HC Deb 21 October 1981 vol 10 cc359-76 7.16 pm
Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I beg to move, That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the approval by the Secretary of State for Scotland, dated 8 April 1981, of the Lothian Regional Council's Transfer Scheme 1980, dated 9 December 1980, a copy of which scheme was laid before this House on 30 June, be revoked.

Our opposition to the Lothian region's transfer scheme centers on the amendments which the Secretary of State is seeking to impose on that region. We believe that those amendments, which serve to undermine the Lothian region scheme, are simply part of the right hon. Gentleman's petty vendetta against Lothian region because of the disagreements he has had in recent years over the level of provision which, with democratic approval, the region has decided to make available to the people in the area.

The scheme, as amended by the Secretary of State, is designed to fall in line with the Education (Scotland) Bill which was given approval this afternoon. However, the right hon. Gentleman first started in August last year to enforce his views on the Lothian region. At that time, he wrote to the region requesting a scheme along the lines anticipated in the new legislation. I say "anticipated", because at that time the Education (Scotland) Bill had not even been published.

In August 1980, six weeks were given for the scheme to be presented to the Secretary of State. At that time, the Lothian region said that the six-week period was insufficient as it wished to consult the region's schools councils. The right hon. Gentleman agreed to an extension until December so that those consultations could be carried out.

The consultations were far-reaching and involved a variety of groups, because the schools council organisation in Lothian region is based on a secondary school with feeder primaries. As a result, there are many of these bodies, and all of them replied.

The burden of those replies was that the existing provision for the transfer of pupils and parental appeal was, by and large, satisfactory, although there were several areas where it was felt there could be greater flexibility. The region took these pretty mild criticisms on board, and the scheme presented to the Secretary of State embodied the views of the schools councils following their acceptance by the Lothian regional council.

The Secretary of State's reaction was to put an advertisement in the local press requesting individual responses to the scheme. Any test of public opinion based on a self-selective sample is bound to be suspect. In this instance, the Secretary of State used it as the basis for his opposition to the Lothian scheme and suggested that there was a need for even greater flexibility.

At this stage, it is worth while pointing out some of the criteria on which the Lothian scheme was to be operated. First, all the secondary schools were examined and the level of staffing to be allocated for the forthcoming session was anticipated and related to the number of pupils in the first year of secondary school. The maximum class size was set at 33, with exceptions if limitations were imposed by the size of classrooms, the internal organisation or staffing in certain practical subjects, down to a minimum of 30. Account was also taken of the fact that there would be remedial classes, some of which would be half the size of normal classes

In addition, account was taken—this is important—of the planned removal of some of the older buildings and transportable units. Accommodation, therefore, was one of Lothian region's first considerations. Over many years it has endeavoured to improve the quality of accommodation and to take advantage of the reduction in school numbers wherever possible.

The council then looked at the grounds for refusing its request. The minutes of the education committee state: The amendments to the scheme stipulated by the Secretary of State require that requests shall normally be granted if there is accommodation in the secondary school desired by the parent. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State's diktat did not in any way measure up to the criteria that Lothian had laid down for accommodation. Lothian took account of the provisions under what was then the Education (Scotland) (No. 2) Bill. It is still uncertain and unhappy about the provisions made for accommodation. It feels that its ambitions for the children for whom it is responsible are higher than the Minister's.

Lothian region also laid down priority criteria for admission. It is worth putting them on the record. The aim was: to afford the opportunity to children in primary 7 moving to secondary year 1.

The priority criteria were: certificated medical reasons including ease of access in the case of disabled pupils; brother/sister already in attendance at the school requested; pupil requesting a specific educational course not available in the local school; behavioural problems related to the individual pupil or his/her siblings; nature of the parents' employment where child could become subject to stress at the local school; place of employment of parents or other domestic reason resulting in the pupil being cared for near to non-district school; parental affinity with the aims, philosophy and religious beliefs of the school; road safety; attendance of pupil at a non-district primary school feeder; ease of travel; parents of siblings attended school; relatives of other siblings attending school.

The priority criteria were clearly spelt out and were included in the minutes of the education committee meeting. They were fairly comprehensible for anyone who wanted to take the trouble to find out what they were.

That was not the action of an authority that should be singled out for action, as Lothian has been. The Minister has not taken any other local authority to task and, as far as I know, has certainly laid no other such measure before the House. I am interested to know whether he has in fact seen fit to bring any other measure before the House.

On Second Reading of the Education (Scotland) Bill, we discussed the comparative statistics of the four Labour local authorities, which showed that about 97 per cent. of all placements were accepted without appeal. Only about 3 per cent. of parents were not satisfied with the choice of school presented by the local authority. The reason for the Secretary of State's desire to whip Lothian into line can only be assumed to be part of his vendetta against Lothian region in recent months.

It was requested that the proposed amendments be given full and proper consideration, but we are confident that the provisions made by Lothian region met the criteria. Statistics provided by the region show that in the first instance a request is made to the director and is then handled administratively. An appeal is then made to the first transfer committee, then to a second transfer committee, to a third and in some cases a fourth and fifth transfer committee. The appeals have been moderately successful and, in many cases, once the individuals concerned had been given a hearing by the education committee, they were happy to accede to the demands. I understand that only 20 parents kept their children away from school for any length of time and, of those, 10 were involved in the famous Leith academy court case. There were only 10 other instances where parents were forced to take extreme action and to withdraw their children from school.

The availability of a variety of appeals, the use by parents of the ultimate illegal sanction in a small number of cases and the general level of appeal against a transfer offer suggest that Lothian region is no worse or no better than any other region. In fact, it can be argued that Lothian region has a more clear and specific programme than most other Scottish authorities.

In Committee on the Education (Scotland) Bill it was stated that other local authorities had used the schools councils in a slightly different way. That is because of the nature of the organisation of the schools councils. For example, in Strathclyde a group of secondary schools have joined together and the schools council covers several schools rather than simply one secondary with feeder primaries. It is almost academic to consider which of the two schemes is more desirable. The Secretary of State did not interfere in the scheme that Strathclyde offered. He may have been happy with it. If so, perhaps he should have suggested that Lothian adopt the Strathclyde model instead of choosing a scheme closely tied to what was anticipated as the new format in the Education (Scotland) Bill.

As I said, the Minister has tried to dictate to Lothian before Parliament reached a decision. Since the middle of April a scheme not dissimilar to that in the new legislation has operated in the Lothian region. Lothian—I agree grudgingly—accepted the diktat of the Secretary of State and operated the scheme as it was required to do. However, the Labour-controlled local authority approached the Opposition to have the matter considered by Parliament, as it is entitled to do under the 1980 Act. A local authority should have the right to determine its admission criteria, albeit against the background of legislation. The previous Government talked of parents' charters, so the anxiety of parents to have the right to question local authority decisions is not an exclusive preserve of this Government.

Greater credence must be given in the development of a comprehensive system of education to the concept of the neighbourhood comprehensive. I have rarely heard the Minister mention the concept with great enthusiasm. He is reported in The Scotsman as wanting to close neighbourhood comprehensives in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Lothian has gone out of its way to improve school accommodation and the quality of education generally, and should have been supported in bolstering the neighbourhood comprehensive. Instead, it has been criticised and challenged at every turn. In this instance the Minister seeks to force it into a corner by using the 1980 Act in anticipation of the legislation completed this afternoon. No other local authority has been subject to that tactic. It is yet another example of the Secretary of State having a go at Lothian. It is utterly unreasonable.

Lothian has gone out of its way to provide a sensible and coherent system, albeit different from other local authorities. However, one attraction of local government is local choice, which should be available to local politicians just as much as to parents. In Lothian region the majority of parents are satisfied with the education and choices available. They may not continue to be satisfied when criteria as vague and unspecific as those applied by the Secretary of State come into effect and difficulties arise with schools that were undergoing programmes of renewal and development.

Some schools may find that pupils are taken away not for education reasons but because of ill-informed parental prejudices. There are schools in Edinburgh—I have taught at some schools—that have reputations that are long undeserved. A snobbishness prevails in Edinburgh. Parents may not be able to send their children to fee-paying schools, which they consider desirable, because they cannot pay for them or because their children may not be acceptable to schools under the assisted places scheme. They will try to ensure that they are not sent to balanced community schools.

Lothian region wishes to develop the neighbourhood comprehensive to make sure that the accommodation is viable and financial provision is sufficient to attract the most able and committed staff. Over the years the Secretary of State has criticised Lothian for alleged overspending, but much of its spending is on education. Lothian has been one of the biggest spenders on education. It has put tremendous efforts into improving the system, which had been allowed to decay until the early 1970s under successive Tory councils on the old Edinburgh corporation. The Minister is trying to turn the clock back and prevent education provision from going from strength to strength.

We oppose the measure. It interferes with the rights of local authorities and is yet another example of the Government's vendetta against Lothian region since they came to power in May 1979.

7.36 pm
Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

It is extraordinary that we should be asked to go through the full palaver of having the measure brought in by the Government when we all know that the parent legislation under which the transfer scheme was prepared and the measure is brought in is swept aside by the Education (Scotland) Bill, which completed all its stages only this evening. Two hours after we completed the last stages of that legislation we are considering a measure that arises out of the repeal of a section of that earlier Act. That is an extraordinary procedure for the Government to ask us to go through. There needs to be extraordinary justification of why at this last gasp, in the dying days of the earlier legislation, the Government take this exceptional action against Lothian region.

Why Lothian region? As my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) said, the region believes that its transfer scheme is more sophisticated than others it could name. Comparisons are invidious and I shall not attempt to make them, but to put it no more indelicately than this—other transfer schemes are shorter. Why single out Lothian as the sole education authority in Scotland to receive the treatment? Has the Minister studied the other nine education authority schemes and concluded that they are acceptable but that in Lothian there is a need to intervene? If so, perhaps he can tell the House how many instances there are in Lothian where parents' wishes have been overridden by the local authority. How does the number compare as a proportion of the total transfer from primary to secondary with the number of disgruntled parents in other education authorities? Unless he can demonstrate that there is a greater problem in Lothian than in the other education authorities, he cannot in all conscience bring the measure before the House and ask us to take this unique step.

We should apply another criterion, which I hope the Minister will satisfy in his response. He indicated his intention to bring in the amendment in a letter to the Lothian regional council dated 8 April, in which he states: From the response to those consultations and advertisements, the Secretary of State is satisfied that there is a substantial body of opinion, particularly relating to Edinburgh schools, which favours a more flexible approach".

That is a response to advertisements inserted in the local press by the Scottish Office. Will the Under-Secretary of State say what response was received? How many replies were received? To how many children did they refer? What analysis was made of the response? It is not good enough to claim in a letter that the response to advertisements indicates a substantial body of opinion when the Government have not been prepared to divulge to Lothian region or to Parliament exactly what was the response received and how much substantial opinion the response revealed.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will pay attention to the questions that I am putting. The House is entitled to expect an answer before hon. Members come to take a view on the order.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

He did not answer last night.

Mr. Cook

I am aware of that. I was present for that debate. One can only live in hope of an answer. One is nevertheless entitled to request an audience of the Under-Secretary of State so that he is at least aware of the questions being asked before deciding whether to answer them.

Why has the Under-Secretary chosen this particular form of change? He will be aware of what he has done. He has brought forward a paragraph that is wholly contradictory. It would be a courtesy to the House if the Under-Secretary were to pay attention. This does not promise to be a long debate. If the Under-Secretary of State chooses to have a long debate, it can stretch over the next four hours. Since, however, it is likely to be a brief debate with few interventions, the Under-Secretary of State could try and pay attention instead of gossiping with the Secretary of State on the Front Bench. Neither of them, of course, can be sure how long he will remain in office. They may feel that they have to make use of such time as they still have together on the Front Bench.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alexander Fletcher)

Come off it.

Mr. Cook

I will not come off it. The Under-Secretary of State chattered throughout the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire and has chattered to the Secretary of State ever since he entered the Chamber.

Mr. Fletcher


Mr. Cook

It is not nonsense. The Under-Secretary of State has spoken to the Secretary of State more often than either my hon. Friend or I have spoken in the debate.

Mr. Fletcher

I shall listen patiently to any point of substance that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Cook

I have already put two questions in detail to which I shall expect a response. I am now about to put a third point and hope to get the hon. Gentleman's attention. The third question relates to the amendment that he has proposed. The amendment is wholly contradictory. The amendment says that each particular case shall be given full and proper consideration taking account of the particular and individual circumstances relating to the request. The amendment goes on to say that it shall normally be granted if there is accommodation in the secondary school".

It eludes me how the local authority can give proper and full consideration in the circumstances of the case if it is assumed from the start that it shall normally be granted if the accommodation is available. If it should normally be granted if the accommodation is available, why is there need for the proviso that it should be given full and proper consideration with regard to particular circumstances? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), in an intervention from a sedentary position, says that it was not being given. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire has spelt out the procedures that were available under the transfer scheme and the procedures for the committee to give consideration to the circumstances of each individual case.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South may not have read the measure before the House. Its effect if the amendment is carried is to remove from a local authority any individual discretion that it can use in bringing to the case full and proper consideration. Whatever the particular circumstances of the case, it shall normally be granted. The Under-Secretary of State says "Hear, hear". In that case, I hope that he can be persuaded to withdraw his proposal and strike out from his amendment the reference to giving full and proper consideration, taking into account the particular individual circumstances. It is obvious from the hon. Gentleman's intervention that this is humbug. It is hypocrisy to pretend that he expects each case to be given particular and individual attention and full and proper consideration. He expects that it shall normally be granted subject to the solitary test relating to whether accommodation is available. This means that there will not be the ability to resist a case nor the right to give consideration to whether a transfer meets the need of the child and whether a child has a particular need.

Parents often request a transfer on the basis of curricula and subjects that may be available at a school to which they seek transfer. The local authority will no longer have the right to give consideration to whether that subject and facility are available at the school to which the parent seeks a transfer. It is not a matter that is relevant under the amended provision of the transfer scheme. It will not be possible to give consideration to the distance that a child has to cover. A local authority could be faced with a request for a transfer from one end of Lothian to the other. Under this amended transfer scheme it would not be competent to have regard to that factor in deciding whether to approve a transfer.

A child may require a special educational facility. It will not be competent for the local authority to have regard to that factor. The only factor to which it may have regard is whether there is available accommodation at the school. If that test is met, the transfer should normally be granted. The ground to which a local authority may have regard under the amended scheme is even more narrow than the grounds provided by the Government in the Education (Scotland) Bill. The Bill provides a whole page of considerations to which the local authority may have regard in deciding whether to approve a transfer. None is to be available to the Lothian region except the single test whether accommodation is available.

There are practical administrative problems about obliging a local authority to accept pupils at any secondary school up to the limits. We are debating this scheme some months after it has taken effect. We can judge from what is happening in Lothian the effect of the scheme. I do not speak from a sense of grievance. I do not represent any schools from which pupils are being transferred. I represent two schools to which pupils are being transferred. One of my schools is full. Pupils have been transferred from the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). I do not wish to draw any political conclusion from the fact that education within my constituency is preferred to education within the constituency of the hon. Member for Pentlands. A problem, however, arises. In each class in the school there is the maximum number of pupils due to the large number coming from outside the zone.

A recently arrived constituent has sought to enrol his child at the secondary school. It is not possible for the secondary school to accept the boy because the school is full. If the boy is admitted the science class will number 21 rather than 20 pupils. The conditions of service for the employment of teachers is that no science teacher should be required to teach more than 20 pupils. If the pupil were admitted, an additional science teacher would have to be employed at the school or the pupil would have to go back to Wester Hailes. The Minister shakes his head. We shall look forward to his response. If the Minister has a solution to the problem, Lothian region will be delighted to hear it. At present it is unable to accept the pupil for the local community secondary school although that pupil wishes to enrol. This is a direct result of the measure that allows for no discretion at an earlier point in the year to resist any application for the school so long as available accommodation exists within the school.

It is an idiotic situation that, as a result of the scheme, there are pupils in my constituency who are unable to enrol in the local secondary school. That consequence of the order should itself be a sufficient ground on which to resist it.

However, there are also general principles. The Lothian regional education authority has taken substantial steps and gone much further than any other education authority in seeking to integrate the transfer from a primary school to a secondary school. It has promoted regular contact between teachers at primary and secondary schools and, through those contacts, to harmonise the curricula at primary and secondary level. It has also ensured that information about pupils who are to transfer is passed from primary schools to secondary schools.

That intimate relationship between primary and secondary schools will be wrecked if the Government ensure that pupils from any primary school can transfer to any secondary school without the local authority being able to impose any restriction on the secondary school to which a pupil may transfer.

It is impossible not to have regard once again to the fact that the Government obtained power on the wholly bogus platform that they would create more freedom and achieve less Government interference in the dealings of local government, business and individuals. We have seen in the past two and a half years the most comprehensive programme of meddling and interference in local authority affairs that the nation has witnessed in peacetime.

The Under-Secretary interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire to suggest that he was arguing the case that politicians know best. That gibe comes ill from the Minister's lips, because he has imposed his own view of what is best on a local authority that was elected to administer educational policy within its region. The Under-Secretary is saying, in effect, that he knows best how every transfer from primary school to secondary school should take place. That demonstrates a self-satisfaction with his own judgment that borders on megalomania.

We have seen in the past two years a number of major nails driven into the coffin of local democracy. Perhaps we have seen so many that it may be thought that it is almost pointless to complain about this further drawing pin being inserted in the coffin lid. But we have seen so many steps taken to erode local discretion and autonomy that we cannot allow even this further step to take place without making a protest.

7.53 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alexander Fletcher)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), because his concluding remarks summarised the philosophical gulf that divides the two sides of the House on education and parental choice.

The hon. member did not serve on the Standing Committee that considered the Education (Scotland) Bill, but that does not matter. He is also a victim of the prejudice that runs throughout the Labour Party, with one exception. I referred earlier today to the Scottish Labour Member who takes a more enlightened view.

Before dealing with the details of the order, I should tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central that it is not a question of my knowing best or of Lothian region's knowing best. I firmaly believe that parents know best. The hon. Gentleman said that he was worried about the administration of schools and about the position of teachers and Lothian councillors, but it never seemed to enter his mind that parental choice matters above all else and that the education system is the servant of the parent and the child.

The Government believe that the best thing that we can do for education in Lothian and elsewhere in Scotland is to make sure that the maximum parental choice is available. We accept that parents will make mistakes and send their children to schools which, in the view of educationists, may not be the best schools for them, but it is far better that the occasional parent should make a mistake and be free to do so than that Lothian and other areas should have a conscript system of education. That is what the Labour Party is calling for. It wants conscript education, or "You will go to that school and like it"—whether the child likes it or not. That is the basic philosophical difference between the two sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) accused the Government of waging a petty vendetta against the Lothian regional council and the eduation authority. I assure him that it gave us no pleasure to have to bring forward the measure. We tried patiently to persuade the region to pay far more attention to what parents want and say instead of reorganising education to suit its own administrative convenience and political prejudices, which is precisely what Lothian has been doing for some years.

It may be helpful if I outline the background under the present law. All education authorities maintain what are known as transfer schemes. Section 29 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 provides that, if so required by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, they must submit any such schemes for his approval under section 69 of that Act. Transfer schemes relate only to the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary education and the schemes currently operated by authorities are those approved in 1976 by the then Secretary of State.

The operation of the provisions of Lothian regional council's 1976 transfer scheme, enshrining its policy for dealing with out-of-zone requests—a policy which I have already suggested can only be described as negative, unnecessarily restrictive and irrelevant, especially at a time of falling rolls—has been the source of bitter complaint from parents and it was this that prompted the Government ultimately to ask the regional council to revise its scheme.

I am surprised that Edinburgh Labour Members do not know from their mailbags how dissatisfied many Edinburgh parents have been for some years.

Mr. Cook

Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Fletcher

I should like to proceed a little further.

The terms of the council's 1976 scheme for dealing with parental requests for a particular school are explicit. The scheme says: Requests by parents or guardians for placement in a school other than that designated will be considered but are unlikely to be granted except in special circumstances such as where brothers or sisters will be in attendance at the school requested when the pupil transfers, or where the Director of Education recommends to the Transfer Committee a particular placement on the grounds that the transfer under normal arrangements would be contrary to the educational or other interests of the child".

I need hardly remind certain Labour Members of the large number of parents who have fallen victim of that policy and the deep sense of injustice felt by some parents at the consideration given by the Lothian transfer committee to their requests. That has resulted in children being withheld from school, attendance orders being served and parents ending up in the sheriff court to argue their case.

Mr. Cook

How many?

Mr. Fletcher

A more flexible approach by the council would have spared unnecessary damaging effects on the child's education in most of these cases.

Mr. Cook

How many?

Mr. Fletcher

A sufficient number of cases have caused distress. I shall quote some figures in a moment. There are existing cases in Lothian region of parents still withholding their children because they are not getting satisfaction.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

How many?

Mr. Fletcher

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) calls, like a parrot, "How many?". I should have thought that he would be concerned if only one child were being were being withheld from school because Lothian or any other region was not dealing properly with a transfer request.

What some authorities appear to forget is that parents, too, have statutory duties in relation to the education of their children: section 30 of the 1980 Act places a clear responsibility on parents to provide for their children efficient education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude. Education authorities themselves also have a statutory duty, in terms of section 28(1) of the Education (Scotland) Act, to have regard to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, not in accordance with administrative convenience so far as this is compatible with the provision of suitable instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure.

These are straightforward commitments in existing legislation and I am bound to say, with deep regret, that for too many years now they have been ignored by the Lothian regional council when considering parental requests. That is the position under the law as it stands today.

Mr. Cook

The Minister asked about the mailbags of Members of Parliament. During my seven years as a Member of Parliament I have not had one complaint from a constituent regarding the transfer from primary to secondary school. I ask the Minister again two questions that I put in my speech. First, what response did he receive to the advertisements, and how did he come to the conclusion that they revealed a substantial body of opinion? Second, what comparative figures does he have for the difference between the number of disaffected parents in the Lothian region and any other education authority against which this action is not being taken?

Mr. Fletcher

I shall come to those matters in a few moments. In answer to what the hon. Gentleman says about the absence of complaints from his constituents about the transfer scheme in the Lothian region, I am not surprised, judging by the speech that he made this evening, which showed no concern whatever for parental choice. I take it from what he said that his constituents would get the same short shrift from him as they receive from the regional council itself.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents have complained vigorously, and some of them live not far from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who is one of my constituents? Is the Minister aware that there is strong support for this measure?

Mr. Fletcher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is not surprising that constituents write to Members of Parliament who they think will give them a sympathetic ear. There is not much point, clearly, in writing to Members who are wholly opposed to the wishes that the constituents are expressing. I had hoped that, given the Government's policy to extend parental choice of school, the regional council would be open to persuasion and that the use of statutory powers available to my right hon. Friend to bring about more flexibility could be avoided. With this in mind, and on my instructions, my department wrote to the council on 3 March 1980, indicating that its policy was considered to be unduly restrictive and expressing the hope that in dealing with parental requests it would in future have regard to the principles set out in my consultative paper "Admission to School—A Charter for Parents"—the consultative paper which was issued in March 1980 as part of the process of formulating the Bill which we have been considering earlier this evening. It was in my view a reasonable request to which a reasonable authority would have responded positively.

Our hope, of course, was disappointed. The council took the line that in its view the number of requests was so small against the number of pupils in the relevant age group that no further action on its part was required. On the region's interpretation of the figures, between 98 and 99 per cent. of parents received the school of their choice, and the situation was therefore satisfactory. I dispute categorically that there is any relevance in this comparison. In my view, it is beyond doubt that parents in the region are discouraged from making requests regarding choice of school because of the council's intransigent attitude.

The view that parents are discouraged from applying would be consistent with the fall in the number of requests received by the region. It was 4.5 per cent. of all pupils entering primary education in 1977, and it fell to 3.4 per cent. in 1979.—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that entry into primary schools is any less important as a matter of parental choice than the entry from primary into secondary schools. Opposition Members have asked for figures, and I have said that I would provide them. If those figures are not acceptable to them, that does not mean that they are irrelevant. Opposition Members may not like them, but it does not make them irrelevant.

Similarly, in relation to transfers from primary to secondary education, the number of requests fell from 5 per cent. in 1977 to 4 per cent. in 1979. What I find most disturbing is that, despite the decline in the proportion who asked, the percentage of applicants whose requests were refused increased over the same period. At primary level it rose from 22.5 per cent. in 1977 to 28 per cent. in 1979 and in transfers from primary to secondary comparable figures show an increase from 26.4 per cent in 1977 to 28 per cent. in 1979. Hon. Members will see, therefore, that even the figures which the regional council produces in its own defence give disturbing evidence of an unnecessarily restrictive policy. As a result, my officials wrote again on my instruction on 17 April 1980 to say that the evidence supplied by the council justified repeating my request that in dealing with parental requests it should have regard to the principles underlying the Government's proposals for more parental choice. I regret to say that the council resolved to take no action.

My conclusion was, therefore, that in order to assist parents in Lothian who wanted more choice, I had no option but to ask my right hon. Friend to exercise his power under section 29 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to require the authority to submit a revised transfer scheme by no later than 31 October 1980.

This request was made in a letter dated 7 August 1980, which stressed the Secretary of State's expectation that the scheme would be revised to the effect that all requests for out-of-zone admissions would normally be granted. The letter also asked that where refusal was necessary the reasons for this should be explained in writing to the parents. The Lothian council had been extremely remiss in not having the courtesy to explain properly to parents why their requests had been refused.

The regional council subsequently asked for the deadline for submission of the revised scheme to be extended to 12 December 1980, to allow consultations to take place, and this was granted. I make this point simply to illustrate that we started in March 1980 and showed much patience with the local authority, hoping that in considering the matter with us, it would relax its rather stiff view of parents and granting parental requests. It was quite evident, however, that the consultations which the council had been anxious to carry out were conducted through the medium of school councils only.

School council membership, of course, includes parental representatives, but my experience of school closure and other applications seeking approval to changes in educational provision has been that the views of school councils, while valuable in themselves, do not necessarily always accord with those expressed by parents. My opinion was therefore that the consultations undertaken by the council were not as extensive or thorough as I would have liked. Both in order to give parents a chance to make direct representations and to satisfy the Secretary of State's statutory responsibility, advertisements were placed in the Edinburgh Evening News on 6 and 7 January this year inviting comments on the scheme and in particular on the revised statement of the council's policy relating to the consideration of requests for out-of-zone transfer to secondary schools. The regional council was asked at the same time to supply detailed information about its consultative process.

The results were very revealing. Of the bodies consulted by the regional council in its deliberations, 16 of the 25 representing schools in the Edinburgh area wanted a change in policy. Those were the consultations of the council. In addition, the response to the press advertisement placed by my Department was considerable. One hundred and sixty-eight letters, together with a petition containing 341 signatures, were received, and of these only 17 parents were content with the council's policy for considering parental requests. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central raised this matter, and I say to him in all sincerity that surely there can be no surer measure of evidence of the unpopularity of the council's transfer scheme or greater motive for arrangements to give parents a greater say in the school their child attends. I am sure that any experience that the hon. Member has had of asking people to send in their views by mail would be the same as that of other people.

It is rather unusual for 168 people, quite separately and completely unorganised in any political or other way, to write individual letters. There was only one petition. The Department inserted the advertisements and waited for the response. That was the response that came in. It was absolutely a duty on my right hon. Friend and myself, therefore, to take account of this and to continue to try to persuade Lothian regional council to recognise the fault of its ways.

Mr. O'Neill

How many of the signatories were parents,? How many of the signatories, if they were parents were involved in the transfer scheme at that time? Does the Minister agree that a figure of 492, even assuming that they were parents, is not that far from the number of disgruntled parents who apply every year for an appeal? The figure has run between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the 10,000 to 12,000 children who are being transferred at any time. These figures are worthless. That they have been presented in this way is intellectually insulting to the House.

Mr. Fletcher

From experience in Committee, I know that the hon. Gentleman does not think much of minority views. The fact remains, however, that although this may not impress the hon. Gentleman, it had some impact on Lothian regional council when it began to consider what it might do.

It is important that hon. Members should consider the position that was reached at this point. To begin with, Lothian's response to my request for a more flexible policy in relation to parental requests was to say, without prior consultation with parents or anybody else, that its statistics showed that most parents got their choice of school and, therefore, no change in its policy was needed. That was the response before consultation took place. I think that I have made it quite clear why I consider that that interpretation of the council's statistics was widely inaccurate and unrepresentative of true parental feeling in the area.

Now we are at the point where the council, by force of law, undertakes consultations which lead it to revise its scheme to take account of opinion expressed by the majority of the interests consulted.

The council's shift of ground was remarkable. From a position where it considered statistical evidence to justify no change, it had moved to the point of acknowledging that its own consultations showed that some change in its policy was called for.

The wording of the council's revised scheme, as submitted to my right hon. Friend was still, however, in too negative terms. Somewhat grudgingly, it now provided: Parents or guardians may request placement of a pupil in a secondary school other than the designated school. Every such request will be considered in the light, of the particular and individual circumstances relating to that request.

But it went on to say: Pupils will only be placed in terms of this paragraph in a secondary school other than that designated where there is accommodation in the alternative school when all the requirements of children within its area have been satisfied.

Obviously, I agree that parents living in a neighbourhood should have first priority for a place in the local school. But the tone is still too negative: Pupils will only be placed

after all other needs are met. One would almost think that the authority was wishing that there would be no room left in the school once the local places had been filled.

The modification which my right hon. Friend has made to the scheme, in contrast, makes this positive statement: Every such request shall be given full and propel consideration taking account of the particular and individual circumstances relating to that request and shall normally be granted if there is accommodation in the secondary school desired by the parent, in accordance with the policy which the Council have adopted for settling priorities for admission.

I must say again to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central that it makes nonsense of his suggestion that the education committee could not take into account, for example, a long travelling distance or the unsuitability of the curriculum of the school, because, as I shall go on to say, by ensuring that the education authority gives proper consideration, it can take these matters into account and, in refusing a request, it is now obliged to give full written details of the refusal. If it were a matter of a child travelling 20 miles or so across the region, that would be very simple to state and to argue in the event of a refusal.

The emphasis is placed on the words "shall normally be granted", and I believe that that is how it should be. The scheme now is a more positive commitment to meet parents' wishes wherever possible.

Mr. Cook

The anxiety of Lothian region is perfectly understandable. As the Minister is aware, its action on this matter could be challenged and could appear eventually before the sheriff. If it were taken before the sheriff, what the sheriff would read in the amended form of this scheme is that an application shall normally be granted where accommodation is available. The only criterion offered in this amended order is whether accommodation exists. The council's anxiety is that it will be very difficult for the local authority to plead in front of the sheriff any reason for refusal other than that spelt out here, which is the simple one of whether accommodation is available.

Mr. Fletcher

If that is the region's view, I am surprised. It is a very naive view, and one that other authorities do not share. I am sure that it would not be the view taken by a sheriff. A sheriff considering the example that I gave, of a child who was being taken 20 miles or so from home to school, would perfectly understand the position and would be sympathetic to the local authority.

A further defect in the scheme as submitted to my right hon. Friend is that it made no provision for giving parents on request details of the council's policy for settling priorities for admission where any school was oversubscribed. Just as important, no provision was made for parents whose requests had been refused to be given a written explanation of the consideration given to their request and the reasons for the council's decision. These defects too were remedied by means of the modifications made to the scheme.

In short, our view quite simply was that the scheme as submitted by the council was not drafted in terms wide enough to accommodate the more flexible and sympathetic approach towards parental choice which consultation showed many parents wanted; that it lacked provision for parents to be given details on request of the council's policy for settling priorities for admission to an oversubscribed school; and that it also lacked provision for parents whose requests had been refused to be given reasons. The Government's modifications put these matters right.

Mr. Maxton

I hope that the Minister will answer the very serious question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) about the comparison with other regions. The House is entitled to know what percentages of people in other regions apply for transfers, and the percentage refused by those other regional authorities. If they are roughly the same as those in Lothian region, why is it only Lothian region that has been picked out for this sort of treatment?

Mr. Fletcher

The very simple reason is that the complaints that we receive in the Scottish Office—people are perfectly entitled under existing legislation to complain to the Secretary of State—have almost entirely related to the Lothian region.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

That is because they all live in Edinburgh and write to each other complaining.

Mr. Fletcher

We have not had the complaints from Fife. [Interruption.] South Ayrshire is proving the point again this evening.

We do not get complaints about Fife regional council. I happen to know that Fife operates a liberal scheme of parental choice and pays close attention to the complaints that parents make about the choice of school available to them. I think that the same is true in many parts, if not most parts, of Strathclyde. We do not receive anything like the same number of complaints from any other authority.

When parents exercise their statutory right, as the law now stands, to appeal to the Secretary of State because they believe that a local authority is not carrying out its duties properly, the Secretary of State has every right and duty to intervene.

There is one final point that I should make. As I have already mentioned, the provisions of transfer schemes apply only to the transfer from primary to secondary education. Lothian has, however, as a matter of policy in the past, applied the principles written into its transfer scheme in dealing with out-of-zone requests to similar applications in relation to primary schools. In notifying the council on 8 April of my consideration of its revised scheme and the outcome, I also asked that the general principles written into it should apply also to applications for admission to schools at stages other than the transfer stage—as I have said, no more than asking Lothian to continue past practice.

I understand, however, that the council has decided not to adopt the same policy for out-of-zone requests relating to admissions to primary schools. This is another example of the council's inflexibility and is clear evidence of its willingness to make it difficult for parents with children at primary school to get their choice, in order to force hard, unbending, narrow-minded policies on an unsuspecting public who deserve better from their local authority.

I have a classic example, which I hope will give rise to some genuine sympathy from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), of the problems the authority can create for parents. It was manifest in two cases that aroused considerable press interest in August this year, at the start of the new school session. That is not too surprising. Two sets of Edinburgh parents wanted their children to attend the Royal High primary school, only a few yards from their homes, rather than Craigentinny primary school which is some distance away, over busy roads. Sticking closely to its policy, the council refused the parents' request and I understand—[Interruption.] I note that my remarks are thought to be irrelevant.

Mr. Maxton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The order concerns the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary schools. The Minister has spent a considerable time talking about the entrance of five-year-olds into primary schools. Are his comments relevant?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

I was under the impression that the Minister was building up his case from primary to secondary school.

Mr. Fletcher

In Edinburgh, parents who wish to send their children—[Interruption.] This subject is terribly important to the parents, although it might be quite irrelevant to Opposition Members. Parents wish to send their children to schools with accommodation that are a few yards from their homes. That is being denied to them. They are being asked to send their children to other parts of the city and on journeys that will involve crossing busy roads. They find that they are denied the right to put their children in schools that can accommodate them and they feel so strongly that they are withholding their children from school and are likely to receive an attendance order. Opposition Members and the region should be ashamed of that.

For the future, the outlook for parents in Scotland is much brighter. Earlier today, the House approved the amendments made in another place to the Education (Scotland) Bill. The Bill now awaits Royal Assent. The provisions of that legislation will ensure that in future parents will have a greater say about the school that their children attend. We strongly believe that that is precisely as it should be.

8.23 pm
Mr. O'Neill

We have had to listen to the Minister for 30 minutes. He has gone through a case that is based on premises that are quite irrelevant to the scheme. The only examples that he could bring to hand had nothing to do with the transfer from primary to secondary schools.

Mr. Cook

The Minister has introduced two cases that are irrelevant to the order and that are not affected by it. However, he has failed to answer the case that I put to him concerning a constituent who is affected by the order and who cannot obtain a place for his son at the local secondary school. At the start of the session, every available place was taken up by out-of-zone pupils.

Mr. O'Neill

The Government's concern for parents is very selective. It would appear that they are concerned only about those parents who do not wish their children to go to particular schools and they are not concerned to defend the rights of those who clearly intend to send their children to local neighbourhood comprehensives.

The Secretary of State has not provided any meaningful statistics. As regards the figures quoted for the so-called survey, anyone starting even an 0-grade course in statistics would know the worthlessness of self-selected samples. As regards the consultation procedures entered into with school councils, it is clear that it is not the school councils or parents who know best, but the Secretary of State. In every respect, the Secretary of State has failed to explain why no other local authority has been called to order in this way.

That leads me back to my initial conclusion, namely, that this is an attempt once again to get at Lothian. The Secretary of State has had another chance to have a go at Lothian and to carry on the vendetta. The case has been completely and utterly lost and we do not in any way wish to be associated with the scheme.

Question put and negatived