HC Deb 02 July 1980 vol 987 cc1699-726 11.41 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Bolton, West)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Education (Publication of School Proposals) (No. 2) Regulations 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 658), dated 8 May 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21 May, be annulled. This will be a narrow debate on the implementation of section 13 notices under the Education Act 1944. Those notices deal with the procedures to be used when a school closes. The procedures are particularly important now, because school rolls are falling. As a result more local authorities are closing schools.

I wish to refer to the part of the statutory instrument that deals with nursery education. Earlier this year the House enacted the Education (No. 2) Bill, which made important changes in nursery education. That recent Act alters the procedure for closing a nursery school or class.

We believe that the Secretary of State was right to extend his powers regarding school closures to nursery schools and classes, but we think that he was doing it for exactly the wrong reasons. It has become necessary to amend the 1944 Act with regard to the closure of nursery schools and nursery classes only because of the changes that the Government made earlier this year, by the 1980 Act, removing from local authorities their legal obligations to make some nursery provision in their areas.

We should recall how the issue came up and why we are discussing it tonight. Had it not been for the change in the Act passed earlier this year, nursery education would not be covered by the regulations. It was at a very late stage in the passage of the Act, after over 100 hours of discussion, after the Government had guillotined debate, and after the Committee stage had been completed, that the Government introduced their unreasonable suggestion that local authorities should be freed from their obligation to make nursery provision.

The reason behind the Government's decision was simply that some local authorities were considering closing all their nursery places. It was as a direct result of education authorities such as Oxfordshire wanting to close all their nursery schools and all their nursery classes and to end all their nursery provision for all their under-fives that we had that change.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine)

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady on her birthday, when I would wish to offer her congratulations. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Nevertheless, I remind the hon. Lady that we are talking about the publicity prescribed by the regulations—and about nothing else.

Mrs. Taylor

Thank you for your kind comments about my anniversary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as well as for your later ones.

I stress that had the law not been changed nursery education would not come under the regulations. The only reason why we are discussing nursery education is that that is where the major change occurs. We believe that the publicity given to the closure notices and closure proposals has often partly led to local authorities changing their minds. This relates to the specific matter of the way in which local people will know what the proposals are and what influence they can assert on their local authorities.

If the Secretary of State is to implement the new powers that he has taken in the 1980 Act, if he is therefore freeing local authorities from obligation to provide nursery education and is bringing them within the overall procedures on school closures, so that notices must be posted—all the procedure that normally appertains only to primary and secondary schools—we want from him an idea of how he will interpret whether local authorities have fulfilled their obligations. Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman can decide whether it is wise for a nursery school or a nursery class to be closed, or whether he is satisfied that the procedures have been adopted, it is very important that he shall have availed him-himself of opportunities to listen carefully to local opinion.

Many people will be concerned when they are faced with more nursery closures and with more nursery places disappearing in many areas. We require from the Secretary of State a clear indication of what his overall policy on nursery education will be. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is nodding his head in agree- ment. Clearly, he thinks it important that we should know what he thinks about nursery education. Indeed, the Secretary of State has in the past stressed the necessity for as many children as possible to have nursery education. We cannot reconcile what he has said with what he has written into legislation this year. Can he tell us of any place in this country where there is a surplus of nursery provision?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am even more reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady for a second time, but I fear that the Secretary of State cannot tell us that under this motion.

Mrs. Taylor

The Minister will be happy to have been let off that hook. It is a basic question behind the idea of closing nursery schools or any other sort of school.

In future, people will be told that they have an opportunity to protest when it is proposed to close a nursery school, but they will have no guarantee of what notice will be taken of their protests. Under the procedures that existed until the 1980 Bill became law, decisions on whether to close a nursery school or nursery class rested entirely with local authorities. In future, the ultimate decision will rest with the Secretary of State. In deciding how to go about influencing his decisions, parents and others involved will want to know his views on this matter.

Another important point about closures is difficult for those outside the House and the Department of Education to come to terms with. It concerns the discussions that sometimes take place between different departments within a local authority. The statutory instrument specifically relates to school closures and we know that there are often discussions in a local authority, at least in relation to nursery education, not only between parents, teachers and the local education authority but increasingly involving those on the social service side of local authorities.

Does the Secretary of State think that his provisions for consultation go far enough, given the fact that more and more people are saying that responsibility for the under-fives should be shared by local education authorities and local social service departments?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am following the hon. Lady's interesting argument carefully, but will she address herself to the statutory instrument and indicate whether she is in favour of the publication of closures in one local newspaper, of notification being posted in one conspicuous place in the area or, in the case of proposals relating to an existing school, details being published close to the main entrance of that school. Does she support those proposals?

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening when I started my speech.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Lady was out of order.

Mrs. Taylor

It would have been strange if I were out of order when I was saying that it was right that the Secretary of State should have the new powers.

I accept that the proposals are necessary. The question which arises is as to why it is thought necessary to include nursery schools and classes in the provision. Before the law was changed earlier in the year, nursery provision was not covered. Because nursery education is no longer obligatory and because the Secretary of State visualises that some local authorities will want to close nursery schools he has taken powers to try—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Lady will now refer to the instrument.

Mrs. Taylor

I was trying to answer the question and to point out that if the law had not been changed earlier in the year there would have been no provision for the publication of notices relating to nursery schools. We should not have been discussing nursery education this evening had it not been for the change in the law. I am glad that the Minister agrees with me.

In view of what Ministers have said about nursery education in the last 12 months, we should be told whether they believe that nursery education and provision for the under-fives should be a joint responsibility. What provisions are contained in the statutory instrument to ensure that other local authority departments will be consulted? What will result from the consultation? Will the Minister dispel remaining fears by stating that he will not introduce charges for nursery education by the back door?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Should that invitation be accepted by the Minister, he will be out of order.

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that the Minister will find some other occasion to make his position clear.

I have stressed the importance of consultation and the new system. That is the basic change proposed by the Government. We do not object to the Secretary of State's taking new powers to provide for consultation and discussion locally of proposals to change the education system in an area. However, powers of this type would not have been necessary if the Minister had not acted in the way that he did earlier in the year. That is why it is important for the Minister to tell us more about how he thinks the new system will work. We should still like to know what led the Minister to include nursery education in the provisions.

11.59 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

The speech by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) was confused. Let me say at the beginning that this debate is something of a return to the splendid hours that we spent in Committee, and on the Report stage. It is fitting that we have returned to the subject on the birthday of the hon. Lady. It is fitting that people should return on their birthday to something that they have thoroughly enjoyed and from which they have gained so much all-round educational knowledge, as we did. I must be fair about that.

However, this is not the final regulation; there are further excitements to come. The hon. Lady must not throw away all her good lines tonight in her efforts to get them in order in relation to this statutory instrument. But even on the hon. Lady's birthday I do not intend to be misled in replying to points that have nothing to do with the regulations.

The debate gives me the chance to point out how excellently we dealt with this Act. Undoubtedly if the country—though most people will be asleep now—knew what we are about to say about the advantages of this Act, and what this method of closure is, the House would be full even of Labour Members. But one cannot see any signs of high indignation now, despite the splendid leadership given by the hon. Lady.

Section 13 of the 1944 Act established the procedure to be followed when a local education authority or governors of a voluntary school proposed to establish, enlarge or change the character of a school, or where a local education authority proposed to cease to maintain it.

There are two points here. We may find one of them unnecessary now. First, under the 1944 Act the proposal had to go to the Secretary of State. That was right, because the final decision would be made by him. Secondly, there was the question of public consultation. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is moving in the direction of full consultation. I trust that she is also moving towards the concept of full parental choice of school and all the other glories that follow.

I said in Committee that in the Labour manifesto there was no mention of parents at all in relation to education. I therefore hope that there will be an improvement in four years' time. I do not know how disillusioned the Labour Party will be by then, but we hope that it may be united on this measure, which we offer it with all friendship and courtesy this evening.

The second provision of section 13 was for full public notice to be given of proposals, according to regulations laid down by the Secretary of State. I hope that the Opposition spokesmen understand that the regulation that we are replacing was drawn up by a Labour Government in 1968. I know that it is the usual practice of the Opposition to oppose everything that the Government do, and one understands the envy that they must feel, from time to time, of our successes. But we have no envy or bitterness in our hearts this evening, or at any other time.

We looked at the 1968 legislation and decided that there was some good in it and that it was important that we carried it on. That showed the breadth of vision and the quality of temperament that exists among my right hon. and hon. Friends. I think that I should mention that on the hon. Lady's birthday.

However, there is something that I must bring to the attention of the hon. Lady. There is a change here. [Interruption.] There is a lot of unemployment on the Opposition Benches tonight, though it is nice to have some hon. Gentlemen with us on this occasion. Not many of them were here previously, but their consciences were pricked, no doubt. That says a lot for the hon. Members who left the Chamber earlier.

Let us come back to these proposals. We must not be misled as the hon. Lady was misled. We must stick to the issues. The new method is that the proposals will be posted. We shall come on to the various points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is a great expert on education. They were for the benefit of the whole House, and I may say that we treasure his interventions.

Once a proposal is posted, that same proposal is sent to the Secretary of State. Let us consider how much clerical work will be saved. Let us think how imaginative that gesture is. Instead of a separate statement going to the Secretary of State, a copy of what is posted goes to him. That shows how keen we are to avoid unnecessary clerical work. That is a most imaginative gesture.

Let me come to the improvements. These are the only changes on the 1968 regulations. First, if there are no objections the Secretary of State does not need to hold an inquiry. Any authority, therefore—even a Labour authority that brought forward such a proposal by mistake—could put a project into operation without having to go through all the procedures, with the waste of clerical staff at the Department—staff who should be dealing with core curriculum and other exciting matters with which we are concerned—that that would involve. That, too, is a most imaginative gesture.

The second improvement arose from our experience of the Labour Government's Bill, which, because of certain glorious events last year, never become an Act. The hon. Lady is concerned about consultation and parental choice of schools. Under Labour's Bill, if a school intake had been cut to a certain number but local people had still wanted to send their children to that school, they could have objected under a section 13 notice. That was designed to make schools more responsive not just to local authorities, but to parents. We could see that we could use that sort of provision to the advantage of parents. Therefore, we have provided that if there is a deliberate reduction, over a rolling programme, of 20 per cent. on the basic year—last year—in the intake of a primary or secondary school, that will have to be subject to a section 13 notice to enable parents to make known their desire for the school numbers to be maintained because they like what the school is doing.

The third improvement is that where it is proposed to close a nursery school —a matter gently mentioned in passing by the hon. Lady—that could not be proceeded with without the issuing of a section 13 notice. That is a completely new provision. Hitherto, all the nursery schools in the country could have been closed without the Secretary of State's being able to do anything about it.

Mrs. Ann Taylor


Dr. Boyson

I am sorry, but I cannot give way on nursery schools. I shall give way on anything else, but not on that subject. The hon. Lady had more than her say on it, and she must now listen. On parental choice and any other subject I shall give way with alacrity.

The fourth and final improvement is that we are making clear that a local authority must inform parents, on the notice it posts, that they can object. Local authorities have always done that, but it has not been a statutory requirement. They could have put the notice up without spelling out that there was a right of objection.

I am sure that the House will be impressed by the degree of improvements that we have made—

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Hear, hear.

Dr. Boyson

Even my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) is impressed.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

In the event of a notice appearing informing parents of the right of objection and the parents seeking to exercise that right, how will the Secretary of State interpret whether that right has been properly upheld or cursorily acknowledged? I have in mind the example of the immense changes taking place in the borough of Kingston upon Thames, where attempts by parents to object under the previous legislation were described, since they were similar to previous objections to an earlier plan, as being a lot of chat all over again. The consequence was that the Secretary of State returned the proposals to the Royal borough, lock, stock and barrel, with apparently little notice of the objection. We strongly endorse and thoroughly accept the purpose behind what the hon. Gentleman says, but how much reliance can we place on the way in which the Secretary of State will henceforth entertain objections in such cases?

Dr. Boyson

There will be careful consideration of all objections, as there has been in the past. We have had meetings galore, in many of which I have been involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield mentioned publication. There must be a notice in at least one local newspaper, in a conspicuous local place or places, and posted at or near the main entrance of any existing school. If those three conditions are adhered to, people should obtain the information, although other means could be suggested to spread the information more widely—a town crier, for instance.

The previous regulations stated that the information should be published in such other manner, if any, as appears to the authority…to be desirable for giving publicity to the notice. That was not a firm regulation; it was merely a pious hope. This suggestion will therefore not be in the regulations but will be made in a circular to be sent out shortly.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

Has the hon. Gentleman considered that when objections are received by the Secretary of State and he uses his power to modify the scheme but does not completely accept or reject it, it may be a good idea if a similar form of notification is given to that proposed in the modification?

Dr. Boyson

We discussed the matter at length in Committee. I never know what coathanger the Opposition will use to hang the debate on, so I read the debate again in preparation for tonight. We said then that those modifications were often based on a falling birth rate, or the fact that buildings could not be completed in time. They were intended not to change the substance of a plan, but to ensure that there was no waste of public expenditure.

We have brought in this legislation to replace the section 13 procedures in the 1944 Act. We have improved the measure. We have cut out unnecessary work and given parents a right to object, as the form of the school is changed by a 20 per cent. reduction over the years. By the debate this evening we can bring to light the excellent work that has been done.

12.13 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Minister has properly intervened at the beginning of the debate to set out what is involved in the regulations, but I hope that that will not prevent him from answering any questions that may arise.

I am in favour of the regulations. As the Minister points out, they represent minor but useful improvements in economies in the procedures. The notification of nursery schools is perhaps a reminder that the Secretary of State has rather a good record. He has scored what may in Oxfordshire be regarded as a dazzling own goal over the whole question of nursery schools. He first convinced us all that he was deliberately letting Oxfordshire off the hook by taking away the statutory powers. He then imposed the full panoply of sticking notices on telegraph poles and making reference to himself, which so terrified the Oxfordshire county council that it fled from its initial proposals. At whatever stage the Secretary of State recognised the worth of what he was doing, the end result is something that we cannot complain about.

But as well as bringing nursery education into the procedure of publishing notices and appeals to the Secretary of State, the Education Act 1980 also brought, for the first time, the reduction in the size of a school within the scope of this kind of provision. Under section 15, the very same types of notices will be displayed in respect of reductions in the size of a school, and it is on that aspect that I want to question the Under-Secretary a little further.

I am a little puzzled as to how the regulations seem to be out of phase with each other. When I put a question to the Minister a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find that the substantive regulations about reducing the intake to a school and, indeed, about parental choice will not be implemented with anything like the speed with which the improvements in the regulations will be implemented. The two are closely interrelated. Any parent who found that he ought to have access to this procedure to be able to look at publicly displayed notices about reduction in the size of the school would, on the other hand, be dismayed to discover that the local authority was not obliged to submit that reduction in the size of the school under section 15 to the Secretary of State for another whole year, because those provisions of the Act are not to be brought into effect until the academic year 1981–82.

I give the Under-Secretary a concrete example which has been brought to me and which rather worries me. The Queen's school at Bushey, in Hertfordshire, is a case where the local education authority wants to reduce the intake from an eight-form to a six-form entry, which reduces parental choice and deprives about 60 parents of the opportunity to send children to that school. When these people first contacted me, along with people in other parts of the country, as education spokesman for my party, I indicated to them that I thought they would be able to benefit from the provisions of this legislation and have a statutory procedure under which they could read one of these notices and send off the appropriate complaint to the Minister. But I found, when the Under-Secretary answered me, that the provisions which affect restrictions on admission will not come into force until 1 August 1980 and will not affect the restrictions on admission before the school year 1981–82.

The worrying thing is that local authorities, anxious at these procedures, can rush in in the next month or so and effect all the reductions in school sizes for which at any later date they would have to go through all this procedure. A number of authorities—Hertfordshire among them—may try to slip in quickly before the full effect of the Act is felt, and may be able to achieve reductions in the size of schools, limit parental choice and deny the effective use of the procedure to parents, simply by getting in quickly before the regulations have effect.

That is why I am puzzled that tonight we have this bit of the regulations which includes section 15(3), but that the other part, the relevant part, will not be in force for some time. This happens at roughly the same time as we have had wider indications by the Secretary of State that a lot of these issues that will widen parental choice will not be brought into force until at least 1981–82 because of the practical complications of setting up the procedures involved.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Has the hon. Gentleman any firm evidence to indicate that the Hertfordshire county council, for instance, or any of the other bodies which have made representations to him, intend to make the change this year, which means that they will not then be affected by the legislation we are now debating?

Mr. Beith

Yes, indeed. There is quite clear evidence that Hertfordshire intends to proceed on this basis, has already gone a long way with the proposal, and will be able to avoid the effect of the legislation by this means.

I am genuinely worried that, having set out a machinery, the Government will, by creating an interval of time, encourage local authorities to race ahead and bring into effect things that they could not do without making available the procedures of consultation.

One of the worries about bringing Acts into force stage by stage is that it creates a vacuum of this kind in which local authorities are not subject to the limitations that the Government intend. One gets the impresion that the limitations and problems of all these things, which stem originally from the parents' charter idea, are dawning a bit late on the Government.

I was very intrigued to read a leading article in the Daily Express yesterday or the day before. Perhaps I am getting cynical, but my thought was that somebody not a million miles from the Under-Secretary must have telephoned the Daily Express and said "We are on a bit of a hook here, could you let us off it?", because I was very surprised to find this sort of sentiment expressed. The Daily Express said: Ideally, parents would have total freedom to choose their children's schools. But, in reality, it is impossible to put such a worthy principle into practice. That is why it comes as no surprise that the Parents Charter' provisions of the new Education Act, which only go as far as allowing parents to express their preference for a school, cannot be implemented before 1982. The immense bureaucratic problems, involving as they will the dispensing of information about every school and the setting up of an appeals procedure in every area, are bound to be extremely costly—at a time when local authorities are being asked to cut their spending dramatically. It goes on to question whether the whole exercise is still worth while. I am worried by that, and by the suggestion that the principles that were widely championed, and which underlie the changes of which this order is a small part, are now being seen as too complicated, too bureaucratic and too costly.

In Committee we pointed out some of the practical difficulties, and some of the areas where many hon. Members thought expectations had been aroused beyond what could reasonably be fulfilled. I am rather concerned that now that the Department and the Ministers have to get down to the detail they are suddenly finding that they cannot give to parents the full range of choice and opportunity that was promised to them in the parents' charter. The gap in the phasing of the different parts of the Education Act 1980 seems to be the beginning of the signs that parents will now be told discreetly, with the assistance of the Daily Express, "We are sorry that we led you to expect far too much. It will not be the promised land after all". I hope that the Minister will tell us a little more about that.

12.22 pm
Mr. Gerry Neale (Cornwall, North)

Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) on her birthday. I hope that I can expect half the tolerance from you on the basis that my birthday was 10 days ago.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of my interest in the affairs of schools when they involve their alteration or closure. I am especially interested in the involvement of the community in the affairs of local schools. While properly publishing the proposals contained in sections 12 to 16, to which the regulations relate, the matter is of obvious concern to hon. Members, councillors involved in local education authorities, teachers and educationists. But their concern cannot match the concern that must exist for the parents of pupils.

If we read sections 12 to 16 it is rather interesting to see that the word "parents" is not mentioned once. If we look through the amendments tabled by the Opposition selected and referred to in the Committee reports, we see that the word "parents" does not appear. If we look at the regulations, again the word "parents" does not appear. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has considerable experience and knowledge of education matters, which I respect. But, in view of the parents' charter that we sought to promote, I ask him why there should be that omission. Why not include a requirement that all parents of pupils in a school concerned with any change should be notified? Better still, why not include some measure that they should be informed at the earliest stage of the reasons why the proposals are being made?

It appears that those involved in education feel that the greatest failing of pupils is that they have parents. In one school in my constituency that was threatened with closure and removal to another site and a new building the parents were the last to be told. I cannot believe that these omissions result from a cavalier attitude on the part of those administering education. Nor do I accept that, simply because parental rights to information have never been given statutory emphasis, that principle needs to continue. I certainly cannot accept that parental rights to notices on such important matters as these should be placed on a par with the rights of motorists on the closure of a highway, or ramblers on the diversion of a footpath.

In any event, I ask my hon. Friend whether he would reflect, certainly in future orders of this type, just how effective in rural areas these provisions are, I think that the presumption is that the local newspaper will be circulated in the catchment area of the school. In a constituency such as mine in North Cornwall, that certainly does not apply. If one looks at the provision of posting of notices, one often finds that if the children are transported by the free transport provided there is no need for the parent to go to the place where the notice is posted. I believe that there is all-party consensus on the need to involve parents far more in the education of their children.

It seems that in Committee a great deal was discussed on the subject of parents. I must tell the House that I was not able to enjoy the 100 hours or so of the Committee proceedings. I have only one enviable compensation: I was detained in an adjoining room listening to the fascinating arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) on complicated transport matters.

However much Opposition Members may dislike the term, parents of State school pupils are the customers of the education service. They pay for it through their rates and taxes. They support it with their voluntary work. They augment it by their efforts at home. I believe that publicising proposals of this kind direct to parents would help to dispel the belief among many that it is a pointless exercise for them to complain, let alone take a constructive view, because nothing will come of it anyway as minds have already been made up.

Surely that is something that we must take to heart. There is also a suspicion in the minds of parents, threatened with reduction in size or the closure of the school, that some sort of skullduggery has taken place, or that some cloak of mismanagement has been thrown over the facts, simply because they are not given the courtesy of information about the proposals in good time. With, as the hon. Lady has indicated, the anticipated reduction of 1½ million school pupils by 1985, that will beg all sorts of questions about the future form, size and even existence of many of our schools.

I hope that my hon. Friend will interpret my contribution as being a sincere attempt to enfranchise parents. If we really expect parents to become participants in the State education of their children, with all the attendant problems, we owe to them the statutory right to be directly informed at the earliest stage.

Mr. Beith

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but does not he recognise that, although the publication of a statutory notice is an important safeguard to enable parents to state their point of view against the closure of a school, the school has probably suffered a great deal in the meantime? Teachers will probably have left, and some of the parents will have started to send their children elsewhere. The point at which parents need to know most about it, and ought to be in the know, is much earlier than that.

Mr. Neale

I agree. From my experience in my own constituency, which has led to queries arising from other schools in which I have been asked to assist, I can say that that is true. It is most important that the parents should be informed at an early stage to avoid the suspicion that something is being done to try to achieve change over their heads. Inevitably, if that goes on long enough, it will have the effects which the hon. Gentleman has described.

12.30 am
Mr. R. B. Cant (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I present my chronological details. My birthday will take place in 10 days.

I had intended to screw my courage to the sticking point and abstain on a three-line Whip, and I am frustrated that there will be no vote tonight.

I rise to speak in favour of the proposals. They can do only a great deal of good for nursery education. I speak from practical experience, because I believe that in a sense the Government are perhaps a little more enlightened than some of the people who run our county councils at present. It was obvious that under clause 26 of the Education Bill many county council committee chairmen felt that they were being offered a way of charging for nursery education. The clause suggested that there might be some change in the nomenclature whereby nursery schools could be recast under certain National Health Service legislation. As soon as the question was raised in this Chamber, the Secretary of State made clear that he would not permit charging for nursery education. At present, nursery schools and nursery classes enjoy a privileged position. The burden of financial economies are taking place in other areas—in first schools, schools for the rising-fives, and so on.

I am attracted by these publicity proposals because if things get worse, and they are bound to get worse under this Government, the burden that will be thrown on local authorities in terms of the need to make financial economies—no one dares to touch the central Civil Service—will be increased. There will be a temptation for chairmen of education and policy and resources committees in our various councils to begin to close nursery schools now that they have no statutory obligation to provide nursery education.

I am a great believer in the phrase "light is the sovereign antiseptic and the best of all policemen." My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) can have that phrase. These proposals may not guarantee that anything will be different. But we found from discussions of the suggested closure of schools in Stoke-on-Trent that this matter arouses an enormous amount of public anxiety and passions. Large meetings are held, and there is an interest in education that I suspect did not exist previously. The need to give this publicity to any prospective closure of nursery schools or classes may diminish the enthusiasm of some chairmen of education committees who seek further economies in this service.

From the experience of the past few months there is no doubt that the Secretary of State is likely to be the better guardian of nursery schools in Stoke-on-Trent than perhaps the chairman of the education committee of the Staffordshire county council. I assume that these matters at this time are not reported and, as no one in Staffordshire reads Hansard, I can say that with a certain measure of impunity.

That is why I support the regulations. Whatever the detailed problems about phasing in and the ultra reactionary Tory county councils which are likely to exploit the fact that some of these matters will not apply until 1981–82, there is some virtue in these proposals. In any case, I am not as cyncal as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), although perhaps I should be.

Whatever the arguments one might have against the minutiae, I feel that these regulations offer parents, children and elected representatives safeguards against the desire of chairmen of education committees in the shire counties who feel that they need to save more money. If we can have these open discussions, perhaps nothing will change. But, at any rate, people will get enormous satisfaction from having been given the opportunity to have a good fight on behalf of what they regard as a good cause. If they lose, that is too bad. If they gain and a nursery school or class is kept open, that is a triumph for democracy.

12.37 am
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I support the regulations. I am always pleased to follow in debate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant), because he and I share a common evening newspaper. I confirm what he said about the closure of a school generating considerable emotional interest. The Staffordshire Evening Sentinel covers such matters fully.

I am full of praise for my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) for emphasising in this brief debate while keeping within the rules of order the importance of parents. We are not as cynical as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about our determination to implement the parents' charter which we promoted to the people of this country very forcefully before the election and, indeed, following the election because many of us believe that it is important. Teachers and those who serve on education committees are important, but we believe that the most important people in relation to a child's education are its parents.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) supports what is established in the regulations: that nursery schools should be brought in. Previously that was not so. It is right that newspapers should carry a notice of a change in the intake to a school or of a proposed closure of a school. Indeed, such notices should appear not only in a newspaper, but in prominent places throughout the community served by that school, including on the main entrance to the school.

Will my hon. Friend indicate whether many of the requests made by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and Berwick-upon-Tweed are already carried out by education committees, local councillors and, perhaps even more so, by the headmaster or headmistress of the school in question or by the governors or managers—governors now under the new Act —advising parents in a circular letter that a proposed closure or change in intake is likely? Certainly if my local village school outside Congleton—Astbury Church of England junior and infants school—is anything to go by, any change proposed in the school, however large or small, is notified to parents by the headmaster. I hope that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will admit that, even within the existing system, which is improved by what the Government seek through these regulations, virtually all parents are notified of changes. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can confirm that.

I confirm what was said by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, that if a local newspaper gets a sniff of anything to do with education, be it a closure or a change of intake, it will carry that story on the front page. I accept what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North about parents in the rural areas. He represents an area where there are many remote villages. People in such places may not necessarily receive the weekly newspaper for their area. I believe that the rumour will spread by word of mouth very quickly, so that some of my hon. Friend's reservations can be overcome.

We Conservatives are putting into practice what we believe. We believe in improved communication, and this is very much a feature of the regulations. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Stoke- on-Trent, Central should have made unflattering comments about the economic intentions and performance of this Government, bearing in mind that he is one of the few hon. Members on the Labour Benches who believes in an element of monetarism. He has bravely stood up for sound money in the past and I am surprised that he said that the policy being followed by the Government would not produce the result we all want to achieve, certainly on the Government Benches, namely, a return to economic sanity. I warmly applaud the Under-Secretary for his lucid and articulate introduction of what appears to be a simple set of regula- tions because these regulations are important to all parents and children.

12.42 pm.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

Reacting to the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I think I can say on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) without fear of misrepresenting him that sound money and unsound people make bad government, whichever way we look at it. That is the problem we now have.

I rise to set the record straight on some of the content of the debate. There is some danger that one or two Conservative Members, notably the Under-Secretary —I am sure inadvertently—may have misled the House. First, I endorse the necessity and acceptability of introducing this statutory instrument. These are acceptable procedures for local education authorities to have to go through if they are setting their hands to the sometimes traumatic task of closing a school or substantially changing its charcter.

The people who will benefit most from all of this will be those running local newspapers. In the light of the worsening economic depression and the increase in the number of school closures, which the cuts are exacerbating, possibly the only secure source of finance for local newspapers over the next few years will be the advertising revenue from the insertion of notices of school closures.

There were two matters touched upon by the Under-Secretary which are deserving of a response to clarify the position. The first is the idea that he has expounded yet again: that somewhere in the legislation from which this statutory instrument arises there is the guarantee of a right of parental choice. There is no such thing. Clause 6 enshrines the right of a parent to express a preference, subject to certain economic considerations, to considerations arising from aided schools and to considerations of academic selection. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that on board and correct his earlier proposition.

The second, and in the context of this statutory instrument more appropriate, correction to be made arises from the question why this statutory instrument is necessary—or, rather, why it is necessary for this statutory instrument to refer to nursery schools. The answer is simple. On Report of the Education Bill the Government, with scant notice and in the most hasty fashion, changed the law as it had existed since 1944. The Secretary of State then and the Under-Secretary tonight presented this change in the law as a great and beneficial—indeed, munificent—decision on the Government's part. We know that they were forced, by the over-zealous threatened action of a Tory-controlled local education authority and by their own failure to acknowledge and understand the statutory obligations imposed by section 8 of the 1944 Act on local authorities to make provision for pre-school education, to introduce a provision on Report of the Education Bill which facilitated the inclusion of nursery schools within what had until then been known as section 13 procedures and which are now replaced by clause 12 procedures.

The credit that the Government seek to take in these matters is rather like their asking for victory medals to be struck to commemorate their defeat. It is as if Napoleon had had a Waterloo medal struck. It is not fair for the Government to try to present the change in the law which they brought about as if it were a spontaneous and generous act. If they had not made that change, it would have been illegal under the 1944 Act for local education authorities to proceed with the termination of all nursery education in their areas. Although the Government seek to take credit for the way in which they may have frightened off the Oxfordshire authority, for instance, from setting its hand to the total closure programme it had promised, the fact remains that the Government's decision arose from inadvertent consideration and I do not think they can claim particular credit for the action which they took.

Finally, although my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has the feeling that the Secretary of State may be a better protector of nursery school interests than local regressive and reactionary Tory authorites, I wonder whether that essentially is so; or is it a measure of the excessive reaction of those local Tory Pharaohs by comparison with he less excessive reaction over which the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues are willing to pre- side? It is a matter of degree. All degree is important, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would say vive la difference.

Mr. Beith

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow for the reverse possibility. There are certainly some Tory local education authorities which are far more progressive than the lot who sit on the Tory Benches here. My local education authority, for example, which is Tory-controlled, is opposed to the assisted places scheme, the Government's proposals on school transport, the Government's proposals on school meals, and to just about anything else one cares to mention.

Mr. Kinnock

Without seeking to flatter the hon. Gentleman, in spite of the general good nature of this debate arising from the birthday of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs Taylor), I am sure that the relative —and I emphasise "relative"—sensibility and progressive nature of the hon. Gentleman's local education authority has something to do with the influence that he, and even the proximity of some of my hon. Friends to his county, may have on the attitudes of that authority. If that does not get him a mention in his local newspaper, nothing will.

It is a sad fact that, although local education authorities are required to follow appropriate procedures as regards the closure of nursery schools or the withdrawal of nursery places, they have not been denied the power to undertake them. I should be surprised and gratified if the Secretary of State were to transcend his general enthusiasm for cuts by accepting objections about the closure of nursery schools. He would have to contradict the policy decisions of local education authorities.

I hope that, if parents use the powers contained in the statutory instrument effectively, they will not fail to find a ready and sensitive response from the Secretary of State. I shall heartily welcome any use that is made of the provision for objecting to the closure proposals. However, the Secretary of State will remain subordinate to a cuts policy that is using falling school rolls as an excuse for cuts that are greater than might, in any other respect, be necessary.

Mr. Cant

Another point can be made about the proposals to consult parents and to give publicity to suggested closures. Once one gets into the arena of public meetings, discussions, the local newspaper and so on, even reactionary Tory councils have to give way. It was assumed that 33 closures would go through easily. As a result of the explosion in the Cabinet, six of the suggested closures were withdrawn before they reached the Secretary of State.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful for those remarks, as they allow me to point out that the House should welcome anything that generates a proper interest in education—including the use of powers of notice and rights of objection—and anything that brings people together to discuss the provision, purpose and pattern of education. That remains true, even if the provision has such unfortunate parentage.

12.52 am
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) on her birthday. May I say that she looks as attractive as ever.

All hon. Members would agree that there are great benefits in nursery education. As the father of several children, I know that that is so. For some, nursery education is essential, for others it is desirable. Many of the parents of those for whom such education is desirable would be prepared to pay for nursery education.

In my local authority area many parents are prepared to pay for nursery education. However, some parents are unable to pay for nursery education. Given current economic circumstances, and given that local authorities must rightly make cuts, certain nursery schools will close. The regulations will be used to close them. If local education authorities were allowed to charge parents who could afford to pay, those schools would not have to be closed. Will my hon. Friend seriously consider any future proposal to the effect that local education authorities should be allowed to charge some parents for nursery education under certain circumstances? Nursery education could then expand rather than contract.

12.54 am
Dr. Boyson

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked an interesting question. For various reasons, parts of the Act come into effect at different times. For example, parental tribunals cannot be set up immediately. I have here a list of which parts of the Act are operative from 1 August this year, which parts from next year, and which parts are likely to come into effect the following year, until they are all in operation.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the 20 per cent., which I and my hon. Friends, and some Opposition hon. Members, considered most important. A local education authority cannot, in the face of parental choice, reduce the intake of schools by 20 per cent. or more over a rolling programme of years without a section 13 notice. The hon. Gentleman said that certain authorities had rushed in to reduce numbers this year—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hertfordshire".] There may be other authorities. Let us say that authorities have done this.

What is the position? They can do it this year, because the Act is not operative. That part will become operative on 1 August next year. Once it does so, the base line on which a school is fixed is 1979. If the authority reduced the intake this year by 22½ per cent., which is more than it would be allowed to do by the Act, it would have to take a larger intake the following year, unless it gave a section 13 notice. The base year will be 1979, whatever an authority does. An authority cannot reduce the intake by 50 per cent. or 60 per cent. this year and presume that it will be exempt, because the Act will be operative next year.

Mr. Beith

This is a most interesting point, and we must get it absolutely right. Is the Minister saying that if a local authority has reduced the intake by, say, 22 per cent., and thus has a considerably smaller school, it must next year, even if nothing else happens, put the figures back to the 1979 base level? Or is he saying that that authority is simply faced with the difficulties of referring to the 1979 figures if it makes a further reduction, because this year's reduction could be the crucial one? I have quoted the example of an eight-form school down to a six-form school. Is the Minister saying that automatically, in a year's time, the authority will have to restore the position as of a year ago or go through the whole of this procedure in order to protect its right to keep the school as small as it has made it?

Dr. Boyson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, because I do not think that it has been made clear in the country. As I understand it, it is a matter not of the overall numbers in the school but of the intake control. If this year an authority drops the intake by 22½ per cent., it cannot retain that drop in the following year. It can drop it by 19½ per cent. once only; it cannot drop it again.

The provision affects the intake each year. Whatever reduction in intake is made this year, an authority cannot reduce the intake from then on for future years by 20 per cent. or more as a rolling programme without a section 13 notice.

Mr. Beith

That is what I understood the position would be. The provision clearly prevents any authority stage by stage cutting a school down year after year until perhaps it is wiped out of existence. Given that this year's change could be crucial for a school, would it not be desirable for the Minister to indicate to authorities that he would deprecate their making changes of 20 per cent. or more this year without their attempting to enter into the spirit of the legislation that will come into effect in a year's time—perhaps by simply conducting their own consultations with local parents?

Dr. Boyson

I take the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that authorities, knowing that that part of the Act is operative from next year, should do nothing against its spirit this year as regards intakes. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, and I put that on record as the approach of the Government.

We did not operate the proposal from this year because intake arrangements are often made early in the year. Indeed, the Government have encouraged those arrangements to be made early so that children know which schools they are going to. The Bill became law in April and by that time most authorities had made their allocations of numbers and staff and we could not suddenly land them with having to change their whole intake. Any further reductions will be outside the spirit of the Act. Indeed, from next year it will be impossible to do that without a section 13 notice.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) and Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) mentioned the question of consultation with parents. That is an important factor, but we cannot put everything in regulations. We shall shortly be sending out a circular recommending other means that local authorities should use to communicate fully with parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield suggested that heads should send out letters of consultation, but most schools have parent-teacher associations and another part of the Act provides that every school must have two parent representatives among governors. Parents will communicate.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North has fought in his constituency and throughout the country for parental choice of schools. I bow to no one in my belief in parental choice. I have advocated it all my life. When I was a head, I always said that if in any year there were fewer applications than there were places in my school I would resign. Any head wants the confidence not of the education authority but of the parents. The parents are the only people who look at their child as a child. A head may see him as a potential member of the football team or a potential O-level or A-level candidate and the local authority wants to get the number sorted out and to have no trouble with fractious parents.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposal in the Act that children should be allowed to cross local authority boundaries gives yet more parental choice and underlines the point made earlier in the debate that the Act is a parents' charter? The easier movement of children across local authority boundaries and the fact that authorities will be able to recoup charges from each other will assist my hon. Friend's case for more parental choice.

Dr. Boyson

I welcome the intervention of my hon. Friend, who was privileged to serve on the Committee considering the Bill. His presence in the long nights on that Bill was a take-off point for his career in the House. It is a pleasure to hear him speaking out again with such firmness and belief on parental choice.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Boyson

Let me finish with my hon. Friend. It is not his birthday and those of use who do not have a birthday today must have certain privileges. It is the Secretary of State's birthday on Monday, when he will be speaking in the House. I hope that he receives the same tolerance from the Chair that the hon. Lady received.

We put into the Bill a right for children to cross boundaries, providing there is a vacancy at the school of their choice and that the head will take them. That is another enfranchisement of parental choice.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

The Minister said that he was impressed by what his hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) said and that the argument about recruitment and parental choice across local boundaries was important. Has he any suggestions about the posting of notices in different local authority areas?

Dr. Boyson

That is an interesting intervention. It took me back to debates in Committee. I should be interested to know the experience in Bolton. In North-West London—Ealing, Hendon, Barnet and Brent—the same newspapers circulate. When buses pass schools with notices outside, people get off the buses to look. They cause great excitement. They are one of the reasons for bus delays in London. We must not take the matter too far because if we did the whole of London transport would come to a halt.

I have been turning the suggestions in my mind. The Government are open minded. The debate will be followed carefully throughout the country. Reports of it will be read in the quality and non-quality newspapers. I agree that local papers should give coverage. That shows how useful the debate is.

We have had an interesting debate, but others outside the Chamber may not be as interested as we are in it. We believe that this year's Act will do much to provide parental choice. That is important. The way in which closures are arranged and section 13 notices are applied must indicate to the parents and people in the area and surrounding towns what is going on so that they may object. I am convinced that the way in which we have drawn the regulations will be of advantage to parents.

Question put and negatived.