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Column 640The signs have been bad from the beginning. There was the bizarre episode of Paisley grammar school with the Prime Minister telling the Scottish Office its business, and no nonsense from the Secretary of State for Scotland. We received a fairly detailed account of that from a number of sources, including the roving journalist who acted as go-between. There were also the activities of the Minister, before electoral chance promoted him to office. I remind the House that if one looks back to the proceedings of the House on 21 October 1986 considering the Education Bill (Lords) which applied only to England and Wales, a young, keen Turk of the Right, the hon. Member for Stirling with the experience of a number of years at Westminster city council, proposed opting-out clauses almost exactly parallel to what he is now trying to foist on to the people of Scotland. He argued specifically that they would
"bring tremendous support and morale among the teaching profession"--[ Official Report, 21 October 1986 ; Vol. 102, c. 1040.]
and were what parents wanted. If those were the grounds on which the Minister introduced such a measure in England, the same test should be applied to his proposals for Scotland, but if they were, they would bite the dust immediately. The arrogance with which the measure is being pursued is alarming. It has been put forward as a matter of faith and dogma, and is not based on the existing Scottish education system or the wishes of people involved in the education system.
An interesting article appeared in the Financial Times on 23 February under the heading :
"Radical waves stir new hopes for beleaguered Scots Tories." That is a snappy populist heading if ever there was one. But the article contained a direct quote from the Minister, the hon. Member for Stirling, who said :
"With the position we're in, with socialist policies entrenched in local government and the media, I can't afford to take prisoners." Sometimes paranoia is associated with a Rambo complex, but it is peculiarly inappropriate. The Minister does not challenge those words, but dealing with Scottish education in terms of taking no prisoners is a somewhat unfortunate approach.
I am glad that the Secretary of State made the point that standards were not dropping. My honest impression is that the Minister responsible for education takes a very different view and argues, perhaps more by innuendo than anything else, that there is an undermining of confidence in Scottish education, declining standards, slipshod teachers and inadequate pupils. I do not believe that that is the case, but there is always a temptation for him to say that because it is the only way in which he can justify the present proposals.
I do not think that it is enough for me to argue simply that the Bill is an alien proposition, although that is true. Our objections are root and branch and can be put briefly. Opting out will fragment the school system and make it harder to provide educational opportunity across the social scale and across the range of ability. There is no demand, but a determined Government can create a false demand in certain circumstances.
We all know that certain schools are threatened with closure. It is a very real threat ; indeed, the Minister is constantly urging local authorities to think in terms of rationalising school capacity to meet falling rolls. The Minister will say that the Bill contains protection and that
Column 641under clause 13, if a school is scheduled for closure, it cannot opt out. That is similar to section 52(8) of the English legislation, the Education Reform Act 1988, which states :
"A county or voluntary school is not eligible for grant-maintained status if proposals by the local education authority to cease to maintain the school have been published"
under certain statutory enactments.
It appears that the same protection is being offered in Scotland, but I am sure that the Minister has examined the English experience which demonstrates that that protection is a total illusion. At the last count available to me, there had been 37 ballots in England and Wales by schools wishing to opt out. Of those, 27 were in favour of opting out and 10 were against. Of the 27 schools which voted for opting out, two thirds were threatened with closure. That is one reason which will create similar problems in Scotland if those unfortunate proposals reach the statute book.
I shall quote a source to which the Minister might pay some attention, the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate "Standards in Education 1987-1988" produced by the Department of Education and Science. It states :
"Plans to reorganise secondary schools, in order to provide more economically and rationally for 16 to 19 year olds, appear to have been slowed by uncertainty over the effects of recent legislation, especially that relating to grant-maintained schools."
It is put pretty cautiously, but I find it extraordinary and significant that there should be such explicit criticism of the machinery which has been introduced in England, and which we are now threatened with in Scotland, from such a responsible body of educational opinion as Her Majesty's inspectorate. The fact that it has come to that conclusion ought to make the Secretary of State, if he is prepared to be fair, stop and think again.
We shall look closely at clause 13 to establish when the gate comes down on opting out. Is it when there is a draft plan? Is it when there is public discussion of a possible closure? Is it when a recommendation is made to the education authority? Is it when a final decision is made? I fear that, in Scotland, as in England, unless we are careful--there is no adequate protection in the Bill at the moment--the most common reason for opting out will be the threat of rationalising school accommodation. That is not a good basis on which any school should set out on this experiment.
Schools which take this road will be those that are confident of their survival--perhaps falsely confident. They are the ones that think that they will get additional cachet--the smack of independence without the financial risk. The Secretary of State said that that is an opportunity that does not exist under the present system. I take his point, but it depends on how one looks at these matters. I feel that there will be snob appeal and that schools will try to distance themselves from the common run. I put it as bluntly as that because we have to face up to it. They believe that they can attract funds and travellers, bussed or driven, from afar. The arguments will be social as well as educational, and they will be divisive. There is the problem of rural areas. The Secretary of State may say that, if a school is the only secondary school in the area, and its opting out would leave a massive hole in provision, that may be a factor that he will take into account when deciding whether to approve opting out. That does not seem to be a big contribution to good
Column 642educational order or parental satisfaction. The trouble with this exercise is that, if we begin to eat into the universality of provision, we will have a less efficient school system-- even arguing the educational case in Conservative terms.
Ministers tell us that costs have to be spread and overheads more efficiently shared. If the Government have their way, we shall be contemplating an educational landscape littered with free-standing schools which contribute little and represent disunity where there ought to be unity. That is not a sensible use of resources. Nobody who has read the arguments advanced by the Secretary of State and his colleagues on these matters would have any doubt about that. The Secretary of State is to pay the schools, negotiate per capita funding, talk through their financial situation and satisfy their needs, but it is the local education authority that will have to pay because the money will come directly from its budget. That is an unhappy state of affairs. The more generously the grant- maintained sector is funded, the worse off mainstream provision will be. We are entitled to put up a serious warning about that.
Teachers who have spoken to me are worried about their promotion prospects and career structures. They can dodge backwards and forwards between the maintained and the education authority sectors, but they envisage the danger of being locked into one school and the problems that may result from that. We want to consider that carefully in Committee.
We are also worried about the position of auxiliary staff as they will have less protection than teachers under the new set up. That is unsatisfactory, even in the guise of a democratic exercise in parental power. There are points to be made in Committee about the interests of the community and of primary parents, and the odd fact that, by the time a school has opted out, some of the parents who voted in favour will no longer have an interest as their children will have left, and other parents, whose children will enter the school in the year of opting out, will have had no vote. That is one of the many inconsistencies that are built into the Bill. There is a problem about changing a school's fundamental characteristics. I take the Secretary of State's point that his intention is that, initially, when the ballot shows a majority in favour of opting out, the school's fundamental characteristics will not be altered. I am prepared to accept that he, at least, means what he says about that, but after the first few years--I think that was his phrase--a further ballot can be held and there could then be a change in a school's fundamental characteristics ; in the uniform, religion or--a key issue--the means of entry.
I believe that selection is ultimately incompatible with parental choice and that, in his heart of hearts, the Secretary of State knows it. The Secretary of State managed to give the impression that he opposes the introduction of selection in schools that decide to opt out, but he would not be drawn on that matter. I recognise that his tenure of office may be short for all manner of reasons which we do not need to go into and which are irrelevant at the moment, but it would be interesting if he could make it clear that he, a politician who represents a Scottish constituency, would oppose the reintroduction of selection via the back door as a result of the opting out process. Will he give such an assurance?
Mr. Rifkind : I can happily give that assurance. I have no intention of endorsing a proposal that would so change the character of a state school as to return it to the selective system that existed some years ago. That is not the purpose of these proposals.
Mr. Dewar : This has been an afternoon of debating points, but debating points can become important ones. I entirely accept that the purpose of the Bill is not necessarily to reintroduce selection. The practical consequences, however, may be that we shall introduce them, at least in some parts of the education system. I do not think for a moment that we can contemplate that prospect with equanimity, and the best way to get rid of that danger is to get rid of the Bill and the scheme.
Mr. Douglas : Will my hon. Friend note that the Secretary of State used very few words to answer his question? The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he does not envisage altering the present means of selection, but the Bill introduces novel means of selection. That is what many of us are afraid of--we fear that the Bill is a precursor to a new form of selectivity.
Mr. Dewar : However straightforward the Secretary of State is being- -I still think that his position is a little obscure--he is putting in train something which is extremely difficult to control, although the consequences are easy to foresee. I do not get any satisfaction from contemplating that approaching danger.
I feel that I ought to respond to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's challenge. I have read the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), to which he referred. My hon. Friend did indeed make the points which the Secretary of State quoted, but he was saying--I should have thought that the Secretary of State would welcome it--that we believe that it is possible to have excellence in the comprehensive system. I entirely agree. Comprehensive education is not, as is sometimes suggested by idealogues, grey and uniform education which allows no room for excitement, for variation or for catering to the needs of individual children. Of course one wants to encourage excellence within comprehensive education, but one will not achieve that by introducing selection and social and educational division.
I shall quote again from the same speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. He said that policies
"for City Technology Colleges, and for opted out-schools are designed systematically to sabotage the central value of the comprehensive school-- the idea that each child is of equal value, of equal worth."
I approve of that sentiment as well.
Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman approves of the sentiment, which referred to city technology colleges, am I to assume that that is his answer to my earlier question about whether he agrees with councillor Charles Gray about the attraction of a technology academy in Glasgow?
Mr. Dewar : I was not at the debate to which the Secretary of State refers with such pleasure. If he wants to take that as an answer he may, but I was going to answer fully later on. I am happy to give him that reply as an advance taste of my later answer.
The introduction of opting out is wholly wrong-headed and has no part to play in the Scottish education system. When we come to consider the discontinuance--an especially unpleasant new Scottish Office word--of the opted-out schools, there is clearly an implication that they
Column 644may move from that into the fully-fledged private sector. When one considers what the Scottish people want, one should look at the market system and the Secretary of State may have done that. My attention was drawn the other day to a case reported on 23 December 1988 in The Times Educational Supplement for Scotland, which concerned a redundancy at Westbourne school, for girls. The unfortunate absence of any consultation with the threatened member of staff resulted in an award for unfair dismissal. I draw to the House's attention that Professor Curtis, the chairman of governors of Westbourne school explained that the school
"faced a crisis as falling rolls reduced demand for single-sex private education. The combined primary/secondary school has fewer than 300 pupils."
I mention that because, of the 300 pupils, 71 are paid for by the taxpayer under the assisted places scheme at a cost of about £151, 000. That school would fail wholly if it were not for that subsidy because of the lack of public demand for its services. That is interesting in view of the debate about the worth of public sector provision, universal education and the advantages it brings. If we move away from that, people will find to their cost that we betray an important educational trust.
The Bill is not merely bad, but goes beyond that. It is a breach of faith and concerns a matter of honour, if I can say that without sounding too pretentious. I remember, as will many of my colleagues, when we were discussing the ceiling proposals on the School Boards (Scotland) Bill. There was consultation with educational and public opinion and there was an almost universal no from every conceivable interested body and thousands of individuals as well. The Government agreed to abandon the ceiling proposals on that basis. I took that Government action at face value, so I take it amiss when, only a few months later, we find ourselves considering an educational leap in the dark that goes massively beyond those ceiling proposals. It is a form of sharp practice--which is as near as I can go in the House, although in private conversation I would go a great deal further --in the light of the assurance given when the ceiling proposals were not included in the School Boards (Scotland) Bill, to unveil his horror show now. The Bill is extreme, objectionable and, above all, friendless. The Bill also introduces a false prospectus, given those earlier matters.
Even on the Conservative Benches--I do not want to put the spotlight on any hon. Members--there are hon. Members who have been quoted publicly as having fundamental doubts about the proposals. I do not know what their attitude will be as the Bill progresses, but I must say to the Secretary of State--I do not want to overdramatise--if there are moves to exclude such hon. Members from the Committee, we shall see that as an outrage. We expect available Scottish Tories to serve. It is bad enough to face the prospect of a Committee where the Government majority is maintained by hon. Members whose interest in Scottish education is, to say the least, only as a comparative study. It would be monstrous for hon. Members to be excluded or for a coalition of Scottish Members of all parties, including Conservatives, to be considering essential safeguards and to be overwhelmed by the votes of troops gathered by the parliamentary press gang. I hope that the Government will pay attention to that.
As the Secretary of State will have noticed, I do not like the Bill. I do not want to spend a great deal of time going through the rest of it in detail because I recognise that I have already spoken for some time, although not as long as the Secretary of State. Let me hasten to assure him that I do not believe that the technology academies--although non-selective in statutory terms, they will make selection according to attitude and motivaton--represent educational progress in Scotland. We shall oppose in Committee the rigid testing in primary schools. It is educationally distracting and has almost no educational support.
I am not happy about the proposals for colleges of further education with boards of a minimum of 50 per cent. drawn from local employers. One of the great fallacies and a rather insulting assumption is that a horde of under- employed industrialists in Scotland nothing better to do than sit on boards of further education colleges, the Scottish enterprise boards and the crimebusters panels. Most industrialists I know have their hands full trying to maximise the return on their capital and trying to obtain orders to keep their work force in being. I take no delight in the idea of a further education plc, with all the fears that that will bring for the teaching of special subjects that are not commercially attractive. Even the ancient office of rector of our universities is to be cut back at the behest, so rumour has it, of principal McNicol of Aberdeen university. I warn the Secretary of State that I--and, I suspect, many of my colleagues-- took a close interest in that office when I was a student at the university of Glasgow. I should want a more substantial argument than the weak assurance that there have been approaches from certain universities. There would be. It does not seem to make the case for change very adequately.
The Bill is arrogant, ill judged and insensitive. That is the heart of the matter. The cause is the capitulation of the Secretary of State. Once again, he has fallen meekly into line, although there is always a mystery whether he is behind his hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr Forsyth) or the Department of Education and Science.
Mr. Dewar : The Secretary of State proudly says both. In that case, if they go different ways in future, we shall see a nasty case of split personality. Whether the Secretary of State has fallen into line behind one or the other, the effect is unpleasant. Almost certainly the Prime Minister has a great deal to do with the present atmosphere.
The Secretary of State may laugh, but some of us remember the correspondence in the Glasgow Herald and the leaks that emerged at the time of the case of Paisley grammar school. Perhaps the Prime Minister has found time on occasions to look at Scottish education. If we are to use the royal "we", which is so much in vogue in Downing street these days, I only wish that we would turn our attention to education in Scotland and recognise the damage that has been done. The Bill is a caricature of Government action. There has been no consultation, no preparation, no sympathy or feeling for the problems in Scottish schools. The result will be uncertainty, a return of privilege and a course of reckless prejudice. The Bill may be reasonably presented, but ultimately it will be damaging to pupils and staff and the communities that the schools serve. We will protest
Column 646tonight in the Lobby but I have to say to the Secretary of State that it will not be a formal parliamentary minute of dissent. We will protest with a degree of anger that is unusual in this place because I genuinely believe that there is no case for what is being proposed and no one in Scotland wants it.
Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : I felt when the debate opened that we were perhaps about to break new ground with the new- found agreement between both Front Bench spokesmen on the quality of our education in Scotland. To that extent, the debate has made some progress in at least producing a degree of unity. It is good to begin discussions on the Bill in that context.
I intend to confine my remarks to self-governing schools. Having listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, I am more bewildered than I was to begin with about why we should make these changes now. I understand what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the size of regional authorities and trying to make education more personal and closer in its administration. If that is what we are tilting towards, perhaps we should look at the future of our regional authorities. I know that that matter has been previously discussed because I was a member of the Committee on the Bill dealing with that issue. If that is the problem, we do not necessarily need a Bill such as this.
I must emphasise that the only letters I have received in support of the Bill have been from parents whose schools have been threatened with closure. I understand their fears and worries. However, surely there are other means of dealing with problems of threatened closure if there is a legitimate case.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said, I do not think that the measure will necessarily change the character of schools that choose to opt out. However, that is a matter of opinion. My right hon. and learned Friend has to address himself more to the fact that, even if it does not change the character of schools, it will change the structure of Scottish education as we have known it for many years. I do not think that that change will necessarily be for the best. In practical terms, I am worried about the timing of the proposal. Even if one supported the merits of the Bill, this is not an appropriate time for its introduction. We have seen schools in Scotland pass through a period of considerable difficulty. We had the industrial dispute over teachers' salaries. I keep in touch with the schools in my constituency and that dispute disrupted the schools and caused divisions--I will not go into the reasons now--between staff and parents and staff and pupils to a degree that I have never seen in all the time I have been involved in public life. We are just beginning to get over that and return to greater unity in our schools. Parents are working with teachers and there are better relationships between staff and pupils. We need a period of peace in order to get over that unrest.
In recent years we have seen an enormous amount of good innovation that has helped to restore some of the high standards in our schools and the respect in which Scottish education was held generations ago. In many ways we in Scotland have been pioneers in some of the new measures. For example, we were pioneers in relation to the curriculum, the new examinations system and, more
Column 647recently, the school boards. However, as politicians we have to be careful. We have to assimilate change. Often we find it difficult to cope with change and we should have more concern for those at the sharp end of education who will have to apply the changes in the classroom. I have many friends, and an even wider range of acquaintances, among teachers. There is enormous demand on their time in coping with changes to the curriculum and examinations. They may have to attend in-service training and be involved in the extra administration necessary to make the system work. All new systems need dedication and time if they are to work properly. We need time to recover from the disputes in our schools and to consolidate and ensure the success of recent changes. Therefore, this is not the time for a new measure.
I support strongly the principle of school boards and I welcome them. I will continue to do what I can to support them. When school boards were introduced last year, we saw in many areas of Scotland--this is one of the reasons why I supported them--the first major involvement of parents in schools. In my area many of us did not see the need for school boards because our school councils were relatively effective. However, I supported the principle because I realised that other areas of Scotland, for various reasons, were not benefiting from the extra and required involvement of parents in schools. If that did not happen voluntarily, I thought it necessary to see that the benefit was extended to other areas.
I support that and believe that it is good. I want to see greater parental involvement in schools. Surely in education we want to get under our belts and see working the changes that have only recently been enacted. That is another reason why the timing of this Bill is inappropriate. There is much more chance of seeing the school boards working efficiently if they are given time to get under way before additional changes are superimposed on our school system. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) mentioned the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the Scottish Consumer Council. I agree with them. I want to see evolution in our education system. I want to see changes assimilated and working before moving on to the next stage. Alas, that is not happening in regard to this legislation.
I am not persuaded that this measure is appropriate for Scotland. My right hon. and learned Friend briefly described the history of Scottish education. For want of a better phrase, we have a two-tier system in Scotland--a public sector and a private sector. They work relatively well together. However, my right hon. and learned Friend is creating a third tier--a second tier within the public sector. Ultimately that could be divisive. In Scotland over the years we have had a much more universal system of education than the rest of the United Kingdom. In my part of Scotland the burgh school has been the tradition of education.
The introduction of comprehensive education caused a hot political debate, but that was never so in my constituency. Because of our traditions, we already had a universal comprehensive system. Those who did not want to send their children to schools in that system had an opportunity to send them to schools in the private system. They fairly and properly exercised their choice. Therefore
Column 648--I say this particularly for my part of Scotland--this measure has the seeds of division. It may divide the structure of education in Scotland which has proved itself over the years and which is highly acceptable to parents in my part of Scotland.
Another aspect worries me. On this fundamental ground, I might be persuaded in relation to the structure of the Bill, but many of its implications have not been worked out. Simply to pluck schools out of the local authority sector is bound to create imbalance within it. With time, we might further examine the matter and perhaps conclude that it is not too dangerous and could be tolerated, but we have not had time to do that. We are not yet clear about the effects on costs and the running of schools in the local authority sector and of schools that have opted out. How will common services be apportioned? How will we accommodate special teachers such as remedial teachers or music teachers? Obviously there is not a full-time demand for such teachers in certain schools. Many practical problems are revealed. I am worried also about the status of teachers. It was said that teachers will be free to move from the opted-out sector into the local authority sector, and vice versa. Will it be as easy as that? If local authorities resent schools opting out, for purposes of promotion or other reasons, will teachers from opted-out schools be welcomed back? What about those teachers who find themselves in the opted-out sector when they may not have wished for it?
Most fundamentally of all on the practical side, I am deeply worried about the position of a primary school feeding into a secondary school that may choose to opt out. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) pointed out, it will be a real problem, particularly in rural areas. Under the Bill, parents will have no say in what happens to a secondary school. Many of their children will possibly enter a school as it becomes an opted- out school. That could be divisive in the present structure of education.
As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, sadly, there has not been adequate consultation on the Bill. Although I have some fundamental objections--I hope that I am not an unreasonable person--I should have felt much happier about the Bill if there had been adequate consultation. My right hon. and learned Friend introduced his School Boards (Scotland) Bill in August 1988. I was much against some of the extreme elements of his proposals, but I can have no complaint about the adequacy of the consultation procedure. If my memory is right, consultation continued until November, and we saw the Bill in January or February. We were all encouraged, and we gave my right hon. and learned Friend credit because he reacted to consultation. Many people, even those who did not like the ultimate proposals, could not complain that there was not adequate consultation.
The consultation paper on this Bill was introduced on 6 December, and a 70- clause Bill was produced at the beginning of February. I have been involved in three Government Departments and I do not know of one which could produce a Bill of that size having published a consultation paper just two months previously.
My next point is purely party political. I am saddened by what my right hon. and learned Friend is doing. The idea of opting out was launched on a surprised country during the middle of the 1987 general election campaign. I remember being totally surprised by the idea, and my right hon. and learned Friend probably was, too. I
Column 649remember asking, "Does this apply to Scotland?" We were immediately reassured that in no way would it apply to Scotland, and that it was to meet special situations in England and Wales.
Mr. Rifkind : My right hon. Friend is mistaken. During the election campaign we made it quite clear that the first priority in Scotland would be to establish school boards. I remember quite explicitly saying that that was the first step and that only thereafter would we consider self- governing schools opting out.
Mr. Buchanan-Smith : It is a pity that my right hon. Friend did not speak to me personally during the general election campaign. Fighting as a candidate in my part of Scotland, when I consulted on the matter I was quite clearly told that it did not apply to Scotland. I do not want to make a great thing of it. Of course policy moves on and new ideas arise.
If something was to be introduced within two years of a new Parliament, one would expect mention of it in the manifesto. This matter was not included in our manifesto. The advice I received was to say to my constituents that it was not expected within the foreseeable future. Within two years is the foreseeable future, and I regret that the legislation has been introduced in this way. I remind my right hon. and learned Friend of an important Conservative dictum which perhaps our party does not remember enough today : "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." This change to self-governing schools is not necessary. For that reason, I regret that I cannot support my right hon. and learned Friend tonight.
Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) : This is the first opportunity that I have had to wear my new Gregorys. For the purpose of reading, they are excellent, but they serve the secondary purpose that I cannot see the countenances of Conservative Members. I listened intently to the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), as did all hon. Members. We regard his remarks as not only reasonable but intelligent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) clearly said, the core of the Bill is simply to allow schools to opt out. It has nothing to do with parental choice and will merely concentrate education in the hands of the Government, to be controlled by that undemocratic, centralist organisation.
The proposals are a foil to remove the current system of local democratic control by elected representatives of the community. There will be no choice for rural communities. Furthermore, proposals to allow opted-out schools to change their characteristics are an open invitation to return to academic selection and privilege. The two parts of the Bill clearly refer to that point. Schools selecting pupils is the direct opposite of parents and pupils selecting schools.
The Bill represents a serious erosion of choice for parents of pupils whose academic performance has been
Column 650low. Moreover, it is a threat to the parents of academic achievers. Creaming off high fliers will leave local authority schools geared to low achievers, not the current broad base. High achievers will not be truly served in local authority schools. Naturally, the response to that scenario--it is the Government's aim--would be to send a high achiever to an opted-out, selective school. The physical limitations of such schools will not allow all children to attend, and borderline cases will have no chance at all.
Research shows that the ending of selection in Scottish schools brought significant improvements in performance by all children, not just low achievers. It should surely be the aim of Government, Parliament, industry and the community that all children achieve their potential. That is the guiding principle. These proposals can only harm education in general and take us back to the bad old days of secondary modern sink schools for the majority, and selective academies for the minority of high fliers from privileged homes and backgrounds.
The ultimate ability to select is not the only effect of the opting-out proposals. Education authorities will be left with a duty to provide for pupils who are rejected by opted-out schools, but their resources will be severely curtailed. The direct financing of opting-out schools by the Goverment will decrease the money available to local education authorities, as costs for central services fall upon fewer and fewer schools. Unit costs for buying services and equipment will rise dramatically.
Thus, pupils in local authority schools will not only be even more poorly equipped with text books, science materials, new technology and even pencils, but the increased unit costs and reduction in central service financing threatens the vital psychological and other advisory services. So the very children who are likely to need such services will be robbed of them by the Government proposals. Is this any way to upgrade education? Of course not. I do not believe that the proposals will even upgrade education for a minority. The experience south of the border shows that the schools likely to opt out will be those that will not be considered viable by local education authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden gave figures that clearly showed that out of the 37 schools opting out, only nine were legitimately seeking to do so. The majority were either against it or were forced into doing it because they were being threatened.
No provision has been made for schools to opt back into local education authorities when it becomes obvious that they are not viable, or when they run into financial difficulty. The Secretary of State for Scotland said that he would not put any barriers in the way of such a provision, but he was not forthcoming enough to say that he would actually introduce legislation to ensure that it was included. Again, we are left with a mysterious area of which many of us are suspicious.
The proposals show a distinct irresponsibility by the Government and complete dishonesty about the reason for them. To give the reason of parental or pupil choice is highly misleading. The balloting proposals make this clear. A majority of current parents will be allowed to make the choice--usually at a time when their backs are against the wall due to falling rolls or threatened reorganisation or closure. Prospective parents and the communities serving the school will not be consulted. More important is the Government's dishonesty in not declaring their aims,
Column 651which have nothing to do with extending choice and everything to do with the Government taking central control of Scottish education. Direct funding of schools follows the pattern of legislation enacted to remove democratic control from local authorities. Local authorities which provide education in such circumstances will be forced either to increase the poll tax charge to pay for the increased costs of education or dramatically to reduce the service. For me and for most of the Scottish people, the Bill is nothing more than a blatant attempt to anglicise the Scottish education system. At Scottish Question Time the surrogate Secretary of State said that he had discussed the matter in Hungary and had the support of his Hungarian comrades. I doubt whether that is the case. Perhaps they were nodding in agreement because they were excellent hosts and did not wish to upset him. If our Hungarian comrades had studied his proposals, they would come to the same conclusion as their comrades in Haringey--which is much closer than Hungary. Perhaps the Minister should hear what those in Haringey have to say about the provisions on opting out.
The Scottish people have much more with which to concern themselves than the dangerous nonsense contained in the legislation. The people in Scotland to whom I have talked have a real and honest yearning for relief from the Thatcherite policies which are being thrust on them by Conservative apparatchiks.
The people of Scotland are more concerned about social justice than complete independence. Quite frankly, they would prefer a return to the democratic structure which they held in such high esteem to waving a flag on a Scottish gunboat. We need a directly elected Scottish assembly to assign this kind of dangerous nonsense to the dustbin where it belongs.
Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) on his new Dennis Taylor lookalike appearance. It was perhaps unfortunate that he had clearly written his speech before listening to the Secretary of State and did not revise it in the light of what he said. The Secretary of State answered during his speech the hon. Gentleman's criticism about selection.
I am not sure who first enunciated the principle, "My country, right or wrong". This afternoon we heard the amendment of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to that principle--"My local authority, right or wrong". That is the nub of the debate. Are there certain circumstances-- [Interruption.] I shall come to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) in a moment. Are there certain circumstances in which it is right to give parents the opportunity to use a school outside local authority control? The view of the Opposition that the local authority is always right was aptly shown during last year's debate on Strathclyde's rationalisation and closure proposals. Strathclyde was right to attempt that exercise, but, as I recall, the hon. Member for Garscadden supported every proposal put forward by Strathclyde regional council.
Column 652The hon. Member for Garscadden took a delegation to see the convenor, Charles Gray, and, as I understand it, simply ended up with him-- [Interruption.] I apologise ; Charles Gray, the leader of the council--
Mr. Stewart : That is the hon. Gentleman's term, not mine. As I understand it, the meeting ended with the hon. Member for Garscadden leading his colleagues in a rousing chorus of "Charlie is my darling".
There was certainly no criticism at any point of the aspects of these proposals which converted me to the principle of self-governing schools. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) that the aspects, principles and questions brought up by Strathclyde's rationalisation proposals are for me what have changed since the last general election. The approach taken by the Labour party has continued with the new document produced by the hon. Member for Fife, Central to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State referred and is in marked contrast to many of the principles put forward by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). That was true, even in the Committee that examined the Schools Boards (Scotland) Bill last year. When the hon. Member for Blackburn produced his proposals for "Parents in partnership", they were discussed in Committee and it immediately become obvious that the only Committee Member to have read them was the Minister. The then Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg), said that the Opposition would study the documents.
It is clear that moves towards increased parental involvement in education and towards testing, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn has reacted positively, have simply stopped at the border. We have had examples of yuppie Socialism from the Labour Scottish spokesmen. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) is not here--he produced proposals on health and talked about Tory concepts such as more information and choice forpatients-- [Interruption.] These principles have not been followed by the hon. Member for Fife, Central perhaps because he used to represent Windygates and Kennoway. Possibly there are no yuppies there. The opposition to these proposals is based on two incompatible propositions. First, it is alleged that there is no evidence that parents want schools to be able to opt out of education authority control--so says COSLA. Secondly, it is alleged that the proposals will create extensive damage to the structure and ethos of Scottish school education. Both propositions cannot be correct : if there is no demand there will be no change. The Bill will merely be on the statute book and will not be used--
I want to give an example of why self-governing schools are important. The hon. Member for Garscadden referred
Column 653to single sex schools in the private sector ; my example will come from the public sector. On 17 April last year there was an interview on Radio Clyde involving councillor Malcolm Green, the chairman of Strathclyde education committee, and councillor Peter Edmondson, the Conservative councillor for Eastwood, North. In answer to a question from a Mr. Keegan of Baillieston, councillor Malcolm Green made it absolutely clear that the Labour group had taken a policy decision to abolish single-sex Catholic schools. He added that he was opposed to that decision. The proposals to close Our Lady and St. Francis and Notre Dame in Glasgow--other schools were involved, too--were not a rationalisation of school provision ; they derived from a decision in principle to deprive minorities of parents of a form of education to which they attached considerable value.
Moslem as well as Catholic parents attach importance to this form of education. The interviewer on the programme I have mentioned said :
"But ethnic minorities simply do not want their daughters to go to a co- educational school."
Dr. Green replied :
"That was the very point that I made to the education committee. I am afraid this appears to have been ignored or dismissed as being a marginal issue."
I believe that self-governing schools could have a role in these circumstances. There are minorities who genuinely want a form of education that the education authority, for reasons of principle, does not want to supply.
I regret that Opposition Members sneered at this case when it was raised in Committee. When I asked him about Notre Dame, the hon. Member for Fife, Central replied contemptuously :
"I have not been to Paris recently".--[ Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 3 May 1988 ; c. 169.]
That sort of sneering at a form of education that is valued by minorities is beneath contempt.
I welcome the Bill's proposals on special educational needs, which have not yet been mentioned--