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The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) nods in agreement: I am glad that the Liberal view supports ours for once.
All the reforms in which we believe are intended to improve the education of our nation's children, not to change society as the Labour party wants to do. We want the best, and—as the past decade has shown—we are prepared to invest the necessary money. I do not know what the Liberal Democrats' views are; the hon. Member for Bath has sometimes favoured grant-maintained schools and sometimes opposed them. In any event, the Conservative party has been in the engine room when education reforms have been initiated—in the form of primary legislation, or decided within the Department for Education.
Although the Queen's Speech does not mention an education Bill, we need improvements in our education service. We need time for the reforms of the recent past to work through the system. We are already seeing improvements, and I believe that, as those reforms come on stream, we shall see a further vast improvement in standards and enthusiasm in schools, along with results in further and higher education.
I welcome the proposed extension of the nursery school system. During the time—until May—that the Conservatives controlled my borough of Bexley, we experienced a steady improvement in the provision of nursery education. Although I welcome that, I must introduce a note of caution.
The Select Committee on Education, of which I was a member, examined provision for the under-fives and produced a good report. We supported nursery education and the gradual expansion of provision, but insisted that education must be appropriate for the age group, not merely an extension of primary schooling. Early education is a helpful foundation for a child's later development, but the educational content must be appropriate.
Conservative Members, including me, strongly support the Pre-School Playgroups Association, which has done so much excellent work over the years. The staff-pupil ratio is far better in playgroups than in nursery schools. Playgroups encourage mothers to join in, allow pupils to attend for one or two sessions a week and enable children to socialise in a friendly and homely atmosphere.
I recently visited Christchurch playgroup in Erith, in my constituency. I was very impressed by the educational content of its activities, and by its super atmosphere. Similarly, when I recently visited the excellent St. Paulinus playgroup in Crayford, I was impressed by the commitment of staff, the interest and involvement of parents and the work of the children.
I should not like to see that work destroyed; the playgroups are still doing so much good work. Conservative Members want expanded nursery education provision—of course—to work alongside the playgroups: we believe in choice and diversity in education for those aged three and over. We know that education is a continuing process.
For many years, Britain has lagged behind its competitors in terms of vocational education. I accept that our A-levels are first class, and I certainly do not want that standard to be diminished; but we must ensure that general national vocational qualifications, and higher GNVQs, are raised to a standard of excellence that is accepted throughout the country—by industry, parents, schools and colleges. The course must be perceived as worth while and challenging.
I know that progress has been made. I understand that some 4,000 students took advanced GNVQs in the past year; that is excellent news. We must ensure, however, that rigorous standards are maintained and developed, especially in view of the amount of public money that has been spent.
This was a good Queen's Speech—moderate, effective, yet radical in parts. [Interruption.] Ah, I have woken the Opposition. They do not like radicalism; they are living in the past. We, as good Conservatives, believe that we should be radical where necessary, and conserve where necessary.
The speech will be welcomed in the country, both for what it includes and for what it omits. The omission of education legislation should allow our radical reforms of the past to work through the system—to improve standards, encourage excellence and ensure the best for all our children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has tremendous good will from all quarters in the country for what she is doing. Under her stewardship, results will come through which will be a credit to everyone in the education sector, whether they are administrators, teachers, parents or pupils. The education reforms have been right. They have been good and essential, and they will work. After they have worked their way through, our education service and system will again be the best in the world.