Ministers had been "slightly taken aback" to discover that the first demand on a list drawn up by the Convention of Local Authorities when asked for views on delegating powers to councils was the withdrawal of the Secretary of State from any involvement in school closures, amalgamations and catchment area changes.
"We were immediately aware of the sensitivities involved in this proposal in relation to denominational schools and we cautiously expressed reservations, " Mr Robertson said. He denied that local government reorganisation was jeopardising provision and pointed out that admission, attendance and transport arrangements would not be affected by new boundaries.
"The Secretary of State can, in defined circumstances, require an education authority to submit any of a wide range of other proposals to him for consent. This would include a proposal to close a denominational school," Mr Robertson said. However, self-governing status will not be an option as a way to avoid closure.
Mr Robertson went out of his way to praise the Catholic sector's "good community ethos, above average standards in discipline and a good record of imbuing pupils with religious and moral values which, in the broader community, translate into responsible citizenship".
Heads did not repay his civility. Hugh Lynch, St Mungo's High, Falkirk, accused the Government of starving the state system while expanding the assisted places scheme. "Unacceptable cuts in per capita and equipment come from Government public expenditure," Mr Lynch said.
"I have cut nothing in education, absolutely nothing," the Aberdeen South MP told a sceptical audience. Cuts were the responsibility of councils. Under the Conservatives, 30 per cent more was spent on education in real terms than under the last Labour government.
Peter Simmons, an adviser in Edinburgh, suggested ministers "should talk in terms of what is needed for the education service rather than the specious comparison with some figures 16 years ago".
George Haggerty, St John's High, Dundee, warned that the "receptive environment" for introducing changes such as the Higher Still reforms was "disappearing very rapidly". Mr Haggerty said: "At this moment in schools in terms of staffing cuts, cuts in cover and per capita people are seeing a lot of progress wiped away. Somewhere in there the local authorities are paying the price of restructuring."
Dick Lynas, Taylor High, Motherwell, questioned the possible reintroduction of selection. Mr Robertson said ministers envisaged "selection within schools" but Mr Lynas replied: "I go back long enough to remember selection in schools. The trouble with selection is that most people get selected out and labelled failures not only in the eyes of the teachers who teach them but in the eyes of their peers and when they look at themselves in the mirror."