HC Deb 26 March 1998 vol 309 cc672-3
8. Mr. Tyler: I

If he will make a statement on his policy on the closure of rural schools. [34901]

Mr. Byers

Rural schools are a vital part of their communities. We have decided to give them better protection. All proposals for the closure of a rural school will be called in by the Secretary of State for decision. In considering such proposals, there will be a presumption against closure. This presumption will also apply from September 1999 under the new system of school organisation committees and adjudicators.

Mr. Tyler

As the Minister has just said, this provision will apply only until 1999. Does he recall that his statement, issued just before the countryside march, was labelled "an end to wholesale village school closures"? It is perfectly true that his predecessors managed to close 450 village schools—including many in Cornwall—during a comparatively short period, but there is not a permanent end. If, as it seems, the economic case for closure is his consideration, rather than the educational case, will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State and the Department will supply the extra resources to LEAs to keep that school open?

Mr. Byers

We made it clear when the statement was made that the announcement would affect the Secretary of State's role under the existing framework. Under the School Standards and Framework Bill, there will be a new framework for school organisation from September 1999. However, the Secretary of State will lay down guidance as to how the school organisation committees and the adjudicator will exercise their powers. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that guidance will make it clear that there will be a presumption against closure. The key fact must always be the quality and the standard of education that is offered in the individual schools. We believe that, by harnessing the benefits of new technology—and through the national grid for learning, which will ensure that rural schools go on-line—we can provide the breadth of educational experience that rural schools need to ensure and guarantee a continuing increase in the standards of provision in rural and other schools.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is my hon. Friend aware that Cheshire has lost large numbers of rural schools precisely because of the argument that there would be so few pupils that the school would not be able to reach the standard required? The very best computer is not a replacement for a teacher in the classroom.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend makes an important point. No fewer than 450 rural primary schools were closed under the previous Government. The key point of the announcement on 28 February was to ensure that there would be a presumption against closure. That does not mean that there will never be a closure of a rural school. It does mean that a strong case will have to be made by the LEA and only in those exceptional circumstances will the presumption against closure be rebutted by the LEA.

Mrs. Browning

Does the Minister agree that, if he had gone on television on 28 February to announce that, from September 1999, his Government were abolishing the right of proposed closures to go to the Secretary of State on appeal—in effect, that is what he has said will happen—the announcement, on the eve of the countryside march, would have had a different effect? Will he confirm that, from September 1999, Members of this House will still be able to make representations on behalf of their constituents to the Secretary of State if rural primary schools are threatened?

Mr. Byers

It is worth acknowledging that, at the rate of closure under the previous Government, in excess of 40 rural schools would be closed between now and September 1999. In the School Standards and Framework Bill, we are delegating powers to a local level in terms of school organisation procedure. We feel that that is wholly appropriate because those matters are best taken locally. However, they will be taken in line with the guidance provided by the Secretary of State, which will make it clear that there must be a presumption against closure.

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