HC Deb 27 October 1982 vol 29 cc1087-91 6.37 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 Education (School and Placing Information) (Scotland) Regulations 1982 (S.I., 1982, No. 950), dated 9th July 1982, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th July, be annulled. This set of regulations gives effect to an element in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 that has been called the parent's charter. The argument behind it was that the parents of Scottish children knew insufficient about the education institutions in Scotland that were available for their children, so there would have to be some form of compulsory circulation or advertising of the wares offered by schools. By the time the Bill was published most schools had prepared such prospectuses. It is commonplace for schools councils or academic councils in schools—what used to be called staff or principal teachers meetings—to produce documents such as the one that the Minister is insisting should be provided by law. We would not take grave exception to most of the information that is required by the Minister.

However, I should like to make some observations about schedule 1, paragraph 2(q)(ii), which is about the publication of examination results. We have always felt, and we argued in Committee when the Bill was being scrutinised, that to present raw statistics on examination results would be misleading. The subparagraph is inadequate because it does not take account of the possibility of Scottish students being presented for other than Scottish examination board exams. I have no reason to believe that the new education committees, for example, of Lothian region, will cease the courses and examinations that were provided and organised under the auspices of the certificate of secondary education and supervised by the northern examination board.

There are some schools where courses with external validation have been developed locally. They provide a flexibility that Scottish examination board exams do not as yet afford. Such courses are perhaps better suited to the needs of students in such institutions.

Nevertheless, the SED does not require such information to be published. I imagine that that is one of the mistakes for which the Department is all too famous. It is one of those things that demonstrate the Minister's lack of interest in and knowledge of Scottish education. Had he known anything about what is going on in Scottish secondary schools in the local authority sector he would have been aware of the deficiency. It spells out clearly the Opposition's major objection to the alleged information.

In many instances, unfair comparisons will be made on the basis of a simple league table when local authorities publish such documents. The local papers will provide lists of the comparative success or failure of an institution for public consumption. Examination passes will be the only yardstick employed. That is unacceptable. I have never heard an educationist arguing convincingly or being convinced that examinations are all that school is about. But that is the way in which the press will treat the matter. The regulation is so restrictive that the full Scottish picture will not emerge.

At the other end of the academic spectrum, the regulation does not even provide for the inclusion of the international baccalaureat, which is the pride and joy of the chairman of the Scottish examination board who is the headmaster of the Royal high school in Edinburgh. It is, therefore, not only deficient as a means of recording the academic achievements of schools that operate under considerable economic deprivation; it is inadequate for the palmy areas of Barnton in Edinburgh. I understand that the Minister lives close to that school. His children may have gone there.

The Opposition find the regulations offensive in many respects. We recognise the desirability of local authorites providing information, but the required information about examination results is in no way a realistic guide to the activities of a school. Moreover, such information could easily be used by local people as a means of castigating particular institutions. The regulations could allow information to be used in a way that would distort the success or failure of an institution.

Furthermore, the regulations are substantially unnecessary as most local authorites have provided funds and encouraged schools to make prospectuses available. The new information that is being insisted upon would be misleading. It is too restrictive. It fails to take account of the diversity of examination systems that are used in Scottish schools.

6.43 pm
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

In Committee, some Opposition Members expressed their worries and reservations about the effects that parental choice could have on some schools in some areas of large Scottish cities. I expressed anxiety about schools in an area such as Castlemilk, which is in my constituency. It suffers multiple deprivation. Unemployment there runs at more than 25 per cent. In some parts of the area more than 50 per cent. of the people are unemployed. There is a danger that parents in that area who believe that their children are a little brighter than others may send them to schools in another area. It is hard to deny parents that right, but we must always bear in mind that most parents do not do that. We have a responsibility to ensure that the education of those children who are not shifted is also looked after.

The danger is that schools in areas such as Castlemilk will find that the better motivated and brighter children will go to other schools in another area. As a result, schools in the deprived areas will lose the few children that set and maintain a higher standard. I gave that warning in Committee.

During the past year I have corresponded with the schools council that represents primary and secondary schools in Castlemilk. It is expressing exactly the same worries that I expressed in Committee. I know that the Minister will probably say that parents must have the right to move their children. But the schools council represents all the parents of all the children in all schools in Castlemilk. Their voice must be heard as well. The Minister may say that that is not so: But there is no other organisation, however poor it may be, or way in which parents can be represented in the school system.

The schools council is expressing grave concern that 30 secondary school pupils did not go to secondary schools in Castlemilk this year but went elsewhere. The number may not be great but it is significant. Another six were unable to go to a large Roman Catholic school because it was full. But next year, because of the declining number of secondary school pupils, the same will almost certainly not be the case.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about schools councils being representative mainly of parents within the zoned area of a particular school, but we are discussing the principle of parental control—of individual rather than collective parental control. I agree that a parent could go to the schools council and say that it does not have direct access to a local authority to apply for a child to go to a school of the parents' choice. That is what parents' choice is all about.

Mr. Maxton

The problem is one of marrying the right of an individual parent and those of all parents collectively who want a good education to be provided in the area in which they live and where the local authority says that the children should go. I agree that there is a dichotomy that must be resolved.

The vast majority of parents, however, are happy to send their children to the school to which the local authority allocates their children.

If a few children are taken out of schools in areas of multiple deprivation problems are caused for all the parents of children in that school because its standard will fall rapidly. That is happening. Anxiety is being expressed about it. Quite rightly, the schools council has decided to look for ways in which education in Castlemilk can be improved. That is difficult when the Minister has cut the money available for education and is not allowing the proper development of schools in Castlemilk. Parents do not want to take their children away from schools in that area. Ministers must be aware that the straight publication of examination results as the main criterion of success will inevitably damage such schools as they do not have large numbers of academic children who take O-levels and Highers. The exam results of the school down the road, which has a middle-class background, will obviously be better. It would be wrong to compare it with the schools in Castlemilk—it would be an odious comparison. Parents are trying to place their children in other schools, and they are succeeding.

Mr. McQuarrie

What is the hon. Gentleman reading?

Mr. Maxton

It is a piece of paper that says that I should sit down at 9.45 pm. I do not think that that is correct.

If we base a school's performance entirely on exam results, there is a danger that parents will move their children to the schools with better results. Yet the schools in Castlemilk offer a great deal. Jordanhill college of education uses those schools to pilot some of its project work. It knows that the schools are well run, with good teachers. However, because the schools performance is based on exam results, they are losing some of their brighter pupils. As a result, education is being damaged in those areas that desperately need an improvement in education.

6.51 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

I am grateful to the Minister for indicating that he is willing to continue the debate after the interruption for private business. The regulations cover some serious matters, with which the Minister needs to deal. The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he would be here until 11.30 pm to deal with the points raised, and I said that I would be happy to be here with him. If we had a Scottish Assembly we could properly discuss the serious matter of Scottish education— [Interruption.] As a Member of the House, representing my constituency, I will not be bullied by anyone on either side into not using the limited time available to discuss Scottish issues. We have little enough time as it is. I understand that we can have another one and a half hours after private business to discuss the matter.

I wish to deal with three aspects of the regulations. The first relates to a number of specific points included in the regulations. I also wish to discuss the effects on Scottish education of the policy of so-called freedom of choice. I want to deal with the arrangements for appeals to the sheriff and the inappropriateness of a sheriff dealing with the appeals.

I hope that when the Minister replies, he will explain how the regulation covering schools information— [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) wish to ask a question? I shall be glad to give way if he has a point to raise. The regulations say that the information to be provided must include the school policy on uniform. What is the position on the wearing of uniform in Scottish schools? My understanding, and that of the parents to whom I have spoken and also the Lothian region education committee, is that it is not possible for either the education authority or individual schools to specify that uniform must be worn by pupils. I hope that that is the case. It is right that it should be so. When we have passed the regulations, will it be possible for a head teacher to say that it is compulsory that uniform should be worn? That needs to be spelt out.

The regulations also say that information must be provided about a school's policy on discipline. Will it be possible to have a different policy on discipline in different schools in the same local authority? It is impossible to have that under the existing regulations. The local authority has a responsibility to decide whether corporal punishment should be used in its schools. During the past few months the phasing out of corporal punishment has been agreed in the Strathclyde region. Will every school in Stathclyde have to say that corporal punishment is not being used? What is the point of providing information on a school's policy on discipline? It is wholly superfluous because the arrangements for discipline are laid down by the local education authority.

I find another part of the regulations confusing. I hope that the Minister will reply to my points, and not stick to his prepared brief. I refer to the arrangements for transport to school, or the availability of financial assistance with travelling costs. I have received a great many complaints about the arrangements for transport to school. Because of the Government's policy of cutbacks in public expenditure, and because local authorities are constrained to accept the lowest estimate for public transport, pupils are often travelling to school on buses that are potentially dangerous. When I referred the matter to the Strathclyde region, it said that there was little that could be done because it was obliged to take the lowest tender. Those tendering for the service must save money by limiting expenditure on maintenance. They often employ the wrong drivers—for example, they do not employ full-time drivers, but people who have other jobs. That is an extremely bad practice, which can affect the safety of children. Also, because of the level of unemployment, people should not have two jobs. Will the transport arrangements be included in the information sent to parents about the Carrick Academy in my constituency? Will the headteacher say that the transport arrangements are wholly inadequate? That is all that he could say about the present arrangements.

The regulations say that schools shall provide information about their educational aims. What does that mean? Reading through the regulations, I gained the impression that the officials in St. Andrews House have no real understanding of the local authority system of education—

Mr. Maxton

We knew that, anyway.

Mr. Foulkes

We know that the secretary of the SED does not have faith in the Scottish system of education when educating his own children—rather like the Minister. The regulations show a lack of understanding of the system of public education in Scotland.

My second point relates to the effects of the policy. In spite of all the statements by Ministers and Conservative Members in favour of the policy, I cannot understand why it was introduced. No regional council, including those that are Conservative-controlled, could understand why the policy was introduced. Grampian, Tayside, Borders and other regional councils were happy with the old arrangements that considered cases on individual merits. There was no sign of hardship—

Mr. McQuarrie

The hon. Gentleman said that Grampian regional council was quite happy with the old arrangements, but he omitted to say that it received hundreds of applications from parents to have their children—

It being Seven o'clock and there being private business set down by direction ofTHE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking private business), further Proceeding stood postponed.