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Mr. Bill Walker : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in the 200 years before the turn of this century, when Scotland's schools were run substantially by school boards, Scottish education was the envy of the rest of Europe?
Mr. Clarke : No, I fear that, in line with my opening remarks, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that for the majority of Scottish children our education system has been the envy of anywhere. Certainly it has not been the envy of those of us who want to see all our children realising their full potential. I fear that, just as we are seeing an educational system in Scotland contrived so that we are not even having an increase in access to higher education for children from working-class backgrounds, so, once again, we are finding resources thinly spread, and indeed not being spread towards all our children, particularly those in special need.
Access extends to many spheres. My hon. Friends will support my desire to promote the interests of children with special needs, especially as this is Scottish mental handicap week, when voluntary organisations in Scotland such as Barnardo's and the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped are arguing, in their posters and at exhibitions, that those children should be seen as part of our community and have access to good educational opportunities, good housing and a quality of life that has been denied to many of them. Conservative Members argue about what can be achieved by selection, and it cannot be denied that we are having selection. They speak of children with special aptitudes--for example, children with a special desire to develop their musical talents and so on--and we agree that that is excellent and that provision should be made so that their aptitudes can be reflected in results.
But that type of provision should be widely shared. I have never understood why children who are good musicians should be sent away to special schools, whereas children who may not be so gifted are never able to hear them. Are they not entitled to access to good music, even to hear it, and should that not apply also to children with special needs? Sharing talents should not be in the
Column 229background of educational provision, but if we have the type of elitism over selection of which we are talking, that is where we will be heading. That seems a particularly selfish approach.
On Second Reading, the Secretary of State, who I regret is temporarily not in his place, said :
"I can state categorically and without equivocation that the Bill is not designed to reintroduce selectivity ; nor is it designed to do anything other than to add to the opportunities available to Scottish youngsters and their parents in the educational system."--[ Official Report, 6 March 1989 ; Vol. 148, c. 625.]
If that is the intention, it is heavily disguised in the drafting of the Bill, and the proposed new clause would do much to redress the balance-- perhaps I should say the imbalance--of provision that the measure will introduce.
With the kind of opting-out provisions that the Minister is recommending, it seems that those who will benefit least are children with special needs. Or are we to introduce elitism in that sphere, too? There was a time when it seemed that hon. Members on both sides of the House were aiming, not overnight but in due course, at integration for all our children. There was a time when I understood that it was felt that the education system and its comprehensive provisions might be made available to all.
I think I see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary looking askance as I make that statement. He knows that I welcome the fact that he has been to the Peto institute and that elsewhere in the Bill he is making provision for local authorities to make use of that service. Although my support for what he has done in that respect is unqualified, I must tell him bluntly that, if he believes in educational provision, he must ask himself why such a service is not being made available today in Scotland. If he goes ahead with opting out, he must ask why the children of whom I speak are being left behind. If all of this should be based on market considerations, he must be wondering whether the Peto institute should exist. Has not the Minister been trying to impose restrictions in Scottish education through his approach?
Mr. Michael Forsyth : Uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman is contradicting himself. If he is arguing that integration and a move away from special schools should be the way forward, the opportunity for the development of particular techniques and approaches, of which the Peto institute is one, would be diminished. The whole point about allowing for self-governing status in the special needs area is precisely to allow the development of a diversity of approach which the hon. Gentleman and I would probably favour.
Mr. Clarke : The Minister will find when he reads my speech that I have been consistent. I am arguing that in the kind of society in which we believe, the time will come when it will not be necessary--although I accept that it is necessary now--for our children to go to Hungary for that type of provision, because it will be available here. Nor will it be necesssary for children to go to schools which have opted out, because our mainstream educational system will be comprehensive enough to respond to their needs and demands.
Mr. Forsyth : Yesterday I visited a special school and a number of parents told me that already some education authorities are saying that the powers which will be available to them will not be used by them because they do
Column 230not believe that the type of provision at the Peto institute is appropriate. The point of allowing for self-governing status for special schools is that it means that it is not then up to one education authority or to one education authority's committee to decide what will be the form of specialist provision ; there is an allowance for diversity which follows parental preference. The hon. Gentleman and I share, on this narrow issue, much in common in terms of our views of the direction in which we should be going. I caution him against going too far down that road, because there are some who are dogmatic about what is right in special needs provision. This provision enables diversity of approach to be retained.
Mr. Clarke : I am always prepared to listen carefully to the Minister. He worries about people being dogmatic. I am not sure whether he is the right person to give that sort of lecture, especially in the context of the Bill. Like him, I meet many parents of children with learning difficulties in the special educational sphere. I find even less enthusiasm among those parents for the principle of opting out than among parents of children in mainstream education. I look forward with interest to the development of that debate.
In conclusion, my hon. Friends have established that the Government's departure not just from the principle of comprehensive education, which has already been shown to be successful, but towards, as they see it, embracing elitist education by introducing the principle of opting out, has clearly been rejected by the vast majority of parents in Scotland. The Government are doing a disservice not just to educational traditions--I have already made it clear that I do not believe that those traditions were necessarily in the best interests of all Scottish children--but to children with special needs.
I am not saying that the Government are introducing a Dickensian approach-- others might do so, but I am trying to be fair even to the Minister. However, their views are already outdated and are recognised as such by the people of Scotland. What I do say, as Charles Dickens said, is :
"In the little world in which children have their existence, whomsoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived or so finely felt as injustice."
The Bill represents an injustice to the majority of Scotland's children, and especially to those with special needs. For that reason, I support the new clause.
Mr. Michael Brown : I listened carefully to the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), in which he gave the game away. He implied that there will be tremendous parental demand to take advantage of the provisions of the Bill. The logic of the new clause is fundamentally flawed, because it clearly implies that there will be such an overwhelming parental demand to take advantage of the self-governing provisions that it is necessary to circumscribe them and to put restrictions into the Bill at every twist and turn. Those of us who served on the Standing Committee got used to such classic restrictions as this.
Indeed, we come right back to where we started, with the Gainsborough question, which was posed early in our Committee proceedings by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). My hon. Friend the Minister consistently asked Opposition Members, whenever they made the sort of speeches that they did--I accept, for the best of intentions and reasons--what they were seeking to do. Throughout all the
Column 231speeches tonight and all those made in the Standing Committee, Opposition Members have given the game away. Although they know that there will be tremendous parental demand for these provisions they are trying to argue--they have done so tonight--that parents in Scotland will make no such demands. All the amendments and the new clauses--especially new clause 2--make it clear that the Opposition are terrified that there will be considerable demand for these provisions.
I shall dwell first on the way in which I read the Bill and then, as on many previous occasions during the Bill's passage--I shall deal-- [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) wish to intervene? He now has the opportunity of challenging directly "the most obnoxious hon. Member in the House"--to use his description. That is what he said about how I conducted myself in Committee. I hope that you Mr. Deputy Speaker, agree that I am taking this new clause seriously. I am speaking tonight in exactly the same way as I spoke in Standing Committee. I found it offensive for the hon. Member for Garscadden to say the things that he did during the guillotine debate about the way in which I conducted myself in Standing Committee. I took the trouble to turn up for virtually every sitting and to take all the debates seriously, whereas he dropped in for only an hour or two on one day of our two or three month-long Committee.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : Does my hon. Friend agree that that was born of frustration on the part of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)? The hon. Gentleman had completely miscalculated. He had failed to take the lead for the Opposition and had to see my hon. Friend the Minister and the other Conservative Members make complete mincemeat of the Opposition with a measure that will utlimately be very popular with parents in Scotland.
Mr. Brown : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I wonder what, if anything, we shall hear from the hon. Member for Garscadden if he should seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later on. I return to the way in which I interpret the Bill. I shall restate the important point made by my hon. Friend the Minister in Standing Committee at 11.15 pm on 18 April-- it is well worth restating--to which the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) has referred. The Bill itself introduces two hurdles for self- governing schools and their admissions policy, which do not exist under local education authorities in England, Wales and Scotland at the moment. It is possible for selection to be introduced in local authority schools on the vote of the local education authority committee. I should know because I live about eight miles from the border between-- [Interruption.] Perhaps Opposition Members will be courteous enough to allow me to finish my sentence. We have heard about obnoxious Conservative Members, and Opposition Members should now allow Conservative Members simply to finish their sentences.
I live just eight miles from the border between Humberside and Lincolnshire. The county of Lincolnshire has a selection policy. Children there can go to grammar or secondary modern schools and take the 11-plus
Column 232examination. Parents with jobs in my constituency often choose to live the other side of the county boundary so that their children are educated by the Lincolnshire education authority rather than the Humberside education authority. As the House may be aware, a proposal is currently before the Boundary Commission that south Humberside should go into Lincolnshire. I know that many of my constituents will look forward to the opportunities provided by the Lincolnshire education authority.
Mr. Brown : If any are running away, they are certainly not my supporters, because at three successive general elections since 1979 my majority has increased from three figures, to four figures, to five figures. If people are running away, they are not Conservative supporters. Perhaps my political opponents have given up the ghost and are clearing off elsewhere.
To return to the main provisions of the Bill, we need to take the new clause seriously although its logic is fundamentally flawed. The Bill does not alter the current position. All that it does is place two hurdles in the way of self-governing schools which, as I have already said, do not apply to education authority schools. One is the parental ballot and the other is the approval of the Secretary of State. No such hurdles are at present in the way of education authority schools in Scotland or, from my own experience, in England. Lincolnshire is the classic example. If Opposition Members are worried that selection might be introduced into the Scottish education system, they must believe that the vast majority of parents are waiting for self-governing status. Therefore, the wishes of Opposition Members are already protected.
Perhaps I may bring to bear the experience of England. One advantage of having English Members on the Standing Committee was that we already have the Education Reform Act 1988 on the statute book for England ; it is not dissimilar to the legislation that I hope will shortly be on the statute book for Scotland. We have had experience of the debate that is taking place in England. As English Members of Parliament, we have been following closely the way in which parents have been taking advantage of the provisions of the Education Reform Act.
I can tell the House of my local experience, for it was just down the road in the seaside resort adjoining the one that I represent, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell), that the parents of children at a school in Skegness voted overwhelmingly to take advantage of the provisions of the Education Reform Act. There is no evidence that the introduction of selection is the driving force behind a large number of cases south of the border where parents are voting with their feet very much in favour of self-governing status ; in the majority of cases, it is happening where Labour education authorities are in control of education. I am sure that the position will be the same north of the border. We already have the example of Jordanhill school, which was referred to at great length by my hon. Friend the Minister and by a large number of hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies who served on the Standing Committee.
Column 233The Opposition have deliberately misinterpreted the Bill, which seeks to increase educational opportunity and to raise the standards of education. Parents want their children to go to schools that get results.
Mr. McLeish : In Scotland, most children are exposed to education where standards are high, and the standard of education is improving. Standards measured against any other criteria are also improving. What, then, is the problem?
Mr. Brown : That is the complacency that we have come to expect of the hon. Gentleman. I remember reading an article by him just before we started our proceedings in Standing Committee. I think that it is worthy of repetition. We were told that what was good enough for Henry McLeish's children was good enough for everybody else. That has been the position taken by the hon. Gentleman from the time that he wrote that article all the way through the proceedings in Committee. On that basis, I might say that what is good enough for Michael Brown is good enough for everybody else. I failed my 11-plus. I went to a secondary modern school from the age of 11 to the age of 18, but I did not fail my A-levels. I got good grades through the teachers who taught me in that school. I got grade A in English literature, grade B in economics and grade C in history. I accept that I may have failed the 11-plus because I was lazy and probably more concerned with cricket and football.
If I have a criticism of my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends the Ministers, it is that the Bill does not allow enough opportunity for school boards, parents and boards of management to consider their selection policy. It is already circumscribed, as the hon. Gentleman said when he quoted what the Secretary of State said on 6 March in the Second Reading debate in column 625. I believe that there is a case to be made for selection. If I have a small criticism of the Bill, it is that, because of the two hurdles, it circumscribes the opportunities for selection.
If there is a valid criticism of my hon. Friends, it is that once again they have been modest, reasonable and not at all extreme. Once again, as usual, my hon. Friend is the modest Minister. I suggest that there is a case for not making those hurdles as stiff as he and the Secretary of State have made them. I accept the general thesis on where the Government want to be. The Government want to ensure that parents can send their children to schools that get results. I cannot accept the complacent attitude that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Fife, Central. I thought that he gave the game away very effectively. He seemed to suggest that there was nothing wrong anywhere, that every child in Scotland was getting the education he deserved and that there was no room for improvement. I do not accept that. It is always dangerous when politicians sit back complacently, saying that everything is marvellous and there is no need for change.
If everything is marvellous, perhaps it is because of the 25 per cent. increase in expenditure in real terms by the Government on Scottish education in the last 10 years. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that everything in the garden is rosy, perhaps it is because of the tremendous resources that have been put into education. We cannot have it both ways. I am prepared to admit to the parents and children of Scotland, as I am prepared to admit to the parents and children of England, that, notwithstanding the massive increase in financial resources for the education system,
Column 234everything in the garden is not yet rosy, but I believe that the Education Reform Act in England and this Bill in Scotland will redress the position.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : Has my hon. Friend noticed that the complacency is made altogether worse when there is evidence of declining standards, as has become apparent from the assessment of achievement programme? The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) has joined the somewhat irresponsible forces who argue that the evidence is suspect. They adopt a policy of shooting the messenger when they do not like the message.
Mr. Brown : My hon. Friend is right. It is worth drawing to the attention of the House some words of the Minister in Committee. In regard to Scottish education he said that the position was like a school report-- "Could do better". That is the right and healthy attitude that a Scottish Education Minister should take. It is a credit to my hon. Friend and to the Scottish Office that they recognise that, notwithstanding the massive resources that have been put into Scottish education, there comes a point when money alone does not solve the problem, and we have to raise the standards of education in Scotland.
The purpose of the Bill is to do precisely that. I believe that the new clause would weaken the Bill, which is what the Opposition want to do. They do not want to see the improvements that the Government envisage as a result of the Bill. They want to wreck the Bill, and that is why they have put down such amendments.
As I promised, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke).
This may be the last opportunity that I may have to participate in the proceedings on the Bill.
Mr. Brown : The hon. Gentleman says that he hopes that that is the case. I know that the Opposition have had a rough ride with regard to the English Members serving on the Committee. The Labour party--or it might have been the Scottish National party--
One or other of the Opposition parties serving on the Committee issued a press release, even before the first sitting, saying what a disgrace it was that there were English Members serving on the Standing Committee. After the first sitting of the Standing Committee, all they did was sit there mute doing their constituency correspondence. From day one they got their comeuppance, because we have considered the proceedings on the Bill responsibly and seriously and we have read up-- [Interruption.] The problem for Opposition Members is that we have read too many of their articles. We have drawn too much public attention to some of the things that they have said. We have obtained speeches that have been made one day and press releases issued the next day, and we have drawn attention to the inconsistencies.
Mr. Brown : That is right. I was upbraided by an hon. Member opposite when I referred incorrectly to councillor Charles Gray as Sir Charles Gray, the chairman of the Strathclyde education committee. I went straight to The Times last Saturday to see whether Councillor Gray had been made a knight, because I believed that he should be knighted for his services to Scottish education. In the past few months, Councillor Gray and my hon. Friend the Scottish Education Minister have done a great deal for Scottish education. We are right to pay tribute to the work of Councillor Gray, who I hope will be a "sir" in the not too distant future. They have done a great deal of practical work to raise the standards of education. I have a shrewd suspicion that the one local councillor who will be waiting with bated breath for the royal assent to the Bill will be Councillor Charles Gray. From some of the statements he has already made, it appears that he actually regrets that the Bill is not yet on the statute book. If he were a Member of the House, he would not be supporting the new clause, because he wants to be where my hon. Friend the Minister is, but he wants to be there a little earlier. Some of the speeches we have heard of Councillor Gray in the press reports during the Committee stage of the Bill indicate that he cannot wait for the Bill to be enacted. We owe it to Councillor Gray--I hope that in the new year's honours list in 1990 he will be Sir Charles--to reject the new clause and to get the Bill on to the statute book as quickly as possible.
Mr. McAllion : It was obvious that the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) had not read the new clause, because he made virtually no reference to it in 20 minutes of drivel similar to that which we heard from him in Committee. At one point the Minister intervened and said that people who did not like the message blamed the messenger. Of course, if anyone is guilty of that sentiment, it is the Minister and his friends in the Scottish Office, because, if they could not get the message last Thursday at the ballot box in Scotland about this Bill and the plans for the National Health Service, they will never get the message.
Mr. McAllion : That is precisely the point to which I was coming. The Minister traipses around Scotland speaking to anyone who will listen to him from the media. He says that the doctors and the teachers do not understand the message. However, they understand the message and the messenger, which is why the majority of Scots are represented by Opposition parties.
Mr. McAllion : If the SNP regains Dundee, there will not have been a swing to the Left, which is what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) claimed in Glasgow, Central. If there is a swing to the Left, Labour will hold Dundee easily in the next election.
Mr. McAllion : That is true. The Tories obviously believe that saving deposits in elections in Scotland constitutes a good performance. It shows the depths to which they have sunk. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes said that one of the advantages of English Members taking part in discussions on the Bill was that they were able to relate their experiences of English education legislation and inform other hon. Members who do not represent English constituencies. There is an element of truth in that, as long as the English Members tell us the truth about the English experience. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes talked about the grades he received in school but he did not receive a grade A in truth. He talked about Lincolnshire education authority being a classic example of how an authority provides choice for parents and encourages pupils to come into its area. However, he did not tell us about South Park high school in Lincoln in which 97 per cent. of parents voted in favour of self-governing status in an 88 per cent. turnout. The Secretary of State for Education and Science refused to allow the school to opt out on that basis.
Mr. McFall : Does my hon. Friend agree that our objection to English Members is that they know nothing about Scottish education? The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) mentioned Charles Gray but he did not know whether he had been knighted or not. The hon. Gentleman knew nothing about the issue of the old qualifying examination in Scotland. The English Members were chosen for their ignorance of Scottish education. Many of them knew more about and had more sympathy with South Africa than they did about Scottish education.
The Secretary of State for Education and Science refused to allow the school in Lincolnshire to opt out because he said :
"I must be satisfied that the school is likely to succeed." In Committee the Minister said :
"We want only good candidates for self-governing status, not lame ducks. We want those schools to be the ones that succeed."--[ Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 11 April 1989 ; c. 478.] If we break through the code in which Tories speak, that means that schools in working- class areas that are full of working-class kids will not have an opportunity to opt out. The Bill is not about giving parents greater choice but about allowing a small elite to opt out into grammar-type schools. That is why the Secretary of State is picking and choosing the schools that can opt out. That is what the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Minister want and that is why new clauses such as this are essential.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : Does the hon. Gentleman not think that he has a cheek to express such an argument when, in Committee, he argued that the Bill ought to be amended, as it was today, to allow for proper consultation with the education authority so that the decision is not taken solely by parents but that the Secretary of State will have other arguments and considerations to take into account? The hon. Gentleman is now condemning my
Column 237right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science because he has taken other factors into account. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He simply chooses whatever argument seems most effective to knock the Government. That is why he and his colleagues got into such a mess in Committee.
Mr. McAllion : The Minister has made a weak intervention. The only person who decides whether a school may opt out is the Secretary of State. Others may be consulted but Scotland has had 10 years of being consulted by Secretaries of State who represent the Tory Government. They might listen but they do not act upon what they hear. They simply go through the formality of consulting and that is why the ballot procedure is not properly democratic. It does not really matter how the parents vote, it does not matter what the education authority or what the parents of children in the feeder primary schools might say because, ultimately, the Secretary of State makes up his own mind. He wants to wreck the comprehensive system in Scotland and allow schools to opt out if he thinks that they can form the backbone of a new grammar type-school so that such a provision can be put in place across Scotland. That is what the Bill is about. The Minister is not kidding anyone that the Bill is about increasing choice or allowing people to make up their own minds.
It is important that the Minister gives a clear commitment that there will be no reintroduction of general academic selection to secondary schools. The Minister said that he has made the position clear, but nothing could be further from the truth. He has avoided giving anything like the commitment given by the Secretary of State for Scotland on Second Reading, when he categorically rejected the reintroduction of selectivity.
The Minister was pressed time and again in Committee, and again today, to give that commitment, but he refused. He said that the Government had recognised special needs such as dance, music, Gaelic and the classics. He went all round the houses, but he would not give a commitment that there would be no reintroduction of general academic selection. Several Conservative Members suggested that the Minister had given a clear assurance in Committee that no rural schools would be allowed to reintroduce general academic selection that would keep out any children. The Minister did not give any such commitment for urban schools such as those in Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Until he gives such a commitment, there will be a deep suspicion that that is what the Bill is all about, no matter what he says.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) made an honest contribution to our debates in Committee. He was quite open about wanting the reintroduction of general academic selection. He said that he wanted the return of grammar schools in Scotland, in the way that they are now returning in England and Wales. The Minister congratulated his hon. Friend on his effective speech, which he said he appreciated. He surely cannot say that he appreciates his hon. Friend's call for the return of grammar schools and at the same time pretend that the Government will not allow that to happen in Scotland. Either the Minister supports his hon. Friend or he does not. He certainly gave the impression of supporting his hon. Friend in Committee. The Minister used to belong to the No Turning Back group of Conservative Members, a number of whom are
Column 238present tonight. That group produced an education pamphlet that clearly attacked the comprehensive system and local authority schools and called for the reintroduction of grammar schools. The hon. Gentleman was not a Minister when he put his name to the pamphlet in 1986. He was careful to withdraw his name when he became a Minister, but he has never taken the opportunity to reject the pamphlet's proposals. I suspect that he still stands by them and awaits the opportunity to bring them into force. The Minister is nodding, so I assume that he intends to reintroduce academic selection. On 18 April the Minister cited an example from the independent sector, and said :
"Let us consider the variety of schools in the independent sector. Some place a greater emphasis on academic achievement while others emphasise the expressive arts, sport and so on. Parents choose the schools which they believe will be most suited to their children. We wish to see that sort of diversity and choice in the state system and the Bill will deliver that."-- [Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 18 April 1987 ; c. 782.]
There are certainly schools in the independent sector that concentrate on academic excellence, but they use selection by academic ability to admit pupils. The Minister was basically saying that he would replicate that system in the state sector. He is all over the place. He will not assure the House that he is opposed to the reintroduction of grammar schools--or senior secondary schools as they are called in Scotland.
The uncertainty and ambiguity of the Minister's answers were reflected even in his description of the way in which a school that opts out will maintain its characteristics. The Minister explained that the school board would have to set out the proposed admissions policy if it was granted self- governing status. Within that policy, it would have to stress any special emphasis which it wanted to characterise the provision of education in the school. Once it had secured a majority in the ballot and gained the approval of the Secretary of State for Scotland, the description of the admissions policy was a binding obligation on the board of management taking over the running of the school. As the Minister said, that would be a guarantee to parents of what the school would be like in future. That is fine, and everyone would support that idea. However, the Minister then, through clause 28, creates the mechanism by which that binding guarantee can be ripped up by the parents if they achieve a simple majority in a ballot.
The binding agreement to ensure that the school stayed within the characteristics of its proposed admissions policy would be thrown out the window as soon as the board had the simple majority and the Secretary of State's approval to change the characteristic. The Minister said that that would be a significant change which would be of considerable importance to parents, neighbourhood schools and education authorities. That very important change is made possible in clauses 16 and 28. The Minister has studiously avoided any opportunity of saying that the Secretary of State will not allow anyone to use the mechanism to reintroduce general academic selection when a school opts out.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes referred to hurdles. The Secretary of State's permission is certainly
Column 239not a hurdle. At the moment, a Tory Secretary of State for Scotland would be keen to allow any break-up of the comprehensive system. The Minister has been very careful to restrict the people who are allowed to take part in the ballot of parents. He suggested in Committee that the parents of children in feeder primaries should be given the right to vote, but that was knocked on the head by the Tory majority on the Committee because they wanted to restrict the ballot only to parents who had children at the school. It was suggested that staff should be allowed to participate in the ballot. However, that was also knocked on the head. They will be forcibly transferred from one employer to another. They will have no chance to vote in the ballot. An amendment earlier today would have given adult users of a school the right to take part in a ballot, but the Minister made sure that that amendment was not passed.
The purpose behind all this is to keep the ballot to an absolute minimum. That will create a community of people who might be tempted into voting for something on the basis that they might get something out of it at the expense of the local authority. If the number of people allowed to vote is small enough, they have a good chance of winning.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) made a disgraceful intervention earlier today. He deliberately filibustered on an important amendment which prevented a vote being taken on it. That amendment would have required a two-thirds majority. The Government were careful to ensure that only a simple majority is required to change the characteristics of the school.
Mr. Bill Walker : It appears that the term "filibuster" now has a new meaning. A speech lasting less than five minutes is now a filibuster, even when that speech includes a number of lengthy interventions. When the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) reads Hansard, he will hardly be able to substantiate his charge. I stated very clearly why I supported my colleagues on the Government Front Bench and why I was against the proposal for a two thirds majority. I thought that the debate was very serious and that it was discussed fully and seriously. My constituents will understand why I took that position. It had nothing to do with filibustering.
Mr. McAllion : If the hon. Gentleman visits the Library and consults the Oxford English Dictionary, he will see that filibustering does not necessarily mean talking for a long time. The hon. Gentleman knew that if he did not stop speaking before 6.30 pm, a vote on the amendment for a two- thirds majority would not be taken. He also was aware that he had made his points very clearly and was talking for no purpose other than to ensure that the vote was not taken. The Government Whip whispered to him and told him to ensure that the amendment was not reached so that the Government could secure the idea that the majority required in the ballots could involve fewer than half the parents voting in favour. The Secretary of State for Scotland agreed with that.
If the hon. Member for Tayside, North doubts that, he should consider what happened last week in England. In a school to which the Minister referred, 56 per cent. of parents voted for opting out and the Secretary of State for Education and Science allowed them to do that. What the Minister did not tell anyone was that the 56 per cent. of
Column 240parents who voted were a minority of those who were entitled to vote. Therefore, that school was allowed to opt out of education authority control without gaining the support of even half the parents or children at that school for such a move. That is why the Opposition are opposed to the idea. The ballot is simply a hurdle that the Government can manipulate in order to make sure that they get their friends over. If the Secretary of State can achieve that, he will.
Mr. Allan Stewart : The hon. Gentleman should withdraw his allegation against my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). If he had sat down before half-past six, I would have made my contribution.
Mr. McAllion : I saw the Government Whip whisper to the hon. Member for Tayside, North and then go round and whisper into the ear of the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) to make sure that, if the hon. Member for Tayside, North sat down early, the hon. Member for Eastwood would speak. Both hon. Members took part in a Government ploy and it is a disgrace that hon. Members should be prevented from voting on such an important issue.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does the hon. Gentleman realise that he has just referred to decisions made with a two-thirds majority. He and I know that he was elected on considerably less than a 50 per cent. simple majority. But no one disputes--I do not--that he represents Dundee, East, and he does so most effectively. I hope that he continues to do so, but not if he continues to criticise the vote at the school to which he referred and the turnout there.
Mr. McAllion : Again, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) dealt clearly with that problem. We are talking about a major institutional change whereby a school is taken out of the education authority's control and given direct funding under the Secretary of State for Scotland. The next step along may be the private sector. Such a decision cannot be taken lightly on the basis of a simple majority. No one would argue that such a decision should be made on a two-thirds majority. A Member of Parliament can be voted out at a general election, but once a school is taken out of the education authority sector it is not easy to return it. The Secretary of State for Scotland makes the decision, and if he says no, nothing can be done about it. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is drawing a parallel that is wrong and makes no sense.
I know exactly what the Minister is about. He is about wrecking the comprehensive system in Scotland--breaking up education authority schools. In Committee, I remember him describing the introduction of comprehensive education between 1969 and 1974. He said that it was the most fundamental change in the history of Scottish education up to that time and that it had been brought about by the Labour party. The problem is that the Minister and his friends have never accepted that fundamental change and have worked all their lives to reverse it. They started to do it with the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 and now they are moving on to the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Bill.
Mr. McAllion : I will tell the hon. Gentleman so what. Conservative Members should not give us the nonsense that this is all about parental choice. It is about destroying comprehensive education. It is the only thing that it has ever been about and that is why we are here tonight. If the Minister says that it is not about that he must accept the new clause that has been tabled in the name of my hon. Friends. If he does not, he does not have the same candour and honesty as the Secretary of State for Scotland, who at least says what he thinks. He says that he will not allow general selectivity to be reintroduced. The Minister will not allow those words to come out of his mouth and that is why the new clause is important.
Mr. Gerald Howarth : The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) performed a service in Committee and has also done so on the Floor of the House. Yet again, he has drawn attention to the excellent work of the No Turning Back group, of which I am a member. We enjoyed that contribution of the hon. Gentleman and his earlier contributions to the formulation of English law when he dashed down the Committee Corridor to vote on some English matter. He has certainly played his part in our proceedings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) ably pointed out that the Opposition's fears about selectivity were unfounded and that the Bill would open up the positive aspects of selectivity. My hon. Friend was right to reiterate the points made by my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee when, in response to the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), he stated :
"Nothing can prevent any education authority having a selective intake in any of its schools The Bill does not alter the current position. All it does is to put two hurdles in the way of self-governing schools which do not apply to education authority schools. One is the parental ballot and the other is the approval of the Secretary of State It is possible for selection to be introduced into local authority schools on the vote of the education committee. It will not be possible for selectivity to be introduced into self-governing schools on the vote of the board of management. That is the fundamental difference. It will be much harder to introduce selection into a self-governing school than into a local authority school."--[ Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 18 April 1989 ; c. 791-92.]
That makes the position clear.
I understand the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) in respect of local authority schools in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) also raised that matter. However, I cannot believe that in a ballot parents will exclude children for whom there is no alternative provision. I am sure that that would not be their wish.
If Opposition Members are correct in saying that schools will not want to become self-governing, my right hon. Friend has no cause for concern. His point is well taken, but he overlooks the Bill's general purpose and why parents are likely to vote for self-governing status. I cannot believe that parents would vote to exclude a minority or even a large number of pupils because they fail to meet the criteria of academic ability, as that would defeat the whole purpose of the Bill. If parents vote for self-government, it will not be to exclude less bright children but to create the ethos they want and which they feel the local education authority has not provided. That is genuine parental choice, and that is what the Bill is all about.
We believe that the Bill will provide parents with greater opportunities to have an input into the type of