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Grant-Aided Schools (Scotland)

Volume 888: debated on Tuesday 11 March 1975

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With permission, I should like to make a statement about my proposals for the future of the grant to the grant-aided secondary schools in Scotland.

I have decided that in 1975–76 the grant should be of the same amount as for 1974–75, subject, as has always been the case, to limitation to the actual amount of deficit in the case of any particular school. Phasing out will begin in 1976–77 and will extend over a period to be decided in the light of the circumstances revealed by discussion between my Department and the schools and the education authorities concerned.

The decision to phase grant out represents the implementation of longstanding Government policy. By delaying phasing out until the beginning of the 1976–77 school session we are providing ample opportunity for discussion with the managers of the schools and with the education authorities concerned on the most appropriate arrangements to be made for the future.

Discussions will be put in hand immediately. I expect that it will be necessary for separate meetings to take place with individual schools or groups of schools and that meetings with the schools will precede meetings with individual education authorities. My hope is that it will be found possible for the schools to be fully integrated in the public system of education as comprehensive schools but I have not made up my mind in advance on what the best arrangements might be.

Is not the right hon. Gentleman's statement simply death by strangulation of these schools? Does he realise that he bears a heavy responsibility indeed for butchering a very important and respected sector of Scottish education. I repeat the pledge given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) that we shall reopen the list of grant-aided schools.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, is he aware that in Edinburgh alone about 500 parents have been forced to apply for local authority school places for their children? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that if this number increases, as it will following his statement, local authorities, as they have said, will not be able to meet such continued demand? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the State system will be able to cope? Second, does he realise that in England and Wales 25 per cent. of parents pay full fees whereas in Scotland the figure is 98 per cent.? Those parents will bear the full brunt of the Government's vindictiveness. In these changed circumstances, brought about by the Government, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider introducing a fees remission scheme in Scotland for parents who have children at these schools?

The hon. Gentleman should know that it is not helpful to compare the system in Scotland with that in England. In Scotland 98 per cent. of pupils go to local education authority schools. The number of places available in the grant-aided schools for local education authority pupils is about 1,850, 1,000 of whom are in one school which is virtually a local authority school, Marr College in Troon. When the hon. Member speaks about the pressure on Edinburgh he should appreciate that the figure is about 495 firm applications—

—and 195 are in respect of primary places. Judging from the statement made yesterday by the director of education in Edinburgh, there is not the alarming prospect which the hon. Gentleman suggests. The authority is well able to cope. When we bear in mind that the school population in Edinburgh is 87,500 we begin to get the thing into perspective. There is no justification for the kind of remarks the hon. Gentleman has made. The hon. Gentleman knows that a fees remission scheme does not exist in Scotland. Whether anything can be done on these lines as the grant is tapered off will be subject to discussion.

In supporting in principle what the Secretary of State has announced, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that there are many parents in Scotland whose children are at present in direct grant schools and wish to see an end to the dual system of education? Will he also recognise that in fairness he must produce a scheme for those who had already entered their children before this change in policy was announced and may suffer hardship as a result of the freezing of the grant?

I took note of that point in my answer to the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). What we have to bear in mind when people talk about freedom of choice is that this freedom of choice is not available for 98 per cent. of Scottish children. When choice is limited by finance it becomes a matter of subsidised and selective privilege, which is quite outwith the whole traditions of Scottish education.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many members of Edinburgh Corporation will welcome his statement, particularly since they have been striving to establish a comprehensive system in the face of a substantial grammar school system which has been kept out with the maintained sector? Will he further accept that there may be building consequences for Edinburgh Corporation as a result of his decision, even if all the grant-aided schools were to enter the State sector, because they are not in the right place? Will he therefore give an assurance that he will look sympathetically at any applications for borrowing consent from local authorities which are faced with the necessity for further building in seeking to take full opportunity of his announcement?

My hon. Friend will realise that we are aware of all these matters. We are aware of the support we have in Edinburgh generally for what we are doing. All these relevant consequences will be taken into account.

Will the Secretary of State appreciate that, contrary to what he has said, in Perthshire there is a free choice to all children to go to a direct grant school? How does he accommodate his statement with Article 22 of the Declaration of Human Rights signed in Paris on 12th December 1948 by Clement Attlee on behalf of the people of this country—that every parent shall have the prime right to select the method of his or her child's education?

Instead of looking at that declaration the hon. and learned Gentleman ought to see what was written in Scottish Education Acts.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the sudden exodus from the House when he rose to make his statement was not a reflection upon him but merely reflected the general lack of interest in Scottish affairs which is so often shown in this House? [Interruption.] Is he aware that we on the Scottish National Party bench welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has adopted the idea of the Scottish National Party in phasing out grant-aided schools? [Interruption.] Will he now say when he will announce the timetable for the phasing-out period and thus reduce the uncertainty which so many parents feel?

My statement is designed to remove uncertainty as quickly as possible. May I add that I had great difficulty in hearing what the hon. Lady had to say and that that was probably related to a lack of interest in what she was saying.

Was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I to learn that we had adopted SNP policy, since our policy was enunciated many years ago when we were in Opposition? Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that all concerned with Scottish education will be delighted by his statement? Will he confirm that what we are doing is restoring to Scotland the traditional form of education? Will he also confirm that the choice being referred to here is no choice for over 90 per cent. of the people but is one allowed only by a process of selection, a process involving money, or a process involving living in a castle— like the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn)?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the traditional aims of Scottish education and the traditional claims of Scottish education. I have always found these to be consistent.

How will it help advance Scottish education by imposing — as the Secretary of State is doing— a policy which will produce freedom of choice in education only for the rich? Why has he failed so miserably even to be able to give the same assurance as was given by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the effect that protection would be afforded to those parents caught in the changeover? Does he not agree that it is crazy to take steps to drive children into the State sector at a time when he has imposed the most savage cuts on new school building, in 1975–76, that we have ever had in Scotland's history? Does that not show, again, that as a Secretary of State he is a complete washout?

I am sure that the House will be delighted to know that the Scottish education building programme is higher this year than it has even been.

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I referred to the statement as a lie and I should not have done. It was simply because I had an answer to a Written Question a few days ago from the Secretary of State which gave the relevant figures. I unreservedly withdraw my remark, but I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the answer he gave me a week ago.

That is an unreserved withdrawal according to the hon. Member. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish building programme—

I am telling the hon. Gentleman what we are providing for educational building in Scotland in the current year. It is higher than it was last year or the year before. We have also this year to undertake a quarter of last year's building programme which was pushed forward by the Tory Government into this year as part of their sleight of hand in cutting down on educational building. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that what has been said is true and that 98 per cent. of Scottish schoolchildren do not have freedom of choice. There is no justification for subsidising this privileged sector.