HL Deb 19 March 1980 vol 407 cc307-39

7.43 p.m.

The MARQUESS of SALISBURY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy in regard to the closing of small village schools. The noble Marquess said: My Lords, I first became interested in this matter when a school with which I am associated was threatened with closure in view of falling numbers on its roll. On looking further into the matter, I found that there were a great many other schools that found themselves in the same position. In many country districts this was a matter of considerable concern. Therefore, I feel justified in raising this matter tonight.

I wish to group my remarks under roughly three sections: first, the educational grounds; secondly, social matters; and, thirdly, financial effects, and I wish to say a little on each topic. First, in regard to the educational considerations, I understand that the present policy is based on the recommendations of the Plowden Report 1967 which, in paragraph 480, recommended that, Schools with an age range of 5-11 should usually have at least three classes, each covering two age ranges. However, since that time, Lady Plowden has changed her mind and on Border Television on 29th March 1976 she said: Since the report I have come round to thinking that small country schools should be kept open because of their social value and because of the continuity of community involvement they provide ".

The first question I wish to ask my noble friend Lady Young is whether the recommendation in paragraph 480 of that report is still accepted by her Department as a basis of policy. I know that it is accepted by certain local education authorities. The criteria as to whether a school should be closed appears to rest on two issues. The first is the cost per pupil, on which I shall say more later, and the second is the teacher/pupil ratio. On this point my information is that the closing of all one and two teacher schools would have a minimal impact on savings if all the teaching staff were retained. For instance, in Oxfordshire it would make a difference of 0.3 of a pupil. In Cumbria, which has many small schools, the ratio would only drop from 23 to 22. 1t is unlikely that a reduction in staff will be achieved because most small schools normally carry out their remedial and ancillary work within their own staff, whereas the larger schools do not.

The present policy takes little account of the quality of education. There is a suggestion, however, that larger schools with better facilities and a wider curriculum provide higher standards of education. This is not borne out by the results achieved in the small schools. For instance, in Oxfordshire a study made in 1969 on the reading standards of 11-year-olds found that on average pupils attending schools with fewer than 50 pupils on roll were five months ahead of pupils attending larger schools. I understand that this is an average quotient of 108 against 104, using the Holborn reading scale. It would appear that there is little significant difference, but it would not be true to say that pupils in the smaller schools are educationally at a disadvantage. This is also borne out by a study carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate in Westmorland in 1958, by the Rural Educational Unit of Bangor University in 1978, and by Dr. Edmonds in Cheshire.

I feel that the wider curriculum provided by larger schools for smaller children is largely a red herring. What really matters is a thorough grounding in what used to be called the three Rs, and in particular in learning how to learn. It is not necesssary to have many aids for these purposes, and, although I suppose it would be fair to say that this applies more to schools with an age group of five to 9 rather than five to 11, I think that it is fundamentally true of both.

It has been further objected that the spread of age range in classes in small schools is a disadvantage because it is more difficult to teach, and because of lack of competition between pupils of similar age. However, this does not seem to be borne out by results. Indeed, Mr. Coe, adviser on primary education in Oxfordshire, considers it a positive advantage, as do many of his teachers in the small schools. However, there may be one reason for closing small schools, and that is that fewer and larger schools are easier to administer. If this is the case, it does not seem to be a good reason for closing them.

One of the administrator's first jobs is to forecast population trends, a singularly thankless task at the best of times. I believe that current thinking is set out in the DES Circular 5/77, which is based on the assumption that the birth rate will continue to fall until at least the mid-1980s. In the event, indications are that the birth rate is already beginning to rise and that circular may well already be out of date. It seems, therefore, a mistake to close a whole lot of schools because of a temporary drop in numbers to meet a very short-term problem.

I should also like to ask the Minister what views are held on alternative schemes for small schools, such as federation and grouping. Experiments are already going on in Cambridge—and, I think, Norfolk—where there is a sharing of a head teacher, of equipment and of specialist tecaching. The advantage is that villages retain their schools and that teachers do not become isolated. This seems to me to be a way of dealing with the problem in rural areas.

May I now say a word about the social considerations. Here, if I may, I should like to quote from an article by Mr. Cooper in the September 1979 issue of Town and Country Planning. I should like to take two quotations from his article, the first of which is as follows: For villages already deprived of their public house, general store, pharmacy, and bus service, the loss of their school represents a final blow to the village fabric. A school is vital to the persistence of a healthy community, often referred to as the hub, pivot or linchpin of village life He goes on to say: The strongest argument for preserving the village school is undoubtedly its role in the community. Journeys to school are short and parents can meet and become involved in school-based activities. Educationally, pupils benefit from generous teacher-pupil ratios and a family atmosphere which allows younger children to learn from older ones. There can be a close contact with parents and discipline problems are minimal. The young children grow up as part of the village, reinforcing social ties and village traditions . This puts the situation in a nutshell. It has also been found that pupils from village schools are less prone to vandalism and all that arises from it. This is confirmed by a study made by a Home Office research unit.

May I turn for a moment to bussing, which your Lordships discussed at great length last week. I will make only two small points. Research in Devon indicates that children, especially infants, showed poorer social and emotional adjustment when bussed than when walking. I should like to say a word about walking. As noble Lords well know, walking in the country can be very dangerous for small children; the roads are often [The Marquess of Salisbury.] narrow lanes and constitute a great hazard, especially for the very young. With the increasing number of closures of small schools, this danger will be greatly increased. Often children will have to walk from one village to the neighbouring village. I feel that this is a major problem and one that should be kept to a minimum. I hope that it will be given considerable weight when future closures are considered.

As to cost, I accept that this is a most important consideration today. I fully accept also the need for economy. However, with regard to primary education, I would suggest that too much attention is paid to the cost per child and that consideration should be more widely based. Calculations should include, for instance, social service costs where there is an interrelationship. The cost per child is largely a question of cost per teacher and therefore relates to the pupil-teacher ratio. But as I pointed out, cuts in the number of teachers are unlikely to be significant on redeployment. For instance, in Cumbria, according to the county treasurer, if all one- and two-teacher schools were closed, there would be a saving of approximately a halfpenny on the rate, and his comment is that this is not cumulatively significant.

It may be, however, that equality of expenditure is a consideration. In this case, other costs should surely be taken into account. It is estimated in some quarters that in rural areas the ratepayers receive 10 per cent. Less per capita than do the ratepayers in urban areas. This is because they do not benefit from certain services, or do not need them—services such as nurseries, youth services, community centres and community homes, all of which are expensive. If this is to be the criterion, it would seem that rural areas are less well off than their urban counterparts.

If, however, the overriding need is for economy, I should feel more convinced that the Government are serious about this if they showed signs of tackling administrative costs more vigorously. In a Written Answer last July, the noble Baroness indicated that administrative staff had just about doubled over the last 40 years. Although she said that the figures for local education authority staff were not available, I should be surprised if they also had not increased substantially even if not at the same rate. Surely there must be room for a considerable saving in this area. And is it not preferable to make cuts here rather than in the number of schools and in the number of staff, with adverse effect on teacher-pupil ratios?

A large proportion of the rate-borne expenditure is met from central funds through the rate support grant. The size of the grant, as your Lordships will know, depends on a formula. Within this is what is known as the"needs grant ", and in this again there is a school child factor. This is weighted with regard to sparsity of population. Would it not be possible, at a very small cost, to increase this weighting to help these areas? Alternatively, perhaps the rural areas should be treated as in need of a subsidy on social grounds. Their problems are clearly set out in the County Councils Association's report on Rural Deprivation, and there are precedents for this type of subsidy in the case of both the depressed areas and the hill farming subsidies.

In conclusion, I would say that for the reasons I have given there is a good case for retaining village schools, although I would of course accept that in some specific cases closure will be justified. I therefore hope that in her reply the noble Baroness will be able to indicate a fresh approach to this problem.

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Marquess for asking this Unstarred Question. He covered the ground extraordinarily well in exactly 15 minutes. I particularly liked the shape of the noble Marquess's Unstarred Question. He asked Her Majesty's Government what is their policy in regard to the closing of small village schools.

I do not think that we have had a policy for country education. We are only beginning to have such a policy, or to think about one—witness our debate in this House the other day on an EEC report in which a lot of new factors were brought out and in which a lot of suggestions were made about having a positive return for the country: a positive need for people to live in the country instead of the country simply accepting the decline in agricultural work and in rural industries, and the fact that more and more people will have to live in towns.

I have a little knowledge of the difficulties facing the convenors of education in rural counties in Scotland when dealing with this problem. For many years my brother was convenor of education in Aberdeenshire and eventually he was convenor of the county. He lost his seat purely because he had to close a large number of rural schools, a policy which was extremely unpopular. But one is driven to it simply by the fact that the pupil-teacher ratio goes down and there is no other way that local education authorities can see except to close the schools and bus the pupils.

I am sure that the policy, or lack of policy—the acceptance of a suburban system of education—is quite wrong. I have had a good deal of experience of that in the County of Sutherland, which I represented in another place, and where this problem was extremely serious long before it became serious in other counties. Children were taken for their secondary education to the East Coast, which was hardly a busy, bustling surburban metropolis itself. They were taken from the West and often the parents—shepherds, fishermen or people in many other jobs—would rather leave their jobs and the area than have their children taken away from them, in spite of the fact that many of the English and others pay large sums to be parted from their children.

In that case, I had to look into a number of other systems, particularly in Norway, Australia and Canada, and I received a lot of help from the Professor of Education in Aberdeen. I found that the arguments about competition, about the big schools and the specialist teachers, were a lot of bunk. In any system of rural education which was properly applied and where imagination was used—films were shown and travelling teachers were employed, and so on—the children did as well as and, in many cases, better than the products of the conventional school. I may say that I made no impression on the authorities; they continued to close as many schools as they could get away with closing, and they moved the children who were left in smaller and smaller numbers over to the East, or bussed them to schools some distance away, which the parents"liked as little ", because very often the children had to get up so early in the morning and travel for such a long time that it was extremely harmful to their education.

Therefore, my experience in the Highlands—where the problem has probably been much greater for a longer time than anywhere else—leads me to plead with the Minister to adopt a more positive policy towards rural education. I cannot think that it will be more expensive because there is evidence, I understand, that some counties with a great number of rural, one- and two-teacher schools, spend less on education than counties concentrated much more in urban areas, apparently without any detriment to the education of the children. Also, I know that in these areas in the Highlands—because, whichever authority it was, it looked upon them simply as a nuisance—good teachers did not want to go there. It was purely a dead end; people who were keen on fishing, bird watching, or even on drink, applied for posts in these schools simply to get out of life and not to take part in a lively and vigorous system of education.

Therefore, I ask the Minister if there is some positive thinking on applying the practice that is commonplace in Norway, in parts of Canada and in Australia to country schools, so that children could stay there at least until they reached the age of 11 or 12 and then go to the larger secondary school, where the evidence shows that they could do as well. The subject has been well covered; there are some extremely knowledgeable speakers to come; I will not take up any more of your Lordships' time.

8.3 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of TRURO

My Lords, I too should like to welcome the opportunity that has been given to this House to debate this matter through the initiative of the noble Marquess. I welcome it partly because of concern for the education of children in rural areas, but also from equal concern for the future of our rural communities. In these days of economic difficulty, I do not wish to appear in any way to minimise the economic aspect of this issue. Although it is a matter for debate, and I shall be showing later how we can actually assist in the cost of maintaining small schools, I accept that in some cases there may be additional costs. I suggest, as a Bishop who has large rural areas in his diocese, that I cannot but be very conscious of this aspect of finance, not least because I am always conscious of the financial need to subsidise incumbents in small parishes.

I do that gladly and willingly, and I am happy to say that other parts of the diocese support me, because I believe that the rural parts of my diocese contribute enormously in many ways to the life of the diocese as a whole and that I cannot look at the smaller parishes in purely economic terms. I think no-one would dispute the importance of our agricultural industry and the vital place it has to play in the welfare of our nation. Perhaps I could claim to be slightly more conscious of the significance of that than my predecessors, in that I am the first Bishop of Truro to have been elected President of the Truro Fatstock Show, but my point is that the agricultural industry depends upon a viable rural life, and we must not adopt policies that would appear to treat the land as if it were a kind of impersonal resource, and view with equanimity the prospect of the land becoming a vast factory for the production of meat and grain, but denuded of any population. That is not a viable way nor, I believe, the right way in which to look at rural communities and the countryside in general.

The rural community is vital to the well-being of our nation. It has qualities which are needed by everyone. The noble Marquess has already referred to the evidence that in the rural communities the proportion of children in care, those in need of child guidance or those on probation, is lower than that in urban areas. mention that because I believe that in the preservation of the rural community, the village school plays a vital part. It plays a vital part in many ways, I think, mainly because it achieves that continual relationship between the children and the adults in the community. I do not want to develop this at length. but I believe that it is one of the most important aspects of the importance of the village school, that there is that continual relationship which ceases to exist when children are taken to their school a very considerable distance away. It can be very considerable.

In Cornwall a proposal to close one village school of about 30 children has recently been reversed by the County Council because it was made evident that some quite young children would spend more time away from home than their wage-earning parents. If they are taken away, they may relate to the adults in the school: they will have very little relationship with the community in which the school is situated, and they will not have much relationship with their own community in which they live, and I believe that is a very important point.

One other point about the future of the village schools is that the absence of the village schools clearly has a part to play, but so does uncertainty about their future, and that can hasten depopulation. Only recently I was talking to a young couple with a family: good solid citizens who would have been a great asset to the village to which they were thinking of moving. I found that they were no longer contemplating doing so, and the reason was that they had discovered that there was uncertainty about the future of the village school. As a result that village has lost the very considerable benefit which it would have gained from the movement into it of that family. That is not an isolated case.

I do not want to go into details about size because the noble Marquess has already made many of the detailed points which I had in mind to make myself, but do want to emphasise the fact that the educational and social advantages of the smaller schools are being increasingly recognised and I believe it is a grave mistake simply to consider the future of the village school on very limited criteria. I further believe that to press for a reconsideration of their future is not to acquiesce in lower educational standards. I am not a trained teacher although I have had great experience of schools, but my chaplain is a trained teacher. He frequently accompanies me on my pastoral visits, during which almost invariably I am invited to visit the village school and he. who has come from experience in comprehensive schools in London, repeatedly expresses his satisfaction with The standard of work and the standard of life of the school when he has come from such a visit.

The noble Marquess has already referred to the fact that Lady Plowden has changed her view since the publication of the report, and I hope that in the answer to be given by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, there will be some indication that we may expect Government guidance to reflect that view rather than the view which Lady Plowden held in 1967. There is at the moment grave uncertainty in many villages about their schools, and that has a very bad effect. It creates uncertainty about staffing. I believe there is a genuine increase in the number of teachers who want to teach in small country schools, but some are put off because of the uncertainty about the future. As I said earlier, uncertainty about the village school also affects the question of housing—of people buying houses and moving into the village.

It also often affects the question of whether or not there is a village shop. Last year I took the chair at a consultation on the future of the rural community. We had people representing the retailers and we were told of the problems of financing village shops, and so on; but what interested me was that the presence or absence of a village school was quite a significant factor in deciding whether or not a village shop was viable and whether it should continue to exist.

Perhaps 1 may tell your Lordships one interesting point in this connection. There is one village in Cornwall where the village shop is run by two probation officers who gave up that work in the Midlands and came down to run the store. They told me when I visited them that they thought they were doing far more for the community in the long run by caring for that store than by their previous work, because (and admittedly it was known that they were probation officers) continually people were talking to them about their children, and from their previous experience they were able to use their expertise and give advice at a very much earlier stage, when difficulties were beginning to appear, so that in many cases the question of probation did not arise. I include that reference simply to illustrate the effect that a local institution can have. However, there is uncertainty and why I very much welcome this Question is because of the effects that such uncertainty is having.

We in Cornwall, as a diocese, negotiated a programme in 1971 based upon the Plowden Report, in which for various reasons, including working on Plowden and in order to secure a proper choice of schools, we agreed to the closure of a number of ours and the building of new ones. We have in fact built nine new area schools, but of course the existing schools still remain and uncertainty is hanging over them. It is that uncertainty that I should like to see removed, so far as possible. I know that there will always be some uncertainty, but so far as it is possible I should like to see it removed.

I realise that the decisions are ultimately those of the local education authority, but there is clearly a need for central guidance as well, and I hope that such guidance could first give some help towards the acceptance of a recognised way of costing. One of the problems in talking about village schools is that too often the method of costing is in a sense adapted to suit the hoped for result of any survey. The costing of village schools is difficult because, as has already been said, there are many hidden assets in any village school which cannot be given an immediate value in pounds sterling, but I hope some guidance may he given in that respect.

I hope also that some encouragement might be given for the closest co-operation between all those who are involved in the rural community, including, for example, such bodies as CoSIRA which has done a splendid job for us all. It is no answer to say that Section 13 notices are published and there is a chance for objection. I believe that there ought to be positive encouragement for the closest co-operation between all the bodies which are involved in the rural community when the future of the village school is at stake.

I also hope that the policy can take clear account of the alternatives to closure. Some have already been mentioned; for example, the possibility of grouping under one head. That is nothing new for us. In the Church we have had to do very much the same kind of thing in regard to our very small country parishes. It can be done. It is not always popular but it can be done, and it is a way of enabling a rural institution to continue; and that, of course, can do a certain amount to offset the effects of Burnham and the financial discouragement which comes from that for the heads of small schools. But there are other alternatives; for example, the use of mobile resources for crafts, art, music and physical education. There is the community use of buildings in which the responsibility can be shared for things like adult education, help for the senior citizens, which is particularly the case in a village where there is a considerable number of retired people. These things need to be examined. They are not always possible, but very often they are a way of avoiding the closure of a village school while at the same time giving real help to the rural community as such.

There is one specific Church point which I feel I must raise. We are very sensitive in regard to the question of the closure of schools because the provisions of the Education Acts in effect mean that closure of a Church school is virtually irreversible. This situation does not apply in the case of a county school. This puts an added strain upon us. That is why I would ask that the policy should, as it were, recognise that fact and be sensitive towards the pressure which it does lay upon us.

As I say, I am very grateful for this debate. I do not believe it is simply about village schools and standards of education there, although those are very important. I believe it is ultimately a debate about the quality of life in our rural communities. I very much hope that the answers which the noble Baroness gives will reflect that, and that what she says may help to dispel some of the uncertainty from which our village schools are suffering.

8.21 p.m.


My Lords, we have heard speakers from places as far apart as Caithness and Devon, and of course the noble Marquess, to whom we are so grateful for asking this Question, spoke from the heartland of England. The problem is, therefore, widely spread throughout the country. I think his Question is most timely, following in the wake of your Lordships' decision last week on the question of school transport. His Question speaks of village schools. Perhaps, speaking as I do for the Border country of Scotland, I could point out that we have very few villages. We have isolated and scattered communities, in our case up and down the length of a valley some 15 miles long. There is no village. The focal point of the community is a grouping of the kirk, the manse, the village hall and the school and schoolhouse. They, together, are the heart of the community. I know the school fairly well; over half a century ago I was a pupil there. In those days the noble Baroness, Lady Young, would have had no problem over school transport because there was none. We walked, or, in my case—I suppose I was privileged—I rode there on a pony. That school today has just as excellent a teacher as the one who at that time dinned the three Rs and a good deal else into my thick head.

A few months ago in the very necessary search for economies our Education Department put out a proposal for the closure of 10 county primary schools in the Border region. When that proposal was made public there was a storm of protest, not just from the parents and the communities affected but from far wider, even from the town. It was one of the most spontaneous demonstrations of sincere feeling that I have ever seen. I am happy to say that democracy triumphed and the regional council in their wisdom decided to reprieve nine out of the 10 schools for the time being. Of course economies are needed; we all know that. But the figure we were given of the amount to be saved by these closures was minimal in relation to the education budget. Of course, it was a nice clean amputation and would appeal more to the official mind than a more arduous search for small economies throughout the educational system, not least in the administration.

It is not just a question of education, as others have said. These institutions are the heart of the community. They are interdependent. The closure of the school, I am certain, would have plucked out a vital part of the heart and it would have hastened the decay of the whole. The country areas have suffered a steady running-down in the services they enjoy and this has made life in the country more and more of a struggle, particularly for the old and those who cannot afford to run their own transport. For the young it increases the attractions of moving to the town. Take away the schools and you give one more discouragement. Young children will have to have long bus journeys. They will have to hang around after school waiting for the older classes to come out, and they will be exposed to what at the least I would call the perhaps less decorous and desirable habits to be picked up in town. The whole future of communities of this kind is, therefore, in the balance.

I think we should ask the question, do we want to preserve these communities and the way of life that they offer? I would say a thousand times, yes. We want to keep a sound farming industry, particularly in the hills, the raising of sheep and cattle, the maintaining of forestry in those areas, and the provision of recreational facilities. More and more people from the towns want to go to these areas, but they do not want to go to a desert; they want to go to a place where people live and work. Our own authority has been very active in this field, I am glad to say. I received an invitation last week to the opening of a riding route in the forest at the head of our valley, a very charming invitation addressed to me and my horse. Regretfully, owing to another commitment I had to reply that I was unable to accept, and my horse, who I have no doubt would be delighted to do so, would if unaccompanied he more likely to turn it into a rodeo than a ride-in.

If we want to keep this life of the communities and keep people living there, able to bring up their children in that environment, learning skills of their trades as they grow, along with the character and the qualities which so happily distinguish our country folk, then we have to do something about it. The key to keeping this state of affairs is that we do keep a framework of primary schools in the country, so that children at that most impressionable age are given the chance to learn the precious lessons of the countryside and to acquire a desire to live and work there, with all that can give, to complement our over-sophisticated and over-crowded urban life.

The noble Baroness may well say in her reply that this is primarily a task for the local authorities rather than central Government. That I can understand, and to a large extent it is indeed so. But I hope that she and her colleagues in Government, whether English, Scottish or Welsh, will give every possible help and encouragement to local authorities to pursue these very difficult tasks. If 1 may give one specific small suggestion that might be considered in conclusion, it is this. In our area a number of parents in the town have taken advantage of the freedom to send their children out to schools in the country. I know there are problems of transport, but some of them will do it at their own expense. I believe this is a policy which, if actively encouraged and if people were told it was possible, might lead to maintaining a viable population in a number of these country schools that might otherwise be closed.

8.29 p.m.


My Lords, I also must thank the noble Marquess for raising this subject, which is one that is very dear to my heart. I can perhaps introduce another part of rural England and that is the Border counties of Wales. The vital part of this closing down of schools is in fact that when you close a school you condemn a village to its death. The county council come along and offer free bussing to the local school just for the time that the pupils who are there are still attending school. Anybody who comes in after that will have to pay. As the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, said, this discourages any new person from coming in, because they have to educate their children. Also, in these Border counties, where the weather can be extremely rough, they do not want to expose their children to the hazards of the morning and evening movement.

I know that we shall be told by the noble Baroness that we must make economies and that the country must make cuts. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be kind and bear in mind, and perhaps, through her Department, she could convey to the county councils, that it would be very nice to see those cuts take place throughout the whole range of the administration of the Education Act. At present in our part of the world there is no knowledge of what actual cuts in staff, casual administration, or anything else, have been made by the county. It was said to me the other day that the cuts were all very well, but it had not been noticed that anyone had left the county hall. In fact, the particular gentleman said:"If everybody in the county hall sneezed at once, the damn place would fall flat ". Until one can get over to the people on the ground that these cuts are being started where they are being imposed on them, we shall never get anywhere with anything. That is absolutely vital.

The Development Commission are doing splendid work in our area. They have built factories everywhere. They are extremely well equipped and so on. But what are they doing? They are spending this money to put those factories in an area where the population is aging. They were put there to develop and bring on the young people in the area and provide them with employment so that they would not have to go to the urban areas for work, for their future and for their children. Continually, all down the Border areas and in Wales, where we have seen some very fiery protests, villages are being transformed into holiday areas and into commuter areas. Families are vanishing. The names in my area, such as Beddoes, Biggs and Link, are literally an aging population and they have been there for generations. One does not like to see them die. This will happen throughout the rural areas in England. They have been the backbone of this country, and the backbone of all the villages turns out to be the village school. When the noble Baroness replies, will she please give an explanation so that the people who live in these areas can understand why these things are being done'? At present it is right over their heads and there is a great deal of scepticism about everything that is being said.

8.34 p.m.


My Lords, not having put my name down on the list of speakers I shall try to be very brief and not repeat what other noble Lords have said. I have had the experience of being both a manager and, for many years, chairman of the type of small school about which the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, has spoken. That school was founded 250 years ago and endowed by people of the parish and has been of immense importance to this small scattered community for that length of time. It was paid for by the local people out of their own pockets, and they even put a little aside, leaving us with a small endowment.

Yet there appears nowadays to be no safeguard against the changes of policy which we have experienced over the past few years. Ever since the war, or so it seems to me, there has been a change of policy about these small schools every three years or so. This cannot be good for education any more than for these small communities. Underlying that, there has been the feeling, certainly among certain officials, that big is better; but I do not believe that it is so. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has spoken about it. I believe that the feeling still exists, although it may not be as strong today as it used to he. The figures produced to local boards of managers when the closure of these schools is under consideration sometimes seem to lack the honesty that one would like to see in British administration. The base figures on which these calculations are made are chosen so that they favour the case of those who wish to close village schools.

I think that a great hope rests in what has been called"federation ", a certain moving around both of teachers—we have done this for music for long enough, and I do not see why it should not continue—and of children when it is necessary to have elaborate equipment for the particular instruction which it is uneconomic and foolish to repeat in, say, every one of three schools when it seems best for one school to have a room so fitted out and the children taken there in turn.

I also feel, along with many parents of young children, that it must be bad for small children to travel long distances in a rowdy bus, and I underline"rowdy ". Hardly a school bus in this country is not a rowdy bus. Surely, for very small children, it is best that they should know their school well: it should be part of their life; it should be near their home and a place where their parents go to and meet them from time to time.

I must not take up any more time. I only want the noble Baroness to tell us that she is clear about the future of these village schools. We must have an end to this chopping and changing, about whether we shall close fewer or more, and whether it will be this year, next year or sometime. That can only be bad for education and we have suffered from it for too long. The convenience of teachers and officials is something that we must not overlook, but I am sure that it should not be allowed to come in front of the education of children and the general effect on country life.

8.38 p.m.


My Lords, I owe the House an apology for not putting my name down on the list of speakers, but I was not sure that I would be back in town in time for the debate. I must admit that I agree with every speaker so far. I live in a very small village in the country, quite near to where my noble friend sitting on the Front Bench lives. We do not have a school; we do not have a pub; we do not have a shop, and now they are talking of closing down the school in the next village.

At this late hour I do not want to go into details of the enormously excellent scholastic record of this school, or to discuss the way the parents have painted the school, or even to say how useful the school building is to many other aspects of holding the village together. But I want to generalise slightly in my belief that the village is an essential part of our life today. There is a quality of life in the country which one cannot find in the towns. There are long distances to be covered; there are large open spaces; there are very few taxis; the buses run very infrequently and everything is rather far away from everything else.

If we refer particularly, as I shall, to the five to nine year-olds who are less able to look after themselves, I wonder how, when these village schools are closed, they will be looked after properly. They will often be asked to catch a bus that arrives at the school half an hour before the older children arrive and often half an hour before the teachers arrive. Who will look after them? If they become sick, how will they get home? There is probably only one car in the family and the father may well have taken that to work. How will they cope with that situation? The playgroups will not happen. The after-school activities will only happen for those children whose parents have the time, energy and possibly the money and resources to take their children to those schools. There will be a great many more problems

In my opinion the local school has a family atmosphere. It is often allied to the church, although it need not be denominational. I believe that it does a lot of good for handicapped children and can cope with them where a larger school cannot. To my mind the school is the core of a village. I agree with so much that has been said about the transportation of young children with older children, which has just been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. Why should these young children he subjected to the unruliness that is hound to take place with older children?

I hope that this evening my noble friend can give us some encouragement for those children who have to start their early life in a rural atmosphere so that we do not shove them into some distant, crowded school. If we believe in educating our children, it is essential to prevent the erosion of village schools, for the consequences will spread into a great many areas and homes and cause much resentment and often hardship.

8.40 p.m.

Baroness DAVID

My Lords, I am sure that we are all extremely grateful to the noble Marquess for having asked this Question this evening and for his extremely well-informed speech. I am sure that no one wants to close village schools. They are cosy for the children, convenient for the parents, and centres of community life for the village. There are very many advantages, many of which we have heard tonight; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro mentioned many of them, and the importance of a school in that it may encourage the village shop and so on. The young mother, who may be a newcomer to the village, will meet other mothers as she takes and fetches her child to and from school; she will make friends who will prevent her feeling lonely. The children can mix easily, both in and out of school; the playground and equipment can he used out of school hours and at weekends—at least I hope that that would happen.

Politicians and councillors do close schools, but it is always reluctantly because closures make them very unpopular and they lose votes. Parents, of course, do not want their small children to have to travel by bus (this point has been made [Baroness David.] several times) and this is inevitable if a village school is closed. Almost inevitably the distance from home means that the child cannot get home for a mid-day meal, which is not only cheaper for the parents but much more restful for a small child; a long day with other children is exhausting for five to seven year-olds.

Quite recently, I heard of a meeting of East Anglian chief education officers where the subject of small schools was discussed. It seems that although there are very many small schools in Suffolk, Norfolk and Bedfordshire, the councillors simply will not face the problem at all. Apparently Bedfordshire has 15 schools which have under 30 pupils on the roll and it has one school with only nine pupils. However, the chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council is at least keen to examine all schools with fewer than 50 pupils on the roll.

The noble Marquess mentioned the Plowden Report recommending a three-class school of 50 pupils as the minimum effective unit under normal circumstances. I am aware that Lady Plowden has since changed her mind a little. I do not know whether the whole committee has changed its mind or whether it is simply her personal opinion, but I shall be extremely interested to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has to say about this. As 1981 approaches, with new county council elections, I fully expect there to be an even greater reluctance to look seriously at the problem and there will probably be fewer schools closed. However, I agree with very many speakers that the uncertainty needs to be removed, and we look forward very much to hearing what is the Government's policy.

I shall be so bold as to say that I think there is a problem, both educational and financial. I should like us to look at it, first, from the point of view of the staff, the children, and the learning opportunities of the children. Of course, a village school can be of quite a reasonable size, but as the subject of this debate is the closing of small village schools, I am thinking of numbers in the region of 30 to 40. A school of that size would probably have two members of staff and maybe, if lucky, a little bit of part-time help. It is unlikely that those two staff members can be expert in every subject that our very good primary schools cover nowadays; one thinks of music, science, arts and crafts, physical education as well as the three Rs. The staff 's opportunities for discussing their work with their colleagues, as happens in larger staff-rooms where there can be lively and informed exchanges, will be limited.

I was talking to a friend who had been chairman of the Cambridgeshire Primary Committee when about 30 small schools were being looked at in depth. She said that one of the things that struck her most as she went round—and it was commented on often—was how isolated the heads of small schools felt. The staff's opportunities for co-operating in team efforts, as can be done when there is a fairly large staff, will again be limited, so that flexibility in size of teaching groups will also be limited.

As for the children, their opportunities for social relationships on a broad front will be restricted. The impact of different personalities on them will be reduced, as there will be few adults to relate to professionally. There will be less likelihood of benefiting from the particular skills of subject teachers. A poor teacher, or one with limited horizons, will have a proportionately greater effect because of the length of time and extent of contact with a child. If there should be incompatibility between child and teacher, the effects will be greater because there will be little chance for the child to get away from the teacher. Of course, the opposite is true if you happen to have a very good teacher, but you must look at the other possibilities too.

The children's opportunities for participation in general school activities—for example, in an orchestra or team games—will be restricted, as will clubs and groups for children with similar interests, because of the small numbers of children and staff. As for equipment, larger pieces may well be too expensive to be bought out of capitation and may, even if bought, not be fully used. There will often be limited facilities and equipment for the practical subjects.

Therefore, educational opportunities may well be much poorer in a very small school. I was told by an education officer not long ago of a visit he paid to a school near Newmarket with 20 on the roll and with two members of staff. That, of course, is quite extravagant for 20 children. If you have to provide two teachers for 20 pupils, other larger schools may have to manage with a not so good pupil-teacher ratio. However, to return to the small village school, one of the staff had eight infants in one room, and the other 12 children, aged from seven to 11 plus, were in the other. The education officer said that at one table in the room where the older pupils were, were four children—one aged seven and another, a great tall, strapping adolescent lad of 11 plus. It would have to be a very able teacher, indeed, to manage both those at the same time. And what opportunities would there be for that boy to have any chance to play games with his age group? So much for educational opportunities.

Now for cost. It is impossible to have just one member of staff for even the smallest school. Arrangements must be made to cover the possibility of a child having an accident and having to be rushed off to hospital. Therefore, financially, small schools bear a high cost. I am in total agreement with many speakers who have said that accurate costing is very difficult, but I think that we can get somewhere near it. I remember a year or so ago that we had debate on rural deprivation, when the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood—who unfortunately is not here tonight—told a story of when she was chairman of the Education Committee, and she said that reluctantly she had had to close a small school because she found that the cost per pupil was about the same as that of sending a boy to Eton.

At the weekend I found a paper on the size and organisation of primary schools; in fact, it was a paper written about four years ago, and it gave the estimates of annual costs. Although it is some four years old and the figures may be out of date, I am sure that the ratio between those figures is about the same. The estimated net cost per pupil in a junior mixed and infants with 480 on the roll was £273: 28, and for a junior mixed and infants with 80 on the roll it was £412: 38—more than half as much again. I have some figures from Bedfordshire, a county which I mentioned earlier. In 1976–77 at one of their schools with 16 on the roll the average cost was apparently £880 per child and the average for all primary schools in the county was £371.

I would say that the educational and financial disadvantages of the small school have to be weighed very seriously against the benefits of a school close to home, with the intimacy which that gives, the confidence to the child and the adverse effects on the life of small communities if the school closes. There are, of course, opportunities for experiment, and I think that they should be taken. In Cambridge-shire four or five years ago we tried a federation of four small schools in neighbouring villages to which the noble Marquess referred. There were then 30 to 40 children in each school and the federation worked under one head. That worked well for two or three years, but I have just heard that the total numbers are now down to 100, that they are expected to drop to 70, and that two of those four schools will shortly have to close. But that of course is no reason why similar experiments should not be made. Cluster schools, they are sometimes called.

Some LEAs have introduced different schemes to help village schools. Minivans act as mobile resource units or classrooms for art, music, crafts and remedial work, providing extra resources. Peripatetic teachers travel round supplementing the existing teacher force, and I believe that we shall have to ask teachers to move around very much more to help with the subjects where special expertise is necessary, like music. Groups of small schools can get together themselves to share experience, or sophisticated equipment and staff. Northamptonshire has set up a Small School Enrichment Project whereby £50,000 was allocated to seven small schools to build up a central pool of equipment, including a tine-camera and a minibus. Cumbria has a teacher resource centre for isolated schools. Schools can use their spare capacity to become educational and social centres for the whole community, providing nursery education, play groups, adult education, and recreation and other facilities for youth. But admirable and delightful as it is to have a community school, for that is what such schools are called, it does not solve the immediate educational problem of the fives to elevens.

Closure should obviously be handled with great care and delicacy, and the issues explained clearly to parents and those involved. Some heads fully under- stand the problem and co-operate: others resist, as you might expect. Timing is important. The retirement of a head is a good moment. Pressure groups will press. The national Press may be brought in. In a case where I was involved with the closing of Madingley School—Madingley is a village about three miles from Cambridge—there was quite a lot in the national Press and a lot of pressures were brought to hear. There were then 21 children on roll and 10 of them, it turned out, did not live in the village; they were driven out from Cambridge by car every day. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, would approve of that.

But the very university people who had fought successfully against planning per-mission to be given to build more houses—houses that would have provided more children in the village—saying they would spoil the beauty and character of the place, were of course the very first to complain, and the loudest to complain, when the threat came to close the school. The Minister did in fact support closure. There was an excellent new school just two miles away with plenty of space for the children. but a private buyer bought the old school building and Madingley School is now being run by private enterprise, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it fares over the next few years.

There can be no doubt that local education authorities and councillors face very tough opposition almost always when they tackle closures. But we do have to look at the facts. The primary age population is projected to decline from 4.9 million in 1973 to 3 3 million in 1986. In 1977, 88 primary schools were closed; in 1978, 77 were closed, and 49 of these were in rural and 28 in urban areas. Last year 46 were closed; 21 in rural, and 25 in urban areas. So the problem is not just in the villages.

There must always be a clear assessment of the educational, the social, the financial advantages and disadvantages of keeping very small schools open, and these were the criteria that the noble Marquess mentioned. I think that they should be assessed in that order: educational, social, financial. I shall be interested to hear what line the Government take about the financial advantages of closure, and remember those really rather extraordinary Bedfordshire figures that I quoted.

I should like to say one thing about administrators. They have been attacked. They were attacked during the debates we had on the Education Bill last week, and they have been attacked tonight. 1 think they need standing up for a bit. Certainly the ones I have worked with work extremely hard. They have taken severe cuts. They seem to work an enormous amount of overtime, and I do not think they are so bad as they are very often painted. I have some sympathy for them. I have no doubt that we shall hear from the Minister about the heavy cost of bussing children to a neighbouring village, but I suspect that on educational grounds there can often be very good reasons for closure of the very small primary school; and I think I am probably in a minority tonight when I say that

8.55 p.m.


My Lords, I share with other noble Lords who have spoken this evening the gratitude of us all for the opportunity presented by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, to debate the important issue of the closure of village schools. I am grateful to him for writing to me and giving me notice of the questions that he wished to raise this evening. This subject is frequently raised in correspondence from all parts of the country, and I have many letters to write on the subject, and I have seen a number of deputations. On the size of schools, I am reminded of one I saw recently; a deputation from a primary school for children aged five to 11 in which there were only 18 pupils. This was being defended very strongly. It was complete with the most attractive hook of photographs of the entire school in all their activities, plus a petition signed by every single one of them.

Everybody understands the attachment which people feel to these schools. If I may say right at the start, I much admired Lady David's brave speech. Having attempted something in your Lordships' House last week. I feel it is exceptionally brave of me to get up and say anything again, but perhaps it would be right if I attempted to set out at the beginning of my remarks some of the problems which confront local education authorities and some of the reasons why they close small village schools. It is not, I can assure your Lordships, out of any malice aforethought, or desire to do people down; it is a most difficult, a most unpopular, and a most complicated process to go through, and no one would embark on it if they did not believe that it was something which ought to be done.

Your Lordships will be aware that a dominating concern in current educational policy is the continuing decline in pupil numbers. By the end of the decade the size of the school population will have fallen by a quarter. Changes on this scale present wholly new challenges and problems to the education service. Inevitably the number of school places has had to be reduced substantially over the country as a whole; and the Government's expenditure plans assume that 750,000 surplus places nationally will have been taken out of use by 1982. However, and this is most important, of these there will be many in the urban and surburban areas where the fall in the population will be the greatest. However, rural areas will necessarily be affected as well.

It was against this background of falling numbers that Circular 5/77 was issued by the Department of Education and Science in June 1977. This asked local education authorities to make the most realistic assessment possible of future school population trends in their own areas and then, in consultation with all those concerned, to examine systematically the educational opportunities offered to children in their schools, and to consider how the premises might best be used.

There is no reliable data on the number of village school closures before 1978, but the estimate is that around 1,000 village based schools were closed in the 12 years preceding the Plowden Report in 1967; that is to say, between 1955 and 1967. About 660 were closed between the publication of the Plowden Report in 1967 and 1974, and about 275 since then. These figures would suggest that the number of closures of rural schools is declining. Indeed, the figures that the noble Baroness, Lady David, has just given, which I confirm, show that there were 49 rural schools closed in 1978 and 26 in 1979. This was compared with 39 urban schools closed in 1979.


My Lords, are those figures solely for England, or England and Wales, or do they include Scotland?

Baroness YOUNG

I apologise, my Lords; I should have made that clear. They are for England and Wales only. I am sorry but I do not have the Scottish figures. What the figures show for England and Wales is that the rate of decline of village schools is levelling off and that there is an increase in the coming closures of schools in urban areas, and I think the reason for the decline in the population of urban areas is not only the general fall in the school population but the movement of the population out of the inner cities into the suburbs, which compounds the fall in the school population.

I greatly sympathise with all those who are concerned to preserve what is best in small schools. I have had the opportunity over the last nine months to visit a number of such schools and I have been greatly impressed by what I have seen. There are undoubtedly great advantages in small village schools, and indeed every noble Lord who has spoken has referred to these. Many children flourish in their caring atmosphere; teachers get to know their pupils extremely well and smaller classes give more opportunities for individual attention. Such schools are often centrally placed in the village so that most children can walk there and have time to return home for lunch, although a substantial minority live in outlying areas. Parents, too, benefit from the regular social contact with other parents and the teachers, which can happen very easily when the school constitutes a focal point in the community.

All these things are very important indeed to a small community straining to retain its identity in times of severe external pressures which often tend towards the break-up of village life. I felt it was an important point made by the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Truro that vandalism was much less frequent in the villages, and that too, I think, shows the advantages of life in a village and of the value of the village school.

Village primary schools, therefore, can be very good schools indeed, but one must be realistic and say that this is not the condition of every one of them. The fact is that a small number of teachers in a school makes it difficult to provide a full curriculum and it makes it particularly difficult to provide sufficient expertise in all parts of the curriculum. I am only too well aware that expert opinion can vary, and I listened with great care to what the noble Marquess gave in the various reports he quoted. But the recent survey by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of primary education in England concluded, on the basis of very wide-ranging investigations, that there was clear evidence that the performance of children suffered when classes of mixed age groups of 25 or more children had to be introduced, and this of course is frequently the case in small village schools.

The small classes of some rural schools make it possible to reduce the disadvantage of mixed age groups, but at the expense of very favourable and costly pupil-teacher ratios. It is especially difficult in these small schools to compensate for the lack of stimulus from a sizeable and varied peer group unless, and again it is expensive, frequent opportunities are given for children from two or more schools to meet, work and play together. Staffing, as well, in these schools can present problems. There are some excellent teachers in small rural schools and, where there are, the children are doubly fortunate. In other places the resignation of one out of two or three teachers can cause considerable upheaval and, at the other extreme, the whole staff of a school can remain unchanged for many years and in some cases grow to discuss and develop some new ideas. Teachers need contact with other teachers and they need to be stimulated to think of new ideas. So, whereas if you have a good teacher you can be very fortunate indeed, a poor teacher can mean generations of children suffering in a difficult situation.

At this point it might be helpful if I said something about small rural secondary schools, although the numbers of closures of these is very small indeed, four in 1978 and none in 1979. The advantages of such small schools are similar to those of the small primary schools; teachers can get to know their pupils extremely well and the school can become a focal point in the community. The disadvantages are the restrictions which may be placed on the curriculum unless the local education authority is able to provide very generous staffing. The recent Survey of Aspects of Secondary Education in England carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate produced evidence that the smallest comprehensive schools were more generously staffed than larger schools of the same type.

However, the range of subjects offered in years four and five was restricted in these very small schools, which were able to provide only limited opportunities in modern and classical languages and the separate sciences. Small schools did not always have the specialist teachers to teach these subjects and, where they did, much of their teaching time was devoted to the relatively small numbers of pupils who wished to take these subjects and were capable of doing so. It must be recognised that a small school which has only a very few able pupils may not always have the appropriate specialist teachers to meet their potential needs. As with primary schools, therefore, in considering the closure of small secondary schools it is necessary to set any social or other problems which may arise against the wider educational opportunities which can be offered to the pupils in a larger school.

I turn to the question of finance. Small schools are costly to run. Where they are retained, therefore, parents should recognise that the subsidy afforded to their children's schools is at the expense of other schools and other aspects of the education service within the authority. I was asked for some figures, and great cost arises on unit costs in these schools. Recent research indicates that unit costs rise very rapidly for schools with 50 or fewer pupils on roll, and they may be summarised in this way: 50 or more on roll, under £400; 40 on roll, £425; 30 on roll, £550; 20 on roll, £625; 10 on roll, £950; and fewer than 10 on the roll, £1,200 or more. This gives some indication of how very rapidly unit costs rise as the numbers of pupils decline, and of course in a situation in which local education authorities arc having to look at their expenditure, having schools with empty places, they will inevitably look at these kind of figures.

May I once more say a few words about administration. The fact is that local education authorities spend only 3½ per cent. of their budgets on administration, and that over the last five years expenditure on administration has fallen nationally, by some £40 million, or 10 per cent. So I think it is only fair to say that local education authorities, in looking for economies, have indeed looked at administration among other matters that they need to consider.

In all this it is very necessary to think positively about what is the best way to proceed. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, the noble Baroness, Lady David, and other noble Lords talked about the experiments that are being conducted at present to federate a number of primary schools as a single school under one head, but which continue to use a building in each of the participating villages. This kind of scheme is being tried by a number of authorities. The most well-known is the one based on Cheveley, in Cambridgeshire, to which many of your Lordships have referred. In this scheme teachers travel between the schools and the children come together for some group activity, such as sports. I was interested to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady David, said about this particular scheme, because the fact is that with the fall in the school population, even under these arrangements there can come a point when numbers run down to such an extent that in one or more of the schools it will not make educational or economic sense if the pupils are not transferred to another school. Nevertheless, the Government welcome these experiments, and believe that they should be encouraged, as indeed should any other experiments of this nature, which enable us to keep in being groups of village schools which otherwise would have to be closed.

The noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, suggested that one of the options against closing a school might be to allow parents to opt for that particular school, and he will I am sure be interested to know that in the Education (No. 2) Bill, currently going through the House, we make provision by statute for parents to be able to express a preference for a school and for there to be automatic recoupment between authorities. This could well help some of these schools.

I am sure that these experiments are worth making. There may be no great financial savings involved, and indeed many are more expensive to run than the original schools, but they provide a way of overcoming some of the educational disadvantages of isolation found by both teachers and pupils in the very small village schools. A number of noble Lords referred to the uncertainty about the future of village schools, which causes such anxiety to parents. I am only too well aware that proposals to close a school cause considerable and understandable local reaction. Small village schools often have a long and honourable history, and have contributed greatly to the area the children of which they have educated. However, I must make it clear to the House that it is the local education authorities, not the department, nor indeed the Secretary of State, or any Ministers, who make proposals for closure of schools. It is for the local education authorities to do this, and they do so I believe with the interests of the local area in mind.

I should like to say that following the proposals, the publication of the notices and the opportunity for objection, the Secretary of State, in deciding such proposals, looks at each one on its merits, and in every case the overriding consideration must be the educational welfare of the children concerned. In coming to this conclusion all the arguments that I set out earlier in my remarks must be considered, so as to include the value of the small village school, as well as the problems that are created by having very small numbers of both pupils and teachers.

We are all concerned that closures should not lead to a reduction in the quality of educational provision. Therefore, consideration must be, and always is, given to any social and denominational factors or other considerations which may arise. The decision to make a proposal to close a village school does not lie with the Secretary of State; it is a local decision. But we must recognise that there arc circumstances in which the decision has to be made. I am encouraged, and I hope that other noble Lords may be encouraged, too, by reports of parents who originally opposed a school closure, but who now accept that there is a better opportunity for their children in a larger school, even if it is a little farther away from where they live.

The debate has ranged over a far larger number of questions relating to the countryside beyond those connected with the village schools. It has touched upon rural deprivation and on the whole future of village life. This is not I believe the moment to discuss these matters, and I hope that on another occasion the House may have an opportunity to debate the wide range of issues. I believe that one of the difficulties that we are suffering today arises from the fact that we are reaping the cumulative effects of a very long process which started possibly with the Industrial Revolution, and which we feel today in the way that has been shown. All sorts of problems are raised by the whole question of village life and the country, but I should like to assure the House that in considering any closure of a village school the Secretary of State balances carefully the needs of the village and its community as well as the educational needs of the children involved.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness finally sits down, would she tell us whether the school at which they took the pictures and where everyone signed the petition is still open?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I think the school is still open. I think I am right in saying that it was during the statutory period of objection that this information came to the department.