HC Deb 22 July 1975 vol 896 cc517-26

2.21 a.m.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline)

I make no apologies for raising the simple, straightforward subject of the Carnock Primary School in the early hours of the morning in this Adjournment debate. It is an important constituency matter.

In a previous Adjournment debate which I initiated on a Scottish subject, the reply was given not by a Scottish Minister but by a Treasury Minister. That was a formidable experience for me. Tonight the situation is much better and I am less apprehensive because, due to certain circumstances, the Minister who should have replied is not here. Fortunately for me, the Minister in his place is one of my colleagues from the county of Fife, so I am expecting a great deal of sympathy and consideration.

It is necessary to raise the subject of the future of the Carnock Primary School for numerous reasons, but I shall confine myself to two main reasons. One is that it is wrong to deprive a community of full primary education. This is the crux of the matter. The parents' action committee and I want to know whether full primary education will be restored to the village of Carnock. That presupposes that there will be a new school some day in the not too distant future providing full primary education.

The former Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), knows the case which I could put forward on behalf of the Carnock community. The Minister who is to reply also knows the case well. I am sure that since last night he has been able to obtain some information about the matter.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North listened courteously to our deputation. We met him on 18th April this year. After almost an hour with the deputation he must have realised that before him were representatives of a young and growing community voicing fears which to this day are not yet dispelled.

There has been full primary education in Carnock for 100 years. Carnock is an old village. The majority of the present community came to live in the village seven or eight years ago, attracted by new, private housing developments.

The old school having a limited life, it was natural to expect a new school in due course. That was the main reason for the quick growth of the community. It was on the list of priorities at one time. There was never any doubt that the school would materialise. Uncertainty has been created by the Fife Education Authority. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to state clearly what are the parents' rights for their children to be educated in the school of their choice.

The education authority in Fife has not been forthcoming about the school's future. It decided to stabilise the school at around 100 to 120 pupils in the primary 1 to primary 4 range and to transfer the top class to Inzievar School in Oakley, which is about two miles away. When that decision was first communicated to the Carnock people they were angry, because it seemed to be the thin end of the wedge which would deny them primary school facilities in the future. The action committee was also displeased about the way the transfer was intimated to it.

Despite my intervention by correspondence and parents' efforts through discussion with education officials, in addition to their correspondence over a six-month period, there was no disclosure of the fact that the current decision by the education authority could be implemented only on the basis of the approval of the Secretary of State. Regrettably it was only after I had raised the matter on the Floor of the House that the education authority took this step.

Despite our meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, the transfer goes on. The action committee's request for temporary accommodation until a new school is built has been rejected. Its fears about primary pupils having to travel to school, thereby encountering danger on the road, were ignored. Free school transport was promised, but no mention was made of whether the children will have this facility to return home for their midday meal. The cost of transport will continue and increase year by year. It would have been cheaper to have built or temporarily to have rented accommodation for the top classes.

Unfortunately, and fortuitously, Inzievar School is situated in Oakley. It was a former secondary school but for various reasons it was not successful as such. Even with the Carnock children added there will still be spare capacity for more pupils. Will this school be filled to capacity with other primary school pupils? The Carnock people have the right to know the education authority's long-term plans.

Two regional councillors have tried to extract an unequivocal answer from the regional council about this school's future. One of the councillors felt he had received a firm assurance that Carnock school would be maintained indefinitely. He is not so sure now because, having pressed the matter again with the education convener, he had the same reply as I received from the director of education dated 30th May 1975. I quote the main part of that reply: An assurance was given by the Chairman of the Schools Sub-Committee that, apart from the older children being accommodated in Inzievar primary school from the beginning of session 1975–76, there would be no further reduction in primary educational facilities being provided at Carnock. The situation would be examined annually, however, in the light of prevailing circumstances. The Chairman of the Schools Sub-Committee was not prepared to say anything further about the future of Carnock school. One sentence is a critical factor in that reply, and I am sure that the future hinges on it. I shall read it again: The situation would be examined annually, however, in the light of prevailing circumstances. That could mean anything, but I am sure it does not mean that there will not be a further reduction in the school population in the existing Carnock school or that we shall be guaranteed a new school in Carnock in the future.

In view of what I have said, does not my hon. Friend feel that the Carnock community has grounds for feeling aggrieved and alarmed? The village of Carnock is one of several similar villages in that part of Fife west of Dunfermline. All are integrated community units with most of the essential social services at their disposal. There are primary schools, community centres, general practitioners and public cleansing services, and the larger communities have a health centre and public transport.

Before the February 1974 General Election, although those communities were not in my constituency, I worked there and gave the service that a Member of Parliament gives to his own constituency. In several of the villages there appeared then to be efforts to erode the normal and general services. This trend was arrested.

It is galling to think that in the years to come Carnock could be without a school which provides full primary facilities, or even without any school. Some of the villages in the area I have mentioned are in desperate need of new schools. One school is celebrating this year its hundredth anniversary. Housing conditions could be improved in other villages, for example in Blairhall.

It is the duty of councillors and Members of Parliament to see that the interests and way of life of the villagers are preserved. My hon. Friend the Minister can make a contribution to this end by extracting from the Fife Regional Council information about the future of Carnock school. The parents' action committee, the Provost of the Dunfermline District Council, some regional councillors and I have so far failed. I trust that my hon. Friend has more success.

2.34 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter) said at the beginning, this set of circumstances is beyond the control of my hon. Friend and myself.

I share a common bond with my hon. Friend in that we both live in that rather beautiful part of Scotland known as the county of Fife. I do not know where you intend to spend the Summer Recess, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I assure you that you would receive a warm welcome should you visit that county.

I know also the geography of the area to which my hon. Friend refers. Carnock is a beautiful village. It is a self-contained unit. It is an area through which I pass regularly on my way from my home to my constituency. Therefore, I recognise the sincerity and the feeling that my hon. Friend expresses when he raises this important constituency matter. I know also the dedicated way in which he has pursued this matter on behalf of the people whom he represents in Carnock. I welcome the opportunity to reply to the debate as it gives me the chance to set the record straight on the rôle of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in approving changes in educational provision in an authority's area.

Under Section 1 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962 it is the duty of each education authority—and since May, as my hon. Friend knows, it is the duty of the regional and island councils—to provide adequate and efficient education for its area. Under Section 7 of the same Act an authority's functions—and these include provision of primary education—must be exercised in accordance with schemes approved by the Secretary of State. Decisions on the way primary education is to be provided locally, therefore, are basically for the education authority to make, with the Secretary of State having a general oversight and an overall responsibility for ensuring that standards of provision are satisfactory. The Secretary of State, however, expects authorities to take the initiative in suggesting changes in provision.

In considering whether or not to grant approval to any such changes my right hon. Friend is required, under Section 29(1) of the Act, to have regard to parents' wishes. That is important in the context of what we are discussing. Additionally my right hon. Friend would wish, before reaching a decision, to be assured that the education authority concerned had also fulfilled its duty to have regard to parents' wishes. This is not to say that parents' wishes are the overriding factor in any decision, although they are, of course, very important. The Act, for example, mentions the provision of suitable instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure as factors to be taken into consideration, and other factors not specifically mentioned by the Act may be taken into account. The statutory duty on an authority will have been fulfilled if the authority has duly considered parents' wishes even if it decides not to accede to them. It is most important that at least consultations have been held and that the parents' wishes have been considered.

I turn now to the particular case raised this morning. Earlier this year, as my hon. Friend rightly said, Fife Education Authority put to the Secretary of State a proposal that, because of overcrowding at Carnock Primary School, some of the older children there should transfer to Inzievar Primary School, a mile and a half away in Oakley, where there was a good deal of spare accommodation. The authority planned to transfer P5 and P6 children, only at the start of next session. As my hon. Friend knows, these children are in the age groups 9 and 10 years. These children would then complete their primary education at Inzievar. The authority felt that P7 children should remain at Carnock so that they would not have to change school twice in two years. In succeeding years the authority proposed to transfer to Inzievar as many senior primary classes as would be necessary to restrict the numbers at Carnock to the accommodation available.

A number of objections were received from parents, particularly from the Carnock New School Action Committee, which expressed keen disappointment that the authority appeared to have removed from its priority school building programme a replacement for the existing Carnock Primary School. The committee made the case for continuing to have all stages of primary education in Carnock and suggested that to relieve the overcrowding a temporary extension should be erected at the present school.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the then Under-Secretary of State met a deputation from the action committee—a deputation led by my hon. Friend—in April and they had a full exchange of views.

In reaching a decision on the authority's proposals following that meeting, my right hon. Friend took into account all representations received. He was of the view, however, that the balance of educational advantage lay in the transfer of this limited number of Carnock pupils to Inzievar to superior accommodation in a much newer building. He was content that the authority had fully considered the Carnock parents' views, although it had not acceded to the parents' wishes. He therefore decided to approve the change in the scheme which the proposals required. The authority may therefore transfer the pupils to Inzievar from the beginning of next session.

I turn now to the future of Carnock Primary School, an important element in my hon. Friend's argument. This is for Fife Education Authority to determine, although if it were to propose that the school should be closed it would require my right hon. Friend's approval under Section 22(1)(b) of the 1962 Act. There is no question of the Fife Education Authority taking a decision to close the Carnock Primary School without in the first place receiving the approval of my right hon. Friend under that provision of the 1962 Act. I should stress, however, that no such proposal has been received from the authority, and I believe that no such proposal is likely, at least in the short term. I understand that while the authority has not decided against ever providing a new school at Carnock, it felt it wrong to spend money on temporary buildings there when there was so much under-used accommodation nearby at the Inzievar school in Oakley. I can only support the decision which has been taken, however disappointing this might be for my hon. Friend.

Before the Secretary of State would agree to any proposal to close Carnock school completely he would consider a large number of factors, including the wishes of parents. We would expect that if such a move were made by Fife Education Authority, parents would make fresh representations to my right hon. Friend, and those wishes would be considered. These factors might include the reasons for the proposed closure, such as the state of the building, a falling roll, overcrowding or difficulties in staffing, and he would take into account details of the alternative accommodation arrangements and facilities suggested, details of travel arrangements proposed for pupils displaced—details which are not unimportant—and financial considerations. I must emphasise that each proposal that a school should close is considered on its individual merits at the time of the proposal and not against the background of anything which might have happened in the past or which might happen in the future.

I should like to return now to the arguments put forward by parents against the proposed transfer to Inzievar. My hon. Friend has already mentioned several of these points. With regard to the cost of hired transport and school meals, parents claimed that it would be less expensive to meet loan charges on temporary classrooms at Carnock to accommodate the excess numbers than to pay for transport to Inzievar for children concerned together with the deficit on the extra school meals for these pupils. This was not an argument upon which we could properly reach a view. We felt, however, that the authority's decision not to provide temporary classrooms was reasonable in view of the availability of good accommodation at Inzievar and because of the present restrictions on capital investment—again, not an unimportant consideration.

Parents suggested that the existing Carnock building would eventually be replaced and that a new school, if it were to cater only for P1 to P4, would be relatively more expensive. There are two points which I can make. First, the authority is not committed to replacing the building at Carnock. Secondly, and on the other hand, the Secretary of State's approval of the change proposed by the authority does not preclude the authority's seeking approval to accommodating once again all P1 to P7 children in Carnock in the future. That possibility is not excluded by the decision that has been taken.

Parents felt that transfer of Carnock pupils to Inzievar, despite the available accommodation there, would result in too high a roll at the receiving school. My right hon. Friend did not feel that this was a particular valid point as the roll at Inzievar next session, increased by about 40 pupils from Carnock, will still be only about 400. This is well below the capacity of many fairly recently-built primary schools. We would however, consider this point afresh if any question arose of the complete closure of the school.

The action committee claimed that 175 pupils—more than the present school roll of about 150—could be accommodated in the five available classrooms at 35 per class at Carnock. They suggested that the authority were too ready to introduce the new SED staffing standards with an average class size of 30. However, even under the old standards the school was full to capacity. Allowance has to be made for the free time which the head teacher and staff require to discharge their non-teaching responsibilities, and the true capacity of Carnock is only 149 under the old standards and 125 under the Scottish Education Department's new standards. In wishing to meet the new standards in Carnock, Fife is acting as in other schools in its area.

The parents expressed concern about pupils' safety. They were worried about lunchtime supervision at Inzievar and that the transfer of the older children to Inzievar would prevent them from escorting their younger brothers and sisters within Carnock village itself. My right hon. Friend believed that the arrangements at Inzievar would be satisfactory. I understand that they are to be similar to those in operation at other schools in the county of Fife. While it was appreciated that there might be some extra risk in Carnock for the younger children, it was suggested that parents if they felt that the risk was increased, might take up with the Fife Education Authority the possibility of crossing patrols being introduced.

Parents also complained that the authority had not fully consulted them before deciding to change arrangements at Carnock. This is a point quite rightly brought out by my hon. Friend. While I agree that the authority may have been slow to consult before approaching my right hon. Friend, the Scottish Education Department made certain that the authority acquainted itself fully with parents' views and that these views were considered by the authority before the proposals were agreed. The Secretary of State indeed always ensures, before reaching a decision on a proposal, that the authority concerned has consulted parents.

Parents represented that the need to change primary school at P5 would be to the educational disadvantage of the children concerned. However, where the curriculum is properly co-ordinated between the sending and the receiving schools there need be no disadvantage. Indeed, there can be advantages in separate, and therefore smaller, schools for younger children. Transfer at the middle stages of primary education occurs in other areas in Scotland and quite widely here in England. I thought that that would be an interesting point to make.

To sum up, therefore, the decision has been made and I can see no reason why the new arrangements should not be to the benefit of all concerned. I believe that on 10th June the head teacher of Inzievar school met parents of Carnock pupils who will transfer at the beginning of next session—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes to Three o'clock a.m.