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School Closures In Scotland

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 28 January 1988

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4.27 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement about school closures in Scotland.

"Regulations were laid yesterday which had the effect that where an education authority proposed to close, change the site, or vary the catchment area of any school where the number of pupils at the school is greater than 80 per cent. of its capacity that proposal shall be referred to the Secretary of State for his consent.

"Since 1885 Scottish Secretaries have had the power to review school closures. Until 1981 any proposal to close any school in Scotland had to come to the Secretary of State for his consent. At that time the House approved a change in the regulations which left two categories of school for which his consent was required for a closure proposal—namely, denominational schools and rural schools where the alternative was more than a certain distance from the school to be closed.

"We all recognise that a number of education authorities are currently faced with substantial overcapacity in their schools. Understandably some authorities are contemplating proposals which will involve the closure of a considerable number of schools. This will allow them to use their resources for education more effectively.

"But that task must be carried out in a balanced and sensitive manner. It is a clear priority of the Government that education should reflect the interests of children and the wishes of their parents. The Education (Scotland) Act already places a duty on both the Secretary of State and education authorities to ensure that pupils are educated in accordance with parental wishes.

"It is therefore reasonable to expect education authorities to take into account parent demand in considering proposals for school closures. Clearly, no one can be surprised when an authority proposes to close half-empty schools. But where a school is full or nearly full and by that fact demonstrates both that it has the clear and strong support of parents and that it gives good value for money to its community, I believe it is only right that there should be scope for further review of a proposal to close such a school."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am sure he will be aware from his reading of the Scottish press just how important the Statement is to Scotland and particularly to Scottish education. There is a strong feeling right across the press that the Government are changing the rules in the middle of consultation. The direct interference—it can only be described as that—by the Prime Minister in a specific local matter is surely to be deplored.

The Minister spoke of the power that the Government had but which was surrendered in the 1981 Act. Is he aware that as recently as 1985 the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Alan Stewart—who, ironically, was the person who tabled the Written Question—when questioned about the closure of local schools prior to the 1981 Act, said:
"Education authorities had no option but to seek the Secretary of State's permission to close. The procedure was wasteful of resources, and bureaucratic".
This next sentence is most important:
"It was also wrong in principle, for it had the effect of passing to central Government a local matter that would more properly have been left to local discretion".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/4/85; col. 1364.]
All noble Lords know that behind the new regulation is the case of Paisley Grammar School. The Minister must be aware of the fact that Clyde Regional Council was not considering only one school in the area. There are six non-denominational schools in the Paisley area and some of them had to close. In its wisdom, the council decided that this should be the school to close. It is important to realise that having a capacity of 80 per cent. may be a good measure, but 80 per cent. in an isolated school is different from 80 per cent. in six schools all within a reasonable distance of each other. Hard decisions must be taken if local authorities are to deal with education in a proper economic and effective way, as the Government wish.

This morning the Glasgow Herald summed up the situation in its leader column where it stated:
"Yesterday was a dismal day for what still remains of local democracy".
This action is an appalling interference with local democracy.

My Lords, this is an extraordinary way to run a country. We are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is extraordinary that the issue arose because the headmaster of the school referred to—Paisley Grammar School—was told that the regulations that might save his school were to be made before Parliament was told. It is an extraordinary reflection on the failure of the Government to give confidence to local authorities to trust in them and to co-operate. While I am delighted that this old and good school is to be saved, the principle of running the country in this way is extraordinary. I realise that a forceful and youthful Minister is responsible for education in Scotland but that is no reason for the Government to behave in this manner.

I should like to ask the Minister how many other schools the Government consider need to be saved from the local authorities which run them; or is this instance simply a one-off, which would make the situation even more extraordinary? I should like the Government to consider whether it is not a fact that the situation has been caused because of the lack of a decent system of elected local authorities and indeed the House of Commons. One might consider the broader question, when governments must take extraordinary action such as this to produce a regulation to save a school which is threatened by, admittedly, a highly ideological body in Strathclyde Regional Council.

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for replying to the Statement. Their reaction was perhaps predictable. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked whether this situation would wreck Strathclyde's attempt to rationalise schools. The answer to that question must be that there is no reason why it should. It may need to rethink the details, but in principle it is right that it should remove surplus capacity where it exists.

The noble Lord also mentioned other schools in the area. If Strathclyde proposed to close Paisley Grammar School it would be able to put that point to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. If we did not think that there was a good case for Paisley Grammar School we should not have made such regulations. However, I insist that each case will be considered on its merits.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, referred to today's Glasgow Herald. I also read that article, but the noble Lord failed to point out the following statement:
"There was a good case for saving such centres of excellence as Paisley Grammar School".
Turning to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, noble Lords know very well his views on proportional representation, and I shall not comment on that at this stage. He asked how many schools will be affected. The answer is, more than one. This is not a special measure for one school, and the number of cases that arise will depend on the decisions taken by education authorities.

My Lords, the Minister of State was not in this House in 1981, but, for my sins, I was. For my sins, I opposed the change that the Secretary of State was than making. Until 1981 no school could be closed without the consent of the Secretary of State. With great flurries of freedom from the party opposite, the Secretary of State gave up that power. But he did more than that.

There are two categories of school in Scotland: the general public schools and the denominational schools. The Government deliberately wrote in a privileged position for the denominational schools where the hierarchy had to agree and there was an agreement that the case should go to the Secretary of State. I later tried to achieve equality between the denominational and the ordinary schools, but the party opposite opposed that. Therefore on two or three occasions it has declared that the Secretary of State is excluded and the matter must be left to the local authorities.

Strathclyde Regional Council embarked on an important and essential job. However, it is an unpopular job, because closing any school is unpopular. That is why the Secretary of State for Scotland was glad to be rid of the power that he had. However, we then had an inexperienced Undersecretary, who, in the middle of the negotiations and decisions blundered through the west of Scotland and made speeches and promises that the Government do not have power to implement. In the middle of that the Government come along with these regulations.

The Minister said that they are to apply all over Scotland. Of course they are, but he knows that effectively they will apply to one school in particular in Strathclyde's case. It may be a good thing that that school is saved, but it probably could have been saved without the blundering intervention of a Minister of State who got people's backs up in local authorities.

The Minister did not mention the fact that we have been concerned with closing schools in order to match the falling rolls with the necessary capacity. In the calculation of the 80 per cent. one can consider the maximum number of pupils in attendance at the school in any one year in the period of 10 years preceding the proposals. Therefore, if they can cite a capacity of 80 per cent. nine years ago the Secretary of State can withhold his consent. This is ridiculous.

I do not know whether it is entirely valid, after using the 1981 Act to remove the powers of the Secretary of State, now to reintroduce them in a gerrymandering way. That is what the people of Scotland object to; namely, the arbitrary way in which the Government have come in seemingly to save one school and not given a proper opportunity for the local authority to reconsider. A school with which I was concerned was involved and I was asked for my views. I said, "No, I am not giving my views". The power has been passed—it was Mr. Younger at the time—from the Secretary of State to the local authority, the education authority. Let them consult; I am sure that people will let their views be known. I am sure that in that instance they came to the right conclusion, and in the end, they would have come to the right conclusion about Paisley as well. However, let the Government realise what they are doing. If they can do it for one school, they will be asked to do it for every school.

We should remember that it is not a case of every school but of one school alone. I see in his place the former Secretary of State who insisted on the creation of Strathclyde, which comprises half the population of Scotland, and probably more teachers than there are in the remaining regions. He insisted, against the wishes of this House, on the creation of Strathclyde. That region has a terrible task. I do not know whether the Government have been helping in this and I do not believe it is good for democracy.

My Lords, first, I should like to say how pleased I am to see the noble Lord, Lord Ross, back in this House. Whenever he contributes to a debate, he always gives one food for thought. The noble Lord's remarks are predictable. He questions the whole business of capacity and how that is determined. I think that I have that point. It is for the education authorities to decide in the first instance. The education authorities must have measures of school capacity in any case and, provided that these are reasonable, there should not be any grounds for dispute.

However, when it comes to the overall responsibility for education in Scotland, that must be the task of the government of the day. On this aspect, the Government believe that a clear case has been made out for them to take account of capacity and a full roll, as indeed applies in the case of Paisley Grammar School, as has been mentioned. That is why they have laid this order.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that Strathclyde Regional Council commissioned a fairly long exercise by a review group to look at all its schools because it has a very large number of excess places? The review group has reported, and there has been a considerable internal row within the Labour administration of Strathclyde about which schools should be closed. However, it has been possible for them to agree upon only a few schools at the present time. Among those schools—most of which, as I understand it, are schools with rolls which have fallen or with very out-of-date premises—one particular school, Paisley Grammar School, is booming. It has enormous parental support but it has been recommended to be closed on doctrinaire grounds alone. Therefore, does the Minister not agree that all governments have a duty to have arrangements whereby it is possible to come between doctrinaire politicians and the wishes of parents for a booming school and that that is what this particular measure is about?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour for her comments. First, I insist that, although Paisley Grammar School has been highlighted in this debate, this is not a special measure for one school. Paisley Grammar School is only one example. Any school operating at or near capacity will receive the same treatment. My noble friend Lady Carnegy mentioned the review group in Strathclyde which is looking at this problem. The eduction committee of Strathclyde Regional Council still has to make its decision. The order that we placed yesterday comes into effect immediately and it will have to take that into consideration.

4.45 p.m.

My Lords, why did the Government not do this at the start? We knew 10 years ago that there would be a problem in relation to the closing of schools. In the very Act that passed the power from the Secretary of State to the local authority is the power in which, effectively, they resurrect the power of the Secretary of State to intervene. We object to the strange use of regulations stemming from an Act which reduced the power of the Secretary of State effectively to sneer at local democracy. Is this doctrinaire? There is nothing doctrinaire about dealing with a situation in which the Government have been asking local authorities to get rid of over-capacity. We are not dealing with one school in Paisley. There are six schools. If you change one then you change the attitude of them all, or will the Government financially support the retention of schools that create the over-capacity? Will they do that?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ross, with his experience, will understand that schools which have full rolls are in a very different position to those which are half empty or less. That is a matter which the Government quite rightly have to take into account in considering overall education policy. Certain categories of case have already come forward for the approval of the Secretary of State. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, made that clear under the 1981 Act; namely, where closure would involve long distance travel for pupils. This is only an extension of our selective involvement.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, seems to have brought me into this debate. Perhaps I should ask my noble friend if he thinks that the creation of Strathclyde, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, referred, has caused the problem with which he is dealing today; if so, that was my decision 15 years ago. It was recommended by the Wheatley Royal Commission which was unanimous that there should be a two-tier system of regional and distict councils. I reduced the size of Strathclyde. It was smaller when it came into existence than had been recommended by the Royal Commission but it is difficult to say that it should not exist at all. The problem is that half the population of Scotland live within about 15 miles of the centre of Glasgow. That is the problem which had to be dealt with in the reorganisation of local government.

My Lords, in the presence of two ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland, it would not be for me to enter into an argument on whether or not Strathclyde is the right size.

My Lords, it is rather important to consider what the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, said when she talked about a row in the Labour group. There was no row. It was just a normal problem that one has in any group when one is making selections about closing this or that school. All of us who have been in a representative capacity, particularly in the other place, know that as soon as a school is going to close, the people naturally do not like the change.

It is important to realise that in Strathclyde the surplus is such that a number of schools have been turned over to, and adapted for, housing. There is a particular problem at Paisley. I shall read the Minister of State's words very carefully. I believe he suggested that it all started because of Paisley Grammar School. As I have said, and as my noble friend. Lord Ross of Marnock has said, we are talking about six schools, all within a fairly small area, all well within travelling distance one from the other. The education authorities have more than just the numbers in the school to think of. If there are six schools, they are in different conditions as regards repair, age and facilities. I understand, although I have not had much time to look at the details, that one of the schools in the area could quite easily be called Paisley Grammar School. It is extremely well equipped with sports facilities, gymnasiums and, I believe, a swimming pool which the existing Paisley Grammar School does not have.

It is wrong to say that only an ideological point is involved. It has been suggested that this other school, or one of the other schools, could be called Paisley Grammar and continue the traditions. As I said, the local authority has to consider more than just the capacity of the school. There may be a school with a wonderful tradition which is falling about one's ears and it would be wrong to keep that school open if there was another fine school well within travelling distance.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the condition of the buildings is the least important aspect? Surely it is the excellence of the school that matters.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for his further contribution. I have to say that it is the duty of education authorities, as it is with cases under present regulations, to come forward with their plans. There is nothing for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to consider until the educational committee of Strathclyde makes proposals. It will then have to consult parents as required under existing regulations. If the education committee still wishes to go ahead the case will come to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

We should not pay too much attention to the present case—and I say quite clearly that Paisley Grammar School has raised this point. However, what the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, says about other conditions will obviously be taken into account by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland when he considers that point.

As regards the buildings, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, makes a very interesting and valid point.