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Opting for another flight of legislative fancy

The problem, as the little Dutch boy probably discovered, is that every time you put your finger in the hole in the dyke a leak springs somewhere else. Civil servants seeking to plug loopholes in the Self-Governing Schools Act must be cursing the parliamentary draftsmen whose engineering back in 1989 was so faulty that parents continually find new ways of misusing the legislation.

The latest attempt to stop opt-out ballots being requisitioned as a means of preventing or delaying school closures is being made in response to fresh examples of parental ingenuity. In turn, that ingenuity is a response to local authority proposals for rationalising school provision. Since the Scottish Office is as keen as any hard-pressed council to remove surplus places, ministers have put forward yet another amendment. In future, opponents of a closure will not be able to institute a ballot once an authority publishes a consultation paper on a school's future.

That is intended to counter ballots aimed at frustrating councillors and not at attaining the glories of self-government. Eight ballots have been called since the new councils took office. Only in one does there seem genuine support for self-government.

The Government should feel embarrassed on two levels. In practical terms the amendment, which has been added to the current Education (Scotland) Bill, will not work. Indeed it will exacerbate the problem. The temptation will be for parents at schools where there is a whiff of closure or amalgamation to take out the insurance of a ballot. As recent events in Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown, councillors appear spineless in pursuing unpopular policies. Many are more concerned about the political disgrace of an opted-out school in their backyard than about the financial implications of half-empty schools.

For ministers principle has gone out of the window along with good administration. They have to run to Parliament in a panic to block parent power. Where now are the fine words of a few years ago about liberating the consumers of education from the dead hand of local government? The Scottish Office has not been given the opportunity to fund a single thriving school of the kind envisaged in the self-government legislation. It has only orphans, and it does not want any more of them.

Recently the Prime Minister, basking in the democracy of the Grand Committee, asked rhetorically what could be obtained by way of devolution that was not better served through a committee that not only deals with Scottish legislation but is able to call in senior ministers. The answer is in John Major's own legislative programme. Large chunks of the new education Bill would be ditched by a forum of Scottish MPs who could not be overruled by those from south of the border. Likewise, the Self-Governing Schools Act would have been stillborn and ministers would have been spared their current embarrassed panic.

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