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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Labour should value
village school benefits

Where was the leader-writer of the Daily Telegraph during our campaign?

This editorial is from today's edition.

How hollow the promise now rings. Fresh into power, Labour's then schools minister, Stephen Byers, pledged in 1998 to give "tough new protection for village schools" to end the "wholesale" closure process that had seen 450 of them shut their doors over the previous decade and a half.

"Closing a village school can be a death-blow to the community," Mr Byers observed. He was absolutely right; regrettably, his promise is now unravelling. Weekend reports of a new purge of village schools on economic grounds suggest that up to 300 are already being targeted for closure and the total could reach 1,000.

This is the unthinking politics of the bean-counter in action. In strictly economic terms, small village schools will never be as cost-effective as larger schools in towns or cities. But their value to a local community cannot be measured solely on a balance sheet.

It is not just that small schools, by and large, are better schools - one day, policy-makers will accept that the failings of many schools are related more than anything else to their sheer size. It is because the local school is the beating heart of a village and if it closes, the community suffers, as Mr Byers wisely noted.

A place that no longer educates its young is sending out a signal that it may not have much of a future. Educating children away from their community will slowly but surely undermine it. As for "joined-up government", how does busing or driving children miles to be educated fit in with the Government's environmental commitments?

Sadly, this casual neglect of rural Britain is symptomatic of a government that sees no votes in the countryside and therefore treats it with something approaching disdain. This attitude was detectable in the plans to close rural post offices, which were scaled down under intense pressure, not least from this newspaper, but will still be pushed through in many areas.

Rural Britain has no clout at the Cabinet table and the result has been the accentuation of the rural/urban split to a dangerous degree - witness the ludicrous amount of parliamentary time devoted to the foxhunting ban.

There is an opportunity here for the Conservative Party, whose exploration of the politics of the "post-bureaucratic" age points towards greater self-reliance and local solutions. This promises to be the key ideological battleground at the next election. Among other things, it should mean that the fate of a village school is decided by the community and not by the pen-stroke of some distant bureaucrat.

Also, in The Observer, 27 January 2008:
Hundreds of village schools face axe and
This will rip the heart out of our community.