Rural Schools — [Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 8th February 2012.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) 3:20 pm, 8th February 2012

That is something we have witnessed not just in rural areas, but in urban areas. We need to ensure that taxpayers’ money and state support goes to all areas and all children—at the end of the day, they are what we are talking about today—that they benefit equally, and that that support is distributed equally across the country. We are debating that important wider issue.

Sometimes, when we consider all the factors, including the cost of additional school transport and the extreme case that was mentioned, in Alston in Penrith and The Border, it can make the case for closure of a small rural school more marginal. We were clear about the need to presume against closing rural schools when we were in government. In January 2008, the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, now Lord Knight of Weymouth in another place, wrote to local education authorities. He said:

“Over the last 10 years, we have made it a statutory requirement for councils to presume that rural schools should stay open. There is not, and never has been, any policy for closing rural schools...We require councils to assess the full impact of closure on rural communities and allow every single parent to have their voice heard—and I am writing to local authorities to underline their legal duty to protect popular rural schools. This is not about funding. This is caused by falling birth rates coupled with families moving from rural to urban areas, which leaves some communities with falling numbers of pupils.”

He also said that local authorities should think creatively about their future planning and look at forming federations or consider collocating with other services to ensure that their buildings are viable.

Labour’s record was to reduce significantly the rate of rural school closures and to make it more difficult for failing ones to automatically lead to the seemingly easy option of closure.

One way of keeping rural schools open is to ensure that there are more opportunities for them to collaborate in an imaginative way. Despite the rhetoric that the Government sometimes spout, no school is an island. In the case of rural schools, that is particularly important—a point that has been highlighted by hon. Members today.

Under the previous Government, the Department for Children, Schools and Families undertook a research study in 2009 to look at case studies of formal collaborations between small rural primary schools in ways that could improve their services and viability. We saw examples of that occurring in sharing business managers and head teachers, creating patterns of executive leadership and sharing governance through federations and shared trusts. The study found a rich variety of informal collaborations but less awareness of formal collaborative models. It found that many of the 2,500 or so small primary schools in the country could benefit from more formal collaborations.

The main recommendations of the report include: producing better information and guidance of statutory models of collaboration; local authorities should develop strategic plans to promote formal collaborations; local authorities and Church of England diocese should co-operate more closely; and local authorities should advocate formal collaborations more effectively through governing bodies and local communities.

One of the collaborations that was looked at involved shared trusts. In the unbalanced debate that there is at the moment because of the obsession with free schools and academies, not enough attention is being paid to the potential of trusts not only to keep open small rural schools, but to provide a coherent and integrated model of education in rural areas.

One of the most exciting developments is the spread of co-operative trusts. There are now more than 150 co-operative schools across the country. Particularly in areas such as Cornwall, there is real interest in that approach. Supporting co-operative models was a policy of the previous Labour Government and a commitment in “The Children’s Plan,” launched in 2007. By embedding what is essentially a social enterprise ethos in schools, co-operative schools can be based on values of collaboration and partnership, rather than the negative forms of competition between schools that the Government sometimes seem to advocate.

I shall put to the Minister questions that follow on from the points that I have raised and that respond to the points highlighted by other hon. Members. What are the Government doing to promote and encourage co-operative schools, particularly in rural areas? What are they doing to permit resources to promote the co-operative school model in the same way as they have earmarked funds for their pet project of free schools? How much money in total has the Minister allocated to the free schools policy? To what extent could that be diverted to other proposals? How much does it work out at per pupil? How many rural school closures could be prevented if money allocated to free schools in areas where there is a shortage of pupil places were diverted to small rural communities such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is so concerned about? Will the Minister retain the previous Government’s presumption against closing rural schools? Will he guarantee that the current Government will ensure that the rate of rural closures does not go up on his watch? I have concerns and, indeed, there are many concerns among Labour Members that an over-focus on peripheral projects means that the Government are in danger of forgetting about the real issues that face rural schools. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.