HC Deb 13 May 1987 vol 116 cc272-4
6. Mr. Steel

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans to alter his policy relating to the merger of primary schools so as to have at least three teachers.

Mr. John MacKay

My right hon. and learned Friend has no such policy. Decisions on those matters are essentially for local authorities.

Mr. Steel

Is the Minister aware that he will always be warmly welcomed in the Borders with his fishing rod in the increased leisure time that he will have from 12 June onwards, but that his last visit to my constituency has been widely misconstrued? The speech that he made at the opening of Newlands school, amalgamated with two schools two miles on either side of it, has been widely interpreted as meaning the first amalgamation of rural schools in scattered areas. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will make it clear that that was not his intention.

Mr. MacKay

The right hon. Gentleman was present when I made my speech at that opening, and I think that he was as impressed as I was with the new school that was being built there. I would not embarrass him by asking him whether he was impressed by the speech, but I remind him of what I said in it. I said that there are some places, as in my constituency, where one-teacher schools are inevitable. That is our firm policy in the Scottish Office.

Mr. Henderson

Will my hon. Friend confirm that in helping such schools it is of great assistance that the pupil-teacher ratios are better than they have ever been before? Will my hon. Friend further confirm that that also helps the unemployment problem because more young people are now leaving school with an educational qualification than ever happened under the Lib-Lab pact?

Mr. MacKay

My hon. Friend is quite right. The pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools in Scotland are at the best level that they have ever been. Indeed, we are seeing an increasing number of youngsters leaving school with qualifications.

Mr. Dewar

The Minister will understand that I did not have the advantage of listening to his speech, but I carefully read the press statement. In it, he makes it clear — presumably it is a highlight that he wished to emphasise by including it—that he thinks that schools with fewer than three teachers are educationally disadvantageous. There is a clear implication that he expects them to go whenever possible. I want to be clear that that is his position, particularly on 5 May the Secretary of State for Education and Science in England gave a writen answer in which he distanced himself deliberately from that position and made it clear that he thought that geography; the distances to be travelled to alternative schools in the event of closure; and the age of the children making these journeys."—[Official Report, 5 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 311.] should be taken into account. Can the Minister do something to put a warmer face on the nasty accountancy approach that he seems to have been taking to those matters until now?

Mr. MacKay

Perhaps it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman was not present on that occasion to hear my speech and to see the school, but the position is as I stated to the leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). Of course there are areas in which, inevitably, one-teacher schools will be the way in which local communities' educational needs have to be dealt with. It is clear that when there are any proposals for amalgamation from the regional councils, it is essential that the parents and other local interests are consulted and the decisions are taken along with the policy. For primary schools, where there is a distance of more than five miles between the closing and receiving schools, that case has to come to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and myself. We then look carefully into the situation, and that includes asking the local Member of Parliament for his comments.

Mr. Donald Stewart

As the Secretary of State for Education and Science has recommended a reprieve for all rural schools south of the border will the Minister issue a directive or recommendation to local authorities in Scotland to the effect that a similar position should obtain there?

Mr. MacKay

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman, who is the leader of the Scottish National party, does not realise that there is a difference between Scotland and England. The Department of Education and Science put out a circular and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has announced a change in that position. Our Department did not put out a circular. Our position is the one that I laid down clearly a few minutes ago, which is that it is up to the local authorities to look at the issue. In my view—I made this perfectly clear in my speech in the Borders — if local authorities are to change the school structure in the villages, they have to co-operate and take with them the parents in the villages.