HC Deb 21 December 1988 vol 144 cc434-6
6. Dr. Moonie

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has received any representations from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, teaching unions or parents' organisations regarding the opting-out provisions in the forthcoming Education Bill.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

A paper describing the expected basis for legislation on self-governing schools was issued to a wide range of interested bodies on 7 December. I look forward to receiving constructive comment.

Dr. Moonie

The Minister is well aware that he, his colleagues, his party and his policies are as popular in Scotland now as a raw egg. Will he, therefore, undertake to listen to the results of the consultation and the views of the Scottish people? Will he act on those, rather than on his own political prejudices, or is his sense of honour and decency as deficient as his sense of rhyme?

Mr. Forsyth

We have heard the Opposition saying that our policy on school boards was not supported by the majority of people in Scotland, yet a System 3 poll showed a 2:1 majority in favour of our school board proposals. I note that the Opposition have now changed their position to one of supporting the school boards. On the proposals for self-governing schools, a recent MORI poll in The Scotsman showed that one third of the Scottish people thought that parents should have that right. Once again, it is this Government who are extending the rights of parents and the Opposition who are seeking to undermine the rights of parents.

Mr. Allan Stewart

Is my hon. Friend aware that I have received a huge number of letters over a considerable period from constituents who wish the Government to give parents the opportunity to opt out? May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his television appearance when he rightly mentioned that many parents at Neilston primary school are considering opting out because of dissatisfaction with Strathclyde region's refusal to give them a much-needed extension instead of bussing the pupils to Barrhead? Is my hon. Friend aware that shortly after his television appearance mentioning opting out, Strathclyde regional council promptly did a complete U-turn? Is not that the first victory for opting out?

Mr. Forsyth

I am delighted to hear that Strathclyde has changed its position on Neilston primary school. It could be said that that is due less to the power of the media and more to the power of the idea of self-governing schools. Opposition Front Bench spokesmen may laugh, but they should consider what councillor Malcolm Green, the convener of Strathclyde education committee, said about our proposals for allowing schools to opt out. He is on the record as saying that the impact of opting out will be that local authorities will have to look at their provision of education and try to be more responsive to parents' needs. It seems that Neilston is the first positive fruit and that even the threat of opting out will benefit parents throughout Scotland.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

As the Minister claims that there is such widespread interest in Scotland in opting out, why has this centrepiece of legislation from the Scottish Office not yet been published? Is it that the Minister has opened his mouth and the parliamentary draftsmen are desperately trying to catch up?

Mr. Forsyth

No, on the contrary, we have stated the basis on which we expect self-governing schools to operate and have invited constructive comments. The Bill has not been published because it is being drafted and we mean to take account of the comments that we receive. I know that that position will appear odd to the hon. Lady who is content to carp on the sidelines and make no constructive contribution towards increasing choice for parents in Scotland.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult to understand the views of Opposition Members who oppose parental opting out, because if parents' views are as Opposition Members say, no schools will opt out? Perhaps Opposition Members take that view because they do not speak for parents and because they know that parents will vote for opting out.

Mr. Forsyth

My hon. Friend points to the paradox of the Opposition's position. On the one hand, Opposition Members say that no schools in Scotland are interested in self-governing status but on the other hand they argue that opting out will have a profound impact on the Scottish education system, which implies that they believe that many parents in Scotland will wish to take the opportunity with which we are presenting them. Once again, the Labour party seeks to remove opportunities for choice and to concentrate power in the hands of local authorities and bureaucracy.

Mr. McLeish

Is the Minister aware that people who take a serious interest in education in Scotland believe opting out to be profoundly damaging, divisive, potentially inefficient and irrelevant and, more important, that we believe that it is a betrayal of the real needs of pupils, parents, and teachers in Scotland?

Does the Minister recall his comments in the Scottish Grand Committee on 21 March when he said that evidence of real and substantial demand for opting out would be necessary before he would consider it? Why was that not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto or in the proper consultative document? Why has there been no requests from parents, teaching organisations or from the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities— [Interruption] Will the Minister tell us whether this form of nationalisation of education is based on real and substantial demand or is merely the political ideology upon which much of Scottish education seems to be based?

Mr. Forsyth

Thirty-three per cent. of the Scottish people seems to me to be fairly substantial demand. I contrast the hon. Gentleman's stance with that of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who, I believe, speaks for the Opposition on education matters. He was quoted in The Daily Telegraph last month announcing the new consumerist approach to education. He said that the Labour party wanted the creation of flagship schools which would be "paradigms of excellence". He said that they would be measured by objective standards of examination results, truancy rates and the quality of teaching.

Mr. McLeish

This is Scotland.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman argues that that does not apply to Scottish education. Why does the Labour party in Scotland wish to prevent parents in Scotland from having access to schools which are "paradigms of excellence"?