HC Deb 14 November 1989 vol 160 cc234-41

Lords amendment: No. 37, in page 20, line 19, after "board" insert held, subject to subsection (1A) below, not less than five years after the incorporation date".

Mr. Lang

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Lords amendment No. 38, in page 20, line 23, at end insert— (1A) With the prior written consent of the Secretary of State a motion for such a resolution as is mentioned in subsection (1) above may be determined at a meeting of the board of management held at a date earlier than subsection (1) above would require.".

Mr. Lang

The amendments prevent the board of management of a self-governing school from initiating the procedures in clause 30 to change the characteristics of the school for a period of at least five years from the incorporation of the board unless it has the prior consent of the Secretary of State. They give precise expression to our stated policy, which is, in a nutshell, that the change to self-governing status would itself be change enough for an y school to absorb, without its having to contemplate further major organisational change shortly afterwards. There must, of course, be provision for the exceptional case: for example, population movement in a locality could radically affect demand for a particular school. That is covered by amendment No. 38. It avoids the defect of an otherwise similar amendment, which was rightly rejected by my hon. Friend in Committee.

Clause 30 seems to have received more attention than any other clause in the Bill. Let me say something about how we see it working, particularly in the light of the amendments. It should first be said—although it ought to be obvious—that it is essential to provide some means by which a school can adapt its organisation to changing circumstances. That applies in the public and private sectors equally. An independent school is governed by the rules of the marketplace; it must identify a demand that it can meet, and that is sufficient to ensure that it attracts enough pupils to remain financially viable. It is free to adapt its organisation accordingly.

On the other side of the fence, an education authority is a public provider, with a responsibility to ensure that there is adequate school provision for the geographical area that it covers. To do that, it too must be free to close schools, to open new ones and to reorganise and adapt those that continue under its management.

The self-governing school stands somewhere between the two. It is a free-standing institution and, in that respect, is like an independent school. It remains part of the public sector, however, and, on that account, must be subject to some control over any major changes that it proposes in the range or character of its provision. However, it would be absurd if a self-governing school were, alone among schools, to be prevented by statute from ever changing its characteristics.

Control over a school is twofold. First, a board of management cannot just come to the Secretary of State and, so to speak, do a private deal with him to get its scheme of government amended. It has to obtain support in a ballot of parents and then publish its proposals. Only then can it go to the Secretary of State and ask him to determine whether it is to be allowed to change its status.

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Secondly, the Secretary of State, by virtue of another amendment to the clause, has to take account of the implications of any proposed change for the education authority's own provision in the area. In other words, he is precluded from considering the self-governing school's stated case in total isolation. He has to look at it as part of the pattern of public provision for the area—which, after all, is what it is.

So much for statute. I might add that it would run against the grain of the Government's policy that any school in the public sector should close its door to a whole class or category of parents. That would be a denial of choice, whereas we are seeking to maximise choice.

All sorts of fears have been expressed, including the fear that self-governing schools would become, in one way or another, selective—academically, socially or on religious grounds. I do not know how far these fears have been artifically stoked up, but, whether they are genuine or not, I do not believe that they are well founded.

Parents who look to self-governing schools to provide an exclusive haven of any sort are likely to be disappointed. We have specifically provided that the right of a parent to have his child admitted to a self-governing school shall be the same as his right to send the child to the education authority school of his choice.

As for the question of exclusion on religious grounds, which has been raised from time to time, it is a general provision of the law—and has been so in Scotland since 1872—that any public school shall be open to any child, regardless of religious affiliation. That goes even for denominational schools at present, and it will apply equally to self-governing schools.

Finally, I doubt whether in practice there will be much demand from parents with children at self-governing schools for such a change of character, except where it is obviously forced on them by circumstances. The parents will have chosen the school as it is and will value it for the character that it has. Moreover, if the school ceases to attract pupils who want to send their children to that school, it will not remain financially viable for long. Schools will be unable to afford to be exclusive.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Minister said that it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which a school would wish to change its character, but he said earlier that he thought that one circumstance might be a shift of population. Can the Minister provide more detail about why a shift of population would lead school authorities to believe that they should change not the size but the character of the school?

Mr. Lang

Circumstances change outwith a school's control. Any school—whether local authority, private sector or self-governing—has to reappraise the surrounding environment, to take account of it and to make whatever alterations might appear to be necessary and appropriate.

Mr. McFall

The Minister said that schools may find that they are not financially viable. If an opted-out school was not financially viable because it could not attract pupils and the school approached the Government for financial assistance after opting out, what would their response be?

Mr. Lang

The Government would approach the financial needs of opted-out schools in exactly the same way, using the same criteria, as they approach the financial viability of schools that had not opted out. They would use the same criteria as local authorities use. The hon. Gentleman will find no grounds for complaint on that score.

Our policy is clear. It has never been the Government's intention that opting out should be a device for changing the character of a school. We have made that clear from the outset. The amendment puts the matter beyond any doubt and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Worthington

The Minister has used mild and gentle words, but I must repeat the words of the hon. Member for Stirling—that this is the most radical and profound change in Scottish education within a generation. How does one square the two statements?

We welcome the safeguards that the other place has introduced. It will not now be possible to change the character of a school for five years. A Labour Government will have been returned to power before any school can change its character, and we will repeal this measure—make no doubt about it.

A disturbing feature of the Bill is the funding of opted-out schools. As the Minister said, it is not a question of the Government wanting, by giving schools the option to opt out, to provide more choice. As the hon. Member for Stirling said, the Government want to introduce most radical and profound change. There can be radical and profound change only if schools apply for opted-out status.

Schools will apply for opted-out status in two ways. First, some areas—they will tend to be relatively well-off—will wish to embark on the long-term strategy, of turning all their schools into selective schools and, I have no doubt, in the long term into private schools in the independent sector.

Secondly, other schools that wish to opt out will be in areas where closures are threatened. Any councillor, or former councillor, who has experience of school closures is scarred for life. Everybody acknowledges that there is a surplus of school places and that schools should be closed. But when one gets down to it, it is never "our school." It is always somebody else's school that should be closed, whether it has only a few or a great many pupils.

Whenever the possibility of closing a school is talked about in future, the appeals procedure will be there as a backstop. As part of their strategy, groups of parents will decide to apply to the Secretary of State for opted-out status. The Secretary of State will then choose which schools should have that status. Labour-controlled areas will be ignored by him. Under the 1980 legislation, the Secretary of State said that he did not want to be involved in school closures—that he wished to return the power to close schools to local authorities. Very difficult school closure issues will, however, be decided by the Secretary of State. He will say, "Tory areas will keep their schools. Labour areas will close their schools." It is as simple as that.

After schools have been awarded opted-out status, the Government will seek, as was intimated in theSunday Times article to which I referred earlier, to turn them into the equivalent of English grammar schools. They will be helped, because that is Government strategy. The Secretary of State's allocation of grants over a five-year period will shovel money towards opted-out schools. It will be clearly seen that they are getting preferential treatment.

The revenue account formula is of no use whatsoever. Clear obligations are being laid on all local authorities; they will ensure that no action can be taken against opted-out schools. What obligations does the measure impose on the Secretary of State to play fair? We come down to that horrible word "reasonable"—a word that cannot be defined.

The Secretary of State will decide, on his own personal judgment, the recurrent grant to give any school. The intention of the Under-Secretary of State, who is still manipulating the Scottish education service, is to steer grant towards opted-out schools, thus producing a two-tier system. The same procedure will operate for capital allocation. The Secretary of State will say, "We must feed our own first." By "our own" he means the opted-out schools and not those looked after by the local education authority. Inevitably, if a Tory Government remain in power, a two-tier system will be set up.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Worthington

No, I will not give way. The hon. and learned Gentleman should go back to sleep.

It is extremely serious, because, over the centuries, a clear culture has developed which is precious and which will be destroyed by the Bill. I notice it particularly because of my own background. I had the privilege of moving from the class-ridden English structure with an elitist, snobbish culture into a system in which 96 or 97 per cent. of the population goes to the state school. There are enormous benefits from that. An enormous sense of community and cohesion comes from that identity with the local comprehensive school. It provides choice and variety instead of grey uniformity. I know of not one comprehensive school that is exactly the same as another. The comprehensive system provides the opportunity to develop the characteristics of an area and to give choices that are appropriate to the community. For example, in the Western Isles a school might add in Gaelic and in an area with heavy industry it might add in appropriate skills. The comprehensive system provides the potential for that choice—[Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Barry Porter

On the grounds that I have been here and awake. Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that the entire education system should be controlled by the state and that it should all be comprehensive? Is that what he is saying?

Mr. Worthington

A valuable system has been developed in which there must be a role for central Government in education, but there is also a role for education authorities. The Bill proposes a formidable centralisation of control over the state system whereby the Secretary of State decides which schools close and which remain open. When a Labour Government come into power, we shall repeal this legislation and restore the special relationship between the Scottish school system and the community in which it operates. We shall stop the destruction of that relationship by the divisive powers embodied in the Bill.

Mr. Salmond

I should like to pursue the Minister further on the circumstances in which a school might wish to change its characteristics. Perhaps he can supply more detail of the characteristics that could be changed.

In another place, Lord Sanderson said on 18 October that he fully expected that most self-governing schools will have no wish to alter their basic characteristics. This evening the Minister said something very similar. Incidentally, the debate in the House of Lords was as badly attended as our debate has been.

If Ministers in the House of Lords and here tonight can see no circumstances in which schools will wish to change their basic characteristics, why on earth are we debating these amendments? The Minister has tried to palm us off by saying that things are always evolving and that in time there will be changes and it would be ridiculous if self-governing schools could not make the same changes as other schools in the system. What changes does he perceive self-governing schools will wish to make after the five-year period? Will it be a change to single-sex education, religious education or—and this is much more likely—selective education?

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I see in the amendments the possibility of schools changing their characteristics the Government's intention to move the Scottish system of education towards a selective system which has been such a failure south of the border. We have to acknowledge that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is a product of the Scottish education system. He is not much of an advert for it, but he is certainly a product of the comprehensive system and the Scottish university system. Many Opposition Members are appalled by the actions of the Under-Secretary of State and his approach to education because he is seeking to deny future generations of Scottish schoolchildren the advantages that he enjoyed. There is no doubt in my mind that the opening up of the possibility of changing the characteristics of Scottish schools through self-governing status is an attempt to open the door to the reintroduction of selective education in Scotland, which would be a major step backwards.

Mrs. Fyfe

During our discussions in Committee, the Opposition had to point out to the Government for many a weary hour that children should not be subjected to changes in the nature or the ethos of their schools any more frequently than necessary.

We had to point out that it would be unreasonable to do as the Government first intended and allow changes in the nature of one to take place virtually as quickly as any group of parents could succeed in winning a vote to do so. Therefore, we welcome the protection in the Lords amendment, especially bearing in mind some of the changes that could be envisaged. For example, a school could change from one teaching both sexes to a single-sex school and back again. It could change from a non-denominational school to one serving a particular denomination and back again. It could change from a school promoting particular abilities and skills such as music and dancing or maths to one teaching whatever subject took the fancy of those deciding these matters.

We debated whether we approved of giving specialist education to children in skills such as dancing and music as we wanted all children's abilities to be fostered. Although we agreed that certain skills should be fostered, we certainly drew a distinction between that and the prospect of a school changing from a comprehensive to one which was aimed at the fast stream—the children who were seen as academic high fliers.

Comprehensive schools are commonplace in Scotland. They exist in many small Scottish towns not because of educational policy but because that was the nature of the beast—in a small area, all the children in the locality came together in such schools. On the whole, it has been a success. We should not exaggerate that success, because under any system some children do not receive the education that they should.

Conservative Members have been dishonest about our education system. Many of the problems with the English comprehensive system are caused by the way that it is run. It is commonplace for teachers to teach subjects for which they do not have a degree, never mind teacher training. A teacher in a secondary school in Scotland is required not only to have the relevant degree but to have the relevant elements in that degree before being allowed to teach that particular subject. For that reason alone, it is hardly surprising that comprehensives in Scotland have been more successful. The egalitarian ethos appertaining to so much of Scottish society is seen in our education system. It is natural and normal to bring together all our children in one building to share their experiences, and they are all treated the same whether they wear a uniform or not.

Conservative Members representing English constituencies served on the Committee considering the Bill. We express our anger once again at their continuous ill-informed and ignorant interventions, their endless disturbances, their schoolboyish raising of points of order and their nonsensical manoeuvres. As the debate draws to a close, thereby offering no further opportunity to debate Scottish education, only two Scottish Tory Back Benchers are present, and only one of the English Tory stormtroopers of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mrs. Fyfe

May I point out, in answer to the finger waving of Conservative Members—

Mr. Leigh

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) to comment on the number of Conservative Members present, when only four Scottish Labour Members are present?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that we want to get into the numbers game.

Mrs. Fyfe

I made that point for a very good reason. This is a Conservative Members' Bill. They want to force it on Scotland, yet few are present to defend their actions.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)


Mrs. Fyfe

I will not give way.

The Minister brought on to the Committee a bunch of English Tory Members not because of their interest in Scottish education but merely as stormtroopers to make pests of themselves. Only one has the guts to remain here to defend their position, but he has not been paying attention for most of the evening. He has been wandering in and out and reading something, I cannot see what.

Mr. McFall

Does my hon. Friend recall that those Tory Members who thought that Charles Gray was knighted are the same hon. Members who were asked what the "qualy" was but did not know? We offered them an awayday ticket to Scotland to find out what it was, but they were so ignorant that they rejected it.

Mrs. Fyfe

My hon. Friend is right. We challenged them to take a test to see whether they could pass the qualy, but not one of them would accept that challenge.

Conservative Members displayed their ignorance of Scottish education in many other ways, but it did not prevent them from wasting hours of our time with their nonsense. They are pushing this legislation through regardless of the wishes of the Scottish people, but they will pay in the end through the loss of seats in Scotland. Tory Members are sure to lose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe).

Mrs. Fyfe

I am not surprised that Conservative Members are attempting to prevent Labour Members from expressing their views. They are making much noise because they have nothing to say. They have nothing to contribute to the debate other than schoolboy manoeuvres. Their behaviour will soon be exposed when the House is televised. I wonder whether they will then continue to conduct themselves like stupid public schoolboys. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, would welcome an improvement in their behaviour. I am an ex-teacher in further education, but I never had a class that conducted itself in the way that Conservative Members are now doing. I know that you are often appalled by the conduct of Conservative Members, particularly when a woman Member is speaking.

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order this day, to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 38, 45 and 46 agreed to.

There being private business set down for consideration at Seven o'clock MR. SPEAKER suspended the sitting, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Time for taking private business).

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Sitting suspended.