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Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It is an important issue. Part of the Bill is about schools' organisation, although we discussed special needs. This is an opportunity to look at how decisions are taken on organisation and we must not forget that.

We have talked a lot about young people but the parents, too, need considerable support. Special schools support the parents very well, but mainstream schools are unable to do so because they are too big. That is why parents like much of what special schools offer and I see that every day. I do not like to go back to personal experiences, but I knew a single mother who had particular problems and was suicidal. She used to ring me at three o'clock in the morning to talk about it, which is the sort of thing one has to do. I have therefore seen how much the system has supported parents through difficult situations.

I have heard what the Minister has said and I believe that the Bill provides an opportunity to look at the way in which decisions are taken on organisation. I want to reflect on that before the Third Reading and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Morris of Bolton moved Amendment No. 85:

(1) No primary school located in a rural area in England or Wales, as defined by the Office of National Statistics under its Rural and Urban Area Classification 2004, may be closed without the approval of a majority of parents of registered children of that school.
(2) The appropriate authority shall organise, fund and conduct a ballot to determine the views of registered parents, and shall inform the parents of their right to participate.
(3) The results of the ballot shall be communicated by the appropriate authority to each registered parent, governing body and the Secretary of State or Assembly.
(4) Any ballot shall be invalid unless fifty per cent of the registered parents participate.
(5) No further ballot may be held within 7 years of the first ballot being held."
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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with this amendment we return to the continuing survival of small rural schools. This issue was debated at some length in Committee, so I hope to be able to keep my comments succinct. However, it would be helpful to remind your Lordships of the objective of the amendment and the reasons why we believe it is necessary.

The amendment is designed as an additional safeguard against the closure of small rural primary schools as defined by the Office for National Statistics under its rural and urban classification 2004. One change from our previous amendment is that it now incorporates such schools in parts of Wales as well as England.

The amendment would require that a ballot of registered parents be held before such a school was closed. A ballot either way would be a simple majority vote which would need at least 50 per cent of the registered parents to participate in order for it to be valid. I cannot stress enough the importance that schools play in the continuing viability of all communities. But this is felt all the more keenly in small, possibly isolated areas which have precious little in the way of amenities and services. How many times have we read about the closure of the village shop, post office or, increasingly, the village pub? Sadly, this has become all too common an occurrence in recent years.

Once such facilities have been removed, they seldom return. The lifeblood and viability of the community is literally sucked out. All too often, the only thing left is the village school. Such schools have a value far beyond a simple place of learning and education. They serve as a focal point for the whole community providing facilities which would otherwise not exist. Indeed, we are aware of the usual ways in which such facilities can be used by members of the community. However, where no adequate meeting space is available, where no local centre for minor medical matters, clinics and prescriptions is available, even where no post office exists, it is well within the realms of possibility that some such provision can be made based on the existing public plant the school represents.

The modifications needed to provide such services, mainly space, could also incorporate the additional space which many small schools need for private meetings with parents, improved library facilities, a staff room, office and a medical room for sick children. Modern technology also considerably enhances the potential of small schools to work together and overcome the traditionally alleged isolation which many can suffer, although there has been little evidence that this has consistently been disadvantageous in itself. The same technology is also available to promote wider links between communities.

As mentioned in Committee, the Government have proclaimed a presumption against closure in regard to such schools. This is also to be welcomed, but it does not stop them from closing. I believe that it is time to go one step further. This amendment would give parents a clear role in the continued future of small rural primaries.

The debate is only just starting. We are only just waking up to the fact that village schools are central to the proper concerns of the countryside. The school
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provides a dynamic focus and it brings together families across the social spectrum. And no debate about housing, employment, conservation or services is complete without proper reference to the school.

Ofsted, in its report on small school performance in tests and inspections, not only confirmed their educational credentials but argued that when taken together with their community virtues there was a place for the small school in national provisions. Now we need only to exploit those virtues and capitalise on the massive potential that such schools represent. They serve as a fitting example of a quality of life and purpose which can serve as an example in all schools and all communities. I beg to move.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I rise briefly to endorse some of the sentiments expressed from the Opposition Benches. We on these Benches love rural primary schools. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, we recognise the role that they play within the community. We recognise that many villages have lost their shop, the post office and a regular vicar, and schools play a vital part in pulling the community together.

Nevertheless, we have reservations about the amendment. There are difficulties in putting the power totally into the hands of parents. Each school must be considered according to its circumstances. Yesterday, someone gave me the example of a place in Wales where, if the rural school were closed, children would have to travel 40 miles each day to school and back again, and therefore closure would not be a sensible move. In those circumstances, it would probably be sensible to try to keep the school open in one form or another. I know that residents of some of the Scottish islands are using e-learning very positively in those circumstances, and so there are innovative ways of helping in such a situation.

However, in other cases, the amendment would not be sensible. It might be feasible to use a school which is only three miles away. But we must bear in mind that ideally primary schools should be within walking distance and that it is not always easy to provide transport.

At present, we do not feel that this is the right amendment. We must bear in mind that currently Section 6 of the Education Act 1980 means that decisions must not be prejudicial to the efficient use of resources. Perhaps I may remind the Opposition Benches that that was a Conservative Education Act and they were very concerned about the efficient use of resources. Such matters must be borne in mind. We feel that a pragmatic decision must be reached on whether it really is sensible to keep a school open. The danger with the amendment as it stands is that a small group of parents could blackmail the education authority on this issue.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I resonate very much with what the noble Baroness has just been saying. This is a very thorny issue for all of us who are
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in any way concerned about the viability and well-being of local rural communities. In many cases, it seems that there is no obvious right or wrong answer.

I have now been a Bishop for nearly 11 years and during that time I have been involved in the closure of two rural churches. I am afraid that, in addition to those two churches, I have also been guilty of taking away a few vicars and therefore selling off a few vicarages. I could almost write in advance the kind of letter that I receive on such occasions. They contain a catalogue of what has been happening to the local community and the church is usually the fourth on the list. The community has lost the post office, the pub and the school and it is now threatened with losing the church or the vicar. All those things militate against community cohesion in small rural communities, and that is something that we need to take very seriously.

When I went to Coventry nearly seven years ago, I was most grateful to my predecessor for a number of things—not least the fact that a huge swathe of reorganisation of church schools in the diocese had taken place by the time I arrived. By all accounts, there was a lot of blood on the carpet. Of course, in that process of reorganisation all the obvious arguments were put forward, some of which have been rehearsed today. It became apparent that once those closures and the reorganisation had taken place, it was not all loss.

One reason why I shall abstain if the amendment comes to a vote is that I believe we have to be very clear about what is in the best interests not simply of local communities and certainly not of parents but of the children themselves. There is an educational argument that once you no longer have the critical mass which makes a school viable in terms of the interactive learning that we would expect, the school is probably no longer able to fulfil its function. It is that kind of issue—that is, the question of what is in the best interests of the children—that should be paramount in our discussions.

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