HL Deb 05 May 1999 vol 600 cc757-82

7.59 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are the implications for rural communities of the closure of their local schools.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords I am aware that this is the last time it will be appropriate for a Question such as this, which also affects Scotland, to be asked in this House, and therefore this is something of a watershed.

I have raised this issue because I believe that our rural schools represent the most precious and important resource in our national life, one which must not be marginalised, but must be promoted. Not only does their existence have enormous implications for their particular rural communities, but they can also be exemplars of best practice in a wider community and in educational terms as well. Yet since the war, and in particular in the past 10 to 15 years, they have been in serious decline, as they have been closed or amalgamated in favour of larger and more urban schools.

Just over a year ago the Education Minister, Stephen Byers, announced a "presumption against closure" of rural schools, acknowledging that villages lose a vital focus, families come under pressure to move. and the knock on effect on other services sets up a spiral of decline.

He stated that any proposed closure should automatically be referred to the Secretary of State.

Similarly, Brian Wilson in Scotland stated that financial considerations alone should not determine the closure of a school, and that "proportionate advantage" in educational terms should also be demonstrated.

I applaud those statements, but I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when he replies what the consequent package of help to rural schools in England and Wales, or in Scotland, has amounted to and what is being done to mitigate the crisis that rural communities are experiencing the length and breadth of the country.

My first school was a one-teacher school in the village of Butterstone, and was to me the best and most memorable part of my school experience. It was a single large room with a stove at one end and a high desk for Miss Menzies, our teacher, whom I shall never forget, while many another subsequently doomed to teach me has faded or has been blotted completely from my memory. The roll was around 12, but it fluctuated from the teens to, occasionally, as low as three or four children. It served the people of the tiny village and families who worked on surrounding farms and round about. Opposite were a shop and a post office. Dunkeld, the nearest town, or village, is about five miles away.

When that school was closed the heart went out of the village. On coming to this House I discovered that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. who carried out the death sentence. The village no longer has a shop or a post office, and no longer has families with young children living there. Instead, there are some retired people, a few professionals and others with holiday homes.

It was a very small school, in a very small community, but that story is typical, and it is the sort of story which tells of how the whole nature of a community was changed by the loss of the school.

In England between 1983 and 1993 30 per cent. of all schools with fewer than a hundred pupils, a large proportion of them rural, were closed, with that kind of tragic story being repeated for similar communities all over the country.

A rural school attracts young families, whose presence in turn attracts and makes viable other services, sustains and holds the community together, and prevents what could be a terminal decline for the smallest and most vulnerable places. Importantly, its existence can also completely reverse such migration. For example, last year in Argyll a planned housing development was put in doubt as a result of the threat of the closure of a small school near Lochgilphead. After a fiercely fought battle, local people saved the school, the housing went ahead and now further development is planned; the community is actually growing, thanks to the existence and quality of this little school. The roll has grown from 26 to 33, and it is projected to reach 40 in the next two years.

Not all rural schools are perfect, any more than urban ones are, but the arguments for closure are invariably those of cost calculated on capacity, which is usually a function of physical space. Unused capacity is seen to represent a drain on resources, but it could be seen as an opportunity for more community education. One director of education told me that as the Government funding formula is based on the number of children in the system it automatically favours urban areas and economies of scale. The cost per pupil is far higher in rural areas than in urban ones, and 'when budgets are down and savings have to be made rural schools are the inevitable target.

Despite Brian Wilson's statement, that director has a target of three to four rationalisations annually in the next few years, and the issue of proportionate advantage is irrelevant, since he argues that all the schools in the authority are good, so moving the rural children could not possibly disadvantage them. It is this argument which indicates the continuing real threat to rural schools unless the capacity/cost issue is tackled. Why, I asked, if there is spare capacity could urban children not be moved to rural schools, with all that they have to offer, rather than always the other way round, and I was clearly thought to be mad. But, in fact, there is now evidence that parents are beginning to choose precisely that option for themselves.

The issue, therefore, for the Government is that while local education authorities have the responsibility for making the necessary decisions to cope with their allocated budgets, they are continuing to choose to close the rural schools, and the calculation of these financial costs overrides the vital social gain to their communities. The loss is particularly acute in really rural areas, and perhaps less so for semi-rural ones. The important study by Professor Nisbet from Aberdeen demonstrated clearly the broader social and community benefit from rural schools, and showed that pound for pound they bought far more than just a good education and that they have real community value.

If the Government are serious about their support for small rural schools, then they are duty bound to make funding specifically available so that those schools can be sustained. This crucially includes, for example, money for visiting specialists to complement a staff of say, three teachers in subjects such as science, IT, and art; facilitating clusters of schools so that resources can be shared, but local identity sustained; and adequate funding for the repair of buildings. Without this practical support, statements favouring rural schools are no more than fine words.

Finally, my belief in the value of small rural schools is also because of the quality of the education they provide. There is evidence now that it is certainly as good as, and in many cases better than, that in larger urban schools. The received wisdom among some educationists and administrators is that it is necessary to have larger units in order to deliver better-quality provision. But, particularly in primary schools, which are what we are really discussing here, and where the most crucial foundations are laid, impacting on all subsequent learning, small schools are well equipped to deliver what children need—precisely because they are small. I have seen HM Inspectors' reports on this, and furthermore the quality of provision in small schools has been demonstrated by an objective study of HMI reports on primary schools in England and. Wales, to be published shortly.

When children, teachers and parents know each other well and the links in the community are automatic, it is so much easier to identify and meet children's needs; much easier for children to feel valued and to feel that they have a place; much easier to cope with the problems when they arise; much easier to bring about truly inclusive learning, when real potential can he realised. I have seen so many small rural schools where the standard of work has amazed me, where French and music are integral to the curriculum, where computer literacy seems quite natural, and where the needs of the very bright and those with learning difficulties are equally well met.

In other words, these are places where not only is closure unacceptable, but where their potential should be recognised as exemplars of what all schools should be aiming for. I hope that the Government can demonstrate their determination, unequivocally and practically, to give them this recognition.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for introducing this important issue for consideration by your Lordships' House. My contribution to the debate will be short, uncomplicated and straightforward.

It seems to me that there are two features which must be simultaneously addressed when assessing the implications for rural communities of the closure of their local school. One is the well-being of the rural community and the second is the education of the children. On the well-being of the community, maintaining the local school is but one aspect, albeit an important one. The quality of life of those living in a rural community depends on the establishment cif a comprehensive, industrial, social and economic infrastructure, which includes adequate healthcare, transport provision and employment opportunities, as well as educational facilities.

We must always ensure that those who live in rural communities are an inclusive part of our national development and are in no way excluded from the advantages of urban advancement; and that they are viewed with the same concern and attention as those who live in urban areas. That is absolutely essential for maintaining and improving a one-nation society, a society which ensures that all our people share in the advantages of progress at the same time as preserving and increasing the quality of life of our nation as a whole.

In regard to local schools in rural areas I say: yes, we must be mindful of the adverse impact that such school closures will have on local communities. We must be conscious of the integral nature and advantage that such schools have for the community, but we must also ensure that our focus is not so narrow as to concentrate wholly on the interests of communities so that we lose sight of and perhaps neglect the educational interests of the children.

By that I mean that it is not only necessary to retain rural schools wherever possible, but also to ensure that the educational standards are maintained and improved so that those receiving an education in rural schools are not at a disadvantage compared with those taught in urban areas. If that were the case, the retaining of schools in rural areas would be of no service whatsoever to the community or to the children.

I hasten to add that I am no longer fearful that that will be the case. The approach and the action taken by this Government give me confidence that they have rural communities and education in the forefront of their thinking.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, referred to an announcement by the then education Minister, Stephen Byers, in March 1998. I shall quote from a different passage in the same announcement: Closing a village school can be a death-blow to the community. We have lost 450 of them since 1983". I pause there to repeat that statement: We have lost 450 of them since 1983". That was in 1998. The Minister went on to say: Today, I am announcing tough new protection for village schools to end this stream of closures". The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, referred to the fact that any proposal to close those schools would go before the Secretary of State. At that time the Secretary of State said: Shire counties will have an extra £447 million in 1999 to boost standards". That demonstrates to me that the Government are extremely concerned about education and schools in rural areas.

Perhaps more up to date is the announcement made in February of this year by both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions when they produced a discussion document, Rural England. That document is comprehensive. It responds to change and it believes in strong communities—a fair and inclusive society. The document talks about working in partnership and wants a debate on issues in rural areas such as transport, education, health, social services, housing, local business, childcare, community safety, access to justice, utilities, the provision of services, information and communication technology and access to culture. I believe that reflects the Government's plan for a comprehensive, industrial, social and economic structure for rural areas.

That clearly demonstrates the will of the Labour Government to represent all the people of this nation. I believe that the people of this nation know that and applaud the Government accordingly. I hope that this House will do exactly the same this evening.

8.14 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, I wish I could share the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity. I want to express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for initiating this important debate. I endorse much of what she described so eloquently as the distressing results of the closure of our rural village schools.

The issue of closing rural schools is difficult and complicated. So much depends on individual circumstances. Clearly, it is not feasible or sensible to keep open tiny primary schools for a few pupils who may span the full age range. How can one teacher cope with a class of 30 children spanning all age groups between seven and 11 in the same room?

Australia solves the problem with radio schools. Perhaps they are a possibility. I wonder whether the Government have considered them. Perhaps at some time in the future the present Government's plan for launching a network of learning centres in the inner cities with modern ICT facilities—information and communication technology facilities, as I have to keep reminding myself—could be expanded into rural areas. At the moment the level of ICT needed is far too sophisticated and expensive and could not be justified on economic grounds. Virtual classrooms that enable teachers in one school to teach interactively pupils in another school that could be miles away require "real" time which, in its turn, requires broad-band technology. Doubtless that will happen one day, but not yet.

The Government have produced a cheerful Green Paper entitled Excellence in Cities. It clearly expresses the most laudable aims for special programmes, networking, learning centres in inner cities, radical expansion of specialist and what they call beacon school programmes, and extended opportunities for gifted and talented children in the inner cities.

As I said, that is a laudable priority, but it is directed explicitly at the inner cities. What are the Government planning for rural schools? Their needs are different but just as pressing. The trouble is that many such schools, often rather isolated, are invisible. The need for attention to rural schools cannot be separated from the need for transport in rural areas, not only school buses, but buses to local shops, medical health centres and other amenities.

Cornwall, for instance, is fast becoming a crowded tourist centre, catering for its summer visitors but turning its back on its local residents. The principal at Landau Forte College, where I chair the board of governors, tells me that recently he interviewed a teacher from Cornwall for a teaching post at the college, which is in the former industrial centre of Derby. He asked her why on earth she wanted to move from such a beautiful county as Cornwall to the east Midlands. She replied: "From June to September I cannot move because of the crowds of tourists and from September to June the place is empty and dead". What an environment for the children, the teachers and the families who live year-round in the area.

The problem for rural communities is not just one of school closures. The Government must recognise what a dismal future lies ahead for the elderly, the poor and those tied to the land who cannot escape while all the families who can move to the inner cities, to the marvellous schools about which we are hearing, abandon the rural area in which they were brought up. It is a frightening prospect. I should like to hear what the Government's strategy is. What measures are they going to take not only to save our rural schools but also our rural communities?

I wonder how interested in rural schools are those on the Government Benches when I count only three noble Lords in their place on the Front Bench opposite.

8.21 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for enabling us to have this debate on an issue which is of great concern to so many in our rural communities.

As the new chairman of the General Synod's Board of Education, I am conscious that the Church of England has been and continues to be a provider of many village schools. That is a responsibility which we take seriously. In my diocese, around 60 of our 190 church schools are village schools, and many, I am pleased to say, offer a quality of education which an increasing number of parents living in urban areas choose for their children. Village schools are, without doubt, an indicator of the living village community and are clearly seen as such.

On these Benches we believe that confession is good for the soul. I must therefore admit that when I was diocesan director of education in the diocese of Durham in the 1970s I was involved with the Durham county LEA in the closure of a number of small rural schools. My criterion was then and is now a concern first and foremost with the educational viability of such schools and the ability of the school and its staff to deliver a rounded curriculum for the education of the whole child.

I do not regret most of those closures on such grounds. But I must admit also that on almost every occasion at the public meeting following the announcement of the intention to close the school, the charge was made that the LEA and Church were taking the heart out of village life, even if the school was rarely used outside school hours. I want to suggest that when it reaches that stage and the proposal to close has been announced, it is too late. The rural communities whose schools remain need to be thinking of the value and the worth of their school to the community in the wider sense while that school is still functioning.

For example, the parish council, realising the higher unit cost per pupil in a village school--this has to be recognised—should be pressing governors, LEAs and Church authorities to see that the educational resources are being provided in a realistic way; suggesting appropriate clustering of village schools; arid sharing head teachers, staff, specialist staff and facilities with neighbouring village schools. There are a host of ways, when creative minds are applied, which would help to reduce the cost of rural schools but also increase the educational advantages and opportunities offered to the children.

However, that does not address the Question posed by the noble Baroness this evening. In a recent note on my vision for the countryside, which I wrote for the first meeting of the new Countryside Agency of which I am a member and must therefore declare an interest, I suggested that village communities should deliberately make their schools, with their often under-used school premises, a key focal point for village life. This is not easy, but with vision, will and determination it car be made to happen. There are examples of this, as the former RDC Report on Joint Provision of Rural Services shows; for example, at the James Bradfield Community Primary School at Stoke Ferry in Norfolk the hall serves as school hall, community centre, theatre and Methodist church and the school houses the doctor's twice-weekly surgery. The potential for such uses is enormous, not least when the question of social exclusion in rural areas is seriously addressed. The school complex could house post office, IT centre, information office and library, as well as pre-school and adult education opportunities, to say nothing of sporting facilities.

If that were to happen—it would be an excellent example of joined-up thinking on the use of precious resources in the service of rural communities—we would not be talking about the closure of rural schools; we would be extending them. I should like to see parish councils, Churches and voluntary groups working with the Government and the LEA to promote this. It needs the Department for Education and Employment, the DETR and other departments to work together at the very least to promote some pilot schemes, possibly under the guidance of the new Countryside Agency.

I do not believe this begs the question posed by our debate; it is one answer to it. But neither do I underestimate the problems which must be faced if it is to happen. Legislation about the safety and protection of children means that other activities on school premises must be well planned and managed. There are issues of security—sadly, a major concern with children in our times—and lack of storage, and unwelcome noise from other activities can be a problem. I know from personal experience that shared use is not: an easy option. However, none of the problems is insuperable if we believe that rural schools are an essential component for a living and lively village life. I am going to do all in my power to see that our Church schools, based as they are in communities, use their premises to the full in the interests of those communities. I hope that the Minister will promise government encouragement and some resources for such initiatives, so that most remaining rural schools continue to serve and enhance their village communities.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on introducing this debate on a topic of such importance both to our education system and also to the well-being of rural communities.

I offer my brief contribution as someone who has consistently supported the principles of diversity and choice in education and who, in times past, before I spent so much of my time abroad on humanitarian aid work, often spoke in your Lordships' House on behalf of the rights of parents to have access to the schools which were best able to give their children the type of education they wished them to receive.

One of the categories of school which was frequently involved in those debates was local village schools which were often under the threat of closure on grounds of size, alleged financial inefficiency and concern as to whether they could offer an adequately broad-based curriculum.

In defending the right of those schools to survive, I frequently found that size was an irrelevant criterion. Small rural schools were often cost-effective, especially in the context of costs which would be incurred by closure and the relocation of pupils to urban or other rural schools. Such schools frequently succeeded in providing excellent, imaginative and high quality curricula many epitomised the spirit that small is beautiful. I will never forget visiting Hartland, a small school in North Devon, and being profoundly impressed by the quality of relationships in the school, the relationship with the local community and the breadth of curricula taught in highly imaginative and effective ways.

Parents are often passionately committed to keeping their local school open. The advantages to them and to the local community include the avoidance of the hassle for them and their children of travel to more distant schools; teaching staff who are more closely in touch with local families in the community; and accessibility which encourages more parental involvement in school activities, as well as the communal use of facilities provided by such schools so well outlined by the right reverend Prelate. Such schools continue to operate to the benefit of parents, children and the community.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, emphasised that the standards achieved in small rural schools are often higher than in other schools. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Davies, who expressed concern about whether such schools can maintain academic standards, that research undertaken by my colleague Dr. John Marks showed that in 1997 children aged seven in such schools were three to four months ahead of pupils at schools in the rest of the country in respect of national curriculum tests for reading, spelling and mathematics. In 1998, the difference for children at age 11 were smaller. They were about two to three months ahead, as measured by national curriculum tests for English and mathematics. On average, 6 per cent more pupils in such schools reached the Government's target for 11 year-olds at level 4 in mathematics, compared with pupils at other types of schools in the rest of the country. There should be no concern about the ability of small rural schools to meet high academic standards.

In countries such as the Netherlands, if parents want to establish or preserve a local school, the Government are obliged to fund it, even if there are only 50 children—subject to adequate educational standards. That legal requirement demonstrates an understanding and commitment to the wishes and rights of parents that is highly commendable and accords with the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the fundamental principle that parents should be provided with education for their children consistent with their fundamental values and principles.

Many parents in rural communities passionately wish to retain their local village school. They do not want their children to travel to towns for their education or for school links with communities to be severed. Will the Minister give an assurance that the rights of parents in this country will be similarly respected and that good rural schools will be preserved if parents want them? In so doing, the Government would demonstrate their commitment to the principles of diversity of provision, freedom of choice and accountability to local communities. That would have the double benefit of being both principled and popular. What more could the Government ask than a positive political philosophy and policy that simultaneously demonstrates respect for the rights of parents, children and local communities?

8.32 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I follow my noble friend Lady Linklater in reminiscing about my time at school when I was three. I used to cross the road to a little primary school in Llangollen. If one goes there today, one finds that school trips are made there, but they are not made because I attended that school. The children are dressed in period costume and a teacher sits at a high desk wearing a winged collar and frock coat and holding a cane. He terrifies today's children with teaching from the past and ties the Welsh knot around their neck—which in the old days used to forbid children from speaking in Welsh. That is not something I had to undertake. My recollection of that school is that I was put to sleep in the afternoon and had to take home my dog, an Airedale named Towser, when he visited to see what I was up to.

That rural school gave me a momentum that followed into the larger urban schools that I later attended. After the Butler Act in 1944, there came into being the philosophy that larger was better—exemplified by the Gittins Report in 1967 on primary education in Wales and the concurrent Plowden Report in England, which suggested that any school having fewer than 50 pupils was unable to give the quality and range of educational facilities necessary.

That philosophy has been proved wrong. Rural schools are a success. They should be more confident about their success and broadcast it to the world. Their success is demonstrated by the reports of school inspectors in Wales. Parents, staff, governors and pupils know each other well. For that reason, the behaviour of the children and school discipline are always excellent. Attendance figures are always good. Parents say that their children love going to school. That atmosphere is good for learning. It fosters happy and successful children who do well at secondary level because they are self-reliant and down-to-earth. I was most interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, refer to 1997 and 1998 reports confirming that. That is certainly the experience in Wales.

There are certainly budgetary limitations but they can be overcome by forming clusters with similar schools in the area to pool expertise, share the cost of educational trips, form joint sports teams and even establish a joint governing body. Books and other resources can also be shared. New information technology should be intelligently used among rural schools. That does not necessarily require extra cash but just enthusiasm and organisation—the creative minds to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn referred.

In most rural communities in Wales, the whole community is made to feel involved. Local people are invited to the school to talk about the history and the way of life of their community. Everyone, regardless of whether they have children at the school, is pressed to attend its concerts, carol services, sports days and fairs. The parent teacher association is a major focus of social activity. If one takes away the school, the village quickly changes from a living community to just another dormitory suburb or, even worse, a cluster of holiday cottages and second homes where the Welsh language and culture die and nothing moves for half the year—as the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke said.

Mentor Powys, which is the rural community development organisation delivering the European Leader II programme in Powys, commented to me today: Small community schools are a key component of rural communities and often play an important role in keeping young families and attracting younger families to live in rural areas, which contributes to the de-acceleration of the general ageing trend that is characteristic of rural populations. Small community schools, particularly in Welsh-speaking areas, are vital in preserving the Welsh. language and culture, and many parents fear that such a cultural identity may be lost if a school closes and children have to travel to urban schools". The closure of a village school must never be done simply to save money on the education budget. I was happy to hear the assurances given to the noble Lord, Lord. Davies, in referring to the statement of Stephen Byers, the Minister in another place, that a tough policy is to be adopted and that no school will be closed without the Secretary of State being involved. When that happens, the Secretary of State must take into account the impact and social costs of closure not just on the school itself but the whole community.

In Wales, we are of course concerned about the Welsh language. There is a strong case for having rural schools where, in one instance, Welsh is the main language and, in another instance and at a nearby school, English is the first language and children are taught accordingly. Those matters are being passed to the new Welsh Assembly and I sincerely trust—indeed, I know—that the national assembly will fulfil its responsibilities to rural schools.

8.39 p.m.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for initiating this excellent debate—although for me it is somewhat painful. However, I will take courage, follow the advice of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn and confess my sins.

One of the hardest decisions that I had to take during my time as a county councillor was when we closed the village primary school. I had to defend the decision in a debate on television. I have to say to your Lordships that I was neither convincing, nor convinced, that: I was right. As noble Lords have said, closing a village school can devastate a community. Not only are local children brought up together, but parents are brought together by the school. It is not just the nativity play, the carol concert, the school fete or the jumble sale; nor is it just the work of the PTA which adds vibrance to village life. Often the cement of a small community is the chatter and the concern which are swapped at the school gates. These are the informal information systems which hold a community together and which often obviate the need for social services or visits from the doctor or the district nurse.

However, as councillors we had a problem. We received advice from officials about critical mass, about the introversion of a tiny school community, about the lack of competition and the absence of proper team games, all of which had some validity. But our problem in the 1970s was that, as councillors, we had no measurement as to whether the school was good or bad. Now we do have simple league tables to measure success. The whole village or community and the local authority can benefit from this knowledge.

Quite simply, parents do have more information on which to base choice as to whether to send their children to a good school or a poor one, whether to support their village at all costs or take their children to a better school elsewhere. In my experience they generally choose the school—the one that they perceive to be the best. We have liberated parents by giving them more freedom to choose. Most have transport and few are prepared to have their children handicapped for life by a poor education. Indeed, we have only to look at the league tables to see that there is often little correlation between size and success, new buildings or location, as was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, and my noble friend Lady Cox.

Conscientious parents will seek out the best schools for their children. They know that good schools, just as good village shops, good village churches, good sports clubs, scout troops, dramatic societies, pubs and post offices thrive if they are well led or managed.

We surely all know of village schools bursting at the seams and those which are hopeless, full of moans and their bad luck, or how they are misjudged. That is tough. Indeed, the world is tough. Parents live in a tough world and they know that their children will probably live in an even tougher one where competition is even more forceful than it is today.

Parents are not fooled by the caring, sharing politically correct "everybody is a winner", "the bright must wait for the thick"—in other words, the navel gazing of yesterday's teachers. The best schools provide the best education for everyone. Each child should be motivated to reach his or her potential. But that depends on leadership. I should like to ask the Minister where the Government are in their drive for performance-related pay. Do they believe that the best should be rewarded? That means not just being labelled a beacon school; it means real money in real pay packets, salaries and bonuses. Do the Government believe that governors should have more freedom to juggle the finances in order to secure the best head teachers by paying a bit more? Is there a case for weighting pay not only in terms of inner cities but also in terms of rurality? As my noble friend Lady Brigstocke said, the challenges, although different, are just as great in rural areas.

However, leadership should not come from full-time staff alone. It should also come from the governors. Does the Minister think that the calibre of governors is sufficient to raise standards in schools by retaining their personal independence and determination that their school will be top of the premier league? Chairmen of governors should be resolute in their quest to find the exceptional head teacher who attracts the best staff for a school, a school to which children will flock and which will enable the village to thrive. Does the Minister believe that we have the best system for appointing and electing governors? Should there be more scrutiny as to their ability and leadership skills? Many, I know, are outstanding in their commitment. I should like particularly to cite Church schools in that respect. But their responsibility is very great and it is important that they should demonstrate strong leadership skills and not just be a poodle of the LEA or the teaching staff, particularly the head.

People deserve excellence but, sadly, no government can deliver without a determined community. As an "Archers" addict, I know that the Minister will be aware of that fact. If I had to make a decision today to close a school, whether it had a handful of children or hundreds, I hope that I would close only a very poor one. I would recognise a good one because parents would choose to send their children there and the school would be one of those in the premier league.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, this debate is timely in that the effect of the class size rules for key stage 1 are beginning to be felt in our primary schools across the country. If government money is forthcoming for their continued implementation, the effects will inevitably work their way up the school system. In theory, this should mean smaller classes throughout the primary sector, and more schools to cope with total school population. In practice, I believe that politicians and local government officers, the country over, will attempt to rationalise and move pupils to the point of delivery, rather than maintaining schools where they are needed.

Rural schools are at the centre of their communities, as many noble Lords have said. They are the place where children start their education, gain their knowledge and often move on to their larger urban secondary counterparts. But village schools are more than just simply a place of learning. As other speakers have said, they are the focal point. They are the daily meeting place for families, but mainly for the wives and mothers whose knowledge of the community is brought to bear on combating the problems of isolation, illness, bereavement and deprivation.

Much of the information that is exchanged within the confines of the rural school is strictly local, but here, too, lifts to the hospital, the doctor's surgery or the nearest town are arranged. Here alerts concerning those in need are given, invitations to parties or celebrations are handed out and activities involving the whole community are planned. Lifelong friends are made and living centres retained.

Rural schools are under threat. Even as we debate this issue there are people countrywide who are investigating the possibilities of closing yet more rural schools and bussing children into the towns. Further, if rural schools are closed the counties have to bear increased school transport charges. In October 1998, the county council network produced a briefing paper on home-to-school transport costs. The work was originally commissioned by Norfolk and then extended to other sparsely populated areas of the country. It was intended to relate the cost of home-school transport to the allowance for population density in the standard spending assessments. In the case of Norfolk, it had been discovered that the allowance did not fully compensate for all the effects of sparsity.

Population sparsity is calculated in a manner totally impenetrable to the normal mortal but yielding a table of sparsity factors which run from 0.83 for North Yorkshire, 0.70 in Lincolnshire, 0.33 for Northamptonshire, 0.31 for my own Leicestershire down to 0.16 for Surrey. Having applied these factors, the costs of primary school transport for 1998–99 for primary school children were £58.84 per child for North Yorkshire, £40.90 for Lincolnshire, £39.27 for Northamptonshire and £13.13 for Leicestershire. In Suffolk it was £85.18, but in Staffordshire it was £5.15. In other words, the cost of home-school transport varies widely and is not fully compensated for in the SSA.

At present, buses travel the rural bus lanes stopping to pick up sets of one or two children. They travel for miles, taking children from rural villages to urban schools. In thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for making this debate possible, I nearly hesitated to do so because I thought that she was in fact stealing my thunder. Will the Minister tell us why things are arranged in this order—for example, taking children from rural areas to urban schools when it would be in fact infinitely wiser, as I have suggested, on the transport side alone to do things in reverse? In other words, we should give children from a small area of town the opportunity to go to school in the country. The cost of transport would be lower than they are now and indeed the task of rationalising places in town would be made much easier by the fact that schools there are so close together.

Rural schools face many additional costs in providing facilities and specialisms to make them available for children. Traditional teaching of skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic are key, but modern technology can play a very real part.

I have touched on only two issues: the cost of providing schools for children living in rural areas and the importance I place on retaining rural schools not only as the centre of learning but in fact as the very centre of community life, as was so well referred to by earlier speakers. I have briefly touched on the need for modern technology and the way in which that can help rural schools: the shared resources, the clustering of schools.

The Government have stated that they believe in rural sustainability, but to make this possible money and ideas must: be forthcoming. If they fail to provide these, we will end up with many of our young people being sent out of their villages. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, asked: what are the implications for our rural communities? The answers are many. The question is: have the Government the will to deliver or will this be yet another question of hopes raised but answers not provided?

8.51 p.m.

The Earl of Stair

My Lords, I join with others from all sides of the House in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for asking this extremely relevant Question tonight. With the new Scottish Parliament and the Assembly in Wales about to start, the majority of the regions in this country covered by this Question will come under the control of other bodies. This matter, however, is still relevant in considering United Kingdom education matters as a whole,.

It is very easy to consider the cost of individual schools with vacancies and then to close one, combine two and thus save money. However, in a rural area, unlike an urban one, the school also provides, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, a vital focal point in the community. In the first place, the school not only provides education for primary and secondary school children but also serves social and recreational purposes. Secondly, the school provides a link for adults easily to maintain contact with their children's primary education.

The Government have repeatedly expressed a wish not to abandon rural communities by improving transport links and encouraging business development and retraining. However, if a real effort to maintain effective schools in rural areas is not made, then parents who are not directly linked to agricultural or forestry employment will be forced out of the community in order to be within reach of the schools they need for their children. The knock-on effect of this will undoubtedly affect other small businesses and thus cause depopulation of the countryside.

In Scotland there must now be ministerial approval before a council may close certain schools if the next nearest school is five miles away if it is a primary school or 10 miles away if it is a secondary school. The second reason would be if the school is denominational; and, thirdly, if the school is operating at greater than 80 per cent capacity.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, referred to a statement made in Scotland by a Scottish Office Minister who said that schools should be closed only for exceptional educational reasons and not for only financial reasons. It should not be necessary for a Minister to be consulted at all. The Government have been heard to make bold statements such as "education, education, education" and to state how there should be computers in every classroom. Both these aims are commendable but if in order to achieve this goal children have to travel long distances at both ends of the day, I suggest that this is counter-productive. The first point is that primary school children would have to travel longer distances in possibly unsupervised buses, possibly even without seatbelts correctly fitted. Secondly, older children would be travelling at times when they should be studying. Both problems are compounded in winter, with the long nights and often unpleasant weather.

Another favourite cry from all governments is for smaller classes. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, it is often proved that the smaller rural schools and the additional teaching attention produce better results than the larger urban schools. With advancing technology there is no reason why there should not be computers in classrooms in rural schools linked to the Internet or even linked to other schools. Teachers should cost almost the same whether they are in urban or rural schools.

Finally, I hope the Minister will agree with me that: if the policies for maintaining the rural environment. developing small businesses, retraining for rural employment and improving transport are to be worth while, rural areas need education, education, education within the community, without the children having to travel for it.

8.55 p.m.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for introducing this very interesting debate. The rural community in many parts of the country has, sadly, declined but in some parts it is managing to keep going very well. The successful village will have a good strong fanning community, a good rural shop, a church, a school and a good pub. Unfortunately, many rural communities do not have these. Fanners need children in order to keep on farming. Children need education, and education brings about community spirit and pride in the local community. Communities need a focal point and that focal point is the school, which often doubles as the community centre, the sports centre and, indeed, the everything centre of the village.

My local village rejoices in the name of Moscow. The school is known as the Kremlin, and I must admit that it is extremely popular, despite its name. The village has nearly quadrupled in size in the space of the past 10 years, thanks to good governance, some extremely good teaching and a very able headmaster.

The problem with rural schools is that the pupil roll fluctuates with the age of the community. As the community ages, so the school's roll diminishes; and then the young get older and breed, and fill up the school again. There is an inevitability about a school in the rural community and that must be so if the communities are to survive. So it must be wrong when schools are closed on purely commercial grounds. Last year two schools in Perthshire were closed to save £60,000 per annum, despite having 33 pupils between them. That sum of £60,000 is actually less than the local authority's director of education receives as his annual salary. It does seem a little peculiar. This happened despite the fact that Mr. Brian Wilson, the education minister at the Scottish Office, stated quite clearly that schools should only be closed with educational, not commercial, justification.

The decision in that case certainly seemed to be very much based on commercial grounds, but the blame was placed on educational reasons. This must be a loophole in the diktat that has been laid down by the Scottish Office, and it must surely be looked at. In many cases, closure has meant long journeys along single-track roads, with the potential danger of a head-on smash round the bend. It has meant long journeys by fishing boats off islands which no longer have any schools whatsoever. It means that pupils have to travel to school in taxis or in buses, all costing extra money, whether it is in winter in snow and ice and in the dark. And all for what?—the saving of a few pounds in the huge realm of the educational budget.

It is, of course, extremely hard to sustain any practical argument for keeping a school open when its roll amounts to only one child. However, country schools have been a part of the education system for generations. It cannot be beyond the wit of our modern-day councillors and education authorities to work out that if schools are closed the local community does not have much of a future.

Currently, councils in Scotland can close primary schools without government permission if children do not have to travel more than five miles as a result of that closure. However, all closures should have to go to the education ministry, I would have thought, as they have to in England.

The survival of their primary schools really matters to rural people. They argue that that is why they pay their taxes. The Government say that they care for the rural community; that their raison d'être is education. Now they have the chance to prove it. Small local primary schools have a good reputation and an honourable record; they are free in the main from the social problems that all too often blight large schools in the middle of urban areas. Parents feel safe with their children in the bosom of the community. Children who are bussed away never feel the same sense of belonging as those who have been educated in their local area, and they tend very often to drift away from that area. That in turn brings about the death knell for the community. Too many small communities—and not only the remote ones—have died as a result.

We cannot go on ignoring the situation. Many islands are now all but depopulated of people of child-bearing age because there are no schools to encourage new blood to come in or old-family blood to return. Good village schools with good, enthusiastic teachers give children the best possible start. I have been led to believe that a child learns 75 per cent of what he will learn in life before he is eight years old. We should give children a chance at the start by giving them a good local school—a school that is not part of the urban jungle—where they can learn respect for others; where they can learn respect for property, both theirs and other people's; and where they can learn about self-respect, all of which is sadly lacking in our modern society. However, because of the small size of the school and the undeniable self-interest of the community, there is a chance for children to acquire those attributes at their local school in the middle of their local rural economy.

9.1 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, in common with all the other speakers I thank my noble friend Lady Linklater for initiating an excellent, all too brief—if rather one-sided—debate. Perhaps I can thank her also for leaving it until the very last moment to give me what is likely to be my last opportunity to talk about Scottish and Welsh schools, although the problem we are discussing is common to all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It is clear that it is not a Scottish or Welsh debate, but a rural debate.

The right reverend Prelate started something of a trend for personal confession in the debate. I must make a personal confession: my only experience of small rural schools lies in my fiancée's teaching practice some years ago in rural Kent. I suspect that that does not really qualify for tonight's debate—although I must say that I learnt a great deal during that period. However, I am very pleased to say that in 13 years as the leader of a local education authority I have had no experience of closing schools of any size but I have had experience of building and opening three new schools. I feel peculiarly unqualified for the debate tonight, except that I have learnt a great deal during my time as my party's education spokesperson and in conversation and discussion with many colleagues who have considerable experience of rural education.

Much has been said about the effects that the closure of small rural schools—usually primary schools, as others have said—on rural communities. I wish briefly to summarise some of the effects, some of which have been mentioned; others less so. The first effect is that of the necessity for much greater travelling. That entails greater transport costs for the LEA and often for the parents; it means less walking to school for the children, with the consequent effects on the health of the children and the health and environment of the community; and it means usually a longer day for the child. But it is not a longer day learning and enjoying school; quite the opposite. Quite often it means that the child will have a lower level of participation in after school activity simply because of transport requirements and all too often it means correspondingly less participation by parents in school activities because of similar distance and travelling problems. As many noble Lords have said, its implications go far wider than just for the child and the parent, important though they are; it has implications for the community as a whole—the loss of an extremely valuable community.

The closure of a school can affect, if you like, the profile of the village. It is arguable how long parents with children will remain in a village that loses its school. It is unarguable that very few, if any, parents with small children will move to a village that does not have its own school. That has an obvious effect over time—and not a very long time.

It has been clear in the debate—it is true in the country generally—that there is now a general consensus in favour of rural schools. Many noble Lords have asked—I will ask again—what are the Government doing to back their fine words, words that I accept in the good faith in which I am sure they were intended. The Minister said in his much quoted speech—the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, rightly quoted it—that all proposed rural school closures would be referred to the Secretary of State. I am interested to know how many have been referred to the Secretary of State since that time. I am even more interested to know what decisions have been taken on them. I am interested to know what will be the role of the Secretary of State in England now that we have school organisation committees—which we and others opposed when the matter was discussed in your Lordships' House—and adjudicators, who have some role to play in this.

The Liberal Democrat view is that if we must consider proposed school closures, they should be judged on three criteria. First, the quality of education provision for children. It has already been said that the old assumption that small schools are unable to provide the necessary breadth and quality of education is being increasingly challenged and increasingly there is evidence to show that all too often the opposite is the case. Of course there are bad rural schools, but I suspect there are a lot more bad urban schools. Very often that is not because of size but because of leadership and quality of teaching.

Secondly, the social and community implications of closure, which have been the subject of much debate today. Thirdly—inevitably in a time of much-pressurised budgets— the financial implications. I question whether closing a school is necessarily a financial saving. I have referred already to increased transport costs; there will probably be increased costs in the receiving schools, not to mention the more important but harder to quantify costs to the community as a whole.

A much more imaginative approach is now needed to review the importance of schools in the local community as a whole. I hesitate to use a phrase that I have come to loathe but this Government love, but what is needed is "joined-up" thinking. The approach should not be the narrow one of the LEA budget. The matter should be viewed holistically, for the benefit of the whole community.

I am convinced that if there is the political will, a way will be found. A way is being found in many rural communities. I particularly welcome the clear and firm commitment from the right reverend Prelate on behalf of the Anglican Church. I hope and expect that we shall shortly receive an equally clear and firm commitment from the Government to support rural schools.

9.8 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, not only for introducing the debate but for her excellent opening remarks. It has been an incredibly good debate.

I was born in urban Britain, and lived most of my adult life in rural Britain. Like a number of noble Lords, I was a member of my local county council, and for eight years was chairman of what was then known as the toddler and play group, which served six villages in my county.

In terms of impact on rural communities, schools are central. The implementation of the class size pledge is one such issue. It also has a specific impact on schools, Evidence is coming in which confirms our fears about the application of a well-meaning but rigid policy.

Schools, especially those in rural areas, would rather have the money to provide flexibility to ease pressure! on class size. The present policy ignores the distinction between a class with a single age group and one with a mixed age group. For example, a school in the countryside with 80 children will have three classes, a wide range of ability, and often three age ranges in each class. Instead of bussing one or two children to other schools simply because the magical figure of 30 has been exceeded, if the school had the money it could provide for those children. The pressures in junior schools are now increasing, and the choice of schools is being limited.

I cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of pre-schools, which are members of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, and of private nursery provision. All those involved are concerned. The Pre-School Learning Alliance in particular has reported its concerns about the closure of its schools.

In the debate in another place on 28th April, the Minister, Mrs. Hodge, said: We know that pre-schools are concerned about closures; we know that they blame closures for the loss of four-year-olds to maintained nurseries; we know that they are worried about the minimum wage. We do not agree with them about the figures relating to closures, but my officials are holding discussions with the Pre-School Learning Alliance to see how we can reconcile our two views". —[Official Report, Commons, 28/4/99; col.300.] Does the department believe the Pre-School Learning Alliance? After all, those are the people who are out. in the community, while DfEE officials are cocooned in Whitehall.

Criticism of the voucher scheme will not impress. Yes, there were some problems with its introduction. But the Government could have modified the policy rather than making matters worse. Many more pre-schools and private nurseries are under threat as a result of present government policies. The Pre-School Learning Alliance claims that about another 1, 700 of its schools are at risk of closure.

In the same debate, Mrs. Hodge said, at col.300: In my view, it does not matter where children are; what is important is the experience that they undergo, the qualifications of those who work with them and the adult-child ratios involved". Again, that statement totally ignores the issue of whether the placement is appropriate for the child.

The Government's own figures for January 1998 indicate that of four year-olds in local authority, private and/or voluntary sector provision, 60 per cent were in infant classes in maintained schools and a large proportion of those were not in nursery classes at all.

There are other issues that impact on rural communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, spoke of the financial pressures on LEAs. There has been a shift of moneys this year from rural authorities to urban areas. The difficulty for many county councils covering rural Britain is the way in which the Government are launching—and re-launching-spending commitments which involve massive top-slicing of funds at national level. They have placed relentless bureaucratic burdens on local authorities which also must retain the funds to meet their additional legal obligations, all of which impact on school budgets.

I wish to put a question to the Minister. My local authority is agonising over this issue. It spends well above its SSA on education. When money is passed down from the Government and they say that every pound must be passed on to the schools, and when another Minister in a different department insists that an authority should spend more on social services, what is the authority to do? Is it free to make its own decisions? Or is there now an unofficial but rigidly applied ring fence?

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, referred to closure decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, took up that important point. It will not be the Secretary of State who makes the decision. It will be organisation committees and the adjudicator. Whatever be the tougher conditions proposed by the Minister, I hope that the distinction between schools will be that advocated by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege; namely, that it should be based on the quality of the school, the education provided and its value to the community, but not its size.

9.14 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for allowing us to have this debate. I also join with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in congratulating the noble Baroness on the forceful manner in which she made her points. To bring in Scotland and Wales two-and-three-quarter hours before polling day commences deserves commendation.

Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I have been searching for an experience to place before the House to qualify me to speak on this very important issue. Apart from being an addict of "The Archers" (which is made in Birmingham), as the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, suggested, I attended a rural primary school for two years and I do not believe that it did me any harm. I learnt from it the value of small rural schools both in educational terms and in terms of their contributions to communities. Tonight we have heard clearly and forcefully of the serious impact that the closure of a village school can have on its community. The village loses a vital focus; children spend longer travelling to other schools; and young families come under pressure to move elsewhere. School closures can have a knock-on effect on other services such as village shops and begin a spiral of decline.

Apart from the confession of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn—I suspect that many of us involved in large bureaucracies over the past 20 or 30 years should confess to certain inadequacies in dealing with the issue of "small" versus "big"-I was struck by his comments about the closeness of parish priests to their own local communities, in particular, his advice to schools to anticipate the future and focus on their contribution to their village communities.

We take this matter very seriously indeed. For that reason, in February 1998 we announced that all proposals to close rural schools would be called in for decision by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and that the presumption would be against closure. We did not say that no rural school would ever close, because all such proposals must be considered on their individual merits.

Noble Lords will also be aware that later this year we shall move to local decision-making. The statutory guidance to school organisation committees and adjudicators will ensure that the presumption against closing a rural school is maintained. The precise effects of the closure of a school will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, said, differ according to the circumstances of the community. In some cases there may be a perfectly acceptable alternative school within easy reach that offers additional facilities and improves the quality of education on offer. In such circumstances, particularly if numbers in the village school are very small and unlikely to increase, everyone may agree that closure makes sense. On the other hand, if there is no alternative school within reasonable travelling distance and the school is an important community resource that would no longer be available, closure would have a much more serious effect. Those factors would need to be taken into account when considering the proposals.

At this stage it may be helpful if I review the procedures involved in closing a school. First, no such proposals originate with the Department for Education and Employment. For obvious reasons, they rarely originate with the governing body of the school in question. Almost always they are brought forward by the local education authority. Clearly, this is something that local education authorities do not take lightly. They know that such proposals are not popular but they have a duty to deliver education in a cost-effective manner. They are aware that to maintain empty school places diverts resources away from areas where they could be put to good use. They must keep the balance of provision in their areas under review.

In order to publish proposals to close a school an LEA must first consult in the area and take into account any points made by those consulted. If it decides to go ahead with proposals, it must publish them by a notice in the local newspaper and by notices at the entrance to the school and in at least one other conspicuous place in the area. The notice must set out the procedure for making objections to the proposals and in addition state clearly what is intended. Any objections will then be taken into account by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in arriving at a decision on the proposals. In addition, the advice of Her Majesty's inspectors will always be sought.

Although, as I have said, each case is considered on its individual merits, it may be helpful if I rehearse briefly the main factors which would normally be considered relevant to the decision. These are the overall supply of school places in the area and the likely future demand for places; the standard of the school that is proposed for closure and the standards of the alternative schools; the accessibility of alternative schools; the overall effect of closure on the local community; the relative costs of the possible options; and the views of parents and other interested parties. I believe that noble Lords will see that in considering proposals the effects on the quality of education and on the local community are kept very much in mind.

Both the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity raised the issue of the quality of education provided in small rural schools. There are effective and weak schools in rural areas as elsewhere. Ofsted inspections show that there are many effective small schools and that they do not disadvantage pupils in terms of the curriculum or standards. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, reinforced that point. The good, effective small school will have good management and teaching. It is also likely to be characterised by a number of other factors including supportive parents and the community, the effective use of funds, good accommodation and resourcing, a supportive LEA and other networks. It is significant that seven rural schools were considered by Ofsted to be in the top 1 per cent nationally of schools inspected during 1997–98. From that one can conclude that although small schools sometimes find it more difficult to offer the range of activities available in larger schools, there are many examples of small rural schools which, with imagination and flair, offer a whole and wide range of experience. I agreed very much with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, asked about the support that can be given to small schools, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. Of course, we recognise the burdens and resourcing problems faced by small schools. I believe that there are imaginative approaches that can be adopted. Some small schools might wish to pursue the option of federating under a single head. That could enable schools to share services that are not cost effective for one small school such as financial support, facilities management, technical support and professional development.

Some schools might wish to go further towards the concept of a one-stop community service bringing together education and other public services on a single site. I agreed very much with the point made by the noble Baroness about the clusters of support. More generally, arrangements for co-operation and support between rural schools are to be much encouraged. The right reverend Prelate asked about their promotion and suggested ways in which school links with the local community could be improved. The department is working with the Community Education Development Centre to produce a toolkit to encourage and promote school links with the local community and community use of school premises. Clearly, making schools more accessible and welcoming to parents and other village residents is an important part of that process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and the noble Earl, Lord Stair, raised the issue of information technology in schools. I confirm that we are committed to bringing the superhighway to schools as quickly and cheaply as possible. Making services affordable is just as important as providing new money. We are pioneering arrangements with BT and the cable companies to wire up schools to the superhighway free of charge. Oftel and the telecoms industry have now reached agreement on how the commitment will be implemented. Schools will have a choice of free connections and technologies. On-line charges will be as low as £1 per pupil per year. That low-cost package is intended to cover rural schools as well as those in urban areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the important issue of how the views of parents will be taken into account. The views of parents are one of the key factors that the Secretary of State would take into account in deciding any proposal to close a rural school. We would expect LEAs to pay careful attention to their views when considering possible changes. We are ensuring that parents will continue to be able to make their views known under the new local decision-making process through commenting on the school organisation plan, objecting to proposals, and by inclusion in the school organisation committee.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, that parents are in a position to use the information about the performance of schools which is more readily available.

The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, spoke about the dangers of forcing pupils to chase school places elsewhere, and the pressures that might come from local education authorities. There is a balance to be weighed up by LEAs about the quality, educational value and overall contribution that a rural school makes to the community with the cost of maintaining places and the need to ensure overall value for money. Getting the balance right is the major challenge for LEAs. But I am convinced that the announcement by my right honourable friend in February 1998 of a presumption against closure will provide a framework for greater stability in the future.

I have much sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the implications of rural school closures on transport issues. The LEAs should take full account of the long-term home-to-school transport implications of any proposals to close rural schools. The Government are also convinced that more can be done to integrate public and school bus services.

A number of points were raised about funding. It is an important issue. The Government increased education SSAs by £1.1 billion this year—5.7 per cent more than last year. There will be further increases of 6 per cent in each of the next two years. I understand the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the extent to which the funding issues of rural schools are recognised. I suspect that no formula in terms of funding public services will ever be right. We accept that there are valid objections to the current formula. We are reviewing the system over the next three years to find long-term solutions to the problems that we inherited.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, raised the issue of teachers' pay. The Green Paper, Meeting the Challenge of Change, sets out the Government's proposals for the better rewarding of teachers, among other things. It proposes a close link between pay and appraisal. We intend to move towards a system of pay that attracts and retains good quality teachers in all schools, rural as well as urban.

I take the point about the need to strengthen leadership through new headship qualifications. The Green Paper mentions that we are to set up a national college for school leadership. I also take the point about governing bodies. We wish to support governing bodies and to see LEAs support them through training and guidance.

I noted with great interest the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Stair, and the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, about the differences of approach in Scotland. Clearly in the future those are matters for the Scottish Parliament. However, notwithstanding the differences, we see an emerging consensus about the value of rural schools in all the countries concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about the number of schools closed since the announcement by my right honourable friend Mr. Byers, in February 1998. Seven proposals to close rural schools have been decided since the announcement in February. For five of those proposals the LEA was able to make a convincing case that closure of the school was in the overall educational interest of pupils in the area; and the proposals were therefore approved. Two of the proposals have been rejected. I understand that there are four undecided cases. Perhaps I may say also that there is some evidence, since the announcement, that LEAs have been considering particularly carefully proposals to close rural schools and bringing them forward only when there was a particularly strong case.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, mentioned the issue of class sizes. Our policy of reducing class sizes is central to our drive to raise standards in schools. Where, under the Government's class size policy, an isolated school finds that it has 30 children in infant classes and another child seeking a place for whom there is no alternative school within a reasonable distance, a place will be made available and any necessary funding for additional teachers will also be made available.

In relation to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, regarding the comments made by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, at this stage I merely echo the words of my honourable friend Mrs. Hodge in another place that discussions are taking place to provide the best possible vision for early years through partnerships and local plans.

Time moves on. I hope that I have answered most of the points that have been raised. I hope that, through the relatively brief but extremely interesting debate, I have convinced noble Lords that the Government are indeed very much aware of the value of small rural schools and are doing all they can to support them.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes before ten o'clock.