Secondary Education, Dundee

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th July 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Stradling Thomas.]

4.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House a matter which is of great concern to my constituents. I should like to preface my remarks by congratulating the hon. Member for Edinburg, North (Mr. Fletcher) on his appointment as the Minister responsible for education in Scotland. I trust that our encounters in this House will be in the same tough but fair spirit as the games between the two Dundee teams and Hibs in the Premier League next season. I am certain, however, that in those encounters at least Dundee will not lose out.

I wish to draw attention to the need to build a new high school in Ardler—St. Mary's area of Dundee. It is an excellent area of Dundee containing many skilled working class families who are intensely interested in the education of their children. A new Ardler high had been put on the educational agenda of the old Dundee corporation, and these plans were inherited by Tayside regional council on the reorganisation of local government.

At the moment, pupils in the Ardler-St. Mary's area have to travel a considerable distance to attend Rockwell high school. It is a very old school, and its standards of accommodation have been described by Tayside regional council's education department as "inadequate". That is putting it mildly. The conditions which exist in the high school are deplorable. The boys' toilets are situated in the playground and are open to the elements. A number of cloakrooms have had to be converted into classrooms and chemistry labs. Pupils studying physics have had to be bussed to the old Lawside annexe to study the subject there. The playing fields are situated a quarter of a mile away on the other side of an extremely busy road. The accommodation for the staff to prepare lessons and to relax between lessons is almost non-existent. In addition, pupils are put at considerable risk due to the Kingsway trunk road improvement scheme. Children who have to walk or cycle to school because their parents cannot afford the bus fares have to negotiate their way through a major trunk road development.

Under these conditions, it is only right that I should pay tribute to the magnificent work of the staff and the pupils at Rockwell when they are battling against such unsatisfactory conditions.

Last month, Tayside regional council decided to drop Ardler high school from its educational building programme for the time being. The estimated cost of the high school is £3·5 million, and plans to spend £57,000 on preparatory planning for the school have been shelved. It means, in effect, that the building of the new Ardler high school will not now start.

Education in Dundee is administered by the Tory-controlled Tayside regional council. Dundee itself is a special development area, but the policies of the Tayside rural Tories are turning it into a special disaster area. Their appoach to education in Dundee is not based upon the educational needs of the children. It is based simply on considerations of money. Even then it is based not upon the question of how much should be spent on education but on how little should be spent.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, therefore, to learn that in 1978–79 Tayside's net expenditure on education was the lowest per head in Scotland. It was more than £15 per head below the Scottish average. To bring the figure up to the Scottish average, Tayside would need to spend an extra £6 million on education. That is almost twice the estimated cost of the Ardler high school.

Tayside's spending on education per pupil is the lowest in Scotland. In 1976 and 1977 it even managed to underspend on its own budget by more than £1 million in each year. It is now spending £8 per head less on education in real terms compared with the old Dundee corporation in 1973.

Tayside's record on educational spending is the worst in Scotland. It is against this despicable background that the campaign for a new Ardler high school is being fought.

Rather than build a new Ardler high school, Tayside Tories are considering four bleak options for the pupils in this area. They are, bussing pupils to other schools in Dundee, closing down Lawside academy, and amalgamating the Catholic pupils at Lawside with pupils at either St. John's or St. Saviour's, continuing with the present arrangements whereby the Rockwell high buildings are used for Ardler-St. Mary's pupils and redrawing the catchment area of secondary pupils in Dundee.

The Tayside Tories certainly should have no problems in redrawing the catchment area boundaries in Dundee. They have had a wealth of experience in attempting to gerrymander the electoral boundaries in Dundee to the advantage of the Tory Party.

None of these options is in any way acceptable to people of Ardler and St. Mary's, some of whom are already paying £5 a week bus fares for their children attending Rockwell. The option to close down Lawside academy seriously disrupts Catholic education in Dundee.

I refer the hon. Member to the Courier and Advertiser of 18 June 1978 which carried a statement by the Rt. Rev. Dr. William Hart, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dunkeld, which was read out in 60 churches of his diocese on Sunday 17 June. Bishop Hart condemned The general onslaught against our Catholic schools. He continued by saying that the threat to Catholic schools is serious and the threat to Lawside academy at the moment was very grave indeed. Commenting on one of the options accepted by the education committee which was to give the Lawside school building to Ardler high school and to amalgamate Lawside and St. John's Catholic schools, Bishop Hart said: According to the Directors' statement, there will be 2,260 Catholic secondary pupils in Dundee in 1985. From the baptismal registers for the Dundee parishes we already know that the figures will be considerably higher, approximately 3,000. The effect of having these pupils accommodated in two schools would be to have 1,500 pupils in St. John's and St. Saviour's or even, according to the Directors' own figures, 1,130 in each school. When we consider, from the same statistics, that the average secondary school in Dundee in 1985 will have 947 pupils it is immediately obvious that the Catholic pupil in 1985 will be under severe educational disadvantage. One must ask in the face of a responsible need to economise why the Catholic schools are being singled out in the Directors' options. Lawside was too small when the school opened on its present site. Staff and pupils have endured overcrowding for many years. Now, when it looks as if the falling birth rate will allow them normal conditions the future of the school is seriously questioned. How can we understand this proposal when Government policy in recent years has been to take advantage of falling school rolls to allow better conditions; when educationists are agreed that secondary schools are too large and that the ideal secondary school size is 800 to 850 pupils. It seems rather sad when we reflect on the Prime Minister's first statement from the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, when she quoted from the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi "Where there is discord may we bring harmony" and then stepped through that door, and proceeded to cut public expenditure in Scotland. That move was interpreted by the Tory-controlled Tayside regional council when considering plans to remove one badly needed high school from its financial plan or alternatively butchering Catholic secondary education by closing Lawside academy.

It also makes a nonsense of the Government's own claim to speak for the national interest. The future education of working class children in Dundee has to be sacrificed to pay for the massive tax handouts to already advantaged supporters of the Tory Party.

We will, no doubt, continue to hear talk from the Government Benches about freedom of choice. I believe that the Tory concept of "freedom of choice" is spurious since it is inevitably restricted to those with an exceedingly high level of income. However, let us accept the Tory argument about freedom of choice at face value and apply it to the situation which has arisen in Ardler. I can do no better than quote from the policy paper on education released by the Scottish Tories last year entitled "Scottish Education: Regaining a Lost Reputation". One of its authors was the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North. In that paper we were told that the Tories wished to give all parents greater freedom of choice as to which school their children attended. I quote: Parents would be asked to indicate the school which they would prefer their child to attend, both at the primary and secondary stage. In placing children in schools local education authorities would be expected to take into account a number of factors. Two of these factors would be the neighbourhood element and the cost of travel. In the first instance, schools would attempt to accommodate all the children in order of the parents' preference.", the policy paper says.

If that really represents Tory policy one wonders why the Tory-controlled Tayside region does not build Ardler high and allow parents the freedom of choice between sending their children to the outdated, inadequate, Rockwell high, and sending them to Ardler high?

One wonders where the freedom of choice will be for Catholic parents if the Tories close Lawside and push staff and pupils into St. John's and St. Saviour's Here we see the fraud of "freedom of choice" as expounded by the Tories. They are denying parents any freedom of choice. They are denying them any choice whatever.

Obviously, we must take account of the decline in the school population in the 1980s as a result of the falling birthrate in the 1960s, and we must decide what use can be made of the school accommodation which will as a result be released. The previous Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), released a discussion paper on this issue last year. He envisaged that a great deal of unsatisfactory accommodation could be taken out of use and satisfactory accommodation put to use for other purposes, such as extended community use of school buildings for recreational centres, libraries, provision for the elderly, the handicapped and the under-fives.

In contrast, the Tayside Tories are considering closing two schools, evicting catholic pupils from Lawside and herding them into two other schools. This, indeed, is educational tunnel vision.

As regards providing funds for the building of Ardler high school, perhaps the Minister may wish to reconsider the Government's intention to provide subsidies to grant-aided schools in Scotland in the light of the view of the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) that subsidies are positively harmful. If so, will the Minister redirect those subsidies, estimated at about £4 million, away from Scotland's public schools to Tayside regional council, with an express instruction that this money be used to build Ardler high school?

Will the Minister remind the Tayside regional council that it has an obligation to provide educational facilities in Dundee as well as in the agricultural areas of Tayside? It is a serious matter that this issue has to be raised on the Floor of the House when it could be settled by common sense and a sensible response on the part of Tayside regional council to the wishes of the parents in Dundee.

I recently attended a meeting of Law-side schools council. Almost 1,000 parents from all over the city attended, and not one voice was raised against the proposal that Tayside regional council should proceed immediately with the building of Ardler high school, although those parents were obviously aware that to borrow that money might well require Tayside to increase the rates in their area.

Before the Tayside Tories close the gates of Lawside academy, if that is what they intend to do, they will require the permission of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I welcome the assurances which the Minister gave in his letter to me of 20 June, in which he said: If the regional council, after detailed local consultations, decide to submit any proposed changes for approval, I can assure you that the views and preferences of all those affected, as well as the economic considerations, would be taken into account before a decision was reached. The director of education for Tayside informed me by letter yesterday that the regional council, now that it has removed Ardler high school from the financial plan, intends to hold consultations, which he hopes will be as full as possible. I urge the Minister to impress upon the regional council the need to see that the aspirations of the parents of pupils in the Ardler-St. Mary's area of Dundee and of Catholic pupils throughout Dundee are recognised. I ask him to prevent Tayside regional council from taking education in Dundee back into the dark ages. I ask for the money from this Government to build a new Ardler high school. In the words of the Prime Minister "Where there is despair may we bring hope".

4.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alexander Fletcher Mr Alexander Fletcher , Edinburgh North

I have listened with interest to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), and I have carefully noted what he said about the provision of secondary education in his constituency. I noted also his remarks about the ability of the Dundee and Edinburgh football teams to engage in combat during the next football season. Perhaps that combat will be resolved a little earlier than the main issue which he has raised.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this problem in his constituency because it focuses attention on one of the more difficult problems facing us in the years ahead, namely, the problem—to which he himself referred—of dealing with the consequences of a rapidly falling school population.

However, with the greatest respect to him, I must suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, although I entirely recognise his right to pursue his constituency interest and I am full of admiration for the way in which he is doing so, he ought not at the same time to inflame feelings with utterly unfounded comments such as the one which he made a few moments ago about "butchering Roman Catholic education". I suggest that that is not the way to proceed in a worthwhile and constructive debate on the serious problems to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to a policy statement of which I was the co-author a year or two ago. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in government our commitment to parental choice and taking local feelings into account is second to none.

Coming back to the main premise of the argument, by 1992 the number of pupils in education authority secondary schools in Scotland is projected to fall by 30 per cent., and thereafter it is expected to rise again. To put it another way, that amounts to a reduction in the next decade of about 100,000 secondary school pupils. These forecasts, which are based principally on the population projections of the Government Actuary's Department, must contain uncertainties. That applies to any long-term projections. Nevertheless there are obvious trends in future population which cannot be ignored.

The accommodation implications of that far-reaching change were the subject of a discussion paper issued last year by the previous Administration. It was suggested in that paper that there should be a thorough examination by central and local government jointly of the complex problems involved, and that was accepted by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. A working party of officials of my Department and of local authorities is at present drawing up proposals for a systematic review of the stock of schools, and I shall be consulting the Convention on the matter when the working party reports.

Against the background of current projections of the extent of the fall in pupil numbers in secondary schools it is, I suggest, not surprising that Tayside regional council has decided to explore possible ways in which provision might be made for pupils in the Ardler area of Dundee other than by building the new high school to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It would, however, be quite wrong for me to express any views today about the merits or demerits of any of the options that I believe the council has elected to consider. That is because the law requires that any departure from the existing approved scheme of educational provision for the area shall be submitted to my right hon. Friend for approval before it can be implemented. At this stage, of course, no proposed changes have been submitted. Indeed, as I understand it, the regional council has only recently decided to explore alternative solutions. I am sure that the council is aware of the need to consult those affected as fully as possible before coming to any conclusion in the matter.

As I have already explained in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, if after local consultations the regional council was to decide to apply for approval for some change in its educational provision scheme, the views of those who would be affected, as well as the economic considerations, would be taken fully into account before my right hon. Friend reached a decision. I stress that in such cases it is entirely a matter for the council to formulate proposals if it wishes to do so.

I have noted carefully what the hon. Gentleman said about the case for a new high school to be built specifically to serve the Ardler area, particularly about the disadvantage of the existing accommodation and the difficulty that some children may have in travelling to school. I have a great deal of sympathy for parents whose children are being educated in accommodation that is not as good in all respects as we would like it to be and compares unfavourably with more recently constructed buildings. I am conscious of the fact that much remains to be done in many parts of the country to bring older buildings up to modern standards. Speaking of Scotland as a whole, the fall in school population should provide an opportunity for some of the least satisfactory buildings to be taken out of use. In addition, action will be needed, as resources permit, to improve the accommodation that will continue to be required.

The Government are totally committed to improving standards in the public services, but improved standards can only be achieved if the economy is strong in the first place. There has been a serious decline in the British economy in recent years and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the measures which the Government propose to adopt to check this is reducing the burden of financing the public sector. It is too early to say what this will mean for local authority capital expenditure in the coming years, but I mention this because it is the background against which local authorities' financial plans for capital expenditure will need to be considered.

The hon. Gentleman has already asked if we will give Tayside a sum of £3·5 million, the latest estimate of the cost of a new high school for Ardler, and has had a reply to this question. I should like to take the opportunity to explain the position in a little more detail.

First of all, in case there is any misunderstanding, I should make it clear that local authorities are not given capital grants to build schools. Normally authorities finance the construction of school buildings by borrowing, and the loan charges are reckonable expenditure for rate support grant purposes. The amount of capital expenditure incurred by a local authority in any year on educational building is, however, controlled by the Scottish Office through capital expenses consents given under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.

Each authority is notified of a block allocation for each financial year which, in the case of education, now covers all capital expenditure on nursery, primary, secondary and special schools as well as further education colleges. It is for each authority to decide how its block allocation is used—which new projects are started after allowing for expenditure on those already under construction and having regard to the guidlines it is given for the two subsequent years. The question, therefore, strictly speaking, should have been whether we will take into account a new Ardler high school in determining Tayside regional council's future block authorisation for capital expenditure on education.

In April 1979 Tayside regional council was notified of an allocation of £2·1 million for capital expenditure on education in the year 1979–80, along with guideline figures of £1·7 million and £1·8 million, respectively, for the two following years. However, in a recent circular about the implications for local authority expenditure of the Government's economic and fiscal policy, authorities have been told that savings in 1979–80 are to be achieved in the programmes for which consents have already been notified.

These savings are to be secured by discontinuing an informal arrangement under which potential underspending intimated by certain local authorities had been offset by supplementary consents to others. In addition, in 1979–80—this will also apply in later years—local authorities have been asked to consider carefully the case for preliminary expenditure upon, or starts of, any significant capital project, having regard to the possible revenue consequences for later years to which restrictions on current expenditure may apply and on the assumption that the guideline for 1980–81 will not exceed, and may well be lower than, that already issued.

The amounts of the block authorisations for capital expenditure on education, which were notified to Tayside in April and are now subject to the guidance in the recent circular to which I have referred, were determined in the light of the financial plan submitted by Tayside regional council to the Scottish Office early this year. This included the proposed new school at Ardler, with expenditure starting in 1979–80 and extending over the years to at least 1983–84. But the Scottish Education Department did not take this proposed project specifically into account when the formal authorisation for 1979–80 was determined because its main purpose was to replace the existing accommodation at Rockwell high school.

In this connection I remind the hon. Gentleman that it has been the policy of successive Governments to give priority in the allocation of resources for primary and secondary school building to the basic need to provide additional school places where pupil numbers are growing and no other accommodation is available. Resources for the replacement and improvement of existing accommodation have necessarily had to take second place and have generally been restricted in amount. This is why the regional council's allocations in April were not on a scale that was intended to enable a new high school at Ardler to go ahead as then proposed by the council. More recently, officials of the regional council told the Scottish Education Department that they did not expect further consideration to be given by the Department to the proposed Ardler project in the meantime. In the circumstances, as the hon. Gentleman now knows, we are, in accordance with the council's wishes, regarding the proposed project as having been temporarily withdrawn.

Obviously, I cannot say what view I might take if the regional council were to decide to restore the proposed Ardler high school to its financial plan at some future date. This would depend on the case which the authority was then able to make for it, the resources available for replacement work at the time, and the basis on which it was decided to distribute such resources between authorities.

I am bound to say, however, that, given the need for substantial economies in local authority expenditure, I see little prospect of being able to put the council in a position to make an early start on major replacement projects such as this. Even if I could, it would be for the council to decide, within such scope as its authorisations allowed it for exercising choice, the projects to be started within its block authorisations for capital expenditure on education.

The hon. Gentleman raised with me at Question Time on Wednesday, and also today, the extent to which Tayside regional council has underspent on its capital allocations for educational building in the past few years. It was thought at the time that I was trying to make some party political point. That was not the view taken by the hon. Gentleman, but by one of his Labour Front Bench colleagues.

I wish to take this opportunity to point out that underspending of this kind is by no means uncommon. For the financial year 1977–78, for example, seven authorities in Scotland did not take up the whole of their allocations, and four of them were underspent to a greater extent than was Tayside. In 1978–79 nine authorities were underspent, three to a greater extent than Tayside. There could be a number of reasons for this, but the principal one is that from time to time building projects are not ready to start as quickly as the authority envisaged when it drew up its programme. This arises because of delays in the planning timetable, or difficulties in finding a suitable contractor, or other unforeseen-snags of one kind or another.

When this happens, an authority can take up its total allocation only if it has other projects on which the planning is sufficiently advanced to enable them to be started in place of those that have slipped. That is entirely a matter for the authority itself to consider. In doing so, it has to have regard to any expenditure implications which such projects may have for subsequent years—and particularly, in the case of major projects, to the Secretary of State's guideline figures for capital expenditure on educational building for these years.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of parental choice. I have already made it clear to him that I shall take full account of the views of those affected in considering any proposals which Tayside region submits for approval. I assure him that the preferences of all the parents in the areas concerned will be considered with particular care. Choice of school, however, is only one of a number of issues related to the parents' role in education which we intend to explore as soon as possible with all the interests involved. This is a complex matter, but we are pursuing it with vigour with a view to opening consultations later this year.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, the hon. Gentleman will pursue this matter as he sees fit, but if he wishes this project to be reintroduced in the region's education plans he must pursue it with the local authority rather than with me.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.