million a year. The closure of village schools will add to that, as well as putting more cars on already-congested roads. The Minister should be in no doubt that village schools go to the heart of the rural community. I know that he spent some time as a child in Coltishall in Norfolk, so he will be well aware of those facts.

Village schools do far more than I have so far described. Being part of the community would not be enough if they did not also provide excellent education for our children. I ask the Minister to go to North Norfolk to see for himself. Last week, he was in North-West Norfolk, where he said, if the newspapers are right: We are investing in schools in rural areas … to offer a high quality of education. He knows that village schools can and do offer excellent education, so long as they have high-quality teaching resources and the support of their local education authority. He went on to say: Norfolk's village schools will be protected, so long as they are providing pupils with a high standard of education. There is a fashionable belief in some quarters that small village schools somehow cannot deliver the national curriculum. That is rubbish, and totally contradicted by all the evidence—certainly in the primary schools that I have visited in North Norfolk. In last year's key stage 2 tests, schools with fewer than 100 pupils delivered the goods: 66 per cent. of pupils reached level 4 or above, compared with the national average of 57 per cent. In science, the figure in small schools was 65 per cent., compared with 54 per cent. nationally. In maths, it was 74 per cent. against 62 per cent.

In July 1996, the present Secretary of State for Education and Employment sent a message to the National Association for the Support of Small Schools. He commended the excellent service that village schools offered both to their pupils and to their communities. He hoped that the period of pressure of 'surplus places' is drawing to a close and that we can concentrate instead on developing the excellence that does exist, and recognising the valuable work of all schools, including those that do form the core of the communities. I—and all those in Potter Heigham and other villages with schools—rejoiced when the Minister stated earlier this year that All proposals"— by an LEA— for the closure of a rural school will be called in by the Secretary of State for decision", and that there will be a presumption against closure".—[Official Report, 26 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 672.] We now want the Minister to honour those words and to send out a message to Norfolk county council and other rural councils that village schools are too important to be allowed to wither and die. Councils and the Government have an obligation to rural communities to provide high-quality local first and primary education. The Minister must make it clear that the deliberate, orchestrated attempt to close Potter Heigham by Norfolk LEA is wrong and must be reversed.

The council seized on a temporary decline in teaching standards—which has since been reversed, as confirmed by the Office for Standards in Education—and a poor head to justify the closure of the school without making any serious effort to address the problem. Indeed, the council encouraged parents to take their children away from the school to help to prove the case against it. That is not acceptable, and I hope the Minister will examine all the facts surrounding the proposed closure with great care.

The matter does not reflect well on the council, and there are local demands that the council's behaviour should be placed before the ombudsman. There are also legitimate claims that it is not just the schools which should face tough Ofsted examination, but the LEA. I can agree with the council in one respect, however. The Government must recognise the extra costs implicit in providing education and other services—especially social services—in rural areas. I accept fully the comments of Bryan Slater, the director of the LEA, who has written to me as follows: The issue for Norfolk and for the Government is whether historical funding mechanisms adequately meet the inescapable additional cost of providing education through small schools in the county. A recent study carried out for Norfolk County Council showed that it can reasonably be estimated that the sparsity factor in the existing Standard Spending Assessment falls short by up to £100 per primary age pupil (or about £6 million) for the county in this regard alone. This is in addition to the unsupported additional costs of transporting children to school in the county which are a staggering £50 per school pupil, or about £5 million in total. The Government must recognise the funding issue. First and primary schools in North Norfolk and other rural counties have been the Cinderella of the education budget for far too long. There are far too many mobile classrooms and dilapidated buildings in primary schools in North Norfolk.

The governors of Potter Heigham and those who live there are not against change—neither am I. In my experience, institutions and organisations never stay the same—they either improve or get worse. The Potter Heigham village school has been around for over 100 years. It has seen good heads and bad heads come and go. It has gone from being a primary school to being a first school. It has seen its numbers vary between 100 and about 40. It has seen the arrival of Ofsted and the national curriculum. Perhaps above all, it has seen the extraordinary and wonderful rise in the aspirations of parents and children. Children whose ambitions would have been limited both by geography and education and by their parents can now raise their eyes to wider and much more challenging horizons.

Small schools can and do adapt to change. Perhaps we shall see a cluster of village schools sharing a head in that part of North Norfolk. Perhaps the internet, or an intranet between local schools, will provide part of the solution. No doubt nursery education will pose its own challenges. All I know for sure is that village schools, when properly supported, provide a firm foundation for an excellent education, the right transition from home to school and a strong basis for a cohesive integrated local community.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I realise that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his comments, and I thank him for giving way. Does he agree that village schools are important in preventing the depopulation of the countryside, which ultimately becomes inevitable if there is nothing to attract young families?

Mr. Prior

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has taken his place, and I agree fully with his comments.

For me, and for the people of Norfolk—I am glad to see two other Norfolk Members on the Government Benches—Potter Heigham is a test case. The Government's commitment to village schools will be judged by whether or not the school stays open. I hope that the Minister will reassure us in that regard.

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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing this debate and on the measured and reasoned way in which he presented the important arguments concerning village schools and the part that they play in the rural community—an important issue.

May I say how pleased I am that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) has joined us for the debate? He has been missed over the last few months—certainly by me. I am delighted that he is back in the House and, I hope, fully fit.

Mr. Öpik


Mr. Byers

"Just," he says, and I hear the sound of plastic being tapped. It is good to see the hon. Gentleman here.

This is a timely debate. As the hon. Member for North, including Norfolk said, I had the opportunity last Friday to visit schools in North-West Norfolk at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner).

I visited five schools serving that part of Norfolk, including Magdalen primary—where I saw a good example of a village community supporting a school by offering the use of the village hall to ensure that the school has a vibrant and successful future. I visited Terrington St. John primary, to see at first hand the difficulties of an old building having to be adapted to meet the needs of the new national curriculum. I visited Harpley primary school, which serves a clearly identifiable community—and I was pleased to be there on the day that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced not only more than £1 million for Norfolk schools as a whole, but £72,000 specifically to ensure that the pupils of Harpley primary would no longer have to suffer the indignity of using outside toilets. I visited Smithdon high school in Hunstanton, to see the links it has developed as a high school with local primary schools, serving a rural community, and I visited Brancaster voluntary controlled primary on the north Norfolk coast— a very small school whose education difficulties and problems of a few years ago have been turned round by the devotion and hard work of a good and effective head teacher.

That visit showed clearly the commitment from heads, teachers, parents and the community, and brought home the very important role that schools play within the community. Schools are part of an active community, and that is particularly important when we consider their role in rural areas. That is why the Government support rural schools. We are aware of the problems that may arise if there are smaller numbers of children in a catchment area. However, it is not good enough to say that we support rural schools—we have to do more. We have to offer practical help and assistance.

Clearly, one of the major concerns of village schools is the threat of closure. We heard from the hon. Member for North Norfolk about his concerns about Potter Heigham, and I shall say a few words about that school later. It is worth reflecting on the fact that, since 1983, some 450 rural schools have been closed. I would not wish to suggest that none of those schools should have been closed—clearly there will be occasions when it is wholly appropriate through amalgamation or closure to provide the sort of education that our children deserve.

Having looked at some of the schools that were closed—I have to say, under the previous Government—I am in no doubt that, had the previous Government adopted a presumption against closure, as we have done, a number of schools would have been saved. We have adopted a presumption against closure because we recognise that a rural school is often the focus of village life.

If a rural school closes, it affects not just the pupils attending the school but the wider community. That is why we announced last February that proposals to close rural schools would be called in for decision by the Secretary of State and that there would be a presumption against closure. That policy is now in operation. No rural school will be closed until all the issues have been considered carefully, including any points made by local people. The onus will be on the promoters of closure to provide clear evidence that a school should be closed.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that point? He confirms the statement that he made at the time of the countryside march earlier this year, that decisions to close rural schools would be called in by the Secretary of State. The Government resisted attempts to enshrine that policy in the School Standards and Framework Bill, but will they now give it a legislative framework, rather than merely asserting it in the House?

Mr. Byers

We are in danger of rehearsing a debate that we have already had. As we said in our discussions on the School Standards and Framework Bill, it is not appropriate to specify in a Bill the detailed criteria that the Secretary of State must consider. However, in exercising his powers to decide whether a school serving a rural community should be closed, the Secretary of State will make a presumption against closure. I have put that on the record and, if people feel that we are ignoring that criterion, they can take action against the Secretary of State through judicial review.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned standards in small schools. He was right to say that it is almost an assumption in some quarters that small schools cannot deliver a quality education. However, it is clear that they can. He referred to the excellent results that schools with fewer than 100 pupils attain. The independent inspectorate Ofsted has also said that there are many effective small schools and that small schools do not disadvantage their pupils in terms of standards or the national curriculum and the breadth of the curriculum that can be offered.

All schools, whether they be small or large, whether they serve a rural or an urban area, need the same things—strong management and good teachers—to deliver the quality of education that we all want. Obviously, small schools find it more difficult to offer the range of activities that are available in larger schools, but there are many examples of small rural schools which, with imagination and flair, offer a whole range of experiences to those children for whom they are responsible.

I do not have time to go into great detail about how that can be achieved, but I want to give three examples of small schools in rural areas that have met the challenges that they faced. Hornton primary school in Oxfordshire has 49 pupils. It has developed a productive partnership with parents and governors; it has good teaching and excellent support from adults in the classroom; the environment is imaginatively used; and the school is the focal point for the community.

Temple Sowerby Church of England school in Cumbria has 30 pupils. Its philosophy and aims are strong and it enjoys good leadership. It has a rich curriculum, which is enhanced by good use of outside activities. Again, the school is well led by a head teacher who expects and requires high standards.

Thornton in Craven primary school near Skipton in North Yorkshire has 24 pupils, but its standards are well above average. There are high expectations and standards throughout. The school has an exciting and challenging curriculum, and excellent use is made of school grounds, visits to museums and education resource centres. There are many other examples across the country of small schools in rural areas that offer a rich diversity of provision and high standards of education.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to the procedures that must be followed when closure or a significant change of character of a school is proposed. First, the local education authority must consult all interested parties. Detailed information must be given on all the options, and the responses that are received as part of the consultation exercise must be listened to carefully. The LEA can publish its proposals for a school only when it has considered all the views and, if there are disagreements, all the objections. The proposals must say who may object, and to whom their objections should be sent.

A copy of the published proposals must be sent to the Secretary of State; Ministers will consider them very carefully, along with any objections, before arriving at a decision. In doing so, Ministers will take into account the views of Ofsted about the quality of education that is offered, but we shall also consider other factors, including the accessibility of alternative schools—and the length of bus trips to them—the standards of those schools and the effect of closure on the local community. Those who promote the closure of a village school will need to consider those significant factors if they want to rebut the presumption against closure.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned the proposals for Potter Heigham county first school, which the Department is currently considering. He will understand that it would not be appropriate for me today to deal with the issues that he raised, but I assure him that I shall take them into account before a final decision is made. I shall also take into account the points that were made so effectively by the delegation of concerned parents, teachers and people from the local community that he brought to meet me some 10 days ago. I am conscious that people want a decision to be made, and I hope that we shall be able to arrive at one in the near future.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead referred to the decision-making procedures. As she knows, the School Standards and Framework Bill contains proposals, through the establishment of school organisation committees, to devolve the power to determine school closures to local level. I assure the House that the Secretary of State will ensure that the presumption against closure of a rural school will form part of his guidance to those committees on how to determine applications; the committees will have to take account of the needs of local communities in arriving at their decisions, as will any independent adjudicator to whom the issue is referred.

The key must be to raise standards in our schools. That applies to rural schools as much as to schools in urban areas. Rural schools face particular challenges, but, as I said, those challenges can be met. We need to find new ways in which to ensure that children in rural schools have the opportunity to progress and achieve the highest standards.

I believe that we can harness the new technologies to assist small rural schools and communities. The STARS—superhighways teams across rural schools—project, for example, has created a network of schools in isolated rural areas across the north and north-west of Scotland, with the aim of enhancing provision for able pupils. Eighteen small primary schools with four teachers or fewer and two secondary schools have taken part in the project, with excellent results. In Argyll and Bute, effective use has been made of new technology to enhance the curriculum, extending opportunities for teaching and learning and supporting the management of schools and co-operatives. Forty small rural schools participated, using a combination of text and video conferencing, e-mail and fax.

New technology can be harnessed to provide a lifeline to small, rural schools, and I am pleased that, through the national grid for learning, we have been able to help Norfolk—to the tune of £1.6 million—to improve information technology. As we develop the national grid, we shall similarly help schools across the country.

There can be no doubt that a small school in a rural area plays an extremely important role. The Government recognise and intend to address the issues not only by fine words but by deeds, ensuring that schools are given the support that they deserve and need.

This debate has provided a timely opportunity to discuss the importance of rural schools and the communities that they serve. A school is part of a community, and sees it through good times and bad. Because we value the role played by rural schools, we have taken practical steps to help them and to safeguard their future.

We look forward to working with rural schools and the communities that they serve to raise standards and provide children with the quality of education that they deserve.