HL Deb 26 October 1989 vol 511 cc1557-61

3.25 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 7 [Powers and duties of board of management]:

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden) moved Amendment No. 1: Page 4, line 25, at end insert (", the consent not being given without his having consulted the education authority as regards the proposed disposal").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment gives effect to an undertaking given in Committee. It places a duty on the Secretary of State in Clause 7(2)(b) to consult and obtain the views of an education authority before giving his consent to any disposal of land by the board of management of a self-governing school. I beg to move.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for having listened so carefully, as he always does, to the arguments put forward in Committee. I thank him for his accommodation in the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 13 [Initiation of procedure for acquisition of self governing status]:

Lord Sanderson of Bowden moved Amendment No. 2: Page 6, line 24, after ("board") insert ("(a "first resolution") to hold such a ballot and confirm that decision by a resolution (a "second resolution") passed at a meeting of the board held not less than twenty-eight days, nor more than forty-two days, after that at which the first resolution was passed.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, for the convenience of the House I shall speak also to a large number of amendments —Amendments Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30 and 31, and 41 to 47 inclusive.

This lengthy group of amendments is concerned with providing for a school board having to pass two separate resolutions to call a ballot of parents on self-governing status. The first amendment to Clause 13 makes the substantive change. I regret to have to say that there are no fewer than 20 consequential changes necessary through the remainder of the Bill.

There must be a minimum period of four weeks between the first and the second resolutions of a school board, and the board may take up to a full six weeks. Immediately on passing the first resolution the board must, under the terms of Clause 13 (6) and (7), inform the education authority and any relevant denominational interest. That guarantees adequate opportunity for those groups, and any others who hear of the decision, to make their views known to the school board before any second resolution.

Since the meaning of a first resolution by a board is entirely clear, I see no particular advantage in use of the term "consultation" in respect of the board hearing the views of the authority and others. It may of course be that a board is ready and willing to circulate a lengthy explanation of its decision as a basis for comment before a second resolution, but it should not be obliged to do so.

I believe that these amendments give effect to the view I accepted in Committee that there should be two resolutions by the board with a reasonable interval between them for reflection in the light of comments by the authority and others. I beg to move.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I again thank the Minister for having taken note of what was said in Committee and of the general feeling in Scotland. We should be happier had there been an obligation on the board to publish more documents and to let the community know more about what it intends to do in respect of the new school. I believe that we have gone as far as we can. The Minister has gone a long way towards satisfying some of our concerns. Again, we welcome the amendment.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for taking on board the first part of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, in Committee on an amendment to which I was unable to speak. I note what my noble friend says about consultation. As a result of the amendments, through which it is difficult to travel when trying to examine their implications, is there anywhere where the local authority and the church, if it is relevant, are informed of what has happened; or is it just left to chance?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, if I heard my noble friend correctly, she asked whether they were informed. The education authority and the denominational interests will be informed. Returning to consultation, I take seriously what the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, said. We must be careful not to burden the school board at this stage in the process with over-formal requirements for consultation.

I have looked at the matter quite carefully; I believe that we have got the balance right. I am sure that when my noble friend has studied all the consequential amendments, she will be able to say that I have fulfilled the commitment for which she asked.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar moved Amendment No. 3: Page 6, line 29, at end insert ("or a primary school which has less than fifty registered pupils.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment came before the House at Committee stage, focusing on the position of small primary schools in Scotland. It brings into play an exclusion from self-governing status of a primary school which has less than 50 registered pupils. The purpose of the amendment is to make very small primary schools not eligible for self-governing status. I emphasise the word "very". Section 52(6) of the Education Reform Act 1988 which applies to England and Wales states: A primary school which has less than three hundred pupils is not eligible for grant-maintained status, although the Secretary of State for Education may by order lower the number of pupils given in subsection (6) and provide for all primary schools to be eligible.

Given this provision in the Education Reform Act, it is clear that the Secretary of State for Education is uncertain whether small primary schools would be viable as grant-maintained schools. In the response of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to the Scottish Education Department's document on self-governing schools, attention was drawn to the benefits to be obtained from the support services which an education authority provides to all schools, as well as the benefits of economies of scale which would not be available to an opted-out school.

The amendment focuses on why the Government consider small primary schools to be potentially viable as self-governing schools in Scotland but put a higher limit in England and Wales. During the last stage of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, accepted that, in some ways, a smaller school has greater difficulties and will face more difficulties as an independent organisation operating within a fixed annual grant … On the other hand, the scale of the management task in a small school will be much less than in a more complex, larger … school". [Official Report, 12/10/89; col. 594.] I appreciate that at that point the noble Lord was trying to do what we have tried to do throughout the Bill, to strike a balance in the education provision for schools. He was trying to strike a line where opting-out becomes unacceptable in the educational sense.

It is accepted that the scale of the management task will be less for a small school, but its share of the authorities' budget for central support and advisory services might be too small to enable the school to be viable as an independent unit. It may be that in the course of the financial year the small school with 50 pupils might run into a severe financial crisis within its budget, with the end result depending on the demands made upon it in the course of the school year.

The question is therefore posed, whether or not it would be better for the Government to review the provisions for eligibility in the light of the experience of self-governing status for larger primary schools. If the Government are prepared to accept the principle that very small primary schools should not, initially at least, be eligible for self-governing status, they could insert in the Bill a provision for regulations which might confer eligibility at some later stage, once they are able to gauge how the system is working.

The Minister wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, drawing attention to what had happened in England and attempting to draw a parallel with Scotland. However, with respect, I do not think that the letter faces up to the problem which is now focused on by the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I should like to support the amendment. It is very simple and comes down to one principle: that there is a certain stage at which a very small school will not be a feasible unit for governing itself. It is just too small and the economies of scale will effectively be working against it. Thus I suggest that this is a very sensible amendment.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will not accept the amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, that circumstances in Scotland are quite different from those in England. However, I can see no reason why, given certain circumstances, it should not be possible for a small school in an area with a low population to have this right. If the school will not be viable, the Secretary of State will not agree to it. That is the whole point of the provision in the Bill. I should have thought he could perfectly well look at the matter for himself.

It is the greatest pity to rule small schools out. Many small schools in the private sector are extremely viable and not particularly difficult to manage. I should not have thought that this was a suitable measure for Scotland. It may be all right for England, but not for Scotland.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I think that I said at the earlier stage of the Bill that we do not always slavishly follow the English and Welsh legislation or Acts in dealing with Scottish measures. This may be a case where we differ.

We have been over this ground before, and in replying to a similar amendment which we discussed in Committee I think I gave a full explanation of the Government's position on this matter of small schools. In considering any application for self-governing status, the Secretary of State is bound to have the question of viability to the forefront of his mind. He will want in all cases to be satisfied that the school is going to be able to make efficient and economical provision for its pupils. But that is not simply a question of size. In remote areas particularly a small school may make good economic and educational sense, even though its unit costs are almost inevitably going to be higher than those in a large urban school.

However, the difference between this amendment and the one which we considered in Committee is that this one focuses particularly on the very smallest schools. But the arguments are in principle the same. There are examples of very small schools to be found in both the public and the private sectors. Some of your Lordships may recall the publicity that was given a year or so ago to the parents who wanted to found their own secondary school on the Scoraig peninsula near Ullapool. That school, with some help from the Highland Regional Council, is now established and provisionally registered as an independent school. It has been fully inspected by Her Majesty's inspectors and it expects shortly to satisfy all the requirements for full registration. It only has a roll of 12 pupils.

Some of us in previous incarnations have had to cope with the small size, particularly in the small independent schools. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, that I for one am very well aware of the difficulties involved.

However, that does not get away from the fact that I am not convinced that there is a need to set any numerical lower limit to the size of school which might apply for self-governing status. I say quite genuinely to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that there would in practice be an absolute lowest limit, in that there would need to be at least five parents to form the parental group on the board of management. But in general I believe that it makes most sense to allow the Secretary of State to make the decision on each case on its individual merits, bearing in mind particularly the geographical and other considerations with which we have to cope in Scotland.

We have also added provisions in Clause 34, to allow self-governing schools access to local authority services. We believe that such schools will not be isolated from the wider educational scene. I hope that having heard that explanation of the points of principle which we discussed last time, the noble Lord might consider withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that full explanation. I am not altogether informed as to the experiment in Ullapool, but I noted that the Minister said that that school was being established with help from the Highlands and Islands Development Board. That is an entirely different matter.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, with respect, I mentioned the Highland Regional Council.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister. However, that help may not be available to small schools elsewhere. Of course, it will be a matter of waiting to see, once the Bill is enacted, how the situation will develop. The test of viability will be difficult and no doubt those advising the Minister will go into all the various fluctuations in school needs and the population of the schools.

There is not much more that we on this side of the House can do other than to register at this stage of the Bill the fact that we have pointed out the difficulties which may arise in future. Only time will tell whether this side of the House or the government side is correct. I thank the Minister for his explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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