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3 Nov 2004 : Column 83WH—continued

Rural Schools

11 am

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am grateful to be able to speak on rural schools. I do not want to change the heading, but "Rural Schools (Somerset)" might be the more obvious title.

Today is not the first time that I have been fortunate enough to secure a debate on this important subject. The Minister and I have faced each other in this Chamber on rather too many occasions. It is almost becoming a habit, but I do not make any apology for that.

The vast majority of my constituency is incredibly rural. Some of those areas have enormous rural deprivation, far beyond that in Scotland and probably in most of Wales. Unfortunately, because trade is seasonal, unemployment rates are high. Rural poverty, which is not the same as what is understood more generally by poverty, is more commonplace than most people realise. Unfortunately, crime in rural areas is slowly but inexorably creeping up. That is not because there are not the police; it is because people realise that it is easy to come out of Bristol, commit a crime and go back up the M5 to Bristol. It is a problem that the chief constable, Mr. Steve Pilkington, has endeavoured to resolve over the past few years.

I fear that the business of educating young people in such places is often overlooked at the top. It is terribly easy to see just the pretty side of school life. We have an idyllic view of school. Perhaps we are thinking back to when we were young. We imagine the little villages, the quaint old school buildings, the magnificent surrounding countryside and, as we work in London, the fresh air—unless anyone was at the American embassy last night, where there was more fresh air than could be believed.

The problem of education in rural areas such as Exmoor and West Somerset runs incredibly deep and has done for 20 to 30 years. It often seems to be bypassed by policy makers of all persuasions—it does not matter of which Government or party. That is why I am raising the subject again. Unfortunately, nothing has materially changed since I held my previous debate on the subject. Indeed, there is a danger that some of the problems that we are facing may be getting worse.

I would like to cover three specific concerns. The first is the recruitment and retention of teachers in rural areas—the Minister is well aware of that. The second is the enormous financial burden of school transport. I suspect that that is a problem faced by every rural county, or any urban authority that has to bus children in. I would loosely say that the third is the role of the education authority, but what I am trying to narrow it down to is the way in which the authority deals with special needs and statementing.

I want to paint a picture of a school career from a child's perspective—I seem to have to go back a long time to remember that. It is rather a frightening journey to contemplate. It starts with the friendly local first school, which sometimes has fewer than 30 pupils. We know the problems that that can cause. A few years down the line, the child goes to one of the three middle schools, which are much bigger and, unfortunately, by virtue of that, much further away.
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Alternatively, there are two—or in my case, five—excellent community colleges, which are miles apart and have upwards of 1,200 young pupils each. There is only one community college in the whole of West Somerset. I   am told—the Minister will probably bear this out—that you can fit London into that area. There are four community colleges in Bridgwater.

In a few years, a child in West Somerset will become, dare I say it, in London terms, a baggy-eyed commuter. They will be plucked from a tiny village school and bunged on a bus. Sometimes, the daily journey equals the amount of time spent studying. A child from Dulverton, which is not in my constituency but in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), who unfortunately cannot be present, will be on a bus for over an hour to get to the community college. An enormous distance is involved.

For a Member of Parliament who represents an urban area, such as the Minister, the situation is sometimes difficult to comprehend, because urban seats are much smaller. At the end of a typical week of schooling, I look at the eyes of some of the children in my constituency: they look tired and I believe that they are tired. Apart from the first few happy years, when the school is just down the road, children leave home early to catch a bus that meanders along winding roads for mile after trying mile. If a person lives in a hamlet on Exmoor, in the Somerset Levels or in the Quantocks and their destination is the West Somerset community schools—Blake, Haygrove, East Bridgwater or Chilton Trinity technology college—they have to be out of bed by half- past six and on the bus by just after seven o'clock in the morning. They will probably not get home until after five.

The cost of daily transportation beggars belief. It always staggers me. I will come on to the details of that later. By the time that the Minister gets to his desk each morning, many of the children in my constituency will have been on the road for two hours. While he sips his steamy latte, although I do not know whether he drinks latte, they get bounced and swung through the lanes of Bridgwater in West Somerset; I suppose that a latte would have become a cappuccino by then. The school day in London lasts five hours. The school day in West Somerset and Bridgwater can last nine hours, simply because of distance. Children going to the two specialist schools in my constituency, Elmwood and Penrose, need a lot of care, but may be travelling for longer because they may be brought from without the county. As the Minister has kindly said, those two schools are marvellous.

The Minister may care to think back to the much trumpeted launch of the Government rural White Paper, which set out to fix the standards of life in rural constituencies such as mine. The idea was to have rural proofing in every aspect of Government business, and that included education. The Minister will not be able to answer this, but what happened to that White Paper, its ideas and ideals? Come to think of it, what happened to the money that we thought was going to come with it? I cannot answer that question. We have a problem, because one cannot expect local education authorities in
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rural areas to meet the idealistic aspirations of rural proofing without a great big fat wad of the folding stuff to make it happen.

Money, or the lack of it, is one of the abiding problems for teacher recruitment and retention in areas such as mine. There is an excellent TV advert campaign for teacher recruitment. I do not know who did it, but it is very good. It shows the rest of us leaving our heads at home when we go to work. The people shown who use their heads are those who teach.

That is the ideal, but I am afraid that the truth is different. Sometimes, teachers who use their heads think long and hard before coming to work in very rural areas such as Sedgemoor in West Somerset. It is a beautiful place. I recommend it to the Minister if he has not been. As he knows, it has excellent schools. However, housing and transport are a problem. Very big money is needed to buy anything but the humblest home on Exmoor and in the Quantocks. On the level of pay, it is more expensive to live in West Somerset than in London. That is a frightening statistic on what it costs to live in my area. Prices are slowing—the economy is changing a little—but they are still too high for almost everybody, including teachers.

In many cases, that means that teachers, like children, end up clocking more and more hours every day getting to school because they cannot afford to live near the schools where they teach. That is simply because of the price. They may have to commute from Bridgwater to West Somerset or from Taunton. They are forced to live where they can, and the one abiding thing is that that is always miles away.

There are three vacancies at the West Somerset community college. It is looking for a top-notch music and art teacher, a lunchtime supervisor and a very good technician to keep its IT equipment in order. The Minister will remember that the college got technology status through the Government's kindness. Such jobs are very worth while, but the people best qualified to apply may be based on the other side of the county, or possibly beyond it.

I hope that those vacancies and all others will be filled—and quickly. However, I am disturbed by the rapid turnover of teachers in our schools. I do not have a ready answer to the fundamental problems and I am not sure that the Minister has. We as a nation need to address that fundamental question. I know one thing—money talks. I also know that without money there will always be recruitment and retention problems. The Minister will realise that the national figure underlines that point. For every 100 students who complete their courses and become teachers, 68 drop out of the profession for ever within three years. That is not a good statistic—two thirds gone. I do not know what can be done about it. Those figures are from the Minister's Department.

If rural proofing means anything, it should mean financing a palpably higher level of education. There should be an allowance to help to attract the best teachers. That is a difficult concept. There should be more generous financial arrangements to help to pay for those long grim bus journeys to school.

A few weeks ago, the Minister announced that the Government's proposal for a new, green, safe, healthy school transport policy—after being at the American
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embassy all night, that is a tongue-twister—would become legislation as soon as time allowed, despite severe criticism of the Government's ideas from the Select Committee on Education and Skills. I suggest that the Committee keeps pushing.

The proposal involves, for the first time, means-testing. There would be no guarantee of a free bus ride if someone lives far from school. Under the Government's plans, it will be a question of how much mum and dad own. When suggesting means-testing, will the Minister please bear in mind the rural areas where we do not have that level of support? However, I am less concerned with means-testing than I am with the ethos of the School Transport Bill.

In a press statement a couple of weeks ago, the Minister admitted that the Government spend £500 million on school transport every year. I get the impression that he would prefer to spend a lot less. I expect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would prefer to spend a lot less. I get the distinct impression that the Bill is being drawn up from an urban perspective rather than a rural one. I am happy to take the Minister's views on that.

The Minister claimed that 40 per cent. of primary school pupils and 20 per cent. of secondary school pupils are driven to school by car and that most of those journeys are less than two miles. The implication is that those journeys are unnecessary. In urban areas, I could not agree more.

I wonder whether the Minister would like to come to West Somerset to see some of the problems that we face in rural areas. I am sure that he would be welcomed. For us, the school bus run is not a luxury but a necessity. We have no choice but to take the bus—the distances are long and the journey is difficult. If the Bill includes a threat to the essential financing of school transport, the Minister will realise that people such as me who represent rural constituencies will have to oppose the Bill. We cannot see the benefits for rural areas.

I will try to persuade the Minister to treat Somerset and other rural areas more generously with a view to the problems that we face. That leads me to the role of the education authority and Somerset county council. There are several issues on which I invite the Minister to comment if he can. The first is potentially controversial. I refer to the needs of children with special needs. For those children, statements are made in order to trigger a statutory protest and to obtain classroom help. There is a widespread feeling in my constituency that the county issues statements on children too late. Learning and behavioural problems are identified early, but those children are only officially statemented after much of the damage has been done to the children's well-being, growth and inclusion in the class.

I will not identify specific schools, although I have had incidents in which head teachers and parents have come to me. I ask the Minister whether he will, through his Department, inquire whether that is a problem in the county. Somerset county council will obviously deny that there is a problem and I understand why, because statementing is always difficult. It costs a lot of money and one is never sure that one has done the right thing.
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Yet again, the problem boils down to money. Special needs children cost money and Somerset just does not have that money. In February, as part of the national report of Somerset's lifelong learning portfolio holder, the following statement was made:

It seems that Somerset has lost out in the horse-trading between the Minister's Department and the local authorities. I suspect that we were all too naive to realise that arguing for money was all about horse-trading. We come from a rural area. That is why I am in the Chamber again, badgering the Minister, banging the drum for action, blowing the trumpet for rural schools and boasting about the place in which I live, work and was educated. Somerset needs the help of the Minister, and I hope that he can reply to that.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate. It enables us to continue our public discussion of some of the important issues that relate to education in rural areas, rural schools in general and schools in his Somerset constituency in particular.

It is timely that we meet today, because this afternoon I will have a regular meeting with the rural schools group. I meet a group of head teachers and people from relevant Government agencies and Departments to discuss some of the challenges that face schools in rural areas. I concur with what the hon. Gentleman says about those challenges and some of the differences between a constituency such as his and one such as mine. Some of the challenges that he faces, in the recruitment and retention of high-quality staff, for example, are in some ways similar to those faced in an urban constituency, but, as he clearly set out, some challenges are different and very particular. He is right to say that important work must be done to deal with them.

I will comment on the substantive item on which the hon. Gentleman closed—special educational needs. I agree with what he said about the special schools in his constituency, Penrose school and Elmwood school. I understand that they are working towards possible amalgamation, that that issue will be addressed locally and that Somerset more broadly is conducting a review of its special educational needs provision. Special educational needs is an important area. In our emphasis on high educational standards and inclusion, schools, whether rural or urban, must personalise their teaching and learning to the needs of the individual child.

Special schools will continue to play an important role in promoting high standards, personalised learning and inclusion. It is difficult to go beyond that statement with respect to Somerset's own review of special educational needs provision, other than to say that it is important that any review engages local people, including parents, pupils, Members of Parliament and the wider community.

The hon. Gentleman perfectly reasonably quoted some local authority statistics about local authority funding and the implications for special educational
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needs, and he related them to the challenge of recruitment and retention. We have touched on that in previous debates, initiated both by him and by other hon. Members representing constituencies in his county. He knows that we encountered some difficulties last year when we made fundamental changes to the school funding system. For this year and the coming three years, we have sought to bring about stability in the funding system, which has been generally welcomed.

The rural schools group has had many discussions about the new system. As the hon. Gentleman set out, one senses that rural schools feel it is not right for them, that they welcome the extra stability that we have brought in, but that they want us to return to the debate for the longer term. In the five-year strategy for children and learners that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills published shortly before the summer recess, we made it clear that, although in the short to medium term our priority was to provide schools with the stability and predictability that they had not had in recent years, particularly via three-year budgets, we accepted that there was still a debate about the formula, to which we shall return.

The purpose of the changes made to the funding formula is to have a system whereby children in identical circumstances in any part of the country are treated identically. That is what we sought to achieve with that basic level of funding per pupil, wherever the pupil might be.

We then have a number of factors for additional costs. As the hon. Gentleman and I discussed before coming into the Chamber, for a large county, the additional costs will vary between different parts of the county and I recognise that that is part of the picture for Exmoor and West Somerset. That puts a duty on us to get the national formula right, but also on the local authority to look at its local funding formula for schools. If the costs of recruitment and retention in one   part of the county are significantly higher than in   another part, it is the local education authority's responsibility, when it devises its local funding formula, to ensure that it is flexible enough for school budgets to meet the higher costs. The responsibility is shared. The school has its budget and must use it to great effect, the local authority has a responsibility to divide the money in a way that is equitable and meets the different needs of schools and communities, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the overall capital pot of money that is available to schools is right.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I use this opportunity to refer to some of the increases in spending that have occurred since 1997. In Somerset, the real-terms increase in expenditure on recurrent funding is £840 per pupil and there has been a significant increase in capital investment in schools. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that there is a decades-long need to improve buildings and equipment in schools. That improvement for Somerset local education authority has been an increase from just below £4 million in 1997–98 to an allocation last year of just below £20 million. That is a significant improvement and the money is desperately needed to ensure that children in the different communities in Somerset have the opportunities that, as he rightly reminded the Chamber, they have the right to receive from their schools.
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The broad issue of the financial context clearly underpins many of the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman today about special educational needs, as well as the recruitment and retention of high-quality staff. He said that he did not have all the answers on recruitment and retention and I am happy to say that I do not have all the answers either. We need to learn from what works in different parts of the country. Schools have some flexibility, for example, to attract teachers into shortage subjects, and we will look at some of the possibilities. I undertake to write to him on that specific aspect to set out some of the options that might be available to schools that are suffering some of the recruitment and retention dilemmas and challenges that he set out clearly in his speech.

School transport is a fundamental challenge in all schools and, for obvious reasons, it is a particularly significant challenge in sparsely populated rural areas. Last week, the School Transport Bill had its Second Reading and it goes into Committee next week, when we shall have the opportunity to explore some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, as well as some of the issues that were raised on Second Reading.

The hon. Gentleman correctly said that expenditure on school transport was around £500 million, which is a significant amount. I want to put it on record that I certainly do not come to the School Transport Bill with an agenda of seeking to cut that spending. My agenda is to try use that money more effectively to ensure that school transport is more widely available for students from all backgrounds. That is the central purpose of the Bill. It is an enabling Bill, which will enable a local authority, if it wishes, to pilot an alternative method of providing school transport. An authority that does not want to introduce a pilot will not be made to do so and will be able to remain within the terms of existing legislation, which goes back to the Education Act 1944.

It struck me during the debate last week that for some authorities the flexibility and options provided in the Bill may not be that helpful because, typically, students who use the school bus travel distances that are substantially longer than the two or three miles that are provided as the statutory walking distance in existing legislation. I am aware of that, and the School Transport Bill is only one aspect of a broader approach to promoting sustainable travel to school.

We certainly want a reduction in car use generally. Clearly, the better the quality and reliability of school buses, the less likely it is that parents in rural, semi-rural, suburban or urban areas will resort to using their car. The issues around safety and reliability that were explored on Second Reading will be considered in more detail as the Bill goes through Committee stage and on Report.

I emphasise that the School Transport Bill has strong cross-party support in local government. Expressions of interest have come from authorities led by each of the three main political parties, from authorities that have
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no overall control and from independents in local government. In his speech on Second Reading last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills made it clear that we would issue a series of stipulations before we agreed to any proposed measures to change the existing set-up.

I am fully aware that charging and means-testing are    contentious. We shall explore those issues in Committee, but I wish to use this opportunity to reaffirm that the Bill is not a cost-cutting measure but a measure to promote more effective spending of what is presently spent and to promote sustainable travel from home to school.

It is important to note that the Bill does not redistribute money from rural to urban areas. I recognise that the transport requirements of rural areas and schools are different from and typically greater than those of suburban or urban areas. There is no suggestion that a predominantly rural authority will have any less money to spend on school transport as a consequence of the Bill, or that an urban or suburban authority will have any more. The Bill is about how authorities allocate and spend money in their own school budgets.

In my remaining two minutes, I wish to discuss an issue that the hon. Gentleman did not raise but which I know is of concern to him and to colleagues of all parties. Falling primary school roll numbers are a particular challenge in rural areas. Clearly, it is important that local government gets that right. Closing schools is only one option if primary school roll numbers are falling. Wherever practicable—I accept that it is not always practicable—we must consider other options as well, such as whether, instead of closing, smaller schools might become extended schools and use their spare capacity for other purposes. The five-year strategy sets out some options.

Federations are groups of schools that work together in formal and structured ways, sometimes under the provisions of the Education Act 2002. Federations are being considered in the discussions in Somerset, including for Penrose school and Elmwood school, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I encourage the innovation that the governors and heads of those schools are demonstrating by considering federations. The children's trusts that form part of the Children Bill that received Third Reading this week also offer potential to explore options for different uses of existing school buildings.

I am resolute in my support for rural schools. The Government recognise the differences between the type of school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the type of school in urban constituencies such as mine. I am confident that he and others will continue this important dialogue and ensure that we have further opportunities for such debates.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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