Small Schools

– in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 5th May 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:26 pm, 5th May 2004

As I was saying, I seek first to celebrate the work of small schools in my constituency. In the South Gloucestershire unitary council area there are eight schools with fewer than 100 pupils, all in my constituency. I have recently visited three of them: Redwick and Northwick primary school, Oldbury-on-Severn primary school and Horton primary school. I visited the last two as part of the Global Campaign for Education's "MPs' back to school" day, in which many hon. Members participated.

On seeing the children's excellent presentations during those visits, and after chatting to staff, parents and governors, I was struck by how valuable small schools are as part of the variety of local authorities' educational provision. Large schools clearly have strengths and advantages, but small schools have features that I had not thought about very hard until I saw them for myself. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to some of those strengths, which had not previously occurred to me. I am sure that he, as the Minister for School Standards, already knows of them, but I will highlight them anyway on the off-chance that he does not.

I was struck by the way in which a small school sometimes works for a child who may not be very confident and who may have tried to settle at a larger school, but for whom that had not really worked. I met a few children who had moved to a smaller school environment. They had felt more secure and had received slightly more individual attention, and they had prospered. The nice thing was that they had not been left at that stage, but had flourished in an environment in which everyone counts, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone has to play their part. It was noticeable in some of the presentations on education that I saw, especially in Horton school, which is the smallest school in the authority area, that—certainly among the older pupils—every child took part and had to be involved. In that environment, children can flourish who might not do so well in a larger school environment. They can mature in a desirable way and take on responsibilities, so that when they have become the oldest children in the school, they look after the younger children. I asked what happens when they have to go to the very big school down the road, and whether they are overwhelmed. I was told that they sometimes find the first open day visit daunting, but that, because they have gained confidence and a sense of security, the transition from a small school to one of the larger comprehensives works well—rather better than I might have anticipated, in fact.

Something else that struck me about those schools was that they are often linked to a particular village. The other five small schools of the eight that I mentioned are: Iron Acton school, Old Sodbury primary school, Rangeworthy primary school, St. Andrews primary school at Cromhall, and Tortworth primary school. Each of those schools is linked to one village in my constituency, usually relatively small, and the school is in many ways the heart of the village. Some villages in my constituency lost their schools, which seemed to rip the heart out of those villages. I am keen to ensure that does not happen again. We should celebrate what is good in those schools, and develop their roles. The fact the schools are so central to village life means that their fundraising achievements are phenomenal—well beyond what one would expect for small schools, with a small number of parents involved. The whole community rallies round and they raise phenomenal amounts of money to help keep the school going. Obviously, we will come back to the issue of funding in a moment.

The schools have two roles. Their traditional role is as a school for the children in the village. However, in some villages, house prices have gone up and it has become difficult for young families to move into the village; children become adults, and perhaps move away, but their parents stay in the village in the house in which they were living. The actual number of children who live in the village and go to the village school may therefore diminish somewhat. However, that does not diminish the value of those schools, because parents from a wider catchment area find that there is something special about the smaller schools, which they want. I stress that my children attend a village school with about 200 children; it is a super school, and I do not mean to undermine the work of the larger schools. My point is simply that we need variety in provision. That is one of my key messages today—larger schools have their place and can offer particular things, but small schools are a key part of the overall pattern.

I am delighted that the Government have a presumption against the closure of rural schools. That is welcome, and I understand that the pace of rural school closures has slowed considerably. I hope that the Minister will keep an eye on South Gloucestershire to see that that policy is rigorously enforced in that authority, which has some very small schools. One of the problems is that it is obviously more expensive, both for the authority and the school itself, to run a small school. There is still one building to maintain and still one roof that can leak no matter how many children there are beneath it.

Similarly, the administrative burdens—the form filling and reporting back requirements—are often just as onerous for a head with 30 pupils as for one with 130. I have heard suggestions that it might be possible to reduce the administrative burden on the head teachers of small schools. The head teacher in Oldbury-on-Severn school spends half his week teaching, and the headmistress at Horton a similar proportion. Clearly, they are trying to fulfil the roles that would be met by several members of staff in a larger school. Given that in smaller schools those roles fall on one pair of very committed shoulders, is there anything that could be done to take some of the administrative burden off the heads of some of the small schools? I hope that the Minister can offer me some encouragement on that.

One of the ways in which central Government try to help local authorities to deal with some of the issues is through additional funding for sparsity. One of the problems in an authority such as South Gloucestershire is that we are neither one thing nor the other. Certainly, all the small schools are in my part of the authority, but other parts include urban Kingswood and the north Bristol fringe. As a whole, the population of South Gloucestershire is not deemed to be particularly sparse. The consequence of that is that we do not really get much help with the additional costs of running our small schools. That adds to the financial pressure. Could the Minister comment on the possibility of looking at the issue at sub-local authority level—dealing not with averages but with whether there are sparsity issues within the authority area? Are there wards where the population is sparse, where the population is small, and the local school is small and expensive to run? Could that not be recognised?

In general, there is a funding issue. I make no apology for raising the matter, because part of the reason why there is pressure on small schools in my authority is the tight financial settlement for South Gloucestershire, which continues to be one of the lowest funded authorities per primary pupil in Britain. We had a victory on that front: the Government listened, said that the funding formula was not fair, and introduced a new formula. I warmly welcomed that. Furthermore, I know that South Gloucestershire will never be the top funded authority in the country—nor should it be. However, our complaint is that our new funding has been put on hold, because the application of ceilings and floors has meant that £4 million last year and £4 million this year was withheld from South Gloucestershire to fund needy authorities—such as Kensington and Chelsea—and to put a floor under their grants.

Given that the Government have now brought in a fairer funding formula, which we support, and have accepted that we need that extra £4 million, small schools and parents in my authority want to know how long we will have to wait for it. That is a serious, critical question. The new rules quite properly say that we need more money, but will the new system ever be phased in? One accepts the need for some sort of phasing, but there is no end in sight to the phasing process. When will it end? When will the authority get that money? If the authority knew that that money was coming through, the squeeze on the smaller schools might not be as severe as I fear it will become. When will that ceiling go? Can things be done to ease the financial burden on some of the schools?

One argument is, "Let us not get too excited about buildings and structures. Instead, let us look at the quality of education." I agree that that must be our starting point. I bring to this debate my first-hand experience of several of these schools, and can say that they are offering education of excellent quality. They are small not because they are not excellent but because they are physically small and because of some of the demographic factors that I mentioned. There is no suggestion that the lack of numbers of pupils at some of these schools is due to lack of quality—indeed, some of them are full to the brim or even oversubscribed because they are excellent, popular schools.

The question arises how to deal with fluctuations in numbers. If a school has 35 pupils, as one school in my constituency has, and two big families move out, it can lose a fifth or a sixth of its pupil roll overnight. There is great volatility from one year to the next. One of my worries is that a small school will be closed in error, the village will experience a baby boom a few years later, and people in the village will say, "Wouldn't it be great if we still had a village school?" A school seldom returns once it has gone. I urge central Government to impress on local authorities the need to take the long view. A school in my authority, Trinity school, is no longer a small school because it now serves the three villages—hence its name—of Badminton, Acton Turville and Tormarton; but at times, there has been pressure on it to shut. Some of my predecessors, such as the late Heather Larkins, who was my predecessor as candidate in Northavon, pressed for that school to be kept open when the numbers merchants—the accountants—were saying, "It's too expensive and there are not enough children." That school survived and is flourishing. It is a large and growing school. I would be very sad to see small village schools lose their long-term future because of temporary lulls and cyclical patterns in birth rates.

This debate is not only about education but about community and quality of life. I want small schools to prosper and develop. Throughout Britain, primary teachers are being laid off because of falling rolls and a decreasing need for primary teachers. Does not that give us an opportunity to think afresh about small schools? They have tremendous potential to be centres for their communities, not only in school hours but out of hours and at weekends. They can be places that health bodies as well as education bodies can use. The buildings could be used and the costs shared. There are great ideas for using technology, which the Minister will no doubt share with us, such as enabling a neighbouring school with a specialist teacher in a particular subject to use IT to teach at both sites at once.

There is so much imagination around, and I would be sad if a numbers-driven process meant pressure on the future of schools that have real potential. We should not be misled by relatively small numbers into thinking that they are not very good schools that should not be part of long-term provision. Clearly, transport is an issue in an area such as mine. If we start to pressurise some of the smaller schools, yet more people will have to ferry their children longer distances to school. Again, this debate is not simply about education. Our starting point is the quality of the children's educational experience, but it has to be seen in the context of the whole community.

I hope that my remarks have given a flavour of how unique small village schools are. Each of the eight schools that I mentioned is associated with a village in my constituency. Many families who live in the village now will have sent their children to the village school, but the schools draw in people from a wider catchment area as well, and they can often do things that other schools cannot because of the flexibility of being a small school. Oldbury-on-Severn school, which I mentioned, will organise a poet to conduct poetry sessions, or a potter to do artwork with the children, because that is a particular interest of the head teacher, who uses his contacts. Such schools are often driven by one or more dynamic individuals. What strikes me on my visits is how often head teachers, other staff and governors go the extra mile. The schools are centres of commitment as well as excellence.

I do not want to romanticise or idealise. Small schools face pressures—for example, they are more expensive to run. However, we can mitigate some of those problems. We can try to alleviate some of the administrative burden on the senior staff. We can share the buildings with other community groups for other educational purposes. We can use IT to bring in resources. Schools planning must not be an accountancy, numbers-driven process. It has to be about the quality of community and of children's education, and about diversity and choice for parents. I hope that the Minister shares my passion for the high-quality education that so many small and village schools provide.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills 4:40 pm, 5th May 2004

It is a pleasure for me to be able to put on the record the Government's appreciation of the work that is done in small schools around the country, particularly in South Gloucestershire. I congratulate Mr. Webb. I almost called him my hon. Friend, and although I do not want to end his political career, I have known him for more than 10 years and I hope that he does not mind if I am confused about whether to call him the hon. Gentleman or my hon. Friend.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on the passion that he brought to the subject of small schooling, but also on the insights of his speech, which spoke well for his knowledge of the schools in his area and about the needs that exist in areas and constituencies like his. It also spoke well for the role of schooling as a public service that binds together a community, is a resource for it, strengthens it and gives it a sense of identity and pride as well as a future.

I intend to say a bit about how the Government see their responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman knows that the organisation of schooling has been a prime responsibility for local government for a long time, and we in central Government respect the constitutional relationship and settlement between local and central Government. I hope to say a bit about how central Government try to support local government in the difficult decisions it faces about how to balance the conflicting pressures that arise as populations move and change.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I am an avid reader of his column in the Bristol Evening Post, so I was able to discover that on "MPs' back to school" day he went to Horton primary school and Oldbury-on-Severn primary school. I understand that Horton has 43 pupils on the roll and Oldbury-on-Severn has 50. However, they are not quite as small as the 27-pupil school that I saw near Shrewsbury in autumn 2003. It is good to read their recent inspection reports. Horton was judged in September 2003 and the inspectors concluded that it was

"a good school where pupils achieve well".

The less recent inspection of Oldbury-on-Severn in July 1999 concluded that the school performed well across a wide range of activities.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman drew a distinction between funding numbers and funding quality, because we in Government have a responsibility to focus on funding to ensure that quality and standards are raised. Some schools struggle to attract pupils because parents conclude that the education that they provide is not of a sufficient standard. In other areas, schools can struggle to get enough pupils because of demographic change, which is not a reflection on the quality of schooling. I recognise that. The Government see that some special benefits can exist in smaller schools.

There are 18,000 primary schools in England. It is striking that the Department for Education and Skills definition of a small school is one with fewer than 200 pupils. The hon. Gentleman might think—I would probably agree—that 200 is large in comparison with some of the schools to which he has referred. I do not think that he would describe a school with 200 pupils as small. Some 7,000 schools—nearly 40 per cent. of the total—have fewer than 200 pupils. However, it is striking that 2,500 schools have fewer than 100 pupils. Nearly 14 per cent. of primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils and most of those are in rural areas. In South Gloucestershire nearly 40 per cent. of primary schools have fewer than 200 pupils, which means that it corresponds almost exactly with the national average.

The hon. Gentleman made the point in his now-famous article in the Bristol Evening Post that small village schools are at the heart of rural communities, which is why I was glad that he referred to the presumption that the Government have introduced against closing rural schools. That presumption was introduced in 1998 and it exists today. The presumption cannot mean, and I am sure that he did not expect it to mean, that no school, rural or otherwise, can ever close. That would not be sensible. However, it ensures that there must be a strong case for closing a small rural school, and it must clearly be in the best interests of education in the area. I am conscious of my limited powers in this respect, but I am pleased to report that the introduction of this presumption seems to be having some effect. Seven years ago, the average number of rural schools closed was 30 a year; now, it is five a year. No rural school in South Gloucestershire has closed in the past six years, and no doubt that is in part testimony to the hon. Gentleman's vigorous campaigning.

Significant challenges lie ahead for schools, small and large, and it is important that I reflect on them honestly, because that is important for teachers and pupils. Last year, there were 500,000 surplus places in primary schools in England—that is 12 per cent. of capacity, which is a significant proportion. On current estimates, we are due to lose about 50,000 pupils per year from the primary sector in each of the next two or three years. That worries local authorities, which, notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's antipathy towards accountants, must be concerned about the proper use of resources. Authorities would greatly prefer to be paying for teachers than for empty desks. That is the challenge posed by the problem of surplus places in particular parts of the country.

In cases where there are falling rolls or schools are struggling to make up numbers, it is important that we put in place the right arrangements to ensure sufficient flexibility is built in for those schools and local government. In his article in the Bristol Evening Post the hon. Gentleman talked about the financial pressures on rural schools. It is important to be aware of the significantly increased funding that is available in south Gloucestershire. I was struck when I read that for pupils aged between three and 19 in south Gloucestershire, a real-terms increase of some £750 per pupil had been invested between 1997–98 and 2004–05. Under current spending, investment per pupil has gone from £2,510 to £3,260 in real terms. The capital position is also striking. Funding in 1997–98 was about £5 million. So far in 2004–05, it is nearly £19 million. That funding relates to some of the opportunities for extended use of schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Minister knows that we could trade statistics on whether education funding is a lot more or only a bit more generous. Last week, I visited a school, which I will not name, and the head said that unless the budget was sorted next year, she would be unable to avoid sacking teachers. That is not because numbers are down, but because money is so tight. Will the Minister address my specific point about the ceiling? The Government admit that South Gloucestershire needs another £4 million, but it appears that they will never phase in the new regime. It would make a big difference if that phase-in happened a bit quicker, because the ceiling is making things difficult.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I am happy to address that point. As always, the hon. Gentleman is a few steps ahead of me: his mind works rather faster than my mouth can speak. However, I hope to deal with some of his points. Whatever the funding pressures—I do not deny that they exist—he and I agree that funding now starts from a much higher base on both the current and the capital side.

It is also important to recognise that this year there is a degree of protection that has never existed before in the form of the 4 per cent. minimum funding guarantee per pupil for every school in the country. There is also a 5 per cent. floor per pupil for every local authority in the country, offering protection to schools, small and large, that has never before existed. On that 4 per cent. per pupil base, we have put in special protection for schools that are facing the challenge of falling rolls. We recognise that there are fixed costs, such as cleaning, repairs and heating, which can be a particular challenge. The formula is designed to recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman also knows, although somewhat ungenerously he did not mention it, that there are special arrangements for the very small schools with 75 pupils or fewer. A much higher proportion of their funding is delivered through the operation of factors other than pupil numbers. The guarantee for small schools will allow them to substitute their proportion of pupil-related funding; it will be for local education authorities to tell them exactly what that is. I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain the special protection that we have given to the very small schools, if that will be useful.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government's funding formula, which counts the number of pupils, their particular needs—for English as a second language, perhaps, or as a result of poverty—and the additional costs that arise in particular parts of the country, gives more to some areas than to others. He is right to say that South Gloucestershire is on the ceiling. It receives more money than other authorities. This year, the ceiling is 6.8 per cent. per pupil compared with a floor of 5 per cent. Therefore, there is a substantial difference between a ceiling authority and a floor authority, and between a ceiling authority and an average one. The previous year, the gap was between a ceiling of 7 per cent. and a floor of 3.2 per cent. Over those two years, there have been substantial efforts to deliver to South Gloucestershire the increases that have been judged to be necessary from the funding formula.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the need to phase in any new formula, because that is the right thing to do. It would be wrong if certain schools were to have cash cuts in their budgets, or even real-terms cuts. That necessitates a system of ceilings and floors. However, he is wrong to say that that means that South Gloucestershire will never receive its fair share. Year by year, the amount that South Gloucestershire receives rises, compared with the average as well as with the floor. These things depend on future judgments about how high the ceiling or floor should be, but over two years there has been substantial extra money.

The hon. Gentleman briefly talked about work force reform. That presents particular opportunities and challenges for small schools. I am very impressed by the pilot work that has been done in the small schools in the area west of Shrewsbury that I visited. It shows how small schools can make work force reform work for them. The national remodelling team has a national centre and website as well as representatives in each local authority, and it can show any school how other schools of similar size and budget are dealing with the challenge of work force reform. The work force reform agreement is supported by signatories from the National Association of Head Teachers, teachers and support staff. We are working with six LEAs and more than 75 schools to develop costed proposals for the ways in which schools can meet the challenge of delivering 10 per cent. of teachers' time for preparation, planning and assessment of classes in 2005–06.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the subject of administration. It is important that we free teachers to focus on teaching. However, it is not right that schools with 30 pupils face similar administrative burdens as do those with 130. I take on board the point that forms need to be filled in anyway, but it is quicker to fill them in for 30 pupils than for 130. Nevertheless, no one beats me in my zeal to reduce the administrative burdens and bureaucracy, and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the Government have well advanced plans to end the process of sending materials to schools in a great batch and to introduce instead an online ordering system that will allow schools to customise DFES materials to their own benefit and to introduce a principle of "collect once, use many times" for all the data that is required by different Government agencies, both local and national. I agree that it is absurd for any school to be asked for the same information by different public agencies. The data protocol means that that will no longer happen.

I turn to my final points. Extended schools are extended in the sense that they offer before or after-school services and also, in a less than literal interpretation of that term, opportunities for nursery provision for under-fives. I hope that local authorities can use school sites in an imaginative way, because the benefits to the community from doing so are clear. We encourage innovation and flexibility in that area.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the opportunities for schools to co-operate together to share costs, notably of staff. Federations represent a particular example of that, but collaboration and clustering between primary schools allows them to share the services of specialist staff for music and other subjects, or administrative staff and IT officers. I agree with him that, especially for small schools but, in fact, for most primary schools, there are big advantages to be gained from closer collaboration. That can help spread good practice and raise standards of teaching, learning and costs. We are in favour of that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. It means that, as the authorities in South Gloucestershire analyse how to deal with the difficulties, we in the Department can keep a careful eye on what is going on. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will keep us on our toes and, if there is anything we can do, he will alert us to that fact. We are resolute in our belief that it is a local responsibility to deliver the diversity of provision that is appropriate to local needs. I hope that the framework that is now in place to balance the rights and responsibilities of central and local government allows parental choice and pupil need to be met in an appropriate way.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Five o'clock.