Miscellaneous and Consequential Amendments

Schedule 5 – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 10th July 1996.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South 3:45 pm, 10th July 1996

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 30, line 14, at end insert— '. After section 51(2B) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (provision of transport and other facilities) there shall be inserted the following subsection—(2C) In considering whether to make any arrangements under subsection (1) above in respect of pupils attending schools, an education authority shall have regard to the safety of such pupils.".'. The purpose of this amendment is to provide in section 51 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 the express duty for education authorities to have regard to safety issues in determining whether an individual pupil should be entitled to school transport. Section 51 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 imposes a duty on education authorities to make such arrangements as they consider necessary for the provision of free school transport or other transport facilities as may be arranged, or for paying all or part of reasonable travel expenses for school pupils belonging to their areas and attending designated schools. Authorities also have a power—but not a duty—to make such arrangements in relation to pupils belonging to their areas who attend a school other than their designated school as a result of a successful placing request.

Generally, education authorities make school transport arrangements for pupils who live outwith the statutory walking distance for school attendance purposes of the metric equivalents of two miles for any pupil under eight years of age, and three miles for any other pupil. However, education authorities need not restrict school transport provision to those criteria, and arrangements—including where pupils are to be picked up, whether school bus supervisors are provided and other matters—are for each authority to determine in the light of local circumstances. That gives them wide discretion in deciding what transport or transport facilities should be provided to take account of individual pupils' circumstances. On safety issues, authorities generally seek the views of the police.

Parents have in recent weeks expressed some concern that, in making decisions that have sometimes reduced existing entitlement to school transport by withdrawing provision for those living within statutory walking distances from their schools, some authorities may have failed adequately to take account of safety issues, bearing in mind the ages of the children concerned and the nature of the route or alternative routes that, in the absence of school transport, would have to be walked. Parents have made the reasonable point that walking along a busy and unlit road, with or without proper pavements, can be dangerous for a child, even if the distance from home to school is less than statutory walking distances for school attendance purposes.

I recognise that section 51 provides that authorities should make such arrangements as they consider necessary, and that generally they do so in line with the statutory walking distances. Although good authorities already consult the police on safety issues related to individual applications for school transport, recent public concern suggests that there is room for improvement.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

The Minister is clearly proposing through the amendment to place a further statutory duty on local authorities. Will there be any consequential increase in the funding available to local authorities? This House has a habit of placing duties on authorities and not giving them the resources to implement them.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I will develop that point. We are asking all authorities to adopt the good practice of most authorities.

We consider that it would be helpful to introduce an express duty requiring authorities to have regard to safety issues when making decisions on the entitlement of individual children to school transport. It should, of course, remain for education authorities to exercise their discretion in determining whether school transport arrangements are necessary in individual instances to meet the differing circumstances of individual applicants. In doing so, however, it is vital that authorities should at all times have due regard to the safety implications of not providing school transport for a particular child for whatever reason.

That is what our amendment seeks to achieve, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

We shall not oppose the amendment, because it puts into statute the good practice currently undertaken by Scottish local authorities.

I share the concern of some local authorities, however, about the shortage of time for consultation on the matter. It is a commonsense issue, and those concerned about accident prevention are aware that one of the most vulnerable groups is pedestrian schoolchildren, particularly in Scotland, where we have long periods of darkness. It must be recognised that many local authorities already consult the police or road safety organisations.

Rather than an amendment that reminds them of the importance of safety, local authorities need ring-fencing of funding to permit them to fulfil their known obligations. A number of local authorities have found themselves in a difficult position as a result of the local government settlement they are enduring this year, which is why difficulties have arisen in some local authorities.

I urge the Government to take other issues into account, such as the definition of safety and parents' responsibilities in respect of accompanying pupils to and from school. How would the Government seek to define those?

The Opposition have no intention of opposing the amendment.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

Will the Minister say a little about safety on buses? As he knows, the son of a constituent of mine from Drongan was killed on his way to Auchinleck academy. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) had the same tragic circumstances in his constituency. Those accidents caused an outcry, and the campaign "Belt up school kids" was introduced.

Will the Minister give an update of the position regarding seat belts in school transport and attendants, particularly on double-decker buses? People are still greatly concerned about safety on buses. When transport is provided, as the amendment helpfully seeks to do, we want to ensure that it is safe for the youngsters who use it. I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether progress is being made along those lines.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is aware of recent Department of Transport regulations requiring the fitting of seat belts on school transport vehicles, and I am sure that he welcomes them. The education authorities already have a common law duty of care in respect of children under their supervision, as is the case when pupils travel to and from school under arrangements made by the authorities. I hope that the recent Department of Transport regulations will provide comfort to the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House who are concerned about this issue.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 30, line 24, at end insert— '. After section 13(3) of the Self—Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989 (eligibility for self—governing status) there shall be inserted the following subsections—(3A) Without prejudice to subsection (3) above, where an education authority makes a proposal to discontinue a school by virtue of section 22A of the 1980 Act, no resolution shall be passed or request made under subsection (1) above during the relevant period.(3B) The relevant period is whichever is the shorter of the period from the date when the education authority decides to consult persons in accordance with section 22A of the 1980 Act to the date the decision to discontinue the school is reached or—

  1. (a) where no consent is required under section 22B, 22C or 22D of the 1980 Act as regards the decision to discontinue the school, three months later;
  2. (b) where consent of the Secretary of State is so required, six months later.".'
The purpose of this amendment is to limit the use of procedures under the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989 for schools to seek self-governing status by school boards or parents simply for the purpose of blocking school closures proposed by an education authority.

There are currently two self-governing schools in Scotland—Dornoch academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary school in Dunblane. Both are performing extremely well and experiencing considerable benefits from the immediacy of decision making and greater financial efficiency that self-government brings.

Self-government remains central to our policy of extending parents' choice in how their children are educated. We remain committed to encouraging more school boards to seek self-governing status, and are confident that, in time, many more boards will see for themselves the benefits of following the lead shown by Dornoch academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary school.

We shall shortly establish a self-governing schools support unit to provide information and advice to schools that wish to know more about self-government. In addition, my forthcoming White Paper on education will contain further proposals on that matter.

However, we have said many times that school boards should not regard the self-governing procedures simply as a means of blocking education authorities' proposals to rationalise school capacity. The recent Accounts Commission report on managing surplus places in school buildings estimated that 13 secondary and more than 100 primary schools could be closed, as there is sufficient alternative provision locally. The savings to be achieved from such rationalisation are significant, and can benefit all the pupils.

Education authorities have difficult decisions to take to tackle the significant surplus of school capacity in Scotland, and they should be free to consult fully on their plans. Well-structured plans will be to the benefit of all pupils in an area by ensuring that the best use is made of resources. The amendment is designed to help education authorities.

As matters stand, a school board can start self-governing procedures by passing a first resolution or by receiving a petition from parents, calling for a ballot of parents on whether self-governing status should be sought.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

Why have only a couple of schools opted out in Scotland in the past few years?

4 pm

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I should be happy to debate our self-governing policy with the hon. Gentleman at any time, but this is not the time to do so, because the debate is not on the merits of self-governing but on allowing education authorities to get on with taking difficult and sensitive decisions.

It is not open to a school board at the moment to take such action in circumstances where the education authority has already taken a final decision to close a school after appropriate consultation with parents of pupils, the school board and, for a denominational school, the relevant denominational body.

In recent weeks, a total of eight school boards have either passed a first resolution or received a petition calling for a ballot of parents. In each case, the education authorities had published proposals consulting on the closure or merger of their schools. Before such proposals emerged, none of those boards had expressed any interest in self-governing status.

I assure the House that, in due course, should those ballots of parents lead to self-governing proposals being published and submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland for approval, the proposals would be fully considered on their merits in the usual way.

It is clearly possible for a school board, minded to obstruct the progress of an education authority's consultation on school rationalisation, to use the self-governing legislation in a manner that the House obviously did not intend. The amendment provides that, once an education authority has formally resolved to publish proposals for the closure of a specific school, the school board could not validly start self-governing procedures, either through a first resolution or by receiving a petition from parents, until three months after that resolution by the authority, or until such time as the authority had taken a final decision on the closure of the school, whichever was the sooner.

A longer period of six months could apply in respect of closure decisions that also require the consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—those in respect of schools more than 80 per cent. full, primary schools more than five miles from the nearest other primary school, secondary schools more than 10 miles from the nearest other secondary school, and denominational schools in certain circumstances.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

I realise that the Minister did not serve on the Standing Committee the considered the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989, so I have brought along the documentation. Colleagues from other parties will remember the very long mornings, afternoons and, indeed, nights that we spent in that Committee.

It is difficult to reconcile what the Minister said today with the attitude that was struck by the then Minister of State, Scottish Office, with responsibility for education—now Secretary of State for Scotland—in that Committee when we discussed the clauses relating to self-government.

The Government are now proposing a very centralising operation, removing the freedom of parents and that of local authorities to undertake a consultative programme to enable them to take decisions. We all accept that those are very difficult, emotive decisions for local authorities to take.

During the passage of that Bill, many statements were made, when the Government said clearly that in no circumstances would the provisions of the 1989 Act ever become a centralising force.

For the benefit of the Minister, I shall quote three statements that the then Minister of State made in Committee. First, he said: it is absurd for Opposition Members to argue that this is a centralising measure. He said later in the debate: self-governing schools will offer an alternative to schools under local authority management. He then said: Under no circumstances will there be a centralising authority by the Government."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 16 March 1989; c. 50, 65.] This is a strange situation. We have to reconcile different political positions—the Government said that they were opposed to a centralising philosophy, but they are now centralising.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

We believe in giving local authorities more freedom and more sensitivity in relation to school rationalisation, but we do not believe that that is a centralising measure.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

In that Committee, the Minister said that there would be no potential for the Government to inflict centralising policies, yet today we have before us a centralising philosophy that is preventing local authorities, parents and teachers from entering a true dialogue about how they can best provide education. The Government are standing in the way of local democracy, contrary to what was said during that Committee. It is despicable. The Government's argument is totally illogical. We believe that local education is best provided at the local level and not by diktat from central Government.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The Government are blocking parental choice by their actions. The Minister said that there are greater efficiencies and advantages in opted-out schools—that view is not shared by the majority of Scotland's teachers and parents. He said that he was confident that, in time, other schools would follow the two schools that have opted out—which is an arrogant disregard of parental views. The fact that the Minister said that there are greater advantages and efficiencies in opted-out schools is an insult to Scotland's teaching profession and to the national system.

I note that the Minister ducked a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), on self-governing schools. That policy is at the heart of the amendment. The Government's policy prevents parents in schools that are earmarked for closure from using the opting-out legislation to delay closure—they are prevented from saying how they feel about opting out.

I am opposed to the Government's opting-out proposals. I believe that parents would not choose to opt out if they had the choice. Parents do not wish to opt out—they are merely using the procedure as a last-gasp attempt to save their schools because no other mechanism is open to them. The Government are starving the system of resources and they are forcing these decisions on parents.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he supports that last desperate strategy by parents to keep their schools open?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

My objection is that this is the last-gasp strategy open to parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan recommended, I would prefer to see a dialogue between the education authority and the parents, to ensure that, wherever possible, a school remains open.

I am speaking from practical experience—I have helped to save schools locally. When Tayside was run by the Conservatives, I fought tooth and nail to save a rural school that is now, thankfully, thriving. I give due credit to the previous Labour Government and to the late Frank McElhone, who was the then Minister for Education. He listened to my arguments and to the arguments of the parents. The school was saved and it is now thriving. The Government are forcing people into that situation.

I place on record my opposition to the opting-out proposals. They are destructive of our national school system; they are unwanted by parents and by educationists; they are an anglicisation; and they are a deliberate attack on the national system—a system that has the support and confidence of all Scotland's parents.

Instead of attacking Scotland's schools, the Minister should have told us how the Government are building on the system's strengths and resourcing the national system properly. The amendment would not be necessary if the system were resourced properly. It is an admission of failure on the part of the Government, as parents choose to opt out only as a last resort in order to fight school closures. Rather than addressing the real problem of under-resourcing in the school system, the Government are responding to the symptoms and blocking an avenue that parents have chosen out of desperation in fighting for local schools.

Given the choice, it is obvious that parents would prefer to opt into the national system. However, the Government's total failure to provide adequate resources overall has forced parents and education authorities into this situation. Rather than closing the loophole through this amendment, the Government should provide much-needed funds to local authorities to enable them to run schools properly.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

How would the hon. Gentleman reply to the Accounts Commission, which says that there are 300,000 surplus school places in Scotland?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The Government should examine that problem in consultation with parents and schools. Some school closures cannot be avoided—I am not saying that they should be avoided. However, schools should be closed for educational reasons rather than as a result of deliberate under-resourcing. The Government's policies have forced parents to take desperate measures. I believe that the amendment is a direct result of deliberate Government policy. Ministers should be ashamed of themselves.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

I did not intend to participate in the debate, but I am a little confused by the contributions from hon. Members from the Scottish National party.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The hon. Gentleman is easily confused.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

That is true most of the time, but I am more confused than usual by the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate. I have some direct experience, as local government spending cuts have forced the closure of several secondary schools in Dundee. Rockwell school used the procedure to prevent its closure and to halt the consultation process with the local authority.

In reality, by choosing to ballot to opt out, the school delays any closure decision in that year—the decision must be put off until the next year. However, the cuts cannot be delayed until next year. Savings are lost to the local authority when the school board and the parents begin the procedure. As a result, it must make other cuts elsewhere in the education budget. Teachers in Dundee now face redundancy because parents have used that procedure to prevent school closures.

I do not understand whether the SNP supports school boards that adopt that procedure. Does it want to see teachers across Scotland sacked because the device remains available to school boards that wish to avoid closure? The hon. Gentleman said that some school closures are unavoidable; I agree with him. Some schools must close—they cannot go on for ever—but the parents at those schools will never agree to it. So long as the device exists, parents will continue to use it to prevent rational discussion about education provision in any city. That is the reality.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

I did not say the words that the hon. Gentleman is trying to put in my mouth. He describes the symptoms of the Government's deliberate policy, and that is what I attacked.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

I said that school boards choose to opt out because of the spending cuts that the Government force upon them. So long as the device exists, we cannot have a rational debate about how to deal with the problem at local authority level.

The Government operate a centralising policy, in that they control local government spending—they give 85 per cent. of grants and they cap local authority spending. They control the actions of local authorities throughout Scotland. However, the amendment is not a centralising procedure. It aims to give local authorities the freedom to begin consulting about how they will react to the policies of this centralising Government.

I want to know whether the SNP will vote against local authorities having that freedom. Will local authorities be faced with a situation where they cannot do anything, where their hands are tied and where all schools face serious problems because some schools choose to use this ridiculous device? It should not have been on the statute book, and the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I argued coherently against it in Committee. We warned Ministers what would happen. We warned that local authorities would not be able to close schools because the schools would use the measure to stop the closure. Ministers refused to listen, and now they have had to table an amendment that we told them should have been in the Bill in the first place. We should unite to attack the idiocy of opting out, instead of getting confused and trying to tie the hands of local authorities.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 4:15 pm, 10th July 1996

The hon. Gentleman himself started the argument between the Opposition parties, but does he agree that we have a useful opportunity, which the Minister wanted to avoid, to discuss the total failure of the opting-out policy and its impact, not just on individual schools, but on Scottish education? The hon. Gentleman agreed that some schools should close on educational grounds, but does he accept that some schools in Scotland are being closed not on educational grounds, but because of cost pressures on local authorities?

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

Not only do I agree with that, but I gave an example earlier of a school in my constituency that is closing because of cost pressures. There is no educational reason to close the school, but the local authority has to find savings. I should like to unite with the hon. Gentleman to attack the Tories and the way in which they have damaged local authority education in the years in which they have held sway over Scotland.

We debate the issues in a half-empty Chamber; we know that whatever we think as Scottish Members of Parliament will not matter in the end, because Tory Members will troop in from the bars and the restaurants to vote without even knowing for what they are voting. The only time that Conservative Members pay any attention to the Order Paper is when it mentions Members' pay or their individual constituencies. When they come to vote on Scottish issues, they ask where to go and which Lobby to enter. They do not care what the vote is about: they vote against Scotland anyway. That attitude pervades Conservative Members' thinking, and the Opposition should unite to oppose it.

The Minister gave the game away. He said that eight schools have applied to ballot on opting out since the local government financial settlement. He conceded that those schools do not want to opt out of local education authority control, but they want to avoid closure. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who used to be a Minister, but who has returned to the Back Benches, said some time ago in Committee that opting out would be the most popular decentralising measure ever and that schools across Scotland would use the procedure. He said that the Opposition would be proved wrong, but six or seven years later, only two schools in Scotland have opted out. They will not stay opted out for long, because we shall have a Labour Government and those schools will come back to the education authority sector, where they belong.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am beginning to conclude that we are in the run-up to the Olympics, because we have seen so many somersaults this afternoon. I had thought that the only somersault that we would witness would be from the Minister, but the peculiar contributions from the Scottish National party have set my head birling. Anyone who sought to use the self-governing legislation, which the Government wrongly introduced, to try to save schools, would deliver yet another blow to the structure of Scottish education and assist the Conservatives.

The Minister's contribution this afternoon should not be overlooked following the strange interventions from the Scottish National party. The Minister has done not just a double somersault, but a back flip. It is as well that the Minister responsible for education, housing and fisheries is also responsible for sport, because sport seems to be much on his mind this afternoon. Government amendment No. 17 proves that the self-governing schools legislation is a dog's breakfast. The Government have acknowledged this afternoon that that dog's breakfast has to be sorted out. I welcome the amendment, because it will give some cohesion to a situation that the Government have made incoherent.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

The hon. Lady may have heard the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) say that a Labour Government—an unlikely prospect—would take opted-out schools in Scotland back under local authority control, which would cut across the pledges made by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). Can the hon. Lady confirm that that would be done?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am delighted to confirm that that would be the case. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition are proud to maintain the distinctive nature of Scottish education, which has, at its core, the comprehensive state system that 97 per cent. of Scottish school pupils use. The interventions by the Scottish National party this afternoon have shown that its commitment to the state comprehensive sector is not as firm as ours.

The Minister referred earlier to the establishment of a support unit in the Scottish Office; that is yet another example of the dismal failure of the legislation. The Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989 has been a complete and utter failure. Only two micro schools have decided to opt out.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

If in her future parliamentary career the hon. Lady is promoted and is moved to a ministerial position that requires her to speak on education in England on behalf of the Labour party, will she continue to believe in a comprehensive system? Will she still be against schools opting out? Will she continue to hold her present views on selection? Or does she vary her views with different geographical responsibilities?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am delighted to confirm that I am committed to Scottish education. I am proud to speak in the House on behalf of Scottish education and proud to be committed to a separate devolved structure of Scottish education that will ensure that Scottish education remains distinct. That should be clear enough for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

But what are the hon. Lady's views?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

My views are perfectly clear. I believe in Scottish state comprehensive education, and on that basis, I am joined by 97 per cent. of Scotland's parents. The Scottish National party has shown its true colours this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

What of mixed ability? Perhaps the hon. Lady will put her views on the record. After all, she has put everything else on the record. What of mixed-ability teaching?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am sure that the Minister will have found time to read Labour's paper on the Scottish manifesto. We have made it clear that we would approach issues in a coherent and sensible manner. We believe in mixed-ability teaching. We believe also in setting—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. Mixed-ability teaching has little to do with the amendment.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Government have introduced a sensible amendment. They have listened for once to the views of Scotland's parents. Indeed, they have listened to the views of Scottish local authorities. They seek through the amendment to end opt-outs that relate to school closures, but that is not enough. They must now turn their attention to parents' organisations and other bodies that will seek to use opt-out ballots and pre-emptive strikes when closure is likely to be on the agenda. Some closures are driven by local authority cuts, but closures also take place for sound educational reasons. Schools can fall below a certain roll, which makes them educationally unsound. We must protect the structure of Scottish education.

It is rare for me to be able to accept a Government amendment, but on this occasion, I am glad to recognise that at long last they have seen sense.

Amendment agreed to.