|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 158The hon. Member for Falkirk, West spoke about cuts in education funds. He and I know that the amount of money contributed by the taxpayer, and previously by the ratepayer, per child in school in Scotland has increased substantially under the Conservative Government, and that the only real reductions occurred under the last Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman should realise that the increase in funding per child has been substantial and has continued under the present Government.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) in a fairly lengthy intervention, made it quite clear that, under the assisted places scheme, hundreds were refused acceptance. If that is the case, we can count on his support to increase the funds available so that the hundreds who have been refused places will be able to enjoy the benefits of the scheme. Although those being refused acceptance do not run into large numbers in my constituency, the hon. Gentleman may well be right that hundreds are being refused. We have only his word for it, but if that is the case we look forward to him joining us in the Lobby at some future date when we persuade the Government to increase the funding to make that very fine scheme work effectively. All hon. Members will realise that the Government and their supporters have never made any secret of the fact that they believe that, when local education authorities are receptive to the needs of local schools and understand the needs of the local community, the likelihood of a school board and the parents wishing to become self-governing would be remote. It will occur only in circumstances in which the parents and the school boards consider that the local authority has not understood, does not wish to understand and does not respond. It is clear that this is permissive legislation.
Mr. Allan Stewart : To underline my hon. Friend's point, does he agree that the legislation has already been successful? It was only the threat of self-governing status that caused Strathclyde regional council to change its attitude to the extension to Neilson primary school.
Mr. Walker : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood for that helpful intervention. I agree with him. What is more important is that, as this legislation is going through the House, we have on the statute book an Act to set up the school boards, and that has produced a dramatic change in attitudes in Strathclyde. Strathclyde is now clearly embracing the setting up of school boards, and it is doing so in a much more positive and aggressive way than the present statute. That can only be encouraging.
It is obvious that the amendment does not reflect Conservative Members' view that this is enabling legislation. That is all it is--it enables ; it is permissive ; it does nothing more than that. It enables the school boards and the parents, if they feel that the local education authority is not responding to their wishes, to vote for their school to be self- governing, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, West must remember that his amendment has not taken account of the lengthy debates in Committee. He does not accept that Conservative Members believe that there will be no demand for self- governing schools. If Scottish education is everything that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues claim, there will be no demand for them.
Column 159(Mrs. Ewing), who had to return to Scotland this morning because of a serious illness in her family. It is particularly unfortunate because the amendments dealing with special needs and special schools are within my hon. Friend's specialist interest. I will do my best to put her points of view.
I support the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). Amendment No. 33 goes to the heart of the fallacy that the Conservative Government are trying to promote in this legislation--the idea that parents will have a free choice between opting out or staying within the state system. However, we all know that there are two situations in which opting out will become a reality, and they are a school closure or a school having reason to believe that it will be more favourably treated in capital allocation by opting out of the state system.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) always makes some remarkable contributions in Scottish debates. He should recognise that this legislation is now being pushed through Parliament by a party that is now the third party in Scotland. It is about 5 per cent. behind the Scottish Nationalist party. The hon. Gentleman should realise also that support for the Scottish Conservative party, as measured by last Thursday's European election, is now less than that for the Green Party in west Surrey. That seems a fragile mandate on which to push forward a piece of legislation that is overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of the Scottish people. I now refer to what happens to parents when faced with the problems of school closure or the thought that their school might be better funded under the opting-out legislation.
Today's Glasgow Herald tells us that the ruling Labour group in Strathclyde
"seems set to proceed with the closure of two secondary schools and eight primaries, despite bitter opposition from parents' groups." It would be understandable even if parents who opposed the legislation were tempted by the opting-out provisions. I recall a speech by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) in the Scottish Grand Committee last year when we were discussing the NHS and the opting out of hospitals. He said, as a fierce opponent of the opting-out provisions, that he, as a constituency Member, might be pushed, as an alternative to closure, into considering opting out on the part of a hospital in his area.
I think I see the hon. Member for Tayside, North indicating assent to that proposition. Opting out will not solve the underlying resource and capacity problems in the health or education services. The Tories will have to say exactly which schools they would like to see closed as an alternative to those which stay open as a result of being tempted to opt out. What is proposed will solve nothing. It will simply move the problem, in the education service or in the NHS, to another area. It will also create problems in terms of dividing and fragmenting the education system.
Mr. Bill Walker : The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that when this legislation becomes law, the Secretary of State, in the final analysis, will have to agree to a school becoming self-governing. Surely that is the Government taking some responsibility?
Mr. Salmond : There is no question but that this is a piece of centralising legislation. It gives enormous power to the Secretary of State over a range of matters. But it does not give parents much power. It would be remarkable if the Minister, desperate to secure some evidence, whatever it might be, of support for opting out, did not grasp at any straw and allowed any school to opt out so that he could claim it as a success for his policy.
It is also difficult to believe that there will not be nods and winks in the direction of certain schools to the effect that if they opt out, they will be exceptionally well treated by way of facilities, new buildings and the like. Parents will face being squeezed between the Strathclyde stick of school closure and the Tory carrot of extra resources. That is not a free choice, and this is not enabling legislation.
Mr. Allan Stewart : Will the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between school rationalisation because rationalisation is necessary--which is bound to be unpopular with individual groups of parents --and school rationalisation which is used for other purposes? Consider, for example, the rationalisation carried out in Strathclyde because a majority of the Labour group, against the wishes of the chairman of the Labour group, decided that they did not want single-sex schools in the area. That was an ideological decision. It was different from a straight- forward and sensible rationalisation, even though it might be opposed by individual groups of parents.
Mr. Salmond : I have no intention of defending every decision of Strathclyde regional council. Indeed, I do not think that Labour Members would wish to defend every decision of that council on school closures. There is a consensus that the closure programme in many cases was carried out clumsily, to put it no stronger. But at the heart of the argument is the fear that the provision for opting out will tempt people faced with the closure of their school into taking that step, when it will not solve the problem. It will not solve the problem of capacity or offer the additional resources that would be required if more schools in aggregate were to remain open. The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) should say which schools in Strathclyde he would close as an alternative to those he would keep open. Unless additional resources are provided for the education service, the take-up of the opting-out provision will be secured by the heavy stick of school closures or the carrot of additional resources.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West goes to the heart of the fallacy that the Tory party is putting forward in this legislation. If Conservative Members wish to claim that there is no intention to treat differently those schools that may be tempted by opting out, they should find no difficulty in accepting the amendment.
Mr. McFall : On the issue of single-sex schools, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government are flying a kite in relation to Strathclyde? The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in pushing his point without any foundation. There are five single-sex schools in Strathclyde-- two are in my constituency and are amalgamating--and I have never heard his argument advanced as a matter of policy. Indeed, I can inform him that it is not a matter of policy because I have contacted the director of education and have raised that point with him. He has said that the abolition of single-sex schools is not a part of Strathclyde's
Column 161policy. The Government are trying to drive wedges in those areas where there is already pressure because of falling resources and where they have therefore been able to spread discord. That is the real reason.
Mr. Salmond : I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and I hope that he will accept that the reasons that I am giving as to why people might opt out highlight the fallacy of believing that this legislation can be successfully opposed by a general debate about the rights and wrongs of opting out. If we were to have a general debate about those rights and wrongs, Scotland would give an overwhelming majority against opting out. The difficulty with this legislation is that particular pressures may be unfairly imposed on particular groups of parents which may lead them down the road of opting out. Mr. Allan Stewart rose --
That is why the SNP made that point so strongly in Committee and said that opting out could not be opposed simply by means of a general debate.
I now turn to the issue of special needs, special schools, special resources and the Government amendments. There were many disreputable and unsatisfactory aspects to the Bill's Committee stage, but the political interchange that led to special schools being included in this legislation was one of the most disreputable of all. I am happy to see the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) in his place as I say that. As I understand it, special schools were not included in the original legislation. The Labour party made the mistake of tabling an amendment that would have had the effect of including them. However, the English Conservative Members on the Committee then hijacked the amendment and tabled it as their own. That was part of a political game that the Tory members of the Committee were playing.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : The hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong. I saw an excellent amendment on the Amendment Paper and felt that it strengthened the Bill. When I serve on a Standing Committee, I read the Bill and the amendments and if I think that they are excellent amendments, I want to show my support for them. Therefore, I approached the Clerk to try to add my signature to that marvellous, extra and wonderful amendment but found that it had disappeared, so I tabled it myself.
Mr. Salmond : I am not impressed by the innocence with which the hon. Gentleman puts his case. Although I was not present in the Committee to hear him, I have now read the Hansard report of his speeches and it would be difficult not to interpret or detect from his speeches the relish with which he seized on a mistake made by the Labour party. We all play a political game--
Mr. Brown rose --
Mr. Salmond : I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. We all play political games--they are the stuff of politics--but we should not play political games with children who need special attention in education.
Mr. Brown rose --
Mr. Salmond : If the Government had carefully considered the question whether special schools sould be included in the opt-out legislation, we can assume that such provisions would have been in the original Bill. This is a serious issue that demands careful consideration. Such provisions should not emerge in the legislation simply as part of a political interchange between Conservative and Labour Members.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : If the hon. Gentleman is telling the House that hhas read the Hansard of the Committee proceedings, I am surprised that he did not read the strong representations that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) read to the Committee from a lady from Bearsden who has a child with special needs. If the hon. Gentleman has also studied the Bill, he will be aware that, contrary to what he has just told the House, there was a provision in the Bill for the Secretary of State to include special schools by order. The original Opposition amendment, which was then tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes, simply made it automatic that special schools should have that right.
As to the assurances that the Minister gave in Committee, he changed course as a result of a political interchange that took place in Committee. I do not believe that he can convince us that a great deal of thought had been given to that change of course.
Mr. Forsyth rose --
Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He spent the time in Committee attempting to argue the case for disruption of the House and telling the people of Scotland that the Committee was a waste of time. Is he now criticising the Government because they responded to the arguments that were put in Committee, and amended the Bill accordingly?
Mr. Salmond : The Minister's intervention is totally irrelevant. The disruption was to challenge the right of the Government to parachute English Tory Back Benchers into the Committee. I should have thought that the way that the clause emerged in Committee was ample proof that it was unsatisfactory to have a debate on Scottish education dominated by people who had no interest in the Scottish education system.
I trust that the Minister will not dispute assurances that he gave in Committee about consultation with interested groups on special needs children. The Minister may remember--if he cares to pay some attention to the debate--that he gave assurances to the organisations particularly concerned with special needs children that he would engage in a process of proper consultation about the changes that were to take place. I take it that the Minister remembers that assurance.
I now have a copy of a letter about the consultation that took place. A letter from Mr. Cunliffe of the Scottish Education Department was posted on Friday, 2 June. Presumably it reached the organisations on Monday, 5
Column 163June. The organisations were given until Tuesday, 13 June, to submit their opinions to the Government. Given the complexity of special needs education, acknowledged on all sides, does the Minister really believe that a consultation period of a week is enough to consider the full range of issues that were debated in Committee? Should not the Minister have allowed a decent period for the organisations to submit their opinions on the legislation? If the Minister could not give a proper consultation period, would it not have been proper not to proceed with this aspect of the Bill? If the Government wished to proceed with the opting-out of special schools, could it not have been done later? I would be grateful if the Minister would intervene and confirm that I am correct in saying that only a week was allowed for organisations to submit their opinions on the Government's proposals. I take it that the Minister confirms that that is the case.
Mr. Cunliffe's letter refers to unique problems in trying to assess the resources for recorded children. Then it refers to a dialogue between the education authority on the one hand and an opted-out school on the other as to what degree of resources should be applied to each recorded child. The Minister may call it a dialogue. Having read the letter, I think that complex issues are involved and that these children will be no more than piggies in the middle of a battle between the education authority and the schools that have opted out. In line with the commitments that the Minister gave in Committee about genuine consultation and considering seriously the range of issues involved, including the resourcing of special schools and the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray raised in Committee, does not the Minister feel that a longer period is required for consultation and reflection? I would be grateful if he would give a constructive response.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : It may be helpful if I say something at this point about the Government's amendments Nos. 72, 83, 84, 91 and 92 and new clause 25 and respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) in respect of amendment No. 33. We have made it clear all along that, in setting the amount of grant to be paid to a self- governing school, the aim will be to ensure that it is not better off or any worse off than it might reasonably have expected to be under continuing local authority management, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) pointed out. The most important consequence is that the recurrent grant paid to a school must reflect the level of spending by the education authority on its own schools. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was talking nonsense when he argued that it was a centralising measure. The Secretary of State will not determine the level of funding for a school ; that will be determined by the level of funding reflected in the policies of the local authority. The detailed arrangements giving effect to that principle will be a matter for the grant regulations to be made under clause 25. Amendment No. 33 certainly does not achieve any such effect. The Secretary of State is not involved in providing services directly to pupils, whether in a self-governing school or an education authority school. When
Column 164considering overall levels of resources, what matters is equality of treatment for schools, and that is central to our entire thinking about self-governing schools.
I must say to the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) that, if he reads the report of the Second Reading debate and the quote that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State used from his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), he will see that we understood the Labour party's position to be that it was against equality of opportunity in education, but was in favour of equality of outcome. That is the difference which separates the two sides of the House. It was extremely helpful for the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to spell it out so clearly.
The remaining Government amendments are largely concerned with ensuring equity of treatment in resourcing provision for recorded special educational needs in self-governing schools.
I was sorry to hear of the absence from the House of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) due to family illness. It was a great blessing to the Standing Committee that it was the hon. Lady who participated in our proceedings and not the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. She approached the matter in an extremely constructive and helpful way, unlike the contribution that we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman. With the hon. Lady's particular experience and interest in special education, we found her advice invaluable in the lengthy discussions that we had on special needs, notably on the changes made in part III to the 1980 Act arrangements for placements of recorded children, and, more generally, on the effect of part I of the Bill on special educational needs. The form of the Bill reflects that influence. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan did not acknowledge that.
I should acknowledge, too, the many organisations that have given us helpful advice on the proposals in the Bill in relation to special education, for which we were extremely grateful. I express special appreciation to Sense in Scotland, which is concerned with the deaf-blind. It has followed the proceedings in Committee very closely and its main concern was that provision for special educational needs should be both secure and adequately financed. I believe that the amendments that we have tabled today will reassure it on both counts.
Amendment No. 72 reflects the concern on both sides of the Committee that self-governing schools should continue to provide for special educational needs and that there should be a positive duty to encourage and to increase that provision. We have, through clause 28, protected existing levels of provision for special needs. As schools now have a duty to have regard to the need to improve that provision, it is not sensible to require the balloting procedure to apply to improvements that flow from that duty. Amendment No. 92 means that increases in special educational needs provision should not be regarded as a change in the characteristics of a school.
Mr. Douglas : If the boards of management of schools that become self-governing are to have this responsibility--I speak with a little interest--who will make the assessment of whether they are adhering to that responsibility? Will the local education authority or the Secretary of State make that assessment?
Column 1654.45 pm
Mr. Forsyth : The board of governors will be under a duty to do so. If it is failing in any of its duties, there is provision in the Bill for the Secretary of State to take action. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me a little longer, I think that it will become more evident how we see that process working. Perhaps I could send him a copy of the letter that we sent out, following my undertaking in Committee, when I stressed the problems of the time available. I believe that a copy of the letter would be helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
Amendments Nos. 83 and 84 are made in respect of a further undertaking that I gave in Committee. They deal with the description of a school that is to be provided, along with published proposals relating to that school's application to become self-governing. The amendments would require the description to state what range, or, in other words, the kind, of provisions that the school has for pupils with special eduational needs. Clause 16(4)(b) recognises that all schools should make some provision for special educational needs and requires the extent of that to be stated as a basic characteristic of the school. The amendments, therefore, considerably strengthen the requirement to specify the provision for special educational needs at any school.
When the Committee amended the Bill to make special schools eligible for self-governing status, I agreed to bring before the House on Report amendments that would make any necessary changes to allow for that.
I say to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, as I said when I intervened, that it is quite extraordinary for him to take the view that we should not listen to the views expressed in Committee and seek to respond to them. A clearly expressed wish in Committee was that special schools should be eligible in the same way as other schools for that purpose. [Interruption.] I am surprised that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) is scoffing, because he tabled the amendment in Committee in the first place.
Mr. Michael Brown rose --
Mr. Michael Brown : I believe that hon. Members should not forget the 12th sitting of the Committee on Tuesday 11 April, when I read out the letter sent to me by Mrs. Lamont from Bearsden. The House should remember that Mrs. Lamond took the trouble to write a letter to one of the Scottish newspapers putting it clearly on the record that she felt that it was a disgrace that the Opposition were rejecting the possibility of children and parents of children at special schools being offered the same opportunities as those offered in the Bill to other people. If the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) says that he has read the proceedings of the Committee, he clearly needs to read again the Hansard of the 12th sitting of that Committee.
Mr. Forsyth : I agree with my hon. Friend. I recall that the substance of the complaint, and of the letter that appeared in one of the Scottish newspapers from Mrs. Lamond, made the point that parents felt aggrieved that
Column 166education authorities were able to take policy decisions to close special needs schools and to deprive them of a facility, and that those authorities believed that that would increase parental choice. Of course, the Labour party took its time-honoured position that the local authorities--the politicians--know better than the parents what is needed for their children. That is why the Labour party changed its mind on this matter and withdrew the amendment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes had added his name. He then took over the amendment and moved it eloquently during our proceedings.
Mr. Salmond : I hesitate to interrupt a reunion of the board of Michael Forsyth Associates, but will the Minister reply to the question that I have asked several times? Does he feel that a week's consultation matches the commitment he gave in Committee to consult the organisations concerned? Given the complexities of the issue, is a week's consultation adequate for organisations to respond? Will he answer directly?
Mr. Forsyth : I am finding it increasingly difficult to accept that the hon. Gentleman has read the Committee proceedings. I said that there would be difficulties over consultation, given the time scale involved. The amendment was not moved by the Government, and I accepted it on the basis of the views and arguments expressed.
Mr. Forsyth : I was concerned with the side mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes a few moment ago--the side of the parents of children with special needs who believe that the choice should be available to them in the legislation.
Mr. Salmond rose--
Mr. Forsyth : I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. The Committee was right in its judgment that, if parents of children at a special school wish it to become self-governing, they should be allowed to pursue that objective. I do not agree that special schools are so different from the generality of schools that the parents involved do not wish to participate in ensuring a good education for their children. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan talked of the compressed timetable, but we have been impressed by the responses we have received and we have received a considerable amount of support for the amendments to which I am speaking.
Mr. Salmond : Does the Minister not accept that his argument falls down? If he is saying that the fact that the amendment arose from the Committee caused grave problems over consultation, would that not be an argument for rejecting the amendment in Committee until the Government could carry out proper consultation and think again on the legislation?
Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman seems to have parted company from his hon. Friend the Member for Moray. If the basis of his argument is that we should not have made amendments at this stage in respect of special needs because there should have been a longer time for consultation, none of the commitments I gave to his hon.
Column 167Friend the Member for Moray would have been possible. I do not think that his hon. Friend would be too pleased with him, but there is nothing new in that.
There are some distinguishing characteristics. Most pupils who go to special schools have records of needs, and they pursue an educational curriculum that is frequently individual and different in content. Therefore, we had to consider how the existence of records of needs might affect the position. Under part 5 of the record, the authorities have a statutory duty to nominate the school to be attended. That nomination must take into account the views of parents and can be subject to the effect of a placing request. It remains the authority's duty to provide for the special educational needs of recorded children and that duty inescapably determines the majority of school placement decisions for such children. That meets the point raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas). It has been necessary-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) is saying that not all recorded children go to special schools. That is not what I said. I said that the authority's duty to provide for the special educational needs of recorded children determines the majority of school placement decisions for such children. That may be in mainstream education or in special schools.
It has been necessary to consider how the authority's role in supplying the special educational needs of recorded children may be fitted into the arrangements for self-governing schools. That aspect is not confined to special schools. Certainly, special schools contain more recorded children, but, where appropriate, recorded children are placed in mainstream schools and the effect of education authority nominations through the record must also be taken into account.
We have concluded that what is needed are not different arrangements for self-governing schools but an approach to the calculation of a separate element of recurrent grant for schools, whether special or mainstream, focused on the provision made for recorded children.
The arrangement I propose for the consideration of the House comprises two essential stages. First, there should be a dialogue and exchange of information between each self-governing school in an area and the education authority. The authority will say what provision it needs to make to fulfil its statutory duty in relation to the education of these children. The schools will tell the authority of the provisions they are able and willing to make to help the authority fulfil that duty. The object of the exchange is that each school and authority should agree on the amount of provision that the school will make and which the authority would take advantage of. The second phase of the process will be for the school and the authority to estimate the cost of that agreed level of commitment towards recorded pupils and notify that amount to the Secretary of State. Normally, recurrent grant would be set at that level. In the event of agreement not being reached--this concerned the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West--on the level of provision or on its cost or both, the Secretary of State will be able to make a determination. If the Secretary of State cannot accept any aspect of an agreement, he may also make a determination. The recurrent grant calculated under these
Column 168proposals will be additional to the grant calculated under clause 25 for the generality of functions at a mainstream self-governing school.
For special schools, account must be taken of pupils with special educational needs who may not have a record, either because it is still being prepared or because they have been placed there by children's panels or social work departments. The agreement between the authority and the special school and the recurrent grant will therefore take account of all children and all other costs that arise.
Mr. Douglas : Am I interpreting the Minister correctly? Is he saying that it would be in the interest of a special needs school and the education authority in terms of opting out not to reach an agreement but to be in conflict because they would then receive additional resources for special educational needs in a particular area?
Mr. Forsyth : No, the hon. Gentleman is not interpreting my words correctly. The additional provision will be made to take account of the needs of the child and an assessment will be made of the best placement for the child. The additional funds provided if the placement is at a self- governing school will be deducted from the education authority's grant in the same way as the provision for self-governing schools in respect of mainstream education. Therefore, there is no incentive to offload the responsibility on to the Secretary of State. That would be undesirable.
I am fairly confident--
Mr. McFall : I have considered special needs since the subject was raised in Committee. Taking an empirical case, there are parents with severely mentally handicapped children and parents with profoundly mentally handicapped children. After discussing the issue of special educational needs with those parents, I detect a division in the way they think their children should be educated. Some parents of severely mentally handicapped children have said that they do not want their children to be educated in the same environment as the profoundly mentally handicapped.
The character of a school can change within two or three years and if a school has opted out and the parents of severely mentally handicapped children are dominant, they may make a decision to admit only severely mentally handicapped children. What will happen to children who are profoundly mentally handicapped? If they cannot obtain a place at the school near their locality, will the local authority have to look again at its provision for the mentally handicapped?
Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman is asking me to repeat what I have just told the House at great length. In the case of a particular placement, there will be dialogue between the education authority and the school. If there is disagreement over the needs in terms of provision or resources, the Secretary of State will have a locus. The removal of the requirement to hold a ballot and obtain the Secretary of State's permission to change the characteristics applies only to an improvement in provision for special needs, not to a diminution of it.
I am confident that our proposals for special schools mean that they can opt for self-governing status in the certainty that they can continue fully to participate in the provision for special educational needs required for the
Column 169local education authority's area. Mainstream schools preparing to become self-governing will have the assurance of a continuing role in the education of recorded children. The amendment to clause 25 is technical and consequential.
For all those reasons, I commend the Government amendments to the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West will recognise that his amendment is not necessary and that the commitments on funding that he seeks have already been given in Committee. I am not sure that I can go along with his attitude towards assisted places or his ideas on education, which appear to be concentrated around the concept of equality of outcome. That is best summarised in the remark made by the hon. Member for Fife, Central, that if it is good enough for Henry McLeish's children it is good enough for everyone else. That view was definitely rejected. The clause, although ensuring fairness in the funding of schools, also allows for diversity and an extension of parental choice.
Mr. Harry Ewing : I live with the memory of a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh when the Minister pronounced his belief in cheque-book choice for education. Against that background, I find it not just difficult but absolutely impossible to accept that the Minister is sincerely concerned about Scottish education. Although I am liable to be criticised for apparently criticising my colleagues on the Front Bench, I must say that I can think of nothing more damaging than the opting out of special needs schools. The Minister is not just famous but notorious for running around Scotland telling the doctors and the teachers that they do not understand his proposals. No one except the Minister seems to understand his proposals, although I do not believe that even he understands the damage that will be done to special needs schools. He will live to regret his proposals.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) chided my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) about a unitary Parliament. The days of centralised Administration have outlived their time. That will soon be the position in this country, as it is already in most other parliamentary democracies. No other developed parliamentary democracy allows a small group of unrepresentative people to impose their unwanted policies on an unwilling population, as is happening in Scotland. The House and the unitary system--of which the hon. Member for Tayside, North is so proud-- are being brought into disrepute by the arrogance with which the Minister has proceeded not just with this legislation, but with the legislation on the National Health Service in Scotland. Conservative Members talk about the possibility of schools opting out rather than face closure, but my understanding is that this legislation is exactly the same as that for the NHS and that there will be no possibility of a school opting out simply because the local authority has proposed its closure.
It is worth pausing for a minute to think about what the Government propose for Scottish education. I do not doubt that the Minister will call it choice. Scotland has been forced to accept the assisted places scheme and the grant-aided sector of private education, which is funded largely by taxpayers' money. I cannot understand why Thatcherite Conservatives are in favour of giving taxpayers' money to private schools. I simply do not understand their logic. The Government are withdrawing
Column 170taxpayers' money from almost every organisation in the United Kingdom, but for some reason the grant-aided sector survives that philosophy.
Scotland will also have the Minister's opting-out system and the local education authority system. All that is designed for one purpose only--to sap the confidence of local authority education in Scotland. Although the Minister will not admit it, he is hoping that the local authority sector will fail and that his opting-out system will flourish. His assisted places scheme has little to do with education and everything to do with filling the empty desks in the grant-aided sector. That is why, in the final analysis, the decision about who should have places under the scheme lies not with the Secretary of State, not with Members of Parliament and not even with local education authorities ; it lies with the headmasters of the receiving schools.
Scotland faces a range of education that the Minister will claim means choice, but its purpose is to sap the confidence of the state sector, which is so excellent in Scotland. Every Right-wing Government in any country have always been guilty of promising to the majority what they know only the minority can have. The Government know that this legislation relates only to the minority and that the vast majority will be left with a denuded education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West tabled his amendment in an attempt to prevent the Minister favouring schools that opt out, at the expense of local authority schools.
As most of my colleagues know, I shall not return to the House after the next general election-- [Interruption.] Unlike the Minister, I am leaving voluntarily. He will be thrown out, and a few more Conservatives with him. In three years' time, when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is Secretary of State for Scotland and my own Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central, (Mr. McLeish) is Education Minister, I shall be very disappointed if they do not put an end to the assisted places scheme and all the rubbish that the Minister has proposed today. I do not know what sort of brains in the Scottish Office thought up such rubbish.
I have a feeling that I will not need to express that disappointment, because I have sufficient confidence in my hon. Friends. They know the damage that the Conservative party in Scotland, small though it is, is doing to Scottish education. It will be up to my colleagues to rebuild that system into the proud system it once was before the advent of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth).
Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), will be back in the next Parliament.