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Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): The council has identified that providing for all the unauthorised campers would require an additional 70 places. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) referred to the seasonality of the problem. Surely we need to establish the origin of some of the travellers. Rather than being taken to local sites, they should be sent packing back to where they came from or where they stay in the winter.

Mr. Raynsford: I should make two points to my hon. Friend. First, the provision of local authority sites in

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Birmingham reflects the level envisaged as appropriate for Birmingham to meet its responsibilities under the 1968 Act. I am not sure whether further extensive provision to meet the needs of a substantial number of additional people who may well be transients is necessarily appropriate, given the seasonal factors to which she referred. Secondly, it is extremely difficult to anticipate whether and when people of a genuinely nomadic life will arrive in a particular place; therefore, there have to be proper arrangements in place to cope with the particular problems generated by unlawful camping, which is often the consequence.

The provision of sites for gipsies under the 1968 Act required a tremendous level of local political will to identify and produce sites that were acceptable both to gipsies and to the local community. I can see no reason why local authorities today would find it any easier to secure such sites. It involves difficult decisions, often against considerable local opposition, so I am somewhat sceptical about the proposed changes in the law back to the 1968 model.

It is clear that the authors of the proposals my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston described recognise that there will be a need for further sites to ensure that gipsies will have somewhere lawful to camp. Local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide further permanent sites if they consider it necessary. Alternatively, if the gipsies concerned are visiting the area for short periods, they can consider the provision of temporary, tolerated sites on council owned land. Circular advice to local authorities from my Department already advocates the provision of such sites in local authority areas to cater for the needs of those visiting the area for short periods.

The provision of short-stay sites with sanitary and refuse collection facilities can do much to ameliorate nuisance and should deter some gipsies from camping on more unsuitable public or private land. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston rightly drew a distinction between genuine gipsies and people whom she described--probably rightly--as cowboy builders. It is important to recognise that the Government are determined to ensure that effective action is taken against people who camp unlawfully and cause immense nuisance and trouble to others. In consultation with the university of Birmingham, we have therefore been developing good practice on the handling of unauthorised camping. Work on that is proceeding apace; there will be an announcement in the autumn. Obviously, we are also working with the Home Office and other Departments.

In the meantime, I am sure that Birmingham city council appreciates the importance of working closely with the police in dealing with this issue. Inter-agency agreements--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

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Village Schools

1 pm

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): It is a great privilege to secure this Adjournment debate on village schools and rural communities--it is disappointing that not a single Liberal Democrat Member is present to listen to it.

When I became the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk more than a year ago, I was unaware of the extent of rural deprivation. I knew what poverty was like in cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Glasgow because I had lived and worked in such places. Poverty is much less obvious in small rural villages, but it is just as serious. Industrial areas have suffered great change, but, to some extent, have been cushioned by inward investment and Government spending. Rural areas have faced similar changes, but without the cushion.

The change has been insidious; village life has progressively had the heart torn out of it. In my village, there is no longer a school, a pub or a shop. The church is hanging on by its fingernails. Public transport in many areas is a joke. Market towns are facing competitive challenges from supermarkets and big-city shopping complexes, and as a result of changes in agriculture. Housing, especially in coastal and other tourist areas, is being priced out of the reach of local people. Some villages are in danger of being populated solely by retired people and holidaymakers.

That is the social background against which politicians must assess the importance of village schools. The Minister for School Standards will know that I intend to raise the future of Potter Heigham first school: I visited the hon. Gentleman only 10 days ago with the school's chairman of governors and head teacher, the vice-chairman of the parish council and a parent of a child at the school. I raise the subject of Potter Heigham both because I feel passionately that the school and its children deserve a future and because it raises wider issues.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On such wider issues, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision whether to keep open a village school is often taken purely on financial grounds, without giving proper consideration to the children, who, on the closure of their school, must be bussed much greater distances to another school in the local town, thereby making their school day very long and their schooling programme much less satisfactory?

Mr. Prior: I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I shall draw out some of those points later.

Potter Heigham parish council has written as follows:

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    The loss of young persons in the village will also affect various Village Hall-based clubs:--Playgroup, Brownies and Cubs will all fold through lack of numbers . . . There would be a domino effect on local amenities and societies".

The parochial church council has written:

    "The PCC has always had links with the School. The village children have held their own services in the Church . . . Closing the School will result in those village children whose parents do not take them to services, never having the opportunity to get to know the Church building and its associated activities. Whichever school they attend will naturally have links with its own village Church.

    The Church and other village organisations would lose the vital energy that young adults bring to them, besides the enjoyment of young children participating in village life. The result would be a steady and unstoppable decline in village activities".

Elderly residents of Potter Heigham have written:

    "As elderly residents of Potter Heigham, we realise the value of having a School in our village. Young families are vital to small rural communities such as ours, otherwise a village dies. We enjoy visiting the School several times a year for functions such as shows, fetes and the School's Nativity Play."

A group of past pupils has written:

    "The presence of the School in the village engenders a community spirit which stays with children throughout their education, and helps provide a sense of identity. All children and parents know each other, and can provide support for each other; for example, pupils have familiar adults present if their parents are late."

Those statements are more eloquent than any words of mine could be.

I should add that transport is another key consideration. in the debate. In Norfolk, home-to-school transport costs £11 million a year. The closure of village schools will add to that, as well as putting more cars on already-congested roads. The Minister should be in no doubt that village schools go to the heart of the rural community. I know that he spent some time as a child in Coltishall in Norfolk, so he will be well aware of those facts.

Village schools do far more than I have so far described. Being part of the community would not be enough if they did not also provide excellent education for our children. I ask the Minister to go to North Norfolk to see for himself. Last week, he was in North-West Norfolk, where he said, if the newspapers are right:

He knows that village schools can and do offer excellent education, so long as they have high-quality teaching resources and the support of their local education authority. He went on to say:

    "Norfolk's village schools will be protected, so long as they are providing pupils with a high standard of education."

There is a fashionable belief in some quarters that small village schools somehow cannot deliver the national curriculum. That is rubbish, and totally contradicted by all the evidence--certainly in the primary schools that I have visited in North Norfolk. In last year's key stage 2 tests, schools with fewer than 100 pupils delivered the goods: 66 per cent. of pupils reached level 4 or above, compared with the national average of 57 per cent. In science, the figure in small schools was 65 per cent., compared with 54 per cent. nationally. In maths, it was 74 per cent. against 62 per cent.

In July 1996, the present Secretary of State for Education and Employment sent a message to the National Association for the Support of Small Schools.

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He commended the excellent service that village schools offered both to their pupils and to their communities. He hoped that

    "the period of pressure of 'surplus places' is drawing to a close and that we can concentrate instead on developing the excellence that does exist, and recognising the valuable work of all schools, including those that do form the core of the communities."

I--and all those in Potter Heigham and other villages with schools--rejoiced when the Minister stated earlier this year that

    "All proposals"--

by an LEA--

    "for the closure of a rural school will be called in by the Secretary of State for decision",

and that

    "there will be a presumption against closure".--[Official Report, 26 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 672.]

We now want the Minister to honour those words and to send out a message to Norfolk county council and other rural councils that village schools are too important to be allowed to wither and die. Councils and the Government have an obligation to rural communities to provide high-quality local first and primary education. The Minister must make it clear that the deliberate, orchestrated attempt to close Potter Heigham by Norfolk LEA is wrong and must be reversed.

The council seized on a temporary decline in teaching standards--which has since been reversed, as confirmed by the Office for Standards in Education--and a poor head to justify the closure of the school without making any serious effort to address the problem. Indeed, the council encouraged parents to take their children away from the school to help to prove the case against it. That is not acceptable, and I hope the Minister will examine all the facts surrounding the proposed closure with great care.

The matter does not reflect well on the council, and there are local demands that the council's behaviour should be placed before the ombudsman. There are also legitimate claims that it is not just the schools which should face tough Ofsted examination, but the LEA. I can agree with the council in one respect, however. The Government must recognise the extra costs implicit in providing education and other services--especially social services--in rural areas. I accept fully the comments of Bryan Slater, the director of the LEA, who has written to me as follows:

The Government must recognise the funding issue. First and primary schools in North Norfolk and other rural counties have been the Cinderella of the education budget for far too long. There are far too many mobile classrooms and dilapidated buildings in primary schools in North Norfolk.

The governors of Potter Heigham and those who live there are not against change--neither am I. In my experience, institutions and organisations never stay the

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same--they either improve or get worse. The Potter Heigham village school has been around for over 100 years. It has seen good heads and bad heads come and go. It has gone from being a primary school to being a first school. It has seen its numbers vary between 100 and about 40. It has seen the arrival of Ofsted and the national curriculum. Perhaps above all, it has seen the extraordinary and wonderful rise in the aspirations of parents and children. Children whose ambitions would have been limited both by geography and education and by their parents can now raise their eyes to wider and much more challenging horizons.

Small schools can and do adapt to change. Perhaps we shall see a cluster of village schools sharing a head in that part of North Norfolk. Perhaps the internet, or an intranet between local schools, will provide part of the solution. No doubt nursery education will pose its own challenges. All I know for sure is that village schools, when properly supported, provide a firm foundation for an excellent education, the right transition from home to school and a strong basis for a cohesive integrated local community.

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