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St Mungo's Academy, Alloa

Volume 972: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.45 p.m.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to bring this matter to the attention of the House. My constituents were bitterly disappointed when they heard the announcement on 4 September last that the Government did not see the need for a secondary department with a six-year unit being built for the new St. Mungo's academy in Alloa. Their bitterness is all the more understandable when one realises that no earlier than 18 July the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher), in a letter to Mrs. Lilian MacDonald, the secretary of the St. Mungo's academy parent-teachers' action group, stated:

"I have examined the case for the replacement of these buildings and I am glad to be able to confirm that it is my intention to deal with it on the same basis as that conveyed to Central Region last November by the previous Administration."
I should like to know what caused the circumstances to change in such a short period.

I appreciate that in the months that lie ahead there will be an almost endless stream of Members raising matters such as this on the Adjournment. I should point out that this is not an educational cut; it is a school closure.

Part of the present secondary department of St. Mungo's academy is situated on the route of a proposed industrial relief road. This road was planned in the lifetime of the last Government and is to be financed from Common Market funds, so it is not likely to be cut. As the Minister will be aware from his visit to the town of Alloa last week, industrial development has been hampered by the poor road facilities, and the new road is essential for future expansion, especially since the town is shortly to be reduced in development area status. I said that only part of the school was affected, since St. Mungo's academy presently operates on 12 different sites.

The central regional council is committed to the new road and it sees no possible alternative to the demolition of the main building. Therefore, it is my contention that the alternative of St. Modan's academy in Stirling offered to the Central Region in the letter of 4 September is totally unsatisfactory on the following grounds.

First, the financial savings will be minimal when allowance is made for the cost of bussing the children to St. Modan's, of providing them with school meals and of paying the existing St. Mungo's staff. Secondly, there is the damage which will be done to the education of the students by the length of time spent travelling from Clackmannanshire to St. Modan's. Thirdly, there is the dubious accuracy of the population projections on which the future school roll is forecast. Fourthly, there are the implications of the closure under the 1918 Act of providing education for Catholics in denominational schools.

When I made the point earlier that St. Mungo's academy operated on 12 different sites in Alloa, it was not intended to convey the impression that it is in any way a slum school. In fact, the school has been successful in establishing a small but very sound sixth year over the last five years. Before that, St. Mungo's operated only as a four-year secondary school. However, since 1974 the expansion of the senior school has resulted in a record of academic success which bears comparison with any school in the region. Indeed, last year one student in the fifth year obtained six "A" passes at higher grade.

What is more important, however, is the fact that Central Region's estimate of only 20 per cent. of the pupils in the fourth year returning for a fifth year was exceeded by 250 per cent. It was said that, out of a fourth year of 84 pupils, only 17 would go into the fifth year. In 1979–80 there are in fact 40 pupils in the fifth year at St. Mungo's Academy.

In the past, when pupils had to transfer to other schools in the region, headmasters clearly appreciated the high quality of the students who transferred to do fifth and sixth year work in those other schools. Sometimes the high quality has been attributed to the fact that, apart from the notorious Dollar academy, St. Mungo's was the only school in Clackmannanshire which had a combined cadet force. I have little sympathy with militaristic arguments, but that is one that bears recogntiion by a Conservative Government.

However, the school serves the community in a variety of ways. Tonight, for example, a group of pupils from the school will have accompanied young people from the Cowden Park centre for the physically and mentally disabled to the swimming baths, where they will have helped them to undress and will have swum with them before enjoying about an hour at a disco. The significant factor is that the swimming bath is in the Lornshill academy. The children from St. Mungo's, however, have been entrusted with this important job.

It is recognised throughout Clackmannan that the pupils of St. Mungo's are in the forefront of community service. Earlier this year a group of the younger pupils were introduced to Princess Anne in recognition of their efforts on behalf of the International Year of the Child.

This service to the community is not confined to the students. The PTA over the years has raised money to provide, for example, a 41-seater bus, various pieces of educational equipment and books, and a mini-bus. The parents' association in the area has provided a variety of fund-raising facilities for the community. The determination and persistence of the parents was probably one of the main factors in convincing the last Government of the justice of the case for a new secondary school.

One of the cornerstones of that case was the fact that if St. Mungo's were given a real chance its full educational potential would be realised. The Scottish Education Department said in its letter of 4 September that the Central Region had projected a significant decline in the secondary school roll. I have already explained that the region's first forecast of the number of children staying on for the fifth year was way out. However, an examination of the baptismal rolls of the Catholic churches in Clackmannan shows figures that are 20 per cent. higher than those of the region.

If one projects the likely figures for the early 1980s for primary school admissions into the 1990s, they show that there will be a far greater school roll than the Scottish Education Department has forecast.

The structure plan for Stirling and Alloa, produced by the Central Region, shows a lower rate of increase in the school roll for St. Mungo's than for any other secondary school in the region. When the regional economic department has been questioned on the matter, it has been unable to give a satisfactory reason for the low projections. The letter of 4 September states that there would be room for a substantial proportion of St. Mungo's pupils in St. Modan's in Stirling—not for all, but for a substantial proportion. That flies in the face of the report in the structure plan which states that house building in the Stirling area will impose a strain on St. Modan's which will probably render it unable to take any more pupils in the mid-1980s.

The same is true for the other schools which would be responsible for taking up the overflow. The Alloa academy and Lornshill are two schools which are nearing saturation and will be in a very difficult position in the mid-1980s. It should be remembered that when St. Mungo's is closed it will not provide another building because the building will be demolished to make way for the new road.

The position in the country and in the central Stirling-Alloa area is quite clear. There will not be anything like the number of places for the number of children who will want to attend the fifth and sixth years in the late 1980s. I appreciate that the Minister has to defend his Civil Service brief, but the Education Department's statistics on the school population have been notoriously unreliable, often because it has had to work on the kind of information I have been describing. It has worked on imperfect information which has never fully taken account of all the special circumstances of the areas.

I put forward two other points which are perhaps of a more tendentious nature but have, nevertheless, to be considered. In the first instance, there are at present about 50 Catholic children in Clackmannan who attend non-denominational schools. It is my contention that most of them would go to a new secondary school if there were one in the county, and, secondly, that Catholics would move into the county in greater numbers if they knew that a school was available to them.

There is scope in the State system for schools of all sizes. There is no reason why a school of about 600 pupils, a combined primary and secondary school, should not exist. In fact, at present there are 62 schools in Scotland with rolls of less than 300. Only four of them were wholly secondary schools; the others were combined, as the new St. Mungo's would be if the plans were to go ahead.

The letter of 4 September which the Department sent out said that substantial savings in both capital and revenue expenditure would be achieved if fuller use were to be made of St. Modan's. Notwithstanding the cost of further expansion of St. Modan's, there would be little in the way of staff savings, since the director of education has said that there will be no redundancies. The cost of transporting the children from Clackmannan will not be less than £40,000 a year. In January the estimate was nearer £20,000, but the oil price rises and VAT increases have imposed an even heavier burden on that cost, so a figure of £40,000 is a conservative estimate as of today.

The cost of building a secondary department to the school on the same site as the primary one will result in a less expensive building, because there will be common services to both buildings and they will share a common campus.

I think that it is fair to say that if expenditure and finance were to be the only criteria for education in Clackmannan the parents of children in Alloa would be very concerned if they felt that their children's education was being affected for the benefit of the children of those who live in places such as Dollar, because it is quite clear that the savings from the non-construction of the secondary department of St. Mungo's will probably equal the kind of money which will be given in the form of increased aid to the fee-paying school of Dollar.

As the Minister is doubtless aware, Alloa has pockets of considerable deprivation. As far as the famous, or notorious Bowhouse development is concerned, this new school would be right next to the new Bowhouse in which the people of Clackmannan have such great hopes, and it would be an ideal site for a community school. It is Labour Members' contention that the functions, scope and activities of St. Mungo's could be expanded to cover not merely 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. education.

There are, however, not only financial arguments. There is the educational argument—for example, the time taken for children who live in Muckhart to get to St. Modan's. This would result in journeys of 90 minutes each way. Few students would be spending less than two hours per day travelling, with the detrimental effect that this would have on their studies and, not least, on their ability to do homework. Equally important would be their exclusion from sporting and other extra-curricular activities.

Over the years of transition before the demolition of St. Mungo's, it is difficult to assess what the effect will be on staff morale, and the problems involved in recruitment, and how this will percolate through the school system for the children who are at present there. But there is one other factor which I ought to bring to the Minister's attention. St. Mungo's academy is a denominational school. It was for schools such as this that the 1918 Act was passed. The local authority and the Government have a responsibility to provide educational facilities for the Catholic community in the area.

When the letter of 4 September is taken in conjunction with the Minister's statement on Friday last, I cannot see how the Catholics in Clackmannan will be able to afford to send their children to St. Modan's if they have to find the money for the bus fares and the school meals. Make no mistake about it, if their youngsters are to be away from 7.30 a.m. until 5 p.m. they will need more than snacks in a classroom or simple sandwiches in a box.

The parents have already expressed their desperate concern, and feel that their case has been ignored by the Scottish Office. Surely Ministers can change their minds, think again about the finance and ensure that the savings are minimal. It cannot be said that the educational grants are in any way attractive to those concerned, since the school has a good academic record and is improving all the time. It is a popular and well-respected establishment with a good record of community service. It is a small school, but it is no smaller than many others in Scotland.

All of these facts were known when the Minister wrote his letter in July reiterating his approval for the project. I appreciate that the Minister is a busy man, and realise that representatives from the Central Region have asked to meet him. However, if he can take the time to come to Alloa to make speeches about the importance of conserving glass, as he did last week, I feel that he can find the time to come to meet the pupils, parents and staff of St. Mungo's and to hear about the importance of preserving the school.

It is all very well for Tory Ministers to strut around Scotland talking about freedom of choice and the improvement of educational standards while at the same time starving local authorities of the means to achieve those objectives. It is little wonder that my constituents feel heartily sickened by the betrayal of the Government's commitment to build a new school. I ask the Minister to think again.

In May 1977 the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North, who was then Opposition spokesman on education, wrote another letter, unfortunately, the first of many. In it he said:
"I hope that a more enlightened view will prevail when we have a change of Government."
We have had that change of Government, but unfortunately we have not had the enlightenment that we were promised.

May we please have an assurance tonight that a new school will be provided, not just for the primary department but for the secondary department and that justice will be done to this part of Scotland?

12.2 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) for raising this matter. I know that he takes it seriously, as indeed, he should. I assure him that I also take it seriously. Although I believe that he has exaggerated his case, that is perhaps understandable in view of the strong feelings that he holds.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government did not see the need for St. Mungo's Roman Catholic school in Alloa, and asked why there should be any change in the plans to rebuild the school. I think that the facts speak for themselves, especially those regarding the population and the potential school roll of St. Mungo's in Alloa. Although circumstances have changed in relation to physical numbers, which must be taken into account, the fact is that no final decision has been taken. Therefore, tonight's debate is a contribution towards the decision that will have to be made in the near future.

I should like to clear up two points with regard to the 1918 Act and Roman Catholic education. I am advised that a scheme of transfer from St. Mungo's to St. Modan's would in no way contravene the terms of the Act. There is no measure that I would wish to take in this respect that would do so.

I am afraid that I cannot give way, because time is limited. The hon. Gentleman talked about the catchment zone and about travelling from Alloa to Stirling if it was finally agreed that there should be a transfer to St. Modan's. While Alloa is very much in the overall catchment area for St. Modan's, Stirling, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the school attracts pupils from as far away as Callander, which is 17 miles away—much further than Alloa—and Denny and Dennyloanhead, which are 11 miles away. Therefore, this school has an attraction to pupils from a considerably large area. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps take that into account in any possible scheme for transferring to St. Modan's.

The question of a replacement school for St. Mungo's academy in Alloa has been a matter of concern for some time, and I can readily appreciate the feelings of those affected by the present position. The parent-teacher action group for the school wrote to me last month to say that it was distressed to learn that the issue was, as the group put it,
"once again in the melting pot".
I regret this, of course, but with a rapid decline in pupil numbers and a growing surplus of school places it is, I am afraid, inevitable.

I should like to make two points clear, in view of the terms of the letter that the hon. Gentleman sent me about this school last month and of the terms of the early-day motion No. 138, which was tabled last week. They are, first, that there has been no change of mind on our part, and, secondly, as I have already said, that we have taken no final decision on this matter.

As to the first point, the St. Mungo's parent-teacher action group wrote to me in June to say that, as it understood the situation, my predecessor in office had accepted the special case for replacement buildings for St. Mungo's, and to ask whether I would honour this promise. In my reply, in the letter of 18 July referred to in the motion, I said that I had examined the case for replacement of these buildings and was glad to be able to confirm that it was my intention to deal with it on the same basis as that conveyed to the central regional council last November by the previous Administration.

In replying in these terms, I was sure that the action group would be well aware of the terms of the letter of 17 November 1978 in which my predecessor in office, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone), had conveyed his decision to the regional council, since it was released to the press at the time and was therefore public information. I imagine that it was well quoted locally. Essentially, it accepted that a new road passing through the middle part of the main site of the school would result in an unacceptable deterioration of conditions at the school, and went on to say that allowance would be made for a replacement school if the council were satisfied that it was essential for the proposed road to pass through the site of St. Mungo's and decided to proceed with its construction. Here I should say, in parenthesis, that the council subsequently indicated that it was satisfied that it was essential for the road to pass through the school site.

It is important to note, however, that the letter of 17 November also stated that the sum to be allowed would be a matter for discussion in the normal way, having regard to the decline in the roll of the school projected by the council. I know that the hon. Gentleman has put forward figures which differ, but, with all due respect to him and to those who provided the figures, we have a pretty good idea of the numbers, in so far as it is possible to look at the local position, because the pupils we are talking about are around today. We are not talking, when we project a few years hence, in terms of any speculation about the birth rate. When we talk of the secondary roll we are talking of children who are alive and at school today. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if people are to go to secondary school in three or four years' time I can assure him that they are alive and at primary school today.

I am afraid that there is no time to give way. When, some weeks after I had written to the parent-teacher action group, I came to deal with the case, the question was not, therefore, whether allowance should be made for a replacement school, as, like my predecessor, I had accepted that it should. The question was as to the size of the new school for which allowance should be made, having regard to the projected decline in the roll.

The question of the form that the new school should take was a matter about which the council, presumably as a consequence of the terms of the letter of 17 November from my predecessor, had subsequently consulted parents and teachers, on the basis of an estimate that the number of secondary pupils would fall from 343 in 1978–79 to 260 in 1985–86. It invited the views of parents and teachers on a proposed replacement school comprising a primary unit for pupils from primary 1 to primary 5 and a middle school unit for pupils from primary 6 to secondary 2. It was explained to them that pupils beyond secondary 2 could be provided for at St. Modan's Roman Catholic high school in Stirling, where a large extension was then about to be completed.

The parents and teachers had expressed opposition to this proposal, and in due course the council forwarded to the Scottish Education Department a submission in respect of a replacement school comprising a primary department for pupils in primary 1 to 7, and a secondary department for pupils in secondary 1 to 6.

We gave careful consideration to this proposal and to the views which had been expressed by those consulted by the council. While we accepted the need for a primary department on the scale proposed by the council, we were not convinced, on the information available, that there was an adequate case for a six-year secondary department. The expected decline in the secondary roll was such that many or perhaps even all of the pupils could be accommodated in St. Modan's. It seemed to us, therefore, that further consideration should be given to the practicability of making fuller use of the existing secondary accommodation in St. Modan's, which has recently been enlarged at considerable cost.

In the letter of 4 September from my Department, the council was accordingly asked to reconsider its proposals on the basis of making fuller use of St. Modan's, having regard to the substantial savings in both capital and current expenditure that might be achieved in this way. It should be noted here that we left it to the council to consider how fuller use might be made of the available accommodation at St. Modan's.

The projections that we have from the authority show that, whereas St. Mungo's would decline rapidly from 350 pupils to 300 in 1982, a transfer from St. Mungo's to St. Modan's would be well within the latter's capacity. Because of these projections, we have asked the authority to reconsider the evidence to see whether some better scheme could be worked out for the education of children after secondary 2. The hon. Member's remarks about children who go to Roman Catholic schools and Roman Catholics who go to non-denominational schools must be very speculative. Therefore, that factor is extremely difficult to assess.

Thus the letter of 4 September did not convey any final decision in the matter to the council. I regard it as a step in the process of discussing an appropriate allowance for the replacement project. The council has since indicated that it wishes to adhere to its decision, and it has asked for a meeting to discuss the matter. I appreciate that this is a difficult issue of much concern locally, and I shall be ready to discuss it with representatives of the council once they have provided some further information about the educational and financial considerations which they had in mind in reaching their decision.

It has been suggested, in effect, that using available accommodation at St. Modan's high school for secondary pupils from the area served by St. Mungo's would make neither educational nor economic sense. I cannot, of course, accept that view of the matter. The accommodation at St. Modan's has just been enlarged in a building project costing over £1 million, and it seems to me that it would make economic sense to give further consideration to the practicability of making fuller use of the accommodation at this school.

If pupils beyond secondary 2 were to be accommodated at St. Modan's, as in the proposal about which the council had local consultations, the cost of the replacement building for St. Mungo's would be about one-third less than the sum of almost £1·6 million required for the council's proposed project, giving a capital saving of the order of £500,000. In addition, the extra expenditure on staff and other running costs involved in absorbing more pupils at St. Modan's would be less than the expenditure for the same number of pupils in a small secondary department at St. Mungo's. This could amount to quite a considerable sum per year, but I do not at present have an estimate from the council of the amount.

From these savings we have, of course, to deduct the additional cost of transporting pupils, which the council has put at £20,000 a year. If all the secondary pupils were to be accommodated at St. Modan's, the saving in public expenditure would be a good deal more. The capital cost might be about £1 million less, and there would be a larger saving in staff and other running costs. The extra cost of transporting pupils to be set against the savings is estimated by the council—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.