Rory Speaks on Rural Schools


I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for securing the debate and for all his leadership on Cumbria. Central to the issue is rurality and sparse population, and if he represents the constituency in England furthest from London, I represent the constituency in England with the most sparse population. We have about 1,200 square miles and some 1.5 million sheep, but not many people.

The central issue to do with rural schools is simply an aspect of the central problem of rural communities. That problem is the relationship between population and area. Since 1997, we can see a consistent pattern throughout almost every area of rural life: a steady push and a clear, unstoppable trend towards the hollowing out of rural areas.

We have two hospitals in northern Cumbria serving 350,000 people. That is normally difficult for the Treasury to justify, and our Cumbrian hospitals have been in receipt of emergency funding from the Government every year for 19 years, bailing out that fundamental structural problem. Our ambulances in Cumbria find themselves drifting endlessly south, towards the population centres. In fact, every morning the ambulance sets off bravely from Brough, but because it is obliged to pick up the nearest possible case and that always tends to be further south, it is somewhere south of Blackpool by the time it has to turn around and go back up to Brough in the evening. The same extends to old people’s homes, post offices, pubs, farms and broadband—we have some of the slowest broadband in Britain—and to issues such as flood protection, which I discussed with the hon. Member for Copeland earlier.

Since 1997, therefore, we have seen a cataclysmic hollowing out of rural areas throughout the country. Nationally, there are now 2,200 fewer schools in Britain than in 1997, 550 fewer clinics and hospitals, 350 fewer police stations and, famously, almost 10,000 fewer pubs—mostly gone from rural areas. It is, therefore, something of a miracle that our rural areas survive at all, when so much of the structure in the modern world seems to be set against them. In the Pyrenees, one can walk through abandoned village after abandoned village, and the same is true in the central United States. It is a miracle that Governments have managed to fight the endless centralising power of the market that tends to drive people out.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful arguments. Is not part of the problem—it certainly is in my region—that small rural communities are classified as unsustainable by their local authorities and local development plans, so they cannot expand and support local schools, post offices and so on? The problem is that communities in such areas want to expand, but are not allowed to, and the unsustainable tag becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The slogan of sustainability is used to cover up a whole series of crimes perpetuated against rural areas by local authorities. Local authorities imagine that there is an incredibly unfair structural system whereby rural areas are continually subsidised by more densely populated areas, and they demand to know why that should be. The reality, of course, is that rural areas are often in receipt of less funding than urban areas, despite higher costs. For example, education provision in Cumbria is £4,840 per pupil, compared with a national average of £5,140, despite the structural problems that the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned, and which I shall continue to discuss. Our communities put incredible energy into trying to keep those assets open, providing volunteer time and free land, but that is swept aside by the centralising tendency.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend seems to be talking about small schools receiving more than other schools in Cumbria, but the schools that receive much more are those in towns and cities. It is not a Cumbrian fix; it is a national fix.

Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Perhaps I was not clear enough. The national average of school funding is £5,140 per pupil. Cumbria is in receipt of £4,840, so the point is exactly the one that he makes. If sparsely populated rural areas such as Cumbria are compared with urban areas, we receive less.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, and I endorse it by pointing out that we have exactly the same problem in Gloucestershire, where there is the same funding difference between rural and urban areas. Gloucestershire is launching a campaign to put that right, and rightly so.

Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend. The point about Gloucestershire is key. There are many reasons why things tend to get bigger, and why small shops give way to supermarkets, small dental practices give way to bigger dental practices, and small schools give way to larger schools. That is partly because of the regulations that we impose on such institutions, and partly because of pupils expectations and the variety of teaching that they can receive. That is difficult to deliver in small schools. When I look out of my window in Cumbria, I see a school in Bampton that had run continuously since 1613, but has had to close because it was considered to be unsustainable. It is an odd world where something that was affordable 400 years ago is no longer affordable when we are spending so much more per capita on our government.

The problem is size, and we have extremes. Samuel King School in Alston has only 161 pupils, making it the smallest high school in Britain. Why should it remain open? It remains open because it is more than 20 miles from Penrith, across a pass that is closed for many days during the winter. One simply cannot get to Alston, which is the highest market town in the Pennines. A school is necessary there, because students would otherwise not be able to get to school at all. Kirkby Stephen has the smallest high school in the country. It has 406 students, but only 70 are in the high school. Its catchment area covers 400 square miles of countryside, and whatever some fantasist would like to do in the name of rationality, that school provides an essential service.

Such schools face difficulties, because the lack of affordable housing, and the limited demographics mean that it is difficult for them to increase their numbers. Kirkby Stephen school breaks even with about 410 students. It makes money with 415 students, and if the number drops below 400, it loses an enormous amount of money, but it has little control over that because its catchment area is so limited in terms of population, although its size is large.

Almost every one of our outstanding schools in Cumbria—those that I mentioned are predominantly rated as outstanding by Ofsted, and are eagerly signing up for the Government’s academy programme—have continual financial problems. They have generally had to be bailed out by the county council year after year, and are in an uncomfortable position. When they become independent as academy schools, the funding they take on is the base level that they received from the county council, and does not include the emergency bail-outs that they received year after year, so they find themselves running up increasing deficits. That is so in Alston, and in Kirkby Stephen, where the debt is approaching £500,000—the £140,000 a year that it used to receive from the county council was discontinued at exactly the time it embarked on its, hopefully positive, future as an academy school.

I want to make two requests of the Minister. One is that we address seriously the issue of the rural funding formula. We should not allow that to be seen as a selfish attempt by sparsely populated areas, such as Cumbria, to steal money from more deserving people. It is consistent with our general attitude towards rural areas, and our general desire that rural areas should not be seen as places that we want to be hollowed out in relation to health care, transport or education. It is a fundamental commitment of our civilisation to rural areas.

My second request, which is smaller and technical, is that I would like the Minister to provide someone from the Department for Education to work with the boards of governors, particularly at Kirkby Stephen and Alston, on their budgets. They have launched themselves to academy status, and they have great governing bodies with great head teachers, but they could do with a lot of help to understand the budget. They are in a difficult situation because they hear one thing from the county council, and another with their new academy status. They need someone to compare their per capita funding with that of other schools around the country, and to provide technical advice on what would be reasonable reductions. That would be of enormous assistance to our schools.

On those two notes, and with acknowledgement to the hon. Member for Copeland, I thank you, Mr Weir, for calling me.

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