That is a very important issue and I am well aware of the allegations which have been made.
Hon. Members want to know whether there are proposals in the Bill which will change the character of schools in the state system. Let us consider the existing position. At the moment any local authority can change the character of all its schools overnight. There is nothing to stop any local authority in Scotland, either because of a change in political control, or simply because it has changed its mind, changing the character of every school in its locality. It does not have to consult the parents, the electorate or the Secretary of State or gain approval or permission from anyone. It is important that I should remind the House that local authorities can change the character for selectivity or for ending co-education in all schools in Scotland, if they wish.
Clearly it cannot be made impossible ever to contemplate any change in a school in the state sector if that is not impossible at the present time, but the Bill introduces infinitely more safeguards than exist at the moment. For the benefit of hon. Members who have not read the Bill, I will explain why that is so.
Any proposal to change the character of self-governing schools requires a ballot of the parents. If there was a proposal to end co-education in a school, it is somewhat improbable to believe that the parents whose children were of the different sex from the character proposed for the school would find that proposition attractive. There must also be consultation with the education authority, the Scottish Office and others involved. The Secretary of State must also give his approval.
Quite properly those are substantial hurdles to changing a school's character. In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), I am on record saying that I do not envisage it being appropriate in the first few years for a school that has achieved self-governing status to want to change its character in any major or fundamental sense. What happens in the longer term, as with local authority schools, is something that we will have to address in future.