HC Deb 08 June 1981 vol 6 cc213-7
Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 3 to 11.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 2, in page 2, line 11, at end insert— '3(a) if the number of pupils in any register class or tutor group exceeds 28 in a secondary school and 33 in primary school.'. Government amendment No. 3,

No. 4, in page 3, leave out lines 3 to 5.

Government amendments Nos. 7, 98, 100 and 112.

Mr. Fletcher

The effect of these related amendments is to delete from clause 1 the power given to education authorities by new section 28B(1)(c) to fix the maximum number of pupils to be educated at a school or at a stage of education in a school. They also delete the power given to education authorities by new section 28(3)(a) to refuse a placing request where the school or stage of education in which the child would be placed has reached such a maximum number.

Mr. Millan

That is by no means an adequate explanation of what the Government are doing. The amendment, which was put down at a late stage, considerably changes the impact of the clause. COSLA has rightly protested strongly at what the Government have done. We must have a longer explanation.

The Government know that we are not at all happy with clause 1 because we do not believe that parental choice should have been dealt with in this legislative way. Instead, it should have been dealt with by encouragement and persuasion of the local authorities, whose record in allowing parental choice is not as bad as the Government have sometimes painted it.

The clause, which deals with parental choice, on the one hand is a statement of the rights of the parent to choose a school for his child, but, on the other hand, is a statement of the circumstances in which the local authority may legitimately refuse that placing. If one is to provide a statutory right for the parent to choose a school for his child, one has to have regard to the practical consequences, allowing that right to be exercised only in circumstances where it is possible for the local authority reasonably to meet the requests of the parent.

A number of circumstances are outlined in the clause in which it will be permissible for the local authority to say that the placing of the request shall not be granted. One of those reasons is that to grant the request would mean placing an undue burden on the school concerned when it already has a sufficient number of pupils in terms of its capacity to deal with those pupils, that is to say, in terms of accommodation and staffing. By the removal of the provision that makes that workable, which, that the local authority must be able to fix the maximum number of pupils who can be admitted to that school, the whole clause is completely changed. If the amendment goes through, it is difficult to see how, in many circumstances in which it would be reasonable to refuse to place a request, the local authority would be able to do so in practical terms.

8.15 am

It is no exaggeration to say that the omission of the provision, which was discussed in detail between the Government and COSLA at an earlier stage of the Bill, may place an impossible burden on local authorities. That view is shared by COSLA and the teacher associations. Quite apart from the merits of the matter, the amendment is all the more deplorable because it was introduced without consultation. It is typical of the Government's approach that major proposals have been introduced without consultation or any attempt to meet the legitimate fears of local education authorities.

I repeat that, by and large, local authorities have a good reputation in these matters, although I do not say that all local authorities deal satisfactorily with placing requests. They could often behave more liberally. There is no difference between the two sides of the House that. However, the problem cannot be solved by detailed legislation, although if we are to have legislation it must be workable and should not impose an impossible burden on local authorities, which is precisely what the Government are doing by removing the provision.

We oppose the amendment. The matter will be taken up in another place, as we are having to deal with it here at an unreasonable hour. However, we are entitled even at this time to a more detailed explanation of why the Minister is introducing the amendment at a late stage and without consultation.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Consultation on the Bill has been wide and varied, not least with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Consultation on this part of the Bill has been particularly intensive. Although the amendment came late, it came at the end of consultations on how best to satisfy the requirements.

The amendment has been misunderstood. Press reports following the tabling of the amendments made it plain that the provisions were seen in some quarters as enabling authorities to restrict the intake to popular schools, presumably below their physical capacity and the level for which they could be staffed, to force parents to send their children to schools that they did not like and in which they had no confidence. It has been reported in the press that the maximum rolls provisions were seen by education authorities as an important safeguard against the worst effects of the parents' charter contained in the Bill. They went on to suggest that COSLA argued that without the safeguard, there would be an exodus from unpopular to popular schools.

Had we had doubts—which we have not—about the need to make the amendments, the comments from the convention, which were widely reported in the press shortly after the amendments were tabled, made it clear that the provisions relating to maximum rolls as they stood in the Bill were seen as substantially reducing the rights that the Bill seeks to give to parents. I am clear that we should delete provisions open to that misinterpretation of our intentions.

Mr. Millan

The Minister's explanation is inadequate. It does not deal with how the clause can work with the provision deleted. I repeat that COSLA and the teacher associations believe that with the provision deleted the Bill cannot be fairly operated by local authorities. There will be major difficulties in operating the clause. It is deplorable that the change should be made now.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I wish to comment briefly on the amendment, for the simple reason that, although I believe in the maximum freedom of choice for parents and children within the State school system, there must be some order in the way in which the scheme is operated. Knowing that the Minister wishes to make progress, I put this simple point to him.

If he removes subsection (3)(a), how will it be possible for local authorities to operate? The problem is that some local authorities—I refer here specifically to Grampian regional education committee—are still behaving in a completely arbitrary manner towards parents. When we have before us major legislation dealing with the so-called parents' charter and the rights of parents in these matters, it is nonsense to find that local authorities, particularly Grampian region, within the last couple of weeks have refused to meet a deputation from Linksfield schools council about changes in zoning.

As local authorities seem to be operating on the basis that there is no change in the legislation and they can do as they will, what effect does taking out subsection (3)(a) have? Does it mean that parents have an absolute right to decide what school their child should attend and the local authority is therefore bound to accept that view?

Mr. Fletcher

Briefly, what the hon. Gentleman has said is roughly correct. Certainly a catchment zone will not in itself be a reason for disallowing admission to a school, provided that there is accommodation for the child at the school.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 3, in page 2, leave out lines 33 to 37.—[Mr. Alexander Fletcher.]

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 3, line 27, leave out from 'such' to 'as' in line 28 and insert 'matters as may be prescribed by regulations; (iii) such other matters'. This amendment clarifies a point of drafting. There is a possibility that new section 28B could be interpreted as giving an education authorty the alternatives of publishing information about matters prescribed in regulations or, if it thinks necessary or expedient, about matters that it considers appropriate. The amendment seeks to clarify that.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 4, line 30, leave out 'effect of section 28A' and insert 'general effect of section 28A(1) and (2)'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it may be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 8, in page 4, line 21, at end insert— '(f) on a request to that effect made to them at any time by a parent of a child supply the parent with information about the provision for Gaelic education in the schools under their management and shall take reasonable steps to provide Gaelic education for the child in accordance with the wishes of the parent.'. No. 9, in page 4, line 28, at end add 'subject to subsection 3A below.'. No. 10, in page 4, line 42, at end insert— '3A. The prescribed information above will not include the results of the performance of any of the school's pupils in any public examination.'.

Mr. Fletcher

The purpose of the amendment is simply to clarify the drafting of new section 28B. The present wording could be interpreted as requiring an authority that proposes to place a child in a school to inform the parents of the effect of the whole of new section 28A in relation to placing requests. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that would be excessive. It was never our intention that such detail would be appropriate at the first stage of informing the parent of the school proposed.

Mr. Canavan

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 8 in my name and the names of some of my hon. Friends. I do not wish to repeat all the arguments in favour of Gaelic education that were used in Committee. Unfortunately, our amendment was defeated in Committee because all the Tory hon. Members voted against it. That amendment was based largely on Gaelic-speaking areas.

In drafting the amendment I have attempted to move away from the area definition basis to what the Government claim is the very heart of the Bill, namely, parental choice. There is some logic for doing this, in that I know that of the 90,000 people in Scotland who speak Gaelic, more than 43 per cent. live outwith the traditionally Gaelic counties of the North.

It might make better sense to insert an amendment such as No. 8, which gives the right to parents. We always hear the Government making polite noises about the rights of parents and parental choice. If parents have rights of choice in respect of schools, why on earth should they not have the right to request that their children should receive Gaelic education?

The amendment therefore proposes that an onus be put on the education authority to take reasonable steps to provide Gaelic education for the child in accordance with the wishes of the parent.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Amendment No. 8 is drafted in terms that are more modest than I would have wished. However, it would be an advance on the present position. It would give Conservative Members and the Social Democrat who opposed my Ten-Minute Bill, as well as the amendment in Committee, a chance to redeem themselves.

The amendment does not demand a great deal of the Government, but it would allow them to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Gaelic-speaking people. The Government's recent attitude has created much anger in Scotland, about which we shall hear more. I therefore hope that they will accede to this minimal request.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

The amendment would do nothing for Gaelic-speaking people in Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. It would be a most unreasonable request in places such as North Berwick or Shetland. It would require a local authority to accede to a request for one child to receive Gaelic education in a school, even if that child were the only pupil wishing to have that instruction.

Such a provision could not be applied to a specific subject, and the request is quite unreasonable. The amendment could be deemed to be inadequate unless it provided for Gaelic teaching in any part of Scotland, regardless of the fact that probably no one else within miles spoke the language. Therefore, we cannot accept amendment No. 8.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 3, leave out from beginning of line 43 to end of line 5 on page 4.—[Mr. Alexander Fletcher.]

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 9, line 1 after 'Act', insert 'and Schedule A1 to this Act'. I invite hon. Members to accept this drafting amendment, which simply picks up a missing reference.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 10, line 4 after 'against', insert 'by the parent of the pupil or, where the pupil is a young person, the pupil'. This amendment clarifies the drafting of new section 28H (6) relating to sheriff exclusion cases.

Amendment agreed to.

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