HC Deb 21 June 1988 vol 135 cc1048-62
Mr. Michael Forsyth

I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 4, leave out lines 20 to 22 and insert— `(1) The Director of Education or an officer of his education authority nominated by him for the purpose shall be entitled to attend and to speak at any meeting of a School Board in the authority's area, but shall not be a member of the Board. (1A) The regional councillor for the electoral division in which a school is situated shall be entitled to attend and to speak at any meeting of any School Board for the time being established for that school, but he shall not be a member of the Board.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 65, in page 4, line 20, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 1, in page 4, line 38, at end insert— '(6) A School Board may invite the regional councillor for the School's catchment area to attend the Board and advise on issues that affect the local community.'.

Government amendments Nos. 50 and 53.

Mr. Forsyth

We had a lengthy discussion in Committee about the rights of education authorities and local regional councillors. There was wide support for the principle that a local councillor should have the right of attendance. I undertook to look at the question.

Having given considerable thought to the matter, I commend to the House Government amendment No. 48. It will provide for a regional councillor in whose district the school is situated to have the right to attend meetings of the school board. That would be in addition to the right of the education authority to be represented by one of its officials. Our amendment makes it clear that for the parties concerned the right of attendance includes the right to speak at meetings. I think that that is what the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was trying to achieve, albeit that his amendment would have given to boards a right that is already available to them under the Bill—to invite anybody whom they choose to attend and speak at meetings.

The Opposition want the education authority to have the right to nominate either an elected member or an official. We included in the Bill a right of representation for education authorities because it is proper that they should have general oversight of a boards' activities. That would normally be a matter for officials who would report to an authority's elected members, as they do on all its other business. However, we recognise the value of enabling elected members of a local authority to scrutinise the work of the boards. Our amendment would allow that to be done by the local councillor for the area in which the school is located. He or she will be best placed to determine how closely the work of the board corresponds with the wishes of the local electorate. In my view, this removes any need to provide for a separate right for the authority to nominate an elected member to attend.

Mr. Dewar

This is very much a guest appearance. I was not a member of the Committee. I have not therefore been involved in the detailed arguments on this legislation. However, I am glad to have this opportunity to say a few words about the amendment. It gives me an opportunity to thank my colleagues who served on the Committee. They seem to have stuck to their arguments very effectively and with considerable ability. I single out nobody in particular. It seems to have been an extremely good all-round performance. Whether that is the reason I cannot say, but I understand that the Minister has been in a slightly more flexible mood than on other occasions.

I cannot welcome the amendment uncritically. There is evidence of movement, but from our point of view it is a question of giving with one hand and taking with the other. The amendment would allow the local regional councillor in whose electoral district the school is situated to attend and speak at board meetings, although not to vote at them. I understand that that was granted under pressure from both sides of the Committee. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and to the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) as well as to the SLD Members who pressed the same point. That is an improvement, and we welcome it. However, it is balanced by the restriction that is now imposed on education authority representation.

Under clause 5 of the Bill, the education authority has an untrammelled right of representation. Representation could be by an elected member or by an official. According to the amendment, the position of the local councillor has been greatly improved but education authority representation must be by an official, not by an elected member. That is unfortunate. I am not entirely sure why the Minister has taken that line.

It is difficult to follow the arguments that lie behind the printed word. However, in Committee the Minister said: I accept the point made by my right honourable Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside that there is a difference of approach between elected members and officials. However, that does not justify providing two places on each board for authority representatives…I again agree with my right honourable Friend, who said that it is not practical in rural areas for regional councillors to attend every board meeting."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 17 May 1988; c. 353.] That was the general drift of the argument. It was not specific. However, the Minister recognised the importance of councillors taking part in the discussions. He made it abundantly clear that he did not want there to be a proliferation of observers with the right to speak. The only dispute is whether one of the representatives should always be an education authority official or whether it could be an elected member of an authority. I do not understand the Minister's objection because such a change would not increase the number of bodies, if that is the criterion or test that will apply.

It is not satisfactory to say that the presence of the local councillor buttons up the argument and satisfies all points of view. The local councillor will no doubt do an honourable job. That he has a specific job to do is recognised by the Minister in introducing the amendment. However, the local councillor may not be a member of the education committee and therefore might not be an effective channel of communication. He also may not be a member of the majority group and could find it difficult to represent the education authority's policy on the school board as it should be represented.

While we will, of course, take what we can get and welcome the change in favour of local councillors, it is a distinctly retrograde step to limit the education authority's right in a way that I regard as being pointless. I see no real argument why a councillor should not serve, if the education authority thinks it appropriate. There is a strong argument for saying that as the councillors are the policy-making element, they are particularly appropriate.

9 pm

We are dealing with something that bears on the relationship between the education authority and the individual school, and it has become an increasingly sensitive area as time has passed. I know that my hon. Friends are particularly interested in the recent controversy in the Paisley area. I will say a few words about it and ask the Minister to comment. I appreciate that in clause 15(2)(e) "the function of discontinuing" is not the direct responsibility of a school board but clearly it will be involved in any such argument. Presumably the passage of information will be of particular importance.

In Paisley, as the Minister will know, there has been controversy about the future of the grammar school. Recently, there has been a judgment in respect of Stanely Green high school from Lord Dervaird. I am sure that the Minister will agree that fashion changes and that attitudes to school closures change with it. I am delighted to welcome the Secretary of State for Scotland to our deliberations.

I have before me a speech made by Mr. John MacKay, who was the Under-Secretary's immediate predecessor. He was speaking at the opening of a primary school at Romanno Bridge on 30 March 1987. At that time he was lamenting that, As a result of parental opposition elsewhere the regional council has decided not to proceed with its policy of providing primary education in schools of at least three-teacher size wherever it is practicable to do so. Apparently, it was a sad matter for comment that parental opposition to the closure of primary schools had forced the regional council to abandon that estimable Conservative principle. Mr. MacKay continued: Parents arc bound to be concerned whenever the question of the amalgamation or closure of primary schools is raised, but if all parents were as enlightened as those in this area, the job of the regional council would have been much easier. It cannot he denied that the retention of a large number of very small primary schools is both educationally disadvantageous and wasteful of resources. Those were the views of the Minister for education just months before the last general election. It is interesting to contrast them with some of the spirited rhetoric now emerging from Government sources about the paramount importance of parental opinion, in generally calling down abuse on those who are seen as being unsound on that basic premise.

On 4 April 1985, there was an excellent Adjournment debate raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) in which the then Minister for education, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), spoke strongly of the virtues of local democratic control. He stated: I believe that it was right that the Education (Scotland) Act 1981 transferred the responsibility for closure to the education authority. Later, he said: I believe that the decision must be made by the local authority. It must take account of all the factors involved, and it is responsible to the electorate of the area. Finally, there is a sentence which will give a taste of the Minister's views at that time. which are strikingly different from those which are held now. He said: Therefore, school closures, which occur in urban as well as in rural areas, should be considered as part of a larger canvas and should not be seen as a discriminating or random measure."—[Official Report, 4 April 1985; Vol. 76, c. 1364–67.] All I can say to the Minister is that the recent change in the law which introduced the 80 per cent. criterion, and for those schools that had a roll above 80 per cent. of capacity passed the ultimate decision to the Secretary of State, might well be seen as arbitrary or, to take the words of the hon. Member for Eastwood, as discriminating and random.

I recognise the problems that exist at the moment, but my anxiety is that much uncertainty will be created, not just for the pupils and parents, but for the staff and the education authority. I recognise and undertstand that there may be an appeal against Lord Dervaird's judgment, in particular, in the case of Stanely Green high school, and so I must be circumspect in what I say. I respect that. However, I think that I am entitled briefly to remind the House of what is in the judgment and of what it did not say, but not to comment on its merits, which would clearly be unpopular.

I make no complaint about press reports because they inevitably have to be telescoped. The court handed down a complex argument on this occasion. Perhaps I can just give the minor flavour of it. but on a key point. On page 12 it says: That there is a difference between a duty to have regard to a general principle that children are educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents and a duty to secure that they are so educated is obvious. I would not disagree with that distinction.

However, there is equally a difference in the present case, which I consider to be critical, between the duty to have regard to the wishes of parents for the education of their children and a duty to have regard to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. The latter, but not the former, appears to me to emphasise the importance of parental wishes, and it is the latter which is the duty incumbent on the respondents. Anyone who reads the judgment and concentrates on that fine distinction will recognise that this is not a matter of absence but a matter where a fine argument has been taken in the balance by the learned judge.

One thing is clear and that is that in the interpretation of section 28 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 we cannot draw general conclusions and sweeping certainties. After all, as I am sure my hon. Friends will appreciate, section 28 goes on to say, to put it simply in the words of the judgment, That is not of course to say that the general principle"— in that particular section— (which is in itself qualified in relation to the compatibility of such education with the provision of suitable instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure) is to be treated as necessarily paramount. Other considerations may justify the education authority in departing from that general principle. The judgment goes on to say: But the critical issue is whether it is enough in the first instance for a party complaining of a breach of section 28(1) to establish the facts as mentioned at least when as in the present case it is also clear that the qualifications stated internally to section 28(1) itself do not arise. After considerable hesitation I have come to the view that by establishing those factors, the petitioners have done enough to give rise to the inference that there has been a failure to fulfil the statutory obligation by the respondents in the absence of adequate explanation from them. I have detained the House at some length because this is an important point. What emerges clearly is that, whether the judgment stands in its present state or is altered in some further legal process, it does not establish, as has in some cases been suggested, the simple fact that a case is bound to succeed if it establishes parental opposition. There is a great deal more to it than that.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

indicated assent.

Mr. Dewar

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for nodding vigorously at that point.

The impression has been given, and has lodged in some minds, that the only test that has to be established is whether there was a majority parental opposition in the threatened school. If that was the situation, it would have some remarkable consequences. Therefore, it is worth putting on the record that that is not the simple message of the judgment, although I do not disguise that, properly, the learned judge took the view that parental opinion was an important factor. But there are other factors that must be weighed. We cannot simply take that and apply it to other hypothetical situations and think that we have a principle that will stand up.

I recognise that this is a very frustrating time for parents, pupils, teachers and those, both elected members and officials, who have to wrestle with the intractable problems of a very difficult situation of overcapacity in our schools. There is no doubt that hard decisions had to be taken. That is still common ground, I hope, between the Minister and me.

I understand that frustration can sometimes lead to the argument that if the Secretary of State is to start interfering, if parliamentary orders are to be conjured up on the basis of expediency, it is better to abdicate and leave it all to the Secretary of State. It is tempting, but I believe that it would be wrong and that that temptation should be resisted.

There has been a dash of populism, a little touch of opportunism, about the actions of the Scottish Office in this matter—[Interruption.] I am being criticised by some of my colleagues, but I believe that it is sometimes better to understate rather than overstate. I believe that there has been a dash of opportunism and we must continue to argue for what is right and adopt the arguments properly put by the hon. Member for Eastwood in the Adjournment debate to which I referred.

I believe that the general principle of the 1981 legislation that these decisions should properly be taken by the local education authority in consultation with local opinion must point the way forward. We shall certainly continue to watch very carefully what is happening in the troubled and difficult situation that has been produced by recent litigation and by the irresponsible legislation—the order that was so suddenly and unexpectedly sprung upon the House. Our interest is in restoring stability, in getting the right results for the children in Paisley and any other area that is at risk, and in the provision of good education. I fear that these objectives have been rather lost sight of lately and that Ministers must take a good share of the responsibility for that.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

I wish to address myself to the specifics of the amendment rather than to the more wide-ranging debate that has been initiated by hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench. I support the Government amendment and am pleased that the Minister has been able to come back with an amendment which I believe has taken on board the spirit of what we discussed in Committee. I readily accept that the second part of his amendment states even more clearly than my own amendment in Committee the role of the regional councillor.

There is a difference of view between me and Labour Members because I believe that the whole basis of school boards and school councils is that it is local decision making and local involvement that matter, and that members of the local council should be involved by having the right to attend. It is exactly because—this is a point that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) used against the amendment—the local member may be of a different political persuasion from the administration that he or she should have the right to attend, because he or she has been elected by that community to represent its interests.

I would not have objected if the Minister's amendment had allowed for the education authority to send a councillor. I can quite see his objective, which is to ensure that the official authority view is properly but not overwhelmingly heard in the context of local decision making. I therefore feel that the Minister has got the balance right, and I want to pay him a tribute because I forced a Division in Committee and was criticised for so doing on the ground that the Minister would not then have an obligation to come back to the House. The Minister has come back to the House and, as far as I am concerned, has answered the debate satisfactorily. I support his amendment and am grateful to him.

Mr. Buchan

I am grateful to the Government for once for putting down this amendment so that we might discuss it. I am not very happy about it; it does not really extend the prime authority of the regional authority to any great extent in relation to the board. Having said that, I must also say that we all seem to have been in business to diminish the involvement of the regional councillor as much as we can, notably in the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) mentioned—the judicial judgment made in the last week or so. It would be useful if I said something about the effect that that has had upon Paisley.

In the week that the judgment was made the Secretary of State also decided to intervene directly in the entire organisation of secondary education in Paisley. The regional authority, operating under the constraints of economic measures imposed upon it by the Government reduction in rate support grant, by the threat of clawback and all the other factors which the Government have used to inhibit local authority expenditure, decided, among other things, to close schools to save money. Although the duty had been laid upon it by the Government, when it acted to save money, the Government intervened to prevent it from doing so. A year earlier Mr. MacKay was stressing the importance of closing schools to save money. The Lothian authority is being pressed to close schools and is accused of spending money uneconomically because it is keeping all its schools open. At the same time the Government are acting to prevent judicious economic measures being taken in Paisley.

9.15 pm

The authority had decided that three schools out of six should be kept open. I disagreed with that decision, being in favour of maintaining four schools. The Government have now taken action which has left Paisley with five schools. The Government have intervened to save one school without rhyme or reason, for no educational purpose other than that it was justified in the eyes of the Prime Minister because it was called Paisley grammar school.

We have the greatest pity for the Secretary of State because we know how much he resisted the decision. He was placed in a difficult position in his office because of the conspiracy between the Prime Minister and his Under-Secretary. We have great sympathy for the Secretary of State, but we would have had more regard for him had he rejected the pressure which was put on him. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State has borne himself well, considering the humiliation he has suffered. The only man who has suffered more humiliation over the last 12 months is probably Sir Robert Armstrong. At least, the Secretary of State stayed calm but he tried to curry favour with the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary by his decision to save yet another school at the same time as the judicial process was going on.

He has asserted that Paisley grammar school was saved because of parental wishes, despite the comments he has made about extending the power of regional councillors. Parental wishes in every school in Paisley would be to save their school. Stanely Green has fought a successful legal action and has been saved by a judgment in Edinburgh. The parents there, too, wished to save the school. What did the Secretary of State say about court action? He said: we and the local authorities…will have to look very closely at the implications of that. According to a press report, if the judgment was allowed to stand, Scottish education authorities might find it impossible to close schools when it was necessary. When a school is kept open by judicial action, the Secretary of State says that he must consider it carefully. Indeed, the Government are talking about bringing in legislation to ensure that that judgment is not followed in other areas. They may change the law, as they did a few months ago in regard to Paisley grammar school. In that case they were technically acting illegally under the Education (Scotland) Act 1946, as was shown by the Statutory Instruments Committee.

The Government now say that they will intervene to prevent a judicial judgment being made to keep a school open. On the one hand, there is a direct order from the Prime Minister for a school to remain open, and the Government immediately change the law to keep it open, yet, on the other hand, the Secretary of State is prepared to change the law in respect of a school with an equally good educational record and the support of parents and pupils. It was bad enough when the Secretary of State changed the law for one school, but his action is now made even more disgraceful because, in a similar situation, he is prepared to change the law the other way round. It is monstrous.

The fact that we are apparently merely dealing with two schools in one town in the north is no reason for not recognising that this is one of the most arbitrary interventions of any Government in the past 40 or 50 years. It is massive in its import for the parents involved and for the town. The chutzpah with which I have honoured the Secretary of State in the past has now been used to insult the people of Britain through those two arbitrary actions.

We must now consider what options are open to us. Ninety per cent. of the parents in Paisley, including the two Members of Parliament, wanted four schools left open. We now have the ludicrous situation of five schools being kept open, but not those schools chosen by the parents of Paisley or by the local authorities.

What will the Government do about that? The Secretary of State may say, "We see the error of the judgment, so let's change that judgment." He does not say, "We see the consequence and effect of our arbitrary intervention to save Paisley grammar school." There are various options, but only one solution. One option is that the Government should face up to their arbitrary behaviour and take the power to themselves. That is the suggestion of the chairman of the education authority. He says that the authority can no longer act. He said that it acted in accordance with educational and financial requirements, but the judge on the one hand and the Secretary of State on the other destroyed that action. He says that the authority does not now know how to proceed, unless the Government take over the responsibility. They had shed that responsibility so that local authorities would carry the obligation instead. As soon as it suited the Prime Minister to save one school, the Government acted the other way round.

There is another solution—to pay attention to the needs of the children, parents and local authority in Paisley so that they can plan education in Paisley. The judge was moving towards that position. He talked about the wider area and about the four schools, and he was right. He is more intelligent and perceptive than the Secretary of State about that. We must remember the hardship experienced by parents in the other schools, not just Paisley grammar and Stanely Green, but in Merksworth, for example, which faces closure as a result of the action to save the other schools.

No one knows which schools the kids will attend after the summer. There is unease everywhere. Last Friday the Stanely Green parents rejoiced about the saving of their school but today they see that the Secretary of State is suggesting possible legislation to reverse that principle and an appeal by the regional authority is pending. The authority has a right to appeal, although I am on the side of the parents and hope that the appeal does not succeed.

The solution is to look at the totality of non-denominational education. We know what has been happening. The new yuppie areas around Paisley have fixed upon one school. The parents have exercised parental choice so that that school is more than 50 per cent. occupied by children from outside. As a result, Merksworth high school, the newest and finest building, has been drained and is now threatened.

We must start by taking an educational look at the matter. A schools council should be formed to pull together the six non-denominational schools in Paisley. Each school would be represented by its headmaster, one member of staff and one parent. This council would have a remit to help to develop comprehensive secondary education in Paisley. It would have a remit to make sure that no exercise of parental choice by people who are well outside the area will prevent children from getting to their local school. It would have the duty of ensuring that no school is drained of pupils. It must apply throughout Paisley a curriculum policy by which proper parental choice can be exercised without draining any school or without enhancing one school at the expense of the children in Paisley.

The Secretary of State should take the initiative as a matter of urgency. He should meet the education authority in Strathclyde to discuss the situation. Neither side has come out of this with much credit. Perhaps I have not either because I have been arguing the case apparently with insufficient conviction. There were sectional arguments in Paisley and in Strathclyde and, above all, there was the stupidity of the Secretary of State in obeying the arbitrary order of the Prime Minister.

I hope that the Minister will respond and try to save the situation. I hope that he will look at it afresh to see what can be done to establish a proper structure for four schools in Paisley that will save the best buildings. That would mean merging Paisley grammar school and Merksworth. If he insists he may use Paisley grammar school, but he should insist that children should not be kept out of the new grammar school, Merksworth, by people from the surrounding areas where there are other secondary schools. As soon as the school is functioning the pupils could move into the new building. That would mean a terrible waste for a couple of years of a new building.

The Minister should not overcut expenditure on schools. There is plenty of community support for the use of Stanely Green, Camphill and Castlehead. Above all, the Minister should discuss the matter. As I have said, parents do not know which schools children will attend. There will be appeal and counter appeal and the Secretary of State will have to decide whether he should intervene to change the law. All this is happening while the education of thousands of children is being held up. In the name of Heaven, the Minister should talk. He should meet the regional authority and come up with a solution that is in the interests of children and parents instead of the kind of nonsense that we have had from the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State has been having discussions with selected groups of parents in my area in order to encourage opting out. By way of the tension and disruption that he has created he hopes to set the pattern for an opting-out impetus in Scotland. I hope that the Minister does not deny doing that because I know that he has, and I can give him chapter and verse. The situation is serious, and I beg the Minister to respond to it.

Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Govan)

I want to speak briefly about school closures without going back over the changes that were made in the Education (Scotland) Act 1981 which I opposed and thought were unfortunate and unnecessary. The merits of the judgment on the schools in Paisley have already been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), but I want to deal with the implications of that judgment, if it is upheld.

9.30 pm

The judgment refers to section 28 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which is a long-standing provision. I am not sure when it was originally written into the legislation, but it appeared in the Education (Scotland) Act 1962 and was introduced considerably before then.

Section 28 is a balanced provision. It takes account—rightly—of parental wishes; it also takes account of practical considerations, including the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. In the case of secondary education courses there is an additional provision that gives the education authority power to prevent a child being entered, at the wishes of its parents, for a course from which it has no reasonable prospect of benefiting. Last week's judgment will be appealed against, but if the balance of this provision were tipped overwhelmingly in favour of parental choice, that would have disastrous consequences for educational planning of school closures, the adjustment of school boundaries in Scotland and so on. We can be fairly sure in all the arguments about school closures that it is rare for one to go ahead with the express approval of the parents concerned. There is nearly always opposition—that is perfectly understandable and, in some cases, legitimate.

There has always been a balance of interests. When the Secretary of State had to give his approval to a school closure the balance of interests was taken into account by reference to him. No school closure went ahead unless it was shown that the education authority had properly taken account of parental views, that there had been proper consultation, and so on. So a balance in assessing school closures is provided by section 28. If that balance is upset, education authorities will find it impossible to deal with pressing problems of overcapacity in schools. That cannot be right.

Whatever the merits of the Stanely Green decision, it would be a great mistake for parents or hon. Members to believe that it would lead to parental opposition to a school closure preventing a school from closing. That could not work and it would not be good for education ultimately, because it would not be good for the parents or children. I hope the Minister will reply at least briefly to this point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South said, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about the legal position and the practical consequences of the decision that has been made.

Mrs. Fyfe

I want to call the House's attention to a letter that some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Glasgow and I have received from the Girl Guides Association. I speak as the only member of my group who was eligible to have been a Girl Guide, but I confess that the Brownies expelled me—Brown Owl said that I would come to a bad end, and how right she was. [Laughter.] Seriously, the Girl Guides Association has asked if we could support the bulk of the work done by voluntary organisations by ensuring that power over the letting of schools is retained by the local authorities. I should be glad if the Minister could give that assurance, not only to the Girl Guides but to the Boy Scouts and other organisations with a similar problem. It would be a good thing if they could be assured on that point tonight.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for his kind remarks in welcoming this group of amendments. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) have used the opportunity of the amendments to discuss school closures in Strathclyde. I very much agree with their strictures about the interpretation of the judgment. It certainly does not mean that schools cannot be closed where there is parental opposition.

As the right hon. Member for Govan pointed out, section 28 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 requires authorities to pay regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provision of suitable instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. The judgment hinges on the fact that, although Strathclyde claimed to have taken section 28 into account, it did not produce any specific material to support that claim. The judge took the view that once it was established that most parents opposed closure, unless there were considerations of suitable instruction and training or avoiding unreasonable public expenditure, the onus should be shifted to the authority to show that other considerations overruled. The judgment is particularly critical of the director of education's report to the education committee, which made no reference to section 28 or to its contents and, in reporting on representations received, made no distinction between the views of parents and those of teachers, politicians and the general public.

Thus, the judgment does not mean that an authority can never close a school. The main message seems to be that directors of education will have to be more circumspect about how they draw up reports for their education committees. In particular, they will have to draw specific attention to section 28.

I do not wish to comment on the merits of the judgment because I know that Strathclyde has suggested that it will appeal. However, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Garscadden for using the opportunity that presented itself tonight to raise this matter because, clearly, it is a matter of concern. The hon. Gentleman was right to point to some of the reports which have appeared in the press and elsewhere, which may have given a different interpretation.

I should like to deal now with a point raised by the hon. Member for Garscadden in relation to the amendments. He was critical of the change, which I acknowledge that we have made, in requiring the local authority nominee to be an official rather than a councillor. That is to balance our response to representations made in Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Member for Gordon that the local councillor was the appropriate person to have on a local body concerned with local schools. I very much agree with that and we have taken it on board——

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

First, will the Minister also take on board the fact that there may be many instances where the local councillor in the location of the school may not be the representative of the majority of parents because of the vagaries of catchment areas and boundaries? Secondly, why does the amendment make no reference to Islands councillors? Is the amendment intended to apply to the Islands councillors, as well as to the regional councillors?

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Gentleman had read the Hansard of our Committee proceedings, he would know that those were precisely the arguments that I advanced without success in Committee when I found myself outnumbered on all sides by those who took the view that, while the argument is technically correct, it would be inappropriate for me to succumb to it.

I should like to deal now with a point of some substance raised by the hon. Member for Garscadden. We took the view that if we were to have a majority party nominee as a councillor and an official—and strong representations were made in Committee that officials should be able to attend in their own right—and a local councillor who may or may not be of the same party, small boards in particular would feel overwhelmed by education authority representation. It is important that those boards should be able to meet and deliberate without feeling pressure from the central authority. I acknowledge that that is not an ideal solution, but it is the best shot that I could make to meet the wishes of all Committee Members. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon for acknowledging that we seem to have been successful in pleasing him and my right hon. and hon. Friends in that respect.

Mr. Buchan

In view of the terrible situation imposed on Paisley, will the Minister or the Secretary of State for Scotland agree to consult very quickly with Strathclyde region to find a common solution? The problem has been caused partly by Strathclyde region, partly by the Government, and partly by the legal action. However, if those two responsible bodies, the Scottish Office and Strathclyde region, meet perhaps they can produce a solution before the summer.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman has been at great pains to argue that we should not interfere in these matters.

Mr. Buchan

The Minister already has interfered.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman says that we have. With regard to Paisley grammar and the regulations that we have brought before the House, which I know that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues oppose, a number of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues are now making representations to the Government to use those regulations in connection with some schools. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that.

I listened to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). If he looks at the Paisley Daily Express of Thursday 3 December 1987—[Interruption]. That is a most important publication for the hon. Member for Paisley, South. That paper contains an article entitled New twist in schools controversy. The article states: Paisley's schools closure controversy has taken a new twist following the leaking of a document setting out Strathclyde Region's education committee's plans for non-denominational schools. For the document indicates that both the regional review group and the education committee have agreed to shut three Paisley schools…although neither bodies have yet met. The document—embarrassing for the regional council and giving new ammunition to parents opposing the closures—is dated November. The regional review group isn't scheduled to meet until later this month and the education committee won't consider the closure proposals until February.

Mr. Buchan

What has that got to do with me?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman was arguing that proper consultation had not taken place. A document had been prepared setting out the plans for Paisley in November in advance of discussions and decisons which would not be made until February. There are lessons to be learned. I do not see any merit in proceeding along the lines that he suggests. I commend the amendment to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 4, line 33, leave out from 'shall' to end of line 38 and insert `ensure that head teachers and staff are awarded extended time off from contractual duties if the Board meets within normal school hours, or from planned activity time, and make arrangements for appropriate cover.'. I draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the implications of clause 5 in which the Government suggest that there should be straightforward recommendations for education authorities to ensure that head teachers and staff of each school in the area are available when necessary for board meetings. It also refers to the role of those people on the school board.

If Conservative Members who have just entered the Chamber would care to listen to me they will learn that the purpose of the amendment is to make it possible for head teachers and staff representatives on school boards to prepare adequately for meetings. Those members of staff will be in the minority and it is vital that they have the time and opportunity to prepare for the meetings. We assume that agendas will be circulated in advance. If the head teacher and staff members are to make an impact on the board's discussions, it is right that they have time to prepare and consider the implications of suggestions on the agenda. [Interruption.] I am finding it difficult to talk above the noise of hon. Members who have just come into the Chamber.

9.45 pm
Mr. Speaker

Order. Wherever the noise is coming from, I think that the House should give the hon. Lady a fair hearing.

Mrs. Ewing

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I draw the Minister's attention to what he said in Committee: We intend the head teacher to occupy a key role as the board's principal professional adviser. He will have a duty to explain clearly the authority's policies, and to help the board to evaluate its plans in the context of those policies."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 17 May 1988; c. 369.] Therefore, preparation time will be important.

I also wish to ensure that head teachers and staff members are not under any strain while attending the school board through worrying about the education of the pupils left in the school or the administration of the school during their absence. It is important that we avoid creating a conflict of interests in their minds, so that they can concentrate on the issues before the school board. Surely we regard as part of the past the doubling up of classes, the dismissing of pupils early from school and the cancelling of planned activity time.

One area of importance is the staffing review, to which the Minister referred during the debate on new clause 1. I shall be interested to hear his comments because, in many ways, that will influence my decision on whether to press the amendment to a Division. First, how long has the staffing review been in the Minister's hands? Secondly, when exactly will the announcement be made and can we be reassured that it will be before the Bill is debated in the other place? When discussing the responsibilities of teachers, it is important to know the background, and the staffing review will be a vital factor in that. Thirdly, how will the announcement be made about the conclusions of the staffing review? I hope that there will be an opportunity to debate it in the House and to consult the teachers in our constituencies.

Many representations have already been made to me by head teachers in my area, who are concerned about the implications of the review. They hope that it will improve the situation, and that is why we need to consider it in the context of relieving them and teachers of their duties in school so that they can participate in the school boards.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing this matter before the House. She raised a number of points of substance, but I do not believe that the amendment is either necessary or desirable. I certainly would be less than enthusiastic about board meetings during the school day. Of course, that would be for board members to decide, but I think that most of them would find it difficult to meet during the day. I recognise that the hon. Lady is concerned that staff should be properly trained for the new board and that proper account should be taken of their contractual duties and obligations.

In the hope that I can persuade the hon. Lady not to press the amendment to a Division, I assure her that when considering the staffing review we shall take account of the impact of school boards. Of course, that matter has come late for consideration. I am sure she recognises that perhaps the delay experienced reflects, in part, our need to take account of that.

We shall be providing proper training for head teachers and we recognise that additional responsibilities will fall upon them. We are working very closely with the National Association of Head Teachers and the Headteachers Association of Scotland to that effect.

The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) asked me a number of questions, which I am not in a position to answer, as to the precise form and date of the announcement. However, we shall fulfil the undertaking that I have already given, which is that the staffing review will be published before the end of the school year. I hope that that will satisfy her. I hear her point about the need to do that so that she has an opportunity to make known to the House her views and thoughts on the matter. I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw amendment No. 67, and note once again that we are most concerned with the substance behind her thinking.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

While the Minister has not been able to answer precisely the various questions that I put to him, I accept the exigencies under which he is working and, in the light of the sentiment he expressed, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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