Orders of the Day — Education (Scotland) Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 4th June 1996.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling 3:48 pm, 4th June 1996

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government are firmly committed to the promotion of quality, diversity and choice across the whole of society, and our achievements in the field of education demonstrate the reality of that commitment. Raising standards, reporting to parents, placing requests, assisted places, school boards, the option of self-governing status and many more initiatives show that our record in that field stands squarely behind those aims.

Many, if not most, of the now valued changes to Scottish education introduced by the Government were greeted initially with scepticism, if not hostility. I know that well. I think particularly of the five to 14 programme, national testing and of the Howie report. Many of the ideas that I promoted were said by Opposition Members to be totally unworkable, but those ideas are now accepted as uncontroversial and even embraced as part of the Opposition's programme. The Education (Scotland) Bill will further those ideas even more.

The Bill has benefited from the special procedures introduced by the Government for handling Scottish legislation. As a result of the evidence presented at the Select Committee in Glasgow in March, a number of useful amendments were made to the Bill in Committee in another place.

The Bill is a balanced package of measures, ranging from important improvements to our existing successful policies on school boards and placing requests to the restructuring of the qualifications and assessment arrangements in Scotland and measures that will facilitate the implementation of our policies on pre-school education.

Our commitment to standards underlies our plans for improving qualifications for the over-16 age group. "Higher Still" will deliver a unified curriculum and assessment for that age group from 1998. It will create a coherent, unified qualifications system that incorporates both the academic and vocational strands of learning. It will improve the quality of education available to all students whether they are in school or further education. It will also promote parity of esteem between different branches of learning, enabling Scotland to bridge the academic and vocational divide. That is an objective we share with almost all other western industrial nations, but in Scotland we can soon convert that to reality.

"Higher Still" strengthened the case for creating a unified organisation for assessment and certification. Consultation last year showed strong and widespread support for a new single body to incorporate existing functions and to manage "Higher Still". Part I of the Bill will set up such a body. The Scottish Qualifications Authority, or SQA, will take over the existing functions and assets of the Scottish Examination Board, or SEB, and the Scottish Vocational Education CouncilSCOTVEC. It will also administer the "Higher Still" qualifications.

The SQA will build on the high reputations of the existing bodies to improve the quality of Scottish qualifications and enhance their status abroad. It will be responsive to all those who use its services. We are determined to improve the quality and standards in Scottish education. That area is vital to all those involved in education and training, including teachers, students and employers.

I turn now to the provisions in part II. I am delighted to have this opportunity to explain the Government's policy on the expansion of pre-school education in Scotland. Our approach to this initiative is driven by careful forward planning, widespread consultation, and commitment to parent choice, educational quality, diversity of provision and value for money.

The Government's policy of expanding pre-school education has been welcomed throughout Scotland, and the case in principle for more pre-school education is already clear. The benefits to children, first and foremost, as well as to their parents are well recognised and not in dispute.

There were more than 170 responses to the consultation we carried out last autumn. All endorsed the principle of more pre-school provision.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

Of the 170 representations made to the Secretary of State, how many endorsed vouchers as a method of expanding nursery education?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman might be patient. He is correct to say that serious reservations were expressed by some of the old Labour interests in Scotland about the principle of giving parents choice. Some people, such as the hon. Gentleman himself, would much prefer a system that dictates to parents rather than allows them to decide for themselves what is appropriate.

Our preparations for full implementation of the voucher initiative will be greatly assisted by a thorough and comprehensive consideration of the operational details. I can announce to the House today that a team from Stirling university has been appointed to carry out the evaluation.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have appreciated the fact that his alma mater will undertake the task, but I am not sure that he is a great advertisement for its achievements.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

As I am a member of the university's governing body, it seems happy to have me—and to report to me every year, as one of the local Members of Parliament. The Secretary of State's disparaging remark was unnecessary. However, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so munificent, in placing the evaluation with a university that will be in the Ochil constituency after the next general election, not that of the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

That is true, but despite the Labour party's gerrymandering, I intend to represent Stirling for the foreseeable future. I hope that it will not be long before Stirling university is back where it should be—in the Stirling constituency.

Part II will, for the first time, give all parents freedom of choice in pre-school education—a chance for all to gain access to good-quality pre-school education and unparalleled diversity of provision. It will add up to £30 million of new public money each year to perhaps the most vital area of education—that of our youngest children.

In a process beginning this August, parents in North Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire, and in parts of Highland and of Argyll and Bute, will be able to choose where their pre-school children will be educated, confident of their entitlement to vouchers of the value of £1,100. One year later, parents across Scotland will have that choice.

Vouchers are a straightforward and effective way of seeing that services are client led and responsive to individual needs and preferences.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

What advice has the Secretary of State been given by his officials about the voucher system's administrative costs? Is it correct that £200 or £300 out of every £1,100 will be swallowed up by administration costs?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

It would be correct to say that the cost is about 2 per cent.—which is low.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman might like to consider how much is spent by local authority headquarters before money actually reaches the classroom.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

On the subject of one's alma mater, my clear recollection is that the Secretary of State once argued for a voucher system for not just nursery education but primary, secondary and tertiary education. Is that still the right hon. Gentleman's position? If not, when did he stop believing in that policy?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I have long argued for an extension of parental choice. This may not have happened with the hon. Gentleman but as most of us grow older, we take a more realistic view of the world and combine our idealism with practicality. The sort of idealism for which I spoke in St. Andrews in those days is now embraced throughout the world—we have seen the success of privatisation. The hon. Gentleman and his party find themselves isolated with their rather left-wing views. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the success of a Labour council in Fife in introducing vouchers for people involved in training, which is a form of tertiary education. The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that he has lost the argument on extending parental choice. He no longer has the courage, as he had at St. Andrews, to argue against the vouchers that have been so successful for training in Fife and elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

As I grow older, I not only take a more realistic view of the world but of how wool can be pulled over the eyes of hon. Members. May we be given, in the wind-up, some actual figures of how much the voucher system will cost? The Department must have notional figures of the cost per voucher. If such a figure is not available, that is a disgrace to the Scottish Education Department.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman can have it in the winding-up speech, but I have just given the House the figure. It is 2 per cent. of the cost.[Interruption.] Each voucher is £1,100, and 2 per cent. of £1,100 is £22. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall).

As the hon. Member for Linlithgow gets older, he continues to ask important questions. I wish that his friends on the Opposition Front Bench would answer the famous West Lothian question, which is so much a part of the vital debate in Scotland. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Dumbarton does not want me to talk about these matters, but they are extremely important in the context of education, because our ability—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that this is nonsense. We have pilots in place. They will be evaluated. Thank goodness we have some Labour and Liberal councils that are prepared to put parental interest and choice before dogma, which is more than I can say for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

My right hon. Friend should welcome the interest from Opposition Members about the administrative costs of providing education at all levels, because it is important that the House examines carefully what the administrative costs were, for example, at local authority level and in the universities and elsewhere. Then we can judge whether they are on to a good thing.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not hear the Opposition complain about the idea of vouchers for skill seekers. Skill-seeker opportunities, which are client led, have transformed the way in which young people make training choices. Why do the Opposition not complain about choice in that area? The voucher mechanism applied to pre-school education will put the real power of choice in the hands of parents, which is where it should be.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

Let us go back to the administrative cost. Perhaps the junior Minister will give the right hon. Gentleman the answer. It is estimated that, in England and Wales, the cost per voucher of administration is £264. How on earth does he expect anybody to take seriously a figure per voucher of £22, which is barely likely to cover the cost of the postage involved in administering the scheme?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman should watch my lips. The voucher system will cost £70 million. The administrative costs will be 2 per cent. of that. The figures that he quoted for England have been demolished by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I do not answer for England. If the hon. Gentleman is reduced to scrabbling around with figures that the National Audit Office has discredited, he is in a desperate situation. He should talk to his colleagues in the Labour party who have given the people whom they represent the opportunity of choice in nursery education by introducing a voucher pilot. In Stirling, only the other day someone came to my surgery, asking, "Why are we not able to get vouchers here?" The answer to that is because the Labour council puts dogma before the interests of parents.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I give way to the hon. Lady, the champion of precisely such dogma.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

I thank the Secretary of State for that recognition.

On idealism giving way to practicality, if the right hon. Gentleman's notional ideal of a voucher system is proved by the pilot schemes to be unworkable and useless, will he give up the idea, or will he still insist on imposing it on parents, who prefer local authority education and have said so clearly?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I shall do a deal with the hon. Lady. If she will give up all the ideas that are unworkable and useless and which are part of her party's programme, I shall certainly give that commitment, which I would freely give any way. The Government have never been attached to any policies that are unworkable and useless. [Laughter.] The rate at which—if I can be heard above the hilarity on the Opposition Front Bench—her party is ditching its own policies, to which she has committed her lifetime in politics supporting, must be of considerable alarm to her.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

In the pilot areas, both providers of pre-school education and parents are showing their enthusiasm for the voucher initiative in a practical way—in a workable way, I must tell the hon. Member for Maryhill. Already, 3,889 voucher application forms have been sent to parents in the pilot areas, and more than 72 per cent. have been returned. Moreover, 71 centres in the voluntary and private sectors have applied to be newly recognised as education providers and admitted into the voucher system. I am sorry that Opposition Members are disappointed by that good news. I expected them to welcome the news from the front that our scheme is working well.

The helpline that handles inquiries from parents and providers has fielded many calls from people all over Scotland wanting information and demanding to know when they will be eligible to receive vouchers.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I listened to the hon. Gentleman on the radio this morning.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

I am glad that I had an audience. What answer would the right hon. Gentleman give to a parent in the Western Isles asking for a nursery voucher, when there is no nursery education provision in the Western Isles? How can that parent do anything with that voucher?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am not sure that the House has been listening to what I have been saying. I said that in respect of the pilot schemes, 71 centres in the voluntary and private sectors have applied to be newly recognised. If we give people purchasing power, the market will provide to meet their needs. For those in the Western Isles[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has someone helping him out in his duties. For those in the Western Isles, this is an additional resource over and above what is available to the education authority. It is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and the hon. Member for Western Isles oppose a scheme that would give money for nursery education to their constituencies. Does the hon. Member for Western Isles wish to argue against that? No.

Those who understand the great potential benefit of vouchers, such as the Scottish Consumer Council, have been quick to endorse our approach. They realise that vouchers will put real purchasing power into the hands of thousands of parents for the first time. They also understand a very simple truth—that strengthening demand stimulates supply

In East Renfrewshire, the benefits of the voucher system are already apparent. A partnership involving the public, private and voluntary sectors has been established and is working very well; so well, in fact, that its members are confident that between them they will be able to provide a place for every child in East Renfrewshire in their pre-school year from the start of the voucher system in August for the first time ever—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) is listening. Perhaps it is because she does not know the facts that she continues to oppose the scheme.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am not upset; I am delighted that, for the first time ever, from August there will be a place for every child in East Renfrewshire. The hon. Lady has been going up and down Scotland saying that that could not be achieved. The scheme is working and it is appreciated.

The East Renfrewshire partnership is a shining example of what can be achieved. New places across all sectors are being brought on stream. It is no wonder that parents in East Renfrewshire, and in all the other pilot areas, have so enthusiastically responded to the issue of voucher application forms.

It would be helpful if the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) would today make his views clear. Does he support giving Scotland's parents more power to choose the right pre-school education for their children? The approach taken in another place and in public debate gave us cause to doubt the Opposition's commitment to parents and choice. This is the moment when the hon. Gentleman can repent and make it clear whether he stands by choice and the interests of parents.

It seems that the Opposition believe that choice should be made by public officials rather than by the public. Do they think that people should be told what they should have, rather than choose for themselves? I have to tell the House that I do not believe that it is right that parents should be told what to do by officials. Parents know their children best and understand best what sort of pre-school education they need. This Government stand for choice and for the rights of parents.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

In that case, what about choice? The English system is moving ahead more quickly so we can test some of the right hon. Gentleman's assertions. Why is it that the Minister with responsibility for schools said in England on 9 January: It is impossible to say that every single four-year-old will have a place. The Department for Education and Employment information pack says that there is no cast iron guarantee of a place until new places are introduced in response to parental demand. Are we saying that a choice will be available for everyone, or will it be the usual Hobson's choice of this Government:whatever the right hon. Gentleman says is the choice?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I know that the hon. Gentleman is having some difficulties these days and has been hiding from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on the tartan tax issue. I did not think that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) was hiding in England and I do not know why we are being told about the position in England. This debate is on Scottish education and I have just told the House that in East Renfrewshire, where we have the first pilot, every child will be guaranteed a place. Why is the hon. Gentleman raising these red herrings? The system is up and working. It is successful in Scotland. Labour authorities are piloting it. I asked him to give a commitment to say that he supported choice. I gave way to him and we still await that commitment. He believes that bureaucrats, and not parents, should decide what is good for people.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I give way to the hon. Lady on one condition: that she tells me whether she supports parents' right to choose.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman will advise parents of children in a nursery school that serves East Renfrewshire and that is run by Mrs. Valerie White. Five children from East Renfrewshire are in her nursery school and four of their younger siblings are due to attend the nursery school. Because of inadequate forward planning in trying to get the pilot scheme off the ground before the general election to try to save the seat of the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), Mrs. White is about to lose £40,000 a year as the vouchers cannot be applied to her nursery school. What advice would the right hon. Gentleman give to parents of Mrs. White's pupils?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The advice that I would give Mrs. White is to have nothing to do with the hon. Lady and her party because, for vouchers to be extended beyond the existing boundaries of the pilot schemes, we need another Conservative Government, who will introduce vouchers for the whole of Scotland. If the hon. Lady and her friends ever get into power, there will be no vouchers and we will be back to the position that I had in my constituency surgery on Friday, with a parent telling me that her child had been denied a place because the child's name did not come out of a hat as she was not a single parent.

That is the difference. Labour offers the choice of the lottery of names out of a hat and priority to single parents, whereas we the Conservatives offer choice for all and parents the freedom to choose what is right for their children. The hon. Lady should stop throwing stones, come clean and admit to the House and to the people of Scotland that she is opposed to parents being empowered and given choice in this area.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I will give way once more to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I ask a very simple question. Is the Secretary of State willing to say that he endorses the view of Stirling's nursery provision that he has just described, or is it the belief just of his constituent? Is he saying that Stirling discriminates in favour of single parents and against people who are not?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Of course I am saying that. I believe that it is called a social strategy.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

That was the position before Stirling council.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman says that that was the position before Stirling. If it has changed, that is the first benefit of the change to single unitary authorities. It was a disgraceful policy. A parent at my surgery on Friday was a victim of that. What does the hon. Gentleman say to a child whose colleagues and friends have a nursery place, but who does not have such a place because his name did not come out of a hat? What happens when he goes to primary school? Under our proposal, every parent with children in the year before—

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agree. Under our proposal, every parent will have choice.

Let me spell it out. At a time when government is becoming ever more complex, it is more incumbent on democrats than ever before to remember that the Government exist to serve people, not people to serve the Government. The Opposition do not seem to have grasped the breadth of the voucher initiative. On the contrary, bound up in their concern to fossilise present arrangements, they focus on a narrow set of issues and seek to deny parents the benefit of the expansion in opportunity that our policy would bring. They have concentrated on worrying people with mischievous talk of high costs and poor-quality provision—myths of their own invention. [Interruption.].The hon. Member for Hamilton is still banging on about how expensive it will be to run. A management company will administer the system at a very low unit cost, with all the economies of scale that national operation offers. Indeed, the cost of issuing and redeeming the vouchers will be less than 2 per cent. of the total voucher programme. When the Opposition hear of the efficiency of the voucher process, they say that it is too complicated for parents. Would the Opposition really have us believe that Scottish parents are incapable of signing an application form and posting it back? It would certainly go with a belief that parents are too inadequate to choose their children's pre-school education. Both beliefs are equally insulting.

My greatest difficulty with what the Opposition have been saying—and, clearly, their greatest difficulty in understanding the nature of the proposals—relates to the quality of provision. It is scaremongering of the worst kind, and the hon. Member for Monklands, East in particular should be ashamed of herself. However, her treatment of this issue is on a par with her other policy initiatives—or lack of them—on education.

Earlier this year, the hon. Lady published a document pretentiously entitled "Every Child is Special: a Compact for Scotland's Future". Hon. Members might regard me as ungallant if I described her document as "empty-headed" and said that it showed a paucity of thought", but they are not my words—they are the criticisms of it by the Educational Institute of Scotland, which should be her natural ally but which quickly discerned how little powder there was in the hon. Lady's compact.

We have made it clear from the very beginning that we are committed to quality. The voucher initiative will introduce for the very first time a system of quality assurance that will apply to all providing centres, whether they are from the public, private or voluntary sectors. The voucher initiative will represent the first ever comprehensive assurance of quality in respect of all pre-school education provision. We have no interest in subsidising poor-quality provision.

Non-school centres will have to complete an initial quality test to the satisfaction of the inspectorate before being admitted to the system. All centres will be subject to regular and rigorous inspection by HMI of the quality of education they provide. These measures will give parents a guarantee of quality in respect of any centre participating in the voucher initiative.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I have been very generous in giving way. Oh, very well; I give way.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

I greatly appreciate the Secretary of State's generosity. As there is to be an important quality assurance, will he tell us how many of the inspectorate will be involved—[Interruption.] Perhaps it would be easier if the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), gave him the answer. How many of the inspectorate will be involved in quality assurance before the voucher scheme gets under way?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman asked my hon. Friend to give him the answer, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will do so when he winds up. However, the answer is that we shall be recruiting two new people—[HON. MEMBERS: "Two?"]—to supplement the existing considerable resources of the inspectorate for this purpose. All centres will be subject to regular and rigorousßž[Interruption.] Opposition Members sit there mocking, but they are quite happy to have Labour councils running nursery provision which is not subject to inspection at all—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Hon. Members will have to get their facts right. If they think that there is going to be a problem with inspection because of the additional nurseries that are not in the local authority sector, that is hardly consistent with their arguments that problems will arise as a result of the nursery voucher scheme. They should stop making up the criticisms as they go along.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

The right hon. Gentleman has touched on quality. The profile of education provision, which I think has been sent to all those registering, contains the suggestion—indeed, it is a requirement—that they consider the guidance and good practice set out for children with special educational needs. I am sure that we all agree that that is important. Does the Secretary of State accept that the amount of the voucher may have to be greater for children with special educational needs if adequate provision is to be made?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

It is an important matter although no one has yet argued that case in the pilot schemes. However, I am prepared to consider the matter in the light of our experience with the pilots. There are arguments to be made for both sides, including that of stigmatising children with particular learning needs. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the matter, which I shall examine closely in the light of our experience with the pilot schemes.

It is not concern over quality that agitates Opposition Members, it is concern over choice. Choice is anathema to them. Labour writhes in discomfort every time anyone makes a personal choice in any sphere of life instead of abdicating decision-making to the State.

We are also putting effort into developing more fully the curriculum for children in their pre-school year. We will be consulting on that matter shortly.

Today I can also tell the House that I am committing £400,000 over two years to pre-five development officers. Their job will be to support the pre-five initiative and, in particular, to help providers in the voluntary and private sectors to achieve required quality standards. During the pilot year, and in the light of experience, I shall also be considering the need for further action on staff training and qualifications.

I turn now to part III of the Bill, clauses 28 to 31, with schedule 4, which amend the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988. School boards represent a successful partnership between parents, teachers and the wider community. They work well in the interests of their schools and of the pupils who attend them. In their short existence since 1989, school boards have become an established and successful part of our education system.

We want to build on that success. I am delighted to say that the legislation generally works well, but this Bill brings in a number of useful improvements in the light of practical experience and after wide consultation.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

I know that the Secretary of State sees a rosy picture when looking at how school boards are working. He talks about parental choice, but may I remind him that parents are voting with their feet and that school boards are not being formed—even at his former school, Arbroath high school? School boards do not exist in those schools because parents do not agree with his philosophy, and they did not want his policy in the first place.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

My philosophy is that parents have choice. If they do not want to have a school board, they do not have a school board. But the vast majority of schools have a school board, and school boards have been very successful. It is extraordinary for a party that argues for self-determination to have a policy against self-determination in schools. Apparently there should be self-determination only at a country level.

The Bill simplifies electoral procedures, makes it easier for parents to join a school board and generally tidies up provisions.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; as he said, he has been generous. In his criticism of Opposition Members and of our position on school boards, he said that we are against the devolution of responsibility to school boards. Is not he risking having his integrity called into doubt by criticising Opposition Members for wanting to devolve power to the people of Scotland?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I do not criticise the people of Scotland for anything. If the people of Scotland want to vote for independence or for a tax-raising parliament that would destroy the Union, they are entitled to do so. It is my job to warn them of the dangers. I am glad that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has come into the Chamber, because I understand that some of those arguments are finding some force and are being embraced in certain sections and at senior levels of the Labour party. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has been placed in a very unfortunate position, and I hope that the hon. Member for Garscadden will come to his rescue on that matter.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

Are not the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) absolutely wrong? The devolved assembly to which he referred would suck up all the responsibilities that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is trying to pass down to local authorities and to parents, through school boards.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am not sure that such a parliament would do anything but put up taxes and do a lot of talking. If we are not going to have the tartan tax—which the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) expressed concern about this morning on the radio; it is the first time that I have heard a politician complaining in an interview that it might not be possible to raise extra taxes, and that that was a matter of alarm for the Scottish people—that parliament will only be a glorified wind machine.

I turn now to part IV. Clause 32 amends the placing request provision in section 28A of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The placing request system enables parents as of right to choose their children's school. For our schools and our country to be successful, schools must be sensitive to the needs of children, they must be responsive to the wishes of parents and they must provide their pupils with the skills and knowledge that industry and commerce require.

Parental choice is a catalyst in schools achieving those goals and helps parents to fulfil their aspirations for their children. Since the legislation on placing requests was introduced in 1981, the policy has been extremely successful. We want that success to continue, and will do nothing to detract from the underlying principle that parental choice should be maximised.

Currently, places may not be reserved for children who are likely to move into the area served by a school after the usual cut-off date for decisions on admissions. That has caused problems, as I know well from experience in my own constituency with the very successful Balfron high school.

Under clause 32, a local authority will in certain circumstances be able to refuse a placing request for a child living outwith the catchment area of a school if accepting the request would prevent it from retaining places for incomers to the catchment area.

An authority will be able to retain only places that would reasonably be required to accommodate incomers, and will be able to do so only where there is no other equivalent school under its management within reasonable walking distance of the school for which the placing request has been made. We shall also have the long-stop power of prescribing the maximum number of places that may be retained. The change to the current rules has been tightly drawn to ensure that the placing request system continues to maximise parental choice.

The Bill will undoubtedly improve quality and choice. Those are the key themes in the Government's overall programme, and we are determined to pursue all avenues to improve quality and choice. I therefore announce today that I intend to take the opportunity presented by the Bill to extend the existing power to regulate testing, which at present applies only to primary schools, to secondary schools, so that pupils in S1 and S2 and their parents can benefit from the advantages of national testing as quickly as possible.

National testing in Scotland is the regular and systematic appraisal of pupils' progress in the light of nationally agreed standards in reading, writing and mathematics. It is an integral part of the five-to-14 programme, and provides vital information for teachers and parents. The system is now well established in primary schools, to the benefit of teachers, parents and pupils alike.

Unfortunately, once a pupil moves to secondary school the system breaks down, because some authorities and schools do not consider that they need to carry out their responsibilities in that respect. As a result, parents can no longer count on receiving information on the progress of their children as they have come to expect, teachers no longer have the opportunity to confirm their assessment of the level attained by each child, and no one has the evidence to evaluate how successful teaching and learning has been in adding educational value to a pupil's experience in the important first two years of secondary school.

In the first six months of last year, no child in a secondary school in Tayside was tested in mathematics, reading or writing; only 1 per cent. were tested in reading in Lothian, and only 1 per cent. in maths in Grampian. Indeed, in the whole of Scotland only 6 per cent. of pupils were tested in mathematics and reading, and only 4 per cent. in writing. That is completely unacceptable.

The appalling lack of progress in introducing national testing in secondary schools has made it imperative that action be taken immediately. I therefore intend to introduce amendments in Committee to require external testing in mathematics, reading and writing. That will allow competence in those subjects at S1 and S2 to be established. I shall consult shortly on the details.

It is time to put testing into perspective. For too long the hysterical opposition of doctrinaire egalitarians has created a bogey out of that most natural and essential educational procedure, the objective assessment of a child's abilities and progress. Even parents have been brainwashed into imagining that testing is sinister. To attempt to educate a pupil without testing is as absurd as running a business without keeping accounts.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

Surely the Secretary of State cannot pretend that parents do not already know how their children are progressing educationally. With all the parent-teacher meetings and constant assessment, parents know exactly how their children are progressing. The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants choice, but it appears that the only choice is to be, "You'll take what the Government give you." If he really wants choice for parents, why does he not ask them whether they want testing? Why does he not ask the professionals in education? Parents know how their children are progressing, and they certainly do not want to return to some of the worst aspects of past systems.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As I said, we have to put up with a certain amount of hysteria, and we have just heard some of that from the hon. Gentleman. The fact of the matter is that all parents want to ensure that their children are given the best opportunities in school. Testing enables difficulties to be identified at an early stage and remedial action to be taken. That is why we are determined to introduce a system for national testing.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Minister has just been emphasising the value that he places on choice. If it is the choice of the parents of the pupils that he has been describing that their children should not be submitted to testing, will that choice be given effect?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

We are proposing a national system of testing that will be externally applied. Whether parents are not prepared to allow their children to take part in the testing is of course a matter for them. I am determined that in every school in Scotland there should be an opportunity for children to be tested. [Interruption.] Is it not amazing? We hear from the Leader of the Opposition and from Opposition spokesmen in England how the Labour party believes in testing and that we must have objective standards. Yet whenever we announce such a measure for north of the border, Labour Members make it clear that old Labour is alive and kicking. There is a belief in the Labour party and among Liberal Democrats north of the border, and indeed in the Scottish National party, that objective standards should not be applied.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

We are asking not about ideology but precision of language. If we on the Opposition Front Bench heard the Minister correctly in his answer to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), he said that testing will not be compulsory. Is that correct?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

It will be a matter of statute that the tests will have to be applied in Scotland's schools. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) asked about parents who felt that their children should not sit the tests, just as there are parents who feel that their children should not sit standard grades or highers. There is always the option not to do so, but that would obviously not be in the child's interest. I would have thought that that was perfectly clear. Will the hon. Member for Hamilton tell me whether the Labour party welcomes the opportunity for testing in Scotland's schools, in line with the rhetoric that we have heard from Labour Members? I would happily give way. There he sits; this is the modern Labour party, all rhetoric—

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

What is the Secretary of State proposing? He has told us about amendments that are not being tabled today. Is he proposing voluntary compulsory testing or compulsory voluntary testing? He was run out of Scotland the last time he tried this game because Scottish parents do not want the sort of testing about which he is talking to be imposed on the system.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

He was drummed out of Scotland. On an earlier occasion, an accommodation was reached on testing in Scottish schools to which his successor agreed. That has stood the test of time. Will there be voluntary compulsory testing or will a system be imposed irrespective of parents' wishes?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman thinks that only 6 per cent. of children being tested in secondary schools in Scotland shows that the system has stood the test of time. He has a nerve to lecture me on the success of our education policies. I ask him to read the Leader of the Opposition's speeches and what his party's education spokesman has to say about testing. We have won the argument on testing and it is high time that the hon. Member for Hamilton stopped pretending that it is possible to argue that parents should have objective assessments of their children's standards of attainment south of the border, but that somehow in Scotland they should not. He is in hock to the Educational Institute of Scotland and the teaching unions that dictate his party's policy on such matters.

The hon. Member for Hamilton knows perfectly well what I have said. Tests will be organised externally by the Scottish Qualifications Authority which all children in Scotland will be required to sit. The tests will be marked externally and the results will be reported to the parents. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East asked a straight question on whether we would insist that children whose parents did not wish them to take the tests would have to do so, and I answered him fairly and squarely that we would not.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

What figures does the Minister have for the external marking of S1 and S2 testing? How much will it cost?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

That will depend on the nature of the tests and the way in which they are implemented. I shall be consulting on that and I should be grateful for any advice from the hon. Gentleman. However, the costs of not identifying children who have difficulties with the three Rs and addressing those difficulties at an early stage are too high for any society to pay. That is why we are determined to tackle the problem.

The Opposition's education policy is second only to their devolution policy in disarray, impracticality and contradictions. There have been seven reforming Education Acts since 1979—expanding parental choice and diversity of provision. Labour voted against them all.

The Opposition's record in Government was appalling. Under the last Labour Government, spending on education fell by £1.6 billion and spending on universities fell by 12.6 per cent.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am becoming increasingly curious about the following matter. Throughout his speech, the Secretary of State was understandably relying on copious notes. Of course, he is perfectly entitled to all the advice of his civil servants, but he was obviously using those copious notes to make tendentious remarks about Labour party policy. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to use Scottish Office civil servants to produce such a script? If he said that it was produced by central office or his own resources, that would be quite acceptable. I asked about—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. I have been rather tolerant with the hon. Gentleman. It was fairly obvious from the earlier part of his intervention that his point of order was not a matter for the Chair, and it did not get any better as he continued.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Given his close association with the last Labour Government, I understand why the hon. Gentleman should find it painful for me to read out their record in education. As he interrupted me, I shall repeat those points for his benefit.

Under the last Labour Government, spending on education fell by £1.6 billion and spending on universities, which are dear to the hon. Gentleman's heart, fell by 12.6 per cent. in real terms. The number of full-time students in higher education fell and teachers' pay rose by just 6 per cent. in real terms—just one fifth of the increase under the present Government.

Today, Opposition Members are totally incoherent on education issues, as was witnessed by their response on testing, to which they keep telling us their party is committed. They want to abolish child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education, or at least the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) wants to do that, but he is not very well informed. He claimed that 80 per cent. of the children of unskilled parents leave school at 16. That was true back in the dark ages of the last Labour Government. Today, thanks to the policy of the present Government, fewer than half the children of unskilled parents leave school at 16. However, the hon. Gentleman's blunder could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he came to power and abolished child benefit, those children would leave education prematurely as they did in the bad old days. What passes for Labour education policy is scribbled on the back of an envelope.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order that all this guff should have been written by Scottish Office civil servants?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. The hon. Gentleman is vastly experienced in the House. He knows full well that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

To describe the record of the last Labour Government as guff is astonishing—even for the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) wants to give teachers a sabbatical year out of the classroom. The cost of that would be £4.96 billion. He recently commended traditional methods in education. I agree. Let me remind the House what those methods are: discipline, setting and, above all, testing. It really is time for Opposition Members to give the soundbites a rest and engage in some hard thinking.

One of the greatest Conservative Prime Ministers memorably said that the youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity. That is still the belief of Conservatives in Government. We know that there is no more important responsibility than moulding the values and skills of the new generations. But we do not assume that we should arrogate to ourselves that vital task—it is primarily the responsibility of parents and, secondarily, of teachers. The Government have a duty to provide the environment and the resources, but the important decisions belong in the family. Our role is empowerment, and that is the enlightened path that education globally will take in the new millennium.

For the generation of Scots who will inherit that millennium, the Bill is a further enabling measure. It is about quality, diversity and choice—themes at the heart of everything we do in education. The establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority will improve quality and promote parity of esteem in the later stages of school and beyond. My announcement today about tests in S1 and S2 will improve standards in the earlier age group. Choice and diversity are at the heart of the pre-school vouchers initiative. The amendments to the legislation on school boards will simplify and improve the way in which boards work. The amendments on placing requests will ensure that children can secure a place at a local school.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State 4:40 pm, 4th June 1996

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Education (Scotland) Bill [Lords]because it makes provision to implement the introduction of nursery vouchers for Scottish nursery education, an innovation which is educationally unsound, administratively wasteful and socially divisive.

The Secretary of State's extremely long-winded speech—lasting more than 50 minutes—showed that the Bill is about nursery vouchers. It does not really say that, of course, but pretends to deal with largely uncontroversial and consensual Scottish issues, including the introduction of the new Scottish Qualifications Authority—another quango, with three quarters of its places in the sole gift of the Secretary of State.

The Bill tinkers with the school boards system, making changes that are almost as irrelevant as the boards themselves. It introduces a change in the law on placing requests, in a vain attempt to help the Secretary of State get re-elected in Stirling. The fact is, however, that, although vouchers are referred to in only 16 words in the long title of the Bill and five clauses within it, the Bill is about the introduction of yet another failed, discredited and doomed ideological experiment into Scottish education.

We came to the House today to listen to the Second Reading of the Education (Scotland) Bill, but we have been told that a major feature of the legislation is to be introduced without notice and without the House being told in advance anything about the Government's intentions. We are seeing the return of the failed policies of the former Minister of State, Scottish Office, including compulsory testing—except, thanks to his apparent confusion, it is to be compulsory, semi-voluntary testing.

That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman said the last time he attempted to introduce such measures into the Scottish education system. This time, however, his approach is incoherent, irrelevant, spur-of-the-moment, ill-thought-out and uncosted—on top of all the other problems he experienced last time.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Why does Labour think that testing in schools in England is right, but testing in schools in Scotland is not?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

As the Secretary of State keeps telling me, the system in England is different from the system in Scotland. After his failed attempt to impose testing last time, an agreement was reached that was satisfactory to the Scottish Office, teachers and parents. Let me remind the Secretary of State where he went wrong last time, and where he fell foul of public and Conservative party opinion in Scotland.

What brought about the right hon. Gentleman's downfall then was not a campaign by the teaching unions or by the intelligentsia in Scotland against testing, but a boycott by parents—the very parents he now says should have the choice. They brought him down and almost terminally affected his political career. [Interruption.] He has been resurrected, and that is why he is back with the same old rubbish. He thinks that he will get away with it as he is now in the Cabinet, but he will not.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I asked the hon. Gentleman a question that was not difficult, and he ought to answer it. If it is Labour's policy that there should be testing in England to ensure that parents get reports on the standards of achievement in schools, why should parents in Scotland not have that choice? Is it not true that the hon. Gentleman is terrified of the Educational Institute of Scotland, and that the teaching unions are deciding Labour's policy?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

I remind the Secretary of State again that a parental boycott killed compulsory testing last time. Scottish education now has a reasonable way in which assessment of performance can be made without the rigidities of the system that he wanted to bring in at that time. In the English system—which, after all, is entirely different from the Scottish system—it may be appropriate to go down the road of national testing in the form that my colleagues have suggested. But nobody in Scotland wants it, and nobody wanted it last time.

However, the Secretary of State will now—by law—impose it on the very parents he claims are supposed to have the ultimate choice in education. The Secretary of State will get another bloody nose. He is coming back with the same old ideas, and he will get the same message from the Scottish people—they do not want this failed experiment, despite his belief that he has all the levers of power in his hands.

Another remarkable feature of today's debate is that the Secretary of State was not supposed to make the opening speech. Until this morning, the Minister for Education, Housing and Fisheries was set to launch the flagship of the Conservative party's education policy in the House. Why was the junior Minister replaced at the last minute? Why did the Secretary of State not want to introduce the Bill? I have a theory—I believe that the Secretary of State is ashamed of the vouchers policy, because he knows that nobody in Scotland wants it. That is why he did not want to be here for the Second Reading of what he considers to be one of the most important Bills that the Government have introduced.

The Government received 170 responses to their consultation, according to the Secretary of State. When asked how many of those responses endorsed the idea of vouchers, he dodged the question. Only one conclusion can be drawn from that—the number of people who endorsed the principle of vouchers was so derisory that he felt it impossible to admit it to the House of Commons. Hardly a soul in Scotland supports the proposal. Local councils, Children in Scotland, the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, trade unions and individuals across Scotland are opposed to the supermarketing of early years education.

The Secretary of State may be ashamed of something else. At the Grand Committee in Stirling on 29 January, he said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell): The Bill's provisions are about ensuring proper standards of inspection, which she and her colleagues have been telling people would not be included. But the Bill does not state that at all, and simply adds a little to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The Secretary of State continued: The Bill will ensure the standards that she is misleading the country about."— [Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 29 January 1996; c. 14.] The Bill says nothing about the standards that will be laid down.

I wish to draw the House's attention to a matter of some interest. At the end of the debate in Stirling—when he had run out of time because of the abuse he was hurling at the Opposition—the Minister for Education, Housing and Fisheries chose to announce that he was to issue a document on quality assurance. That document is not on the Table of the House today. The Secretary of State said that the Bill includes certain provisions, but it does not. They are included in another document on quality assurance. That document is not here today, as it should be as we consider a Bill that relates to the provisions for nursery vouchers in Scotland. I wonder why that can be.

Perhaps the Secretary of State thought that, in all honour, he would have to apologise for what he said in Stirling, because the provisions on protection and standards are not in the Bill. Perhaps it would be easier for him to stay well below the parapet rather than make such an apology. So be it. If he does not apologise, people will read the record and make up their own mind.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

The hon. Gentleman has used the word "confusion", and I must admit that I am a little confused. He initially complained about the setting up of a quango, but he fails to realise that by setting up one quango, we are demolishing two, so a gain is made. He also suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State chickened out of addressing the issue of nursery vouchers today, but the hon. Gentleman complained about the length of time that my right hon. Friend took to advocate nursery vouchers. Is there not something wrong with the hon. Gentleman's argument?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

I shall take a couple of seconds to clarify the hon. Gentleman's mind—a difficult enough task at any time. First, I did not attack the creation of a quango. We are in favour of a Scottish Qualifications Authority. I simply made the point that three quarters of the places on that new quango will be in the sole gift of the Secretary of State for Scotland—unlike the old Scottish Examinations Board, which included a fair representation from the various constituencies involved in the examination boards. That should have been the model for the new authority.

Secondly, I did not accuse the Secretary of State of being chicken. He was the one who made a huge fuss about my not speaking in the Grand Committee debate in Stirling. I made the point that, until lunchtime today, we had been authoritatively told that the junior Minister would open the debate on this flagship Bill. Indeed, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State came here and has attempted to defend his policies.

The Secretary of State can hide behind his tartan soundbites, but these ideological transplants, such as the voucher scheme, offer compelling evidence of the sort that will eventually send him and the Government packing from power. What is the Government's real agenda? It is certainly not nursery education—

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I have just been perusing the Bill—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has not had an opportunity to do so yet—to find the relevant words, since the hon. Gentleman has accused me of misleading the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) in respect of powers of inspection. He will find them in schedule 5(2) to the Bill.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

That just refers to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The Secretary of State, I must remind him, told the Grand Committee: The Bill will ensure the standards that she is misleading the country about. The right hon. Gentleman was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East at the time. The standards are not specified in the Bill; they will be specified by order, and they were outlined in a document on quality assurance that was thrown to the press at the end of the debate in question.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. If he reads schedule 5 carefully, he will see that it is an amendment to the 1980 Act, inserting a paragraph which enables inspections to be made by Her Majesty's inspectors on behalf of the Secretary of State to ensure that standards are maintained. That is the provision to which I referred in Stirling.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

Let me read it again slowly, so that the Secretary of State can understand what he said in January: The Bill will ensure the standards that she is misleading the country about."— [Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 29 January 1996; c. 14.] Schedule 5 merely gives the Secretary of State the power to cause inspections to be made. It is not about any standards that may be required.

So it is clear that standards for public inspection are not included. The Minister has merely given himself a blanket power—

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

It is true that we are taking a power to get the inspectorate to inspect nursery providers. When this Government take powers, they intend to use them. We do not take power only so as not to use it. We are taking the power to hold inspections because we are going to do just that—it is just like the tartan tax in that respect.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

So that is what the Secretary of State means by compulsory voluntary testing, is it? He is saying that he will produce legislation that will introduce testing to secondary education, but that parents who do not want that can opt out of it. Will a statutory obligation be included? The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government do not take powers unless they intend to use them. In that case, will parents be forced to have their children take the tests?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

No, they will not be so forced—but they will not be in a position in which local authorities make no provision for testing, either. There will be a nationally organised programme of testing. Children will be able to participate in it, and parents who want national, objective assessments of their children's skills in the three Rs will be able to have them done, just as they can get information about standards.

I find the hon. Gentleman's position amazing. He is against externally marked tests for S1 and S2, but in favour of standard grade and, presumably, of highers. What is the difference? He seems to be putting dogma before the interests of pupils and their parents.

There is no question of compulsion, but the opportunity will be given, and there will be a national system. If the hon. Gentleman were true to the principles of new Labour, he would endorse that.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

So there will be no compulsion. Remarkably, people can pick and choose with this system of compulsory voluntary testing. Again, I remind the Secretary of State that last time it was the parents who brought about the downfall of his scheme—not teachers or education authorities. And it is the parents who will ultimately decide whether his ideological experiments work or not.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

It is important to be quite clear about this. Why is the hon. Gentleman making such a meal of it? No one is compelled to take standard grades, which are organised nationally. This is an external assessment of ability. So why is the hon. Gentleman against the idea?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

We know nothing about the costing or the administration of the scheme. The Secretary of State has now returned to the old qualifying examinations: the standard grade and the highers. On the one hand, he is offering these voluntary compulsory tests; on the other, he compares them with examinations that result in qualifications for those who pass. I do not think that he has thought the matter through. When told at lunchtime today that he would have to speak to the Bill, he decided, on a whim, to go for the failed old experiment for which he virtually fell on his sword last time. He will not get away with it this time, either—

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

I have given way generously, almost to the point of abusing the House's procedures, but I may give way to the hon. Gentleman later, as he perhaps represents a different strain of Conservatism.

All this certainly has nothing to do with nursery education. The right hon. Gentleman's mentor, Baroness Thatcher, said a long time ago that she was in favour of nursery education, but in her 11 years as Prime Minister she did nothing about it. Then came the memorable words of the political adviser to the current Secretary of State for Scotland, who wrote an article on 4 June last year—

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

Today is the anniversary of the article.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

On this very day a year ago, Mr. Gerald Warner, yet another failed Tory candidate for Hamilton, penned an article that deserves to be read to the House in its entirety. I, however, will quote only a small part of it. Under the title "Sick Trustees of Posterity", he wrote: Now the Tories are committing themselves to further expansion of nursery education. It is a longstanding obsession with them: Margaret Thatcher pursued the same unholy grail, as education minister, in the early 1970s … presumably their calculation is that it will attract votes from working mothers. Such opportunism ignores the chilling reality that every incentive luring mothers out of the home is an investment in Armageddon". The peroration to this remarkable article deserves a hearing: We have heard much about the problems of our underclass. These are real and must be addressed; but they are less daunting than the threat to the social order posed by a rising generation of affluent, ill-educated, spiritually dead and amoral androids. In Rutter and Smith's report we have seen the future and it does not work. This is the man who pens the speeches of the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)—the man who ghosts the right hon. Gentleman's soundbites. This is the man whose views are repudiated in public. He is cossetted to the tune of £40,000 a year of public money. Perhaps he is expressing the Government's secret agenda.

The Bill is not about nursery education. Over the past 17 years, the Government have done nothing to suggest that they give a damn about early age education. What is going on? What is the hidden agenda of school vouchers? It is quite simple: next there will be vouchers for primary, secondary and, ultimately, higher education. The Government desperately want to extend the market place into what is, for them, real education. They will do it if they can get away with it.

I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland unreservedly to state today that he rejects the idea of primary school vouchers. Will he repudiate secondary school vouchers? Will he, without any ambiguity, disclaim any idea of university or higher education vouchers either now or in the future? Would the Secretary of State like to give the House these assurances?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review of higher education is currently under way, and I understood that the Labour party was prepared to look at all options. I read a report in The Guardian that said that elements within the Labour party are advocating vouchers in the areas of higher and further education. Would the hon. Gentleman like to say something about the Labour party's attitude on vouchers in higher education?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

The Secretary of State should not believe everything he reads in The Guardian. He did not answer my questions. I asked him specific questions: will he give an assurance that the Government will not introduce primary and secondary school vouchers now or in the future? Yes or no?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to introduce vouchers beyond nursery provision in the Bill.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

There is the answer—and we knew it all along. The Secretary of State appeared before the Scottish Grand Committee on 29 January, in his own constituency, and he was asked about this. He said: The Government's policy is absolutely clear—we want to build on our previous success with vouchers for training. We hold the odd belief'— that is not the only odd belief— that people know better than politicians and are entitled to choice. When the Secretary of State was under pressure, he remembered that he was in the Cabinet and not in a cupboard at the Adam Smith Institute, so he lamely said: It is not the Government's policy to introduce vouchers into higher education. My policy is the Government's policy"— just in case we thought that he actually agreed with it.

People know what the nursery education vouchers system is all about: it is the Trojan horse for the failed experiments of the Thatcherite 1980s—the universal school voucher system bringing the street market into the classrooms of Britain.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

I will give the Under-Secretary a chance, because he has been denied the opportunity to make a big speech.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The hon. Gentleman is ranting against vouchers. What does he say to his right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who, when asked on "A Week in Politics" on Channel 4 on 8 July last year whether he would get rid of the voucher system when he was in power, said: No; if it is in place you have to work with the system when you take over"?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

Of course one has to work with the system that one takes over. The voucher system will not be in place in Scotland, and we will get rid of it elsewhere as quickly as we can, for reasons that I will outline. It is unsound educationally, it is an administrative nightmare, and it is a costly way of providing nursery education. The Labour party is committed to the proper provision of nursery education and to giving people a real choice.

The Secretary of State should look at the history of education vouchers. In 1984, before the right hon. Member came into the House of Commons, Sir Keith Joseph—whom I found to be an engaging, if not a slightly loopy, gentleman—signed the obituary of the voucher system. On 22 June 1984, Sir Keith Joseph said: I was intellectually attracted to the idea of education vouchers because it seemed to offer the possibility of some kind of market mechanism which would increase the choice and diversity of schools". He continued: In the course of my examination of this possibility, it became clear that there would be great practical difficulties in making any voucher system compatible with the requirements that schooling should be available to all without charge, compulsory and of an acceptable standard. He was a wise man who was speaking wise words, at a time when he and Margaret Thatcher were not convinced that vouchers could work. He said: For these reasons, the idea of vouchers is no longer on the agenda." — [Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 290.] Sir Keith Joseph was not the only person to hold that view: the Secretary of State was a signatory to the pamphlet entitled "Save Our Schools", issued by the No Turning Back group. The pamphlet explored the idea of nursery vouchers, and stated: The voucher system has been widely canvassed as a means of bringing parental choice into education, and has very many excellent features, but some drawbacks. The economic theory which underlies it is admirable, but it has serious political weaknesses. Those are not my words, nor the words of the Labour party, nor the words of any left-wing. ideologist-those are the words of the right-wing vanguard of the Conservative party.

The pamphlet continued: Experiments have been proposed, studies undertaken. Not even the combination of a sympathetic Secretary of State and an enthusiastic Under-Secretary succeeded in getting the idea off the ground. The pamphlet discussed the idea of piloting-we have heard a lot about this from the Secretary of State this afternoon. It stated: It is difficult to allay fears by an experiment with vouchers. By confining vouchers to a particular area, genuine choice is denied and little idea given of what the national implications would be. Perhaps, when the Secretary of State refers to tiny East Renfrewshire, he will bear in mind the conclusions of the pamphlet—written when he was younger and a hell of a lot wiser.

As the Secretary of State said during his speech, nursery education is critical to the development of a child. Half a child's education development is believed to take place in the first five years of life. All recent research shows that pre-school education is positive, aids behaviour and performance, compensates for disadvantage, reduces delinquency and allows help for those with special needs at the earliest possible moment. That is why the Labour party is committed to providing nursery places for all three-year-olds and all four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Existing local authority provision is simple and cost-effective. It allows choice, it is easily accessible and it is easily understood by parents. The model of inclusive co-operation between the state, voluntary and other sectors has proved successful in practice. It needs to be expanded, and it does not need nursery vouchers.

According to all the evidence and the vast majority of the views submitted to the Government in a consultation exercise that they undertook but have chosen to reject, vouchers for nursery education will be costly and wasteful to run, immensely bureaucratic to administer, and will endanger existing provision to three-year-olds and to those with special educational needs. Vouchers will drag down standards and restrict or eliminate choice for those in rural and remote areas of Scotland. The Government know this only too well, but the ideological steamroller drives on, just like the poll tax did so devastatingly only a few years ago.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I have a large rural constituency. I trust that he will also acknowledge that in my constituency there is a demand for nursery education. My constituents would be happy to take part in a pilot scheme if they were given the opportunity.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

People in the hon. Gentleman's constituency may ultimately get vouchers, but whether they get nursery education is another matter. People cannot use their vouchers if there is not a provider. A voucher will be a meaningless piece of paper for people in remote areas. It is not a guarantee that a place will be found.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The hon. Gentleman has intervened, and he will undoubtedly speak in the debate. If he listens carefully to my views and to those expressed by people in rural and remote areas, he will hear some common sense. In The Times last April, the Secretary of State for Education said: Vouchers are not the favoured option. In October 1994, the right hon. Lady told The Independent newspaper: I am very conscious of the unwieldy nature of vouchers". The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)— a rare wise voice among the gibbering rabble that are today's Tory party—described the nursery voucher system as a rather spatchcocked scheme to provide a little more partial nursery education to a few more people aged 5". In January this year, he complained in the House about the fact that the Government would hand millions of pounds to people who can afford to pay for private education. This ludicrous experiment is not about choice—although the Secretary of State insists it is. In Stirling, he said: our proposals will enable them"— parents— to spend the voucher money on the nursery education that they choose". No, it will not—it will provide a voucher, not a place.

I shall deal now with the detailed criticisms of the scheme made by virtually every organisation that submitted evidence to the Government during the consultation process. I wonder why the Secretary of State says that the scheme has been thought through and is subject to consultation when he ignores the outcome of the consultation process. Why is he so arrogant in saying that it will go ahead, irrespective of the views he has canvassed?

The first criticism is that the voucher scheme will be very costly to run. New providers will receive no money to meet start-up costs for buildings, facilities and implementation and training. The voucher will not cover the full cost of a place, and nothing is being done to create new places. The Government are waiting for providers to appear like street peddlers on the day of a football match.

It will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Administration has already taken £3 million out of the pot available for the pilot studies, with an unspecified amount going to the consultants, Capita. That sum alone would have provided some 1,800 nursery places across Scotland. [Interruption.] I wonder whether Ministers are in the Chamber to listen, to learn and to respond. I wonder how the Under—Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will be able to wind up the debate if he does not listen to what is being said.

The Secretary of State told us that a voucher of £1,100 will have a £22 administration cost attached to it. However, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has published the bureaucratic steps—which it is widely acknowledged are accurate—that will be required for the voucher system to work.

The process will involve 10 stages. In stage 1, the Child Benefit Agency sends an application for a voucher to the parents, and advertisements are placed. In stage 2, the parents complete the form and send it to Capita. In stage 3, Capita sends the voucher back. In stage 4, the parents select a nursery school from the list, and, if there is a vacancy, enrol their child. In stage 5, parents give the voucher to the nursery. In stage 6, the nursery gives the voucher to the local authority, which, in stage 7, returns it to Capita. In stage 8, Capita confirms receipt of the voucher to the Department of Education in the Scottish Office, which, in stage 9, sends the money to the local authority. In stage 10, the money is sent to the school.

We are told that that process will cost only £22 per nursery voucher. That is not credible, and no one will believe it for a moment. The process is mind-boggling in its complexity, and enormous in its bureaucracy. We are told that it will cost only £22, but that simply will not wash.

The nursery voucher scheme will endanger existing provision for three-year-olds in Scotland. At present, education for three and four-year-olds is not compulsory.

With all the attention on four-year-olds, focus will be diverted from existing provision for three-year-olds. What about special needs education provision for three-year-olds?

Virtually all the organisations that have submitted evidence have said that the system will seriously erode standards in Scottish education. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State chose to confuse us in January-he certainly could not convince us about standards. It seems that teachers may not be employed in the nurseries. In Stirling, the Secretary of State said: views are divided on whether it is necessary to provide fully trained teachers". Of course opinion is divided: everyone is on one side of the argument and the Secretary of State and his Ministers are on the other. That is the division. We all know what the Secretary of State means: he will decide for us. It is either education or it is not. If there is no education, nurseries will become expensive playgrounds, and that is all. The Secretary of State should be honest about that.

But the question of nursery standards goes even deeper. What about the premises that will be provided for nursery schools? What about the non-teachers who will staff them, and their qualifications? What about safety in nursery schools? What about school security, about which Lord Cullen is inquiring presently in Stirling?

The Secretary of State said that proper standards of inspection would be spelled out in the Bill, but they are not. There are provisions regarding powers for the Secretary of State, but he did not identify the standards. He told us today that two additional inspectors will be hired to inspect the new providers. There are 100 inspectors in England, and that is too few. Few of the measures regarding standards and inspection from the English legislation are in the Scottish legislation. Why have the Government chosen to use orders and negative procedures in Parliament instead of including the measures in primary legislation?

We know from the Government's quality assurance document that quality assurance is a vague approach to self-completion of a profile and self-evaluation and inspection. That will be done by ministerial fiat—through unspecified blanket powers given to the Secretary of State by the Bill. Unless minimum standards are spelled out in the Bill and in public—we know what light-touch quality assurance is—we can conclude only one thing: this project is about low standards, low quality and cheapskate provision which is of no educational value.

We know what the Secretary of State is up to. If he is to hand out the money before the election, there must be places and there will be no places without providers. Therefore, standards will be deliberately dropped in order to encourage the providers to come forward quickly. That is the market solution: pile 'em high and sell 'em quick. That is the Government's approach to education, and to everything else.

The voucher system is a serious danger to special needs education at pre-school level. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) correctly pointed out that special needs education is not tackled in the Government's Bill. The Secretary of State said in Stirling: the pilot scheme will test the best way to achieve that". He repeated that vague statement this afternoon.

The Secretary of State also said: some argue that vouchers should be more valuable for children with Special Education Needs. Others say that it is not right and that resources must be directed in other ways". Why did the Government not know the answers to those questions before the piloting began? The Secretary of State said that the system had been thought through. Why was that critical issue not thought through before the plan was wheeled out conveniently before the election? Do the Government not care about those vulnerable kids in pre-school education who have special needs? What about all the rural areas that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned, where an £1,100 voucher will simply be a useless piece of paper and a meaningless election bribe of no consequence to finding a pre-school place?

This country needs good nursery education, and Scottish children deserve the best. They deserve more than this botched experiment in ideological alchemy. Labour believes in nursery education, and Labour will deliver.

Our country is now 35th in the world's education and training league, and the Government should be deeply ashamed of that striking and revealing fact. We spend less per pupil on early education than every European Union country except Ireland, and we spend a smaller proportion of our education budget on three and four-year-olds than any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. That may help to explain the humiliation of our 35th place.

The voucher scheme is doomed to failure. It is shoddy in character and deficient in detail, and will be lamentable in effect. It is simply a forerunner to the ultimate Thatcherite ambition of the creation of a supermarket in education. That creation will be properly stillborn when the electorate have their say within the next 50 weeks.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 5:20 pm, 4th June 1996

First, I wish to say "welcome back" to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State after his outstanding visit to the far east. All of us in Scotland, even Opposition Members, will welcome his achievement because it will bring more jobs to Scotland. That is a first class achievement and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) did not mention it in his opening remarks, if only on behalf of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown).

It is a long time since I was a Minister for education in 1971–74. Then, the battle was entirely different. It was about roofs over heads; there was no school accommodation and we were short of teachers. All those problems have been mostly overcome, although I know that some of the school buildings erected in the 1950s and 1960s are now tired. That is an added problem for education authorities trying to keep their schools up to the standard that we would all like.

I felt thoroughly depressed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Hamilton, who spoke for the Labour party today. He seems to be against everything.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

The right hon. Gentleman had that written down before he even heard his speech.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I did not. The hon. Gentleman is wrong—not for the first time—but I do not wish to quarrel with him.

It was disappointing that we heard such a negative speech from the hon. Member for Hamilton and that he was supported by only six or seven Back Benchers. I should have thought that for such an important debate on education in Scotland—

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

Every Conservative who can speak in the debate is present. On the Labour side, only a small percentage of those eligible to speak are here. The hon. Gentleman should be disappointed that this major debate on education—perhaps the most important debate for Scotland in the House this Session—is so poorly supported by Labour Members. Perhaps they are at odds with him, like the rest of the country. It was also depressing to witness the semantic wriggling of the hon. Member as he attempted to escape the hooks on which he is caught by his policies. He is like an inverted Micawber, looking for something to turn down rather than something to turn up. That is not good news for Scottish education.

The Bill is about choice and standards. Both sides of the House sometimes underestimate the standard of much of our education. Many of the schools in Scotland, especially rural schools, are of a high standard. That is backed up by the inspectors' reports, which I am sure we all read when we receive them from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. Those reports highlight how well many of the schools are doing. If we have been reading such reports for long enough, we can read between the lines and tell when an inspector is not pleased with a school, but the majority of the reports are complimentary. That progress will be backed up, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said today, by the appropriate tests.

As this country approaches the millennium, we must take every opportunity to reach higher standards of training if we are to produce youngsters, both boys and girls, who can work in the future. I agree with the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Hamilton that we must not overlook those who have special needs. I frequently feel a little disappointed at the amount of progress on issues such as dyslexia, because those who suffer from it need specialist support.

The many new plans in the Bill will enable important steps to be taken to raise standards and enhance qualifications, especially through the new Scottish Qualifications Authority. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House that Government expenditure on education has gone up by 15 per cent. in real terms since 1979, from £1 billion under Labour to £2.5 billion today. He also reminded us that we spend 25 per cent. more on education in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Today, we are right to support pre-school playgroups, nursery education and more formal education for the under-fives, because that is what many parents in Scotland want. The vouchers will be a new resource to help to provide that education for our youngsters. I say that with a wry smile because in December 1973, as a Minister responsible for education, I produced a White Paper which proposed nursery education for all. Here we are, 20 years later, about to put a first foot on the ladder towards providing that. Of course, any education authority could have provided full nursery education under current legislation, but they have all been reluctant to do so, usually with the good excuse that they never had any money.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend's remarks about what was on the cards in 1973. Surely the downfall for nursery education was the election of a Labour Government in 1974.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

Yes. A number of good policies that I proposed in 1973 and 1974 got scrapped, but the Labour party shows no sign of conscience about what it failed to do for so long.

Whatever Opposition Members say, there is no doubt that parental choice has been a success. In areas where school boards have been introduced, they have been extremely valuable and shown how parents want to assist with the provision of their children's education in a host of ways, in a community sense rather than a strictly educational sense. One or two problems have been caused by parental choice and they are addressed in clause 32. Some good rural schools, which are about five or 10 miles from an urban area, have been inundated with youngsters from that area because the schools have a good reputation. That has caused immense problems with the catchment areas of rural schools. We must be flexible and consider carefully how to deal with that problem in the Bill.

Frequently, I have seen good country schools, with one, two or three teachers and fewer than 100 pupils, whose success has acted like a honeypot and they have drawn in pupils from urban areas. The schools have started to burst at the seams and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his speech, we have reached an illogical position in which local children—who perhaps live within sight of the school, a quarter or half a mile or even 100 yards away—are unable to get into their local rural school because it has too many pupils, many of whom have come from outwith the catchment area. That is not acceptable and I am glad that the Bill will deal with that problem.

The problem will not be easily resolved, and I shall study carefully the distances given in the Bill. I do not know why in a United Kingdom Parliament we have to deal with kilometres in respect of school catchment areas. Why can we not deal with miles? Then the average parent could get in his or her motor car and work out from the mileometer the distance from home to school, which cannot be done in kilometres. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food talks about metres, kilometres and hectares. Why can we not use British measurements, particularly in the Bill? I shall certainly work out how many miles are involved when we get to the Committee stage—not that I am volunteering to serve on the Committee, although it is likely that that will happen.

We must get everything right because there is a lot of friction in the countryside. The legislation must help education authorities that are providing good schools to overcome the issue of parental choice, which I have been dealing with recently in my constituency.

I have been concerned long enough, particularly in respect of primary and secondary schools, about how little the average child knows about the environment and the countryside, as highlighted by the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis and the advice to schools about the food that children should eat. Even a cramped curriculum should provide some opportunity to teach children about the land in which they live, how farms operate, how food is produced and the way in which the food chain works. No doubt in common with many other hon. Members, I should also like more to be done in schools in respect of sport and recreation, but that is for another debate.

I should like to think that more could be built on farm visits, with first and second year secondary pupils visiting a farm once a year to see how it works and learn how the countryside develops, so that when they grow up they will tend to husband the environment that will be so important to them in the future. Perhaps education authorities and the National Farmers Union could work together to bring more practical knowledge to the average pupil. The cost need not be high—perhaps £5,000, £10,000 or £15,000 a year for the average authority. Time is more problematical, whether one is talking about sport, religious education or the many other subjects in which we would like to educate children.

As to school transport and statutory walking distances, particularly in respect of catchment areas, we are at risk of being a little out of date. Years ago, walking five miles to school was no problem but today it is. More worrying, in terms of personal security, is the prospect of children walking home in the dark. Wherever possible, local authorities try to avoid that happening by providing school buses or taxis, even for short distances. We must consider carefully the distance that a child is required to walk to and from school in the 1990s.

We must also re-examine in the near future the subject of school security, which is currently a sensitive issue-I had a problem in my own constituency at the weekend. The Government and all education authorities are considering school security. It is difficult to balance the community feeling that we want in schools with a prison-like security system—bearing in mind the fact that nearly every school has umpteen points of access and it is difficult to monitor every one. However, we can consider using closed-circuit television and janitors in prominent locations.

The Committee stage will provide the opportunity to debate much of value to school children, which is the Government's whole objective in presenting the Bill. It is particularly disappointing that the Labour party is being so negative. I hope that we shall hear something more constructive from the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists. So far, one is profoundly disappointed at the attitude of the official Opposition towards the education of our children, which must be a top priority in Scotland.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill 5:34 pm, 4th June 1996

This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Scotland gave one of the longest speeches that he has ever made in introducing a Bill—and still we wait for him to address the special educational needs of children. The Conservatives have been in power for umpteen years, they have been in charge of the education of many young people all their school lives, yet teenagers are still leaving school without the achievements of which they are capable.

The Secretary of State, answering an intervention, said that he would think about special needs provision. Last summer, parents and organisations started telling me and other hon. Members of their concerns about children with special educational needs, so it is high time that the right hon. Gentleman gave that matter serious thought. We should have proposals before us today. It is not adequate to say that testing will be undertaken in the pilot, because nothing has been done to provide for special needs in the pilot.

The problem of funding has been widely raised. Children with special educational needs will obviously cost more per place. Another crucial aspect that the Secretary of State has failed to address is how a child with special educational needs will be identified by the rank amateurs who will be running wee nurseries simply because parents can produce vouchers.

Mr. Raymond SRobertson:

The hon. Lady has not quite grasped the point that my right hon. Friend was making. He said that when the authorities were invited to propose special adjustments to the pilot they said that they could cope with special educational needs within the pilot scheme. That assertion came from the authorities, not the Government.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

We have become used to that kind of complacency from the Government. We are meant to be representing the concerns of parents. Often it is only when a child reaches primary school that his or her special needs are identified. We want a system to ensure that such needs are recognised as early as possible, and to ensure that resources are in place to meet those needs. That could mean dealing with a mental impairment, or something as simple as providing spectacles. All sorts of problems can be identified in a child at three years of age.

The Bill states that nursery providers will have to meet the Secretary of State's requirements, but we have yet to be told the minimum requirements. We await details of the curriculum, which should have been before us for this debate. It is not difficult to get people working on an adequate minimum curriculum for children of the age range in question. Nothing has been said about staff qualifications, the ratio of qualified to unqualified staff or the ratio of staff to the number of children attending. That, too, remains up in the air. The Bill does not even make specific mention of basic requirements such as a nursery's ability to provide first aid for the sort of accidents that can befall young children. It does not mention equal opportunities for access to nurseries, nor does it refer to complaints procedures. We have been told, to our astonishment, that there will be two extra inspectors, but nothing was said about how frequently they will inspect or what will happen as a result of their inspections.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

Let me make some progress.

A crucial point arises about facilities. In the Scottish Grand Committee, I asked a question about outdoor play facilities, because the Minister had said that church halls would be available throughout Scotland and that they were appropriate for nursery provision. If there is no outdoor play space, they are grossly inadequate. We do not want to see young children cooped up indoors, regardless of the weather, unable to play outside and benefit from the educational play and sporting opportunities that could be made available to them. It is not good enough to say that church halls are available all over the place. We must ensure that the facilities are appropriate for the children. They should have furniture and toilet facilities sized to their needs instead of having to make do with inadequate facilities.

Why are the Government so negative about the needs of our youngest children? I have never understood that. We have had umpteen debates in the House about education—largely about higher education and children of school age. Yet when we finally have a debate about the needs of the pre-fives, the Government want to fob off our youngest children with an inadequate system and inadequate provision.

The Secretary of State has said that nursery education is extremely valuable. Of course it is. It can give a child a flying start at primary school. Crucially, it provides for that child's social education. At nursery school, children can learn not to be selfish, to share, to sort out quarrels peaceably and to come together for activities. Perhaps all this sounds too socialist for Conservative Members. Perhaps that is why they are against social education. A wealth of experience can be opened up to children through the books, toys, games and activities that can be made available in a properly run and managed nursery school run by people who know what they are doing. The same applies to well-run play groups, but the Bill does not guarantee that those standards will be applied, and it does not say what will happen when they are not. That should all be at the top of the education agenda and not dealt with at the minimum possible cost.

It has already been pointed out that the voucher scheme is full of problems. Those problems were identified by private sector providers, as well as by parents, teachers and others. I want the Minister to answer this point. It is unclear how the voucher system will affect the child care disregard for low-wage earners. If the Minister would listen to me, he might be able to answer the point, so I shall wait until he is listening.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

I thank the Minister.

At present, low-wage earners cannot subtract a proportion of child care costs—currently £60—from net income when making or renewing family credit claims. That is crucial for low-wage earners, particularly lone parents, to enable them to take up employment opportunities. It is high time that such detail was spelt out, but in his 50-minute speech the Secretary of State did not mention that crucial aspect.

All the problems have been raised by people who know what they are doing, who already have experience of running pre-five provision. The private sector providers told me last summer that they were worried about fraud in a system that is open to abuse. They pointed out that there could easily be a market in vouchers, and that impoverished parents might well attempt to pass on their vouchers to other people. Cheap, minimal providers could drive out of business the responsible, sensible, good providers who set higher standards and pay higher wages for more capable staff. The private sector providers said that they were worried that cheap-jacks might drive them out where there might be more providers than children coming forward. The Secretary of State failed to address that problem. We talk about there being a market, but sometimes the market results in a worse standard. There is no protection in the Bill to guard against that possibility.

I cannot understand why the Secretary of State did not listen to parents, whose clearly stated view was that they preferred local authority nurseries as their first choice. Yes, they had good words to say about play groups and about a large number of private sector providers, but in the Scottish Parent Teacher Association questionnaire, to which a large number of parents replied, they said that if the breadth of choice of different providers were available to them, their first choice would be the local authority providers. Yet the Secretary of State ignored the fact that empty classrooms are available, especially with the closure of schools that might have remained open if resources were made available to allow a nursery school to use such premises. This is not a new idea. There are excellent examples of nursery provision within a primary school building. Why do the Government not think of that as one way to expand education rather than just handing it to somebody and hoping that somehow a nursery school or class will be set up?

On testing, the Secretary of State is again trying to mislead parents. Every time a teacher sets homework or class work, the teacher can see whether the lesson has been grasped or what points of difficulty the pupil has. The teacher responds to that and the child can start to make progress. Sometimes teachers have to try two or three different ways before the child grasps the point and can move on. The Minister has experience of teaching. He knows that what I am saying is true. That is what teaching is supposed to be about.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

The Minister shakes his head, but if the child does not make progress, we have a system to check on the activities of the teachers and the classes. That is why local authorities check on how schools carry out the education of children. If children do not make the progress that they should, that must be addressed. No one on the Opposition Benches is arguing that children should be ill educated or that they should be allowed to leave school without the qualifications that they are capable of achieving. Why do the Government not listen to parents, who said that they were against testing at secondary one and two? It is the parents who realised that it would be a return to the "quali".

Hon. Members who had the benefit of higher or further education will remember that there was always at least one person in the class—I remember it well when I was at Strathclyde—who went on to take high-quality degrees, getting upper seconds and firsts, having been told at 11 or 12 that they had better go and find a job at Woolworth's because they were not going to make it. We all know of people who came through nevertheless and did exceedingly well, but how many must have been discouraged for life? How many must have been made to feel, when the old "quali" existed, that they just could not hack it? How many were told, "You're one of nature's thickies—you can't do it." The child's hopes and ambitions would have been destroyed at a young age. That is why parents are against it. That is why we should listen to them.

I hope that when the Bill is considered in Committee the Government will finally listen to those of us who speak on behalf of Scottish parents.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside 5:47 pm, 4th June 1996

I welcome the opportunity to speak. I shall be brief, not because I do not have much to say but because, as I am sure the House will understand, I have other duties. I am chairing a Committee upstairs.

I should like to address the question of testing, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe). They spoke about testing for qualifications, and treat that as something different from testing to see whether individuals need help and assistance. I speak as someone who understands what the education exam, the "quali", as it was called, really meant to people of my age group. I am unique in that I am probably the only hon. Member to have left school at 14. I did so because economic circumstances and other things at that time made it inevitable. I do not take the view that the system that then existed failed me. I take the view that circumstances, which my children and most hon. Members never had to suffer, required me to contribute to the family coffers. The House will understand that, in large industrial industries, pre-war, that was a fact of life, particularly if one's father was unemployed. We had to face the fact that circumstances often dictated what we did or did not do. The system that existed then had little to do with the fact that I left school at an age when I probably would have benefited from remaining.

Testing for qualifications is an essential part of knowing whether individuals are capable and ready to move on to other challenges. That is what it represents. Testing to find out whether someone is inadequate in some areas is absolutely vital in the first and second years of secondary education. I have never understood the view that that is not critical—they are the critical years in a child's development. It is equally true that the years before the age of five are important in the development of a child as an individual. That is why I believe that the nursery voucher system and the pilot schemes are vital.

I am astonished by the comments of Labour Members, especially the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), about rural areas. The best schools in Scotland are in rural areas because the best teachers are in rural areas. People like living in rural communities because the quality of life is superior. That is why we are able to attract high-quality teachers to our small rural schools. I also believe that the things that attract teachers to rural areas will attract the private sector—which the Opposition seem to find so offensive—to provide pre-school education. The village and church halls in the rural areas are a hub of activity, so I do not envisage the problems that others do.

I accept that there may be problems in the big cities, but it is astonishing that the Opposition are basing their argument on some belief that the vouchers will be worthless to someone living in Glen Lyon or Glen Farg or some of the other lovely glens around Tayside. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) represents Glen Farg. I picked it deliberately because I know it well. When someone picks something outside his constituency, it is always wise to pick something that was previously in his constituency before the boundary changes.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Hamilton said, I believe that the rural communities will respond to this new opportunity and will grasp it because of the quality of people living in our rural areas and the quality of the teachers. Of course, not all teachers are able to work full time once they have had children, but they can certainly become involved—

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I am worried that the hon. Gentleman is painting a picture so unlike the reality of Scottish education. Does he not realise that the best schools, judged by the standards set by the Government, tend to be in cities or large towns, not rural areas? It is wrong to create a dichotomy between the schools. I believe that the best school in Scotland is in Dunblane—which, with 10,000 people, is not a rural community.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would do his homework more thoroughly and carefully. Tayside is the area that I know in particular, and North Tayside in detail. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we do not have the best schools, he obviously does not know what is happening in Tayside. I am proud of my rural schools. I am proud of the standards that they achieve. I am proud of what appears on the statistical records—

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

The hon. Lady has some fine schools in her constituency. My children went to them.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham , Perth and Kinross

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that under SNP administration Tayside has the best schools in Scotland.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

I have already given the reason why rural schools are so good—it is because of the quality of the teachers. Often, that was despite the activities and effects—

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

When the hon. Lady has been here a little longer, she will realise that I have fought my constituency's corner in every battle in this place. I have often had to draw attention to the inadequacies of Tayside region and I am still doing so—for example, the former social work department. However, that matter is being addressed by an inquiry.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

I cannot give way as I must watch the time.

The Bill will make a valuable contribution towards choice, quality and diversity, about all of which I care deeply. One of the things that motivated me to become a Member of Parliament—as it probably motivated others—was my experience of life. I was motivated by the circumstances in which I grew up in Dundee. It made me determined that my children and grandchildren would have better quality, greater diversity and greater choice. I looked at the contributions made by statutory bodies and others and I arrived at my political convictions not out of some mischance of birth, but out of my experience. I do not apologise for that.

I believe that getting the balance right between the public and the private sectors is the best way to provide choice. The voucher system will achieve that in a way that nothing else could do. The administrators will not be able to dictate their dogma. One of the problems with Scottish education has been local government dogma. That is rather sad because once, a long time ago, Scotland had the best education in Europe and therefore in the western world. That is not true today. It is why I welcome the Bill, which will make a massive contribution out of all proportion to the money spent.

Over the long time that I have been in this House I have listened to the Opposition's arguments against the changes in education and other areas that the Government have introduced, so it is interesting to note that it is the Opposition who have changed—the Government have not.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland 5:57 pm, 4th June 1996

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) made some interesting points about education in rural areas, to which I shall return later in relation to nursery provision. I do not think that there is any dispute across the House about the importance and value of pre-school education. What is at issue is whether the Government's chosen means to deliver that is the most effective.

The debate is taking place in this Chamber rather than in the Scottish Grand Committee. Despite the much-vaunted claims by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that the revamped Scottish Grand Committee is as good as a Scottish Parliament, it has fallen at the second hurdle—or the third hurdle if we include the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill as well as the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

I read the exchanges in the Scottish Grand Committee on 20 May. The Secretary of State said that the Opposition had not requested that this debate be held in the Committee. That was one of the most disingenuous excuses that I have heard in a long time, especially as the Secretary of State is not usually a shrinking violet in need of persuasion. Apart from anything else, what he said was not true. On a number of occasions we have challenged the Government to take the motion to discuss the principles of this Bill in the Scottish Grand Committee, but that has not happened because the Government know that part II of the Bill does not command the support of the majority of Scottish Members of Parliament. If the Bill were debated in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Committee would be shown up for what it is—a talking shop with no effective powers of decision making. That is why the Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House.

There are some parts of the Bill on which there is common ground. The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made a cogent case, to supplement that of the Secretary of State, with regard to placing requests and the need to ensure that local children can attend local schools. Likewise, my right hon. and hon. Friends do not object—indeed they support—the merger between the Scottish Vocational Education Council and the Scottish Examination Board. That has had widespread approval, although the Committee will wish to examine in detail the way in which the body will be composed.

Perhaps one of the tasks that the new Scottish Qualifications Authority can undertake is to simplify for the benefit of employers the relative merit of many of the qualifications that seem to abound these days. I would not be surprised if many employers were confused by a plethora of modules and acronyms. Any simplification so that employers know the quality and standard of the passes that they are examining would be welcome. One employer to whom I have talked recently mentioned that the fees that were charged at every turn—tuition, examination and marking fees—were putting off employers from going down that road, and that some were using city and guilds. Clause 6(2) provides the power to charge, in accordance with criteria laid down by the Secretary of State. I hope that the criteria will reflect the burden on businesses, which have to meet costs in respect of their trainees.

On the question of finance too, will the Minister comment in his reply on a complaint made to me that, in some examinations—specifically, the Scottish Examination Board's examinations in English were referred to—pre-testing of questions, which is, I think, sometimes done south of border, and which ensures that exams achieve what they intend to achieve and that rogue questions can be discovered and expunged, has been withdrawn? That may be a small matter, but if the process will make exams and results reliable, we want an assurance that corners are not to be cut for the sake of meeting financial targets.

In his speech,the Secretary of State for Scotland launched on the House a reference to testing in secondary one and secondary two. He was somewhat thrown by a question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who asked whether children whose parents did not wish their children to be tested would still be required to be tested. The Secretary of State, true to his belief in parental choice, had to accept that the tests would not be compulsory if parents did not wish their children to sit them. He went on to say that it would not be in children's interests to do so, taking the view that he knows better than parents what is in children's interests.

The Secretary of State went on to make an even more curious point. He drew a parallel and said that there was a similarity between the tests in S1 and S2, which he is proposing, and standard grade and higher grade examinations. That was a worrying statement for the Secretary of State to have made. In one respect, it is not consistent with his comment in another part of his presentation that one of the purposes of the tests was to identify educational needs at an early stage. There is a world of difference between tests designed to identify educational needs and examinations designed to give pupils qualifications either to go out into the world of employment or to further and higher education. The Secretary of State, however, categorised the new tests with the standard and higher grade exams.

The House is entitled to be told by the Minister whether what is proposed is not simply tests to measure a level of achievement or to identify particular needs, but qualification tests as well. Would one have to pass the test in S1 to sit the test in S2? Would one have to sit the test in S2 to be allowed to go on to the course that will lead eventually to standard grade?

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's customary courtesy, but he does not have to wait until the winding-up speech. In the comparison that he used, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was making the point that the new Scottish Qualifications Authority would be required—as I think the whole House agrees it should—to set standard grade exams and the new "higher still" exams. As an additional function, it will set national exams in reading, writing and mathematics in S1 and S2. There is no prerequisite to sit an exam in S1 to go into S2 and/or to sit one in S2 to go on to standard grade. My right hon. Friend's point was that the SQA will be supplying exams at standard grade and higher grade. It is up to parents, teachers and pupils whether pupils sit those exams. It will be the same for new national exams set by the SQA at S1 and S2.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

That helps to clarify the matter up to a point. It suggests that, when he made that direct comparison, the Secretary of State was getting into waters that he had not thought about. The House will note the Minister's comment that it would be up to parents, teachers and pupils as to whether pupils sat the exams in S1 and S2. That is a further development on what was said by the Secretary of State.

As has been said, the most controversial part of the Bill relates to nursery vouchers. I got the impression that the more volume the Secretary of State turned up in his defence of vouchers, the more he was not quite convinced by his argument. I do not doubt for one minute his commitment to the concept of choice. As a party, we also adhere to that concept. The problem for the Secretary of State is that he recognises that his chosen means of providing education for pre-fives will not necessarily deliver the sort of choice that he was praising so highly.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) said that a Scottish Pre-School Play Association questionnaire showed that the number one choice for the majority of parents was local authority nursery education. That in no way devalues or detracts from other pre-school provision, but that was the parents' choice.

It is also clear that, in many parts of Scotland, local authority-provided nursery education is not available. Underlying all this is that one may receive a voucher and use the system and child benefits to work out who is entitled to vouchers, but the voucher itself is no guarantee of a place. For some people in other parts of Scotland, it will be a Hobson's choice. There may be only the one option. Choice will not be there.

I agree with the comment that, when the vouchers are introduced in regions where pilot schemes are working, 100,000 flowers will bloom and new projects will spring up all over the place. I suspect that, in many places, existing playgroups are anxious not to lose out and are filing applications. That is not necessarily to detract from or in any way to decry what they are doing, but we may not be seeing a great expansion in the number of places.

We may also be reducing the number of places available for three-year-olds. In many parts of Scotland, where some local authorities have made the effort, provision is made for three-year-olds. There must be concern that, in the effort to expand, through the scheme, nursery provision for four-year-olds, three-year-olds who would have a place may be denied one.

Liberal Democrat Members are also concerned that the voucher's value will not cover the costs of a nursery place. I understand that, in evidence given by Fife regional council to the Select Committee of the other House, the figure of £3,000 for a full-time place in a free-standing nursery was mentioned. Clearly, a £1,100 voucher would not meet that. I have been told that, in the Orkney part of my constituency, the average cost of a place in some nurseries could be covered by £1,100, although whether it could cover five-day sessions is not entirely clear.

The important point was made, however, that that will apply only if there were a roll of 18 or more. The pilot study will have to consider whether the numbers will be there to make the voucher's value cover the cost of providing a nursery place in some of Scotland's more thinly populated regions, where it is always difficult to find rolls of 18 children aged four years, or even aged three and four years. In relation to the pilot scheme, the Government may have to consider the possibility of different value vouchers in different regions.

Equally, the local authority or others may expect to provide places for nursery pupils in remote regions, but the chances are that those are the same regions where pupils have to travel some distance and where additional costs of providing transport are involved.

There is a serious question mark over whether the placement costs will be covered but capital costs will not be covered by the vouchers. They are the costs, in the setting up of new provision, of meeting health and safety requirements and being able to train staff to the standard that we believe is necessary to look after the under-fives. It is not so long since my children were under five and I can well remember what they were like. Looking after children of that age requires considerable skill and ability.

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) referred to a passage in the record of the Scottish Grand Committee in Stirling and quoted what the Secretary of State said in response, I think, to an intervention that I had made. Many of us were appalled and shocked to hear the Secretary of State suggest that full and proper training might be an ideal to which we could aspire but which, in the real world, we might not be able to reach. The cost of providing adequately trained staff is an important part of the equation and one which vouchers will not cover.

The matter of quality assurance has been mentioned. We have been told that the number of inspectors will be increased by two. I have seen figures suggesting that a nursery class can expect to be inspected on average once every 17 years. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that; if he cannot, I should like to know how often nursery classes are inspected and how much more frequently they are likely to be inspected as a result of the two additional inspectors.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

Every provider in the pilot areas will be inspected in the pilot year. We would then expect that nationally every new operator would be inspected in the first 24 months of the system.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

That is quite an undertaking, given what the situation appears to be at the moment. Of course, it is not only what happens at first or in the pilot scheme in the first year that we have to consider; inspection needs to be on-going, and I suspect that assurances of quality will not suffice in the longer term. By comparison, I understand that social work departments inspect playgroups annually. If playgroups expect to be upgraded, it is important that the inspections continue.

In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I referred to special needs education. I shall not elaborate because the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) dealt with the subject very well.

While we have been debating this afternoon, the Scottish Pre-School Play Association has been holding a reception in another part of the building. Although the Minister with responsibility for education has said that the SPPA will receive some assistance to reach voucher-eligible status, it is very concerned that funding for its other work—work that is not related to the pre-school voucher initiative—is under threat, especially as the Scottish Office has said that the SPPA will not be receiving funding from the Scottish Office's education and industry section for some of its on-going costs.

We all recognise the valuable work of the SPPA. It is the umbrella group for playgroups across Scotland, which provide services for some 82,000 children. The SPPA says that it is important to distinguish between the organisation's need for an increase in funding to meet its recurring commitments and the arrival of the pre-school voucher initiative. I hope that it is not too late for the Minister to have second thoughts.

If the SPPA does not receive its essential core funding, any work that it might be able to do with the pre-school voucher initiative might fall by the wayside because, as it says, its funding crisis would prevent it from providing services and threaten the very viability of the organisation. It would be regrettable if the funding for the voucher system was found at the expense of a very valuable organisation.

All hon. Members recognise pre-school education as a valuable provision. It can help to identify children's particular needs at an early stage and it helps young people acquire social and communication skills. It would miss the point if pre-school provision had a purely educational remit as much learning can be done through play. Until now, Scotland has enjoyed a variety of provision not only through nursery classes but through playgroups. Also, some parents require not nursery classes or playgroups but care for their children. That is not covered by the voucher system. For the reasons that I have outlined, we do not believe that the voucher system will deal with the needs of all children or provide the adequate and proper pre-school provision that people want. Scotland's young people deserve better than what is being proposed.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr 6:14 pm, 4th June 1996

I must begin by expressing my disappointment that no other Ayrshire Member of Parliament has been here for this important debate. I know that some Ayrshire Members are in the building and might have other duties to perform, but nothing is more important for the future of Scotland than the education of our young people. I deplore the fact that the Bill does not seem to inspire the interest that I believe it deserves.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) mentioned the Scottish Grand Committee. I understand what he says. This is an important Bill, but the reality is that we do not have a majority on the Scottish Grand Committee, so we cannot introduce controversial legislation in that forum. Nevertheless, any party in government that could command a majority in it could pass all legislation affecting Scotland in the Scottish Grand Committee. It is worth remembering, however, that a Scottish Grand Committee can hear from Ministers with United Kingdom posts that have a bearing on Scottish issues, whereas a Scottish Assembly, were we to have one, could not. While I accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism in respect of this Bill, the realities are as I have stated.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

Can we take it from the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the practicalities of the present composition of the Scottish Grand Committee that he accepts that he, his party and the Government are unrepresentative of the people of Scotland?

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

No. I accept that, at the previous general election, we did not get as many Scottish Tories elected as I should have liked. I think that we shall rectify that next time, but that remains to be seen. More Scottish Tories will be elected at the next election and they will be sitting on the Government Benches, attending key debates such as this.

I do not accept that the Scottish Grand Committee is a talking shop. We have achieved much. The Scottish people have gained much from the fact that the Committee has moved around Scotland, engendering interest wherever it goes.

If we were to follow the line taken by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, we should not have been able to pass important legislation such as the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1995. That Act tightens law and order provisions, but the Opposition would not have supported it. The same is true of the legislation introducing single-tier authorities in Scotland—having heard the debates on it, I am sure that we would not have been able to pass it in a Scottish Grand Committee. However, many people recognise the wisdom of what the Government have done in Scotland. Perhaps some Opposition Members might support us in changed circumstances—I leave that as a matter for further thought.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also said that three-year-olds could lose out if the nursery voucher system were introduced. I do not think that that will be the case. We should consider the matter more positively, although the hon. Gentleman's remarks were more positive than those that I have heard from the Labour party.

We must recognise that when we talk about provision for three-year-olds we are not necessarily thinking of education but of social services. I shall address the points on playgroups and playschools later in my speech.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made one interesting point about the cost of service provision. He said that nursery schools in Orkney and Shetland can provide approximately £1,000 to £1,500 for full-time sessions. I am quite surprised about that, and I compliment them if they can provide that service. We must come back to the basics. We are not offering a full-time nursery education service for all pre-school children. Our hope is that we can work towards that. This provision is a major step forward, and all hon. Members should realise that great benefits will come from it.

I should like to list a number of reasons why I welcome the Bill. It addresses several key issues about the education of our children for the future and recognises a need for some change. "Change" is a word that we live with day to day. It is not a popular word with everyone. At times, change can create a great deal of uncertainty. I suggest that the word "change" puts a damper on what I believe is the current feel-good factor in the United Kingdom, and in Scotland. Change has that effect, because people worry about it as it is a move away from what they recognise and understand. It causes anxiety.

Regardless of the anxiety that is caused by change, a responsible Government must recognise the need for it. Change is essential, whether in the world of work, in the world of leisure or in the world of education.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that change should be welcomed when there is some doubt about the current system, whether it is a system of work or of education? Is he really saying that the pre-school nursery provision that is available—when the money is available—needs to be changed to provision that is cheaper, and therefore less substantial and less successful?

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I am saying that nursery education has been talked about right back to 1973, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) introduced his plans for the provision of nursery education. He did not get that opportunity, because a Labour Government were elected and did not subscribe to the line of providing nursery education. That was regrettable.

No doubt there were other priorities in the 1980s, but the Conservative party has always aimed towards providing nursery education. The Conservative party is making additional resources available to take a first major step towards creating a national nursery education system, which I should have thought every hon. Member would welcome. I am absolutely astonished that people want to turn their backs on additional Government money being made available for such a service. When the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) talked about change, he dealt with one part of the Bill. There is another very important part of it, which I shall deal with shortly.

Major changes to our educational structures have occurred in the past 17 years, and there have been major improvements in a variety of ways. The Government have introduced standard grades to the great benefit of youngsters in my constituency and across the country.

The introduction of vocational qualifications was a major step forward. That was something new, and it was a part of the Government's vision. I do not believe that any hon. Member would now seek to repeal the legislation that introduced those changes in vocational education. The changes were good for Scotland and for young people. They set a goal for young people—people who were perhaps not good in theoretical matters but who were good in practical matters. Vocational qualifications are good for those people, and Conservative Members should take great pride in that fact.

Let us consider primary school testing. There was occasionally great dispute about testing, but that change was necessary. I have recently been watching events far across the waters—in Taiwan and in China. Testing is a part of everyday education in those countries. There is testing at every stage. If we consider the example of Taiwan, we find very high levels of success and extremely high standards are achieved. Achievement levels among their primary school children frequently exceed those of our children.

We should learn from their achievements, and we should not mock. I detected some mocking among Opposition Members when I was speaking about the Chinese and the Taiwanese. We should not mock those people. They have their own cultures and their own ways. We can learn from them, just as they can learn from us.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

Does the hon. Gentleman know anything about the five-to-14 programme? Can he tell me where assessment fits in the modes of learning in five-to-14? Can he tell me where assessment is currently deficient and where it does not exist from 5-to-14, from primary 1 to S2 in Scotland?

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

The five-to-14 programme was introduced by this Government. They recognised the benefits of such a programme and introduced it. If I think back to my time at school, I cannot remember a time when there was not some formal testing. I cannot remember a time in secondary school, at first and second year levels, when there were not tests. The problem was perhaps that the tests tended to be fragmented and that there was no base level that everyone had to achieve. Testing will perhaps remove that problem in the future. I shall speak about testing later in my speech.

Parental choice is another very important aspect of the Government's treatment of education. Many of my constituents take advantage of the ability to move their children outside their catchment area. They do so for a range of reasons, and not only to send their children to the high-standard school to which everyone wants to send their children. They do so for family reasons. For example, it may be handy for parents to take their children to a particular school. Parents have that level of choice, which improves the quality of life for them and for their children.

Opposition Members dramatically opposed those provisions when they were introduced some years ago. Perhaps there has now been some change. Perhaps the Labour spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), will tell us that a Labour Government would never go back on those provisions for parental choice. I do not believe that they would go back on them. If such a Government intended to do so, I do not think that they would have the benefit of the backing of Liberal Members, on whom such a Government would almost certainly depend were they ever elected.

Parental involvement in school boards is another aspect of the Government's education policy. I accept what the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) said about schools, such as Arbroath high school, not having a school board. That is the parents' choice, and it is very sad, but perhaps they felt that school boards do not have enough power. Putting that right might be an opportunity that the Bill misses; perhaps we should consider it in the future.

Parliament sets the agenda in all these matters, but, ultimately, local authorities deliver. Perhaps that is a weakness in the education system in Scotland. Perhaps our devolving so much responsibility to local authorities is a flaw in the system. We have introduced major changes in secondary schools. We have affected the number of children who stay on at school—42.6 per cent. of pupils go on to the fifth year, and then on to the sixth year. That is quite a step up from the situation in 1979—it is almost double the number. It is a magnificent achievement.

The number of school leavers who go into higher education now stands at 43 per cent. That is phenomenal. What is wrong with Scottish education? Why are we hearing all these gripes? I do not understand the complaints, because we are succeeding and we are achieving.

I am very impressed with the standard and quality of many of the young people who come out of our schools these days and go into university. They are absolutely tremendous; I am proud of them. I do not know what other hon. Members think, but I believe that there are many high fliers and high achievers coming through our schools. In many ways, our education system encourages them and gives them opportunities.

There are now 413,000 Scottish students in higher and further education. We have doubled the number since 1979. That is a remarkable achievement, despite the despondent and denigrating comments of Opposition Members. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commented earlier on Labour's record in the 1970s and, thinking of that, I have to ask Opposition Members how on earth they can criticise us. They should look back at their own record. I shall read Hansard tomorrow, look at the figures and get my press releases ready for the weekend, because I think that they are blinking good figures.

Part I of the Bill is about the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which seems to have been a gleam in the eye since the mid-1980s. Now is the right time to introduce the change. People in the world of education recognise the need, have been consulted and have given their support. To his credit, even the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) supports the idea. I can tell the hon. Member for Falkirk, East that that is one element of change that he will support, because I do not reckon that he would want to cut across the aims of the hon. Member for Hamilton. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East criticised me when I was talking about some elements of change, but here is one element of change in the Bill to which he will give whole-hearted backing. That is nice, and I welcome it.

The Bill represents a forging together of secondary school qualifications and vocational qualifications. That is important. It must help with co-ordination and improve quality, and it recognises the needs both of academia and of commercial interests. Those steps will do much not only for educational provision, but will improve the standards of the youngsters who go into business, and on whom Britain's future will be built.

The Bill will set standards and create a quality assurance trail. It will blend in with, and build upon, what was there before. We should not denigrate what was in place before. We should recognise the achievements, and pay tribute to those who have served on the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council. All of them have contributed something.

I had just got used to SCOTVEC, NVQs and SVQs, but now I suppose I must start getting used to talking about the SQA instead. [Interruption.] I think that the Minister is telling me that those qualifications will still exist, and I take my hon. Friend's guidance on that.

The hon. Member for Hamilton talked about the composition of the new body, but I cannot imagine a composition very different from that recommended by my right hon. Friend. Naturally, the Secretary of State would want to control to some degree such an important body, and I have no objection to that.

However, the SQA will be obliged to establish an accreditation committee, which will be quorate only if it has a majority of non-SQA members. Perhaps either in his winding-up speech or by picking up the point now, my hon. Friend the Minister will say a little about the accreditation committee, because although I have read the Bill carefully I do not quite understand what it is for, or why it should be balanced in such a way.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

Perhaps I may help my hon. Friend now. That point was raised in another place, too. We are determined that the accreditation committee, although part of the SQA, will be separate from the authority's other functions. The committee's purpose will be to accredit other bodies that award qualifications, such as the City and Guilds, to ensure that their qualifications are up to the necessary standard and meet all the criteria.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I thank my hon. Friend. Does that suggest that, through accreditation, some of our major institutions will still have an input into the awards? I hope that my hon. Friend will think about that and come back to the issue—if not now, in Committee, because I should like to follow it up.

The amendment tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, with a rag, tag and bobtail bunch following behind, is totally negative. It says nothing good or positive about the Bill; it is simply a damnation of the nursery education aspect of it. In my view, the amendment is pretty pathetic—and it was reflected in the quality of the speech made by the hon. Member for Hamilton.

I referred earlier to the establishing of single-tier authorities in Scotland. Now, I should like to pay a little tribute to the new Labour-run South Ayrshire authority, which has recognised that, over the years, Strathclyde regional council had no intention of fulfilling the desires and hopes of the people in my constituency for the provision of nursery education.

South Ayrshire now has the powers and can deal with the matter locally, and it is attempting to provide a basic nursery education system. For 20 years, Strathclyde regional council failed to do that, yet in its first year the new single-tier authority is already addressing an issue that the locals really want to be tackled.

However, the authority was somewhat misguided in that it failed to push for inclusion in the voucher scheme project, which has cost my constituents a lot of money. Although added cash could have come into South Ayrshire, council tax payers will have to pay for the change instead, and I greatly regret that. Although I praise the council's action in providing nursery education, I criticise it for failing to get its act together on the nursery education voucher scheme.

Perhaps I put that slightly unfairly, because the leader of the authority challenged me the other day by saying, "We didn't fail to get our act together; we simply decided not to go for the scheme." I suggest that that was even worse; once again, it meant added costs for my council tax payers, and it removed opportunities from many children in my constituency because the pre-school scheme will be limited.

Many children in my constituency attend private nursery schools. Perhaps they could have been given the opportunity to spend more time there, or perhaps parents could have sent a second child along too. Who knows? In any case, the opportunity was lost.

The scheme is also seriously flawed in terms of its effect on playgroups. South Ayrshire is pushing out one or two playgroups that meet in schools, and very little help is being offered to them at present. Not only has the authority cost parents dear by not going for the scheme, but it is also depriving to some degree those whose parents chose the playgroup option. I regret that.

However, the council intends to look into what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) described as the "church hall" scenario. I understand that it is prepared to put cash in for the capital equipment that the church hall groups need to meet the basic standards required for the provision of playgroup or nursery education.

I have heard much today about a failure to control and inspect nursery schools, but in fact such schools are already examined by local authorities. In the private sector, they cannot go ahead without such inspection, so standards and levels of inspection have already been set.

I regret that we have failed to cash in on the opportunity for nursery provision, but I am delighted that, due to the Bill, the problem will not last for too long. The Bill will fulfil the aims and aspirations of many of the young mothers who made representations to me before the 1992 election. They stated clearly that they wanted nursery school provision. The Bill gives a commitment to fund every pre-school child to the tune of £1,100—quite a commitment.

More important, the way in which the provision will be introduced will give parents an element of choice. Not every parent wants their child to receive nursery education; some want the option of a playgroup. Why should they not be able to benefit from such choice? The Bill will allow that choice. The Bill will also allow local authorities to gain additional funding. If they provide services and people want to use them, they will attract more funding in the longer term. On that basis, I will welcome the Bill becoming law.

The amendment tabled by the Opposition says that the nursery voucher scheme is "educationally unsound". It is not; it is an educational advancement. Where there was no provision before, there will be in future. I find the suggestion that the scheme is educationally unsound insulting, given some of the excellent private nursery school facilities in Scotland. There are some excellent schools, which have been well used by parents, where teachers are of a high standard and provide a quality service. Labour is wrong to suggest that the scheme is educationally unsound.

The amendment also describes the scheme as "administratively wasteful". I do not believe that it is. Many of the facilities have already been provided. Provision in our schools and local authorities can be used. Playgroups already have resources. Any scheme that builds on that can hardly be considered wasteful. I do not accept that the scheme is wasteful; Labour is wrong again.

We are told in the amendment that the scheme is "socially divisive". I suggest that there is equal opportunity for all. The provision of £1,100 for every pre-school child must mean equal opportunity. At present, there is not equal opportunity because in many areas such facilities have not been provided by the local authorities that have had responsibility.

Labour Members have a cheek to talk about social division in such issues. They seem to believe that what is good for their leaders should not be available to the great mass of the population. We have only to look at the children of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). Indeed, we should look further back, to the education of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), and even the arch-socialist, the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who I know is on parliamentary business elsewhere. I shall not criticise him as I did other Opposition Members who represent Ayrshire, but even he, an ardent socialist, took advantage of the private education facilities of which he would deprive others. Labour is wrong, too, about the Bill causing social divisions—there will be none.

Part III deals with school boards, which have been opposed by the Labour party. In my view they are a significant success. The Bill could be criticised, as I said earlier, for missing an opportunity to strengthen school boards. We could have ensured that head teachers were obliged to submit to school boards all their funding requirements under devolved school management. That would have given school boards some teeth and perhaps encouraged others to join them.

If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would pay some attention—

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I thank my hon. Friend for his attention. I should like him to look again at the requirement in schedule 4(3) that all councillors in a school catchment area should have the right to participate on the school board. In some areas, far too many councillors would qualify, and they would grossly outnumber members of the school board.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

That point has often been raised with us. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities asked for the change, and we shall obviously return to the matter in Committee. If my hon. Friend wants to pick up on it then, we shall look at it.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I can think of no better reason for rejecting the proposal than the fact that it has been suggested by COSLA. I suggest that my hon. Friend talks to school board members and the people who are showing interest, listens to what they are saying and accepts their judgments rather than those of COSLA. I accept that it would be reasonable for a local councillor to have an input into a school board. Councillors whose wards include certain schools should have a right to be on their boards. Thereafter, it seems entirely reasonable that others may be invited by the board to specific meetings rather than attend by right.

More could have been made of the use of school buildings. It could have been part of a requirement on local authorities' additional involvement outside normal school times. Perhaps we shall address that opportunity later. We have a heck of a lot of national capital tied up in school buildings and we do not always get maximum return on its use. It may have been difficult to include such matters in the Bill. I recognise that we have to walk before we can run and that we cannot have everything.

I also have a gripe about the fact that there is nothing in the Bill about sports in school, which are a very important part of any school's activities. It would have been nice if something along those lines could have been included. Perhaps we shall look at such issues in the Government's next term of office and introduce changes at that time.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's comments on testing. Testing is absolutely essential for the future. It is stupid not to monitor sufficiently young people—the products of our schools. Many successful, quality young people are coming out of our schools. A great majority of them will achieve, but there will always be a significant minority who do not. Testing should be introduced to ensure that such young people can catch up and improve. We must help them. Testing is designed to help not those at the top of the ladder, but those at the bottom.

I was totally confused by some of the topsyturvy suggestions made by Opposition Members—but that is nothing new. I always expect to be confused by Opposition Members who, it seems, do not think as rationally as me.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East 6:48 pm, 4th June 1996

I am always grateful to the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) for allowing me some time to speak after he has replied to the debate. I always have the feeling that that is what he is doing as he covers every other speech that has been made. As the hon. Gentleman was speaking, I was sure that the Minister was scoring through points that he had intended to make.

It was worth waiting to speak, however. Hon. Members will have to make up their own minds as to whether my speech was worth waiting for. If the Minister manages to stay awake, I am sure that he will take note of the points that I intend to raise and respond to them in his reply.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who unfortunately is not in his place, reminisced about being the Minister responsible for education in Scotland in 1971–74. He spoke about the problems that still occur in schools that were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

This year, my constituency is celebrating the centenary of Maddiston primary school. As the Minister knows because he was good enough to visit Bo'ness school, that building dates from the 1950s or the 1960s. It was made of the wrong kind of concrete and—slowly but surely—it is crumbling and falling apart. My constituents in the Braes—the former East Stirlingshire area—send their children to two schools that are not in my constituency. One third of my constituency does not have a secondary school. Children attend either Woodlands—the former Falkirk high school, which is more than 100 years old, and which moved to different premises some 30 or 40 years ago leaving behind a school that is still in use.

The Minister has also been invited to inspect Graeme high school, the main school for the Braes, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). It used to be the old technical school. I understand that he has accepted that invitation, although we are still awaiting a date. The music department used to be the old foundry and the practice rooms are reached by a wooden staircase that should not conform to modern health and safety standards, but the school has to manage with that until the Government provide more resources.

Some of the Bill's provisions are the Government's way of trying to fulfil the aspirations of the right hon. Member for Dumfries in 1971–74 to provide nursery education for every child in Scotland. That did not happen because the Governments of the day—Labour and Conservative—did not put enough money into the project. We are now being offered the voucher system, which is a cheap and shoddy imitation of proper nursery education.

There have been some attacks on the Labour party and I am not unhappy to defend Labour's record in the 1960s as Labour came to power after a long period of Conservative Government. The economy had been destroyed, as had people's hopes and dreams. The 1950s and the 1960s before Labour regained power saw the flight of capital from Britain, and we ended up having to rescue Britain from an incredible balance of payments problem that should have led to immediate devaluation. As the Government and the public were either unaware of the need for that or unwilling to make the political choice, we suffered the consequences in the 1960s and 1970s. The Minister can trot out the figures, but the country was facing economic problems that were created by Conservative profligacy and reliance on a completely free market.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) is not in his place because, as he explained, he has left to chair a Committee. However, he treated us to some Tayside xenophobia. He said that only rural schools in Tayside were worthy of praise.

I was a teacher for 15 years. I taught mainly in special education by choice. My wife is a trained primary teacher and a graduate and now a senior educational officer, and I have spent much time in debate, discussion and observation of the Scottish education at the primary stage and into adulthood.

There are wonderful teachers in wonderful schools throughout Scotland. However, in some schools there are substantial social pressures, both economically and because of the fabric of the schools and the straitened circumstances of people living in the outskirts of Scottish cities and in some Scottish town centres. None of those difficulties will be alleviated by the Bill. People will not be rushing to claim their £1,100 because what they want, and what some local authorities—Labour Conservative and SNP—are providing is proper nursery education.

Everyone is wondering who will suffer when the £1,100 voucher system becomes universal in Scotland. What will happen? The necessary funds to provide proper nursery places—which can cost as much as £3,500—will be shattered into segments of £1,100 and spread around. That will not supplement existing provision, as the hon. Member for Ayr tried to impress on the House, but undermine, destroy and wear away the provision that is already being made by many Scottish local authorities, sometimes under seriously straitened financial circumstances.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

As the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber during my right hon. Friend's opening speech, his comments seem rather strange. Did he not hear that in East Renfrewshire, every holder of a voucher has been guaranteed a nursery place under the scheme and that to date almost three quarters of eligible parents have taken the opportunity of getting a voucher? That does not sit with what he has just said—that parents will not be rushing to get their vouchers. They are doing just that.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

The Secretary of State did not answer my question as he did not accept my intervention on that point. I wished to ask him to give me one instance—unlike his surgery tale of a woman who did not get nursery places for her children—of someone saying, "My child has a proper nursery place, but I want to give up that place and take a voucher."

We are talking about an area where there may have been a partnership, as has been explained. I am not saying that there should be no variety, but parents whose children have a nursery place want to hang on to it. When people see the benefits of a proper nursery place, they aspire to that for their children. There is nothing wrong with wanting a halfway house when there is no other provision, but that is not the aspiration of the Opposition. We do not want to cheapen and devalue, but to increase the nursery provision for three and four-year-olds.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

There is a flaw in the Government's logic when they assume that a voucher worth £1,100 has the same value in the Gorbals as it has in Eastwood. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be far better if we invested properly in the existing national system. The local authorities are the best providers, giving a high-quality service, but as usual with the present Government, they are under-resourced.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I concur with that succinct and accurate analysis. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Dumfries has returned to the Chamber. I mentioned him when he was not in his place, not in any way to criticise his aspirations, but to point out that since his period in office, the Government have not funded nursery education to the level required to provide what we need—a proper headstart.

I use the word headstart as when I studied for my diploma at university and college, there was a large American project called Headstart. People thought that it was not working because it did not achieve immediate results. As middle-class children with good social backgrounds were doing just as well as if not better than those involved in the project at primary 1 and primary 2, which is elementary 1, elementary 2 and elementary 3 in the United States, funding was discontinued and the programme was run down. However, some 10 years later, the young people who had been involved in Headstart were going to college. They were not just taking a high school diploma, but they were matching their middle-class counterparts and going on to further and higher education in America. Headstart is now being revived in the United States and money is being put into pre-school nursery education because it extends the learning process and encourages young people to aspire to further and higher education.

Sadly, the Secretary of State made a rather snide and disparaging remark about myself in relation to Stirling university, which he announced would be conducting research into nursery education. As a graduate of Stirling university, I should like to put a few points on record so that he can read them and reconsider his disparaging remarks about whether my work at Stirling university and since leaving gives me some credentials to speak about higher and further education.

I was an undergraduate at Stirling from 1967 to 1972. In 1970–71 I was elected student president of the university, and in 1983–84 I was elected honorary president or rector. I am currently a member of the university conference, as is the Secretary of State for Scotland as a local Member of Parliament.

The Secretary of State may have been making the same mistake as his Conservative colleagues in Falkirk, who tried to insinuate that I was at the university at the time of the debacle of the Queen's visit in 1972. At a funeral in Stirling last week, I was told by an elderly lady that I had been blamed for that. But I had been living in Canterbury from June of that year, and I had not been back to Stirling. [Interruption.] The Minister with responsibility for education, housing and fisheries should listen, as his colleagues are making these remarks. The members of Falkirk council have a poster—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. I think that I can be trusted to look after these matters, rather than a junior Minister speaking from a sedentary position.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I shall deal with the matter quickly. The Secretary of State made an unfounded and disparaging remark that should be discounted, as the Conservative members of Falkirk council now accept that I was not at the university at the time of the Queen's visit. I am proud of my contribution since then. I was the leader of Stirling council, and we built the management centre that the Secretary of State is always describing as an example of private enterprise and universities working together. The council has continued to work with the university since then.

Part I of the Bill deals with the Scottish Qualifications Authority. It would be unfortunate if there was to be a split in the all-party support for that authority, as we had—believe it or not—before the creation of Scottish Enterprise all-party support for the idea of the Scottish Development Agency and the Manpower Services Commission joining together. Sadly, the Government underfunded Scottish Enterprise and, as a result, the quality of training has been poorer than would have been the case had the two organisations remained apart.

My worry is that the Scottish Qualifications Authority will be underfunded by the Government. As a result, we will not have parity of esteem—something to which we all aspire—so that vocational and academic qualifications will be as one. We will instead have a spectrum of qualifications, with academic qualifications at the top and vocational qualifications at the bottom. The members of the body should not be appointed by the Secretary of State, who may be driven by an ideology that may not be in the interests of all the people of Scotland who want vocational or academic qualifications. The danger is that there will be pressure to focus on either of the areas, and the body will not give parity of esteem.

I believe that the Scottish Qualifications Authority will rely for its success on the resourcing of "Higher Still". Everybody to whom I have talked about "Higher Still" has said that although the pilot projects have been fine, there is no indication in the Government's budgets that the scheme is to be continuously resourced. I am in daily contact with people in the academic world—particularly in high schools—and they are not buoyant about the scheme. Many are saying that although they have been involved in the pilots, they will not continue with "Higher Still" unless they receive the resources. If the resources are not provided, there will be no proper training and the scheme will stumble. Problems will be created by the Government cutting corners, as that will result in a cut in quality.

I am glad that the Minister responded as he did to his hon. Friend the Member for Ayr on the accreditation organisation, as I was going to point out that City and Guilds has re-established itself in Scotland. In addition, the Royal Society of Arts—which does tremendous work in commercial and office training—plays a fundamental part in the transition from school to a working environment, and often to further and higher education, for many young people. I am glad that the Minister recognises that.

We do not want one organisation and a single approach but many approaches, all of which people can take at different times in their lives. I remember meeting young people who had not gone to high school, but who were studying in university—and in the library where I and my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) studied for our highers—for their PhDs. They were studying in the library because their family circumstances did not allow them to work at home. There are many routes to further and higher education, and I hope that the Scottish Qualifications Authority will not cut them.

I have some reservations about the authority—for example, it will not have enough local authority members. The hon. Member for Ayr suggested that the Government take the view that COSLA is an antagonist—although perhaps not an enemy—and would not be included among the Government's automatic choices for consultees. That worries me, because I believe that COSLA is a responsible organisation. Education authorities have made many changes—as a result not of Government pressure, but of pressure from academics, researchers and parents, whom they take seriously and try to represent. COSLA should be involved in that organisation. It has bid for a certain percentage of places and while I would not go so far as to say that we should accede to its request, I believe that COSLA should be represented in large numbers.

It has been suggested that training providers should be predominant in the accreditation committee, and that should be looked at seriously by the Government. We have talked in the Scottish Grand Committee about the Fast-trac scheme in Fife, and there is a strong view there that we should talk to those who provide rather than intermediaries or academics. The Government should make sure that an adequate number of places are provided for providers. The hon. Member for Ayr referred to providers in universities, but I believe that those who turn the aspirations of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds into NVQs should also be included.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The Bill requires that the Secretary of State must consult widely before making any appointment. Therefore, the matter to which the hon. Gentleman is referring is catered for in the Bill.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I am grateful for that assurance, but it has been said that consultation under this Government—particularly in Scotland—is someone being asked for his opinion and then being told that he will get what the Government planned anyway. We can think back to the Scottish local government legislation, when there was clear opposition from the Scottish people to the proposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has pointed out also that the people of Scotland do not want nursery vouchers, but the Government have introduced them anyway. I am glad that the Secretary of State will consult, but I hope that he will do more and will take on board the aspirations of those whom he consults.

As someone who worked in the field for 15 years, I am concerned that there is no commitment in the Bill to special educational needs qualifications. I found it difficult to shoe-horn the abilities and the massive and complex difficulties of my students aged between 11 and 19 into five-to-14. That was a wonderful innovation, but it did not fit the needs of those children. Often, individual children had programmes designed specifically for them. Yet at the end of the programme, we were asked to grade them A, B or C. It was not sensible. I hope that some prescriptive protection can be provided in Committee, or perhaps graded qualifications in special educational needs could be developed to help people pass through the system and fit into five-to-14 and "Higher Still".

Children with special educational needs are often below the basic level of the standard grade qualification that they are trying to achieve. But they want to achieve something, because a child with special educational needs makes just as much effort to get to a pre-general stage—never mind the general stage of a standard grade. The Minister, who was a teacher, knows that. I hope that the organisation will look at that matter.

I will not deal with the Bill in order, because I want to get to the meat at the end. I wish to refer to the alterations to school boards. The school board system is not massively succesful, as the hon. Member for Ayr said. It has many flaws, and it staggers and stumbles in different areas. People are co-opted on to boards because they cannot get anyone to volunteer. Some areas are not represented, with people from one community on school boards while those from other communities are not. That is no substitute for a statutory right for every parent to have access to and influence on what happens in a school. For instance, clause 28(8) allows certain people to stay on in post until the next election even though they have ceased to have any parental or other connection. Those who have volunteered to be co-opted may have wives or husbands on the board; they can stay on until they eventually have to leave. The Government are responding to the problem of gaps appearing in the school board system. The hon. Member for Ayr talked about budgets and expenditure as providing a role for the boards, but that could end up with people arguing about the price of the postage stamps instead of concentrating on things that affect the school.

I want the whole ethos of schools to be discussed. All the research shows that school boards should not feel detached from school affairs but should help teachers in their tasks. That would give them a real role in a school's aspirations.

Perhaps school boards do not represent the right way forward in any event. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East has been looking seriously—while drawing up a consultation document—at other approaches. We need to revitalise the relationship between parents and schools, not just to patch up the holes in the system.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

The hon. Gentleman is being a little insulting to school boards when he talks of discussions of postage stamps and so on. Boards are interested in the books and equipment that schools use and in other major issues. My experience is that they like to feel that they are making a contribution in that way.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

My experience is somewhat different. If the Minister cares to visit Graeme High, just as he visited Bo'ness in my constituency, he will find that the school board and action group want to discuss not the internal affairs of the school but the need for more resources—just as happened at Bo'ness. The group's members do not want to sit down with the headmaster to divide up the school's resources—they trust the professionals to do that well—but they do want to make the case for more and better resources. If the Government recognised the validity of allowing people some degree of subsidiarity so that they could speak out democratically, they might get on better.

Clause 32 might be aptly named the Balfron clause, as it clearly stems from the Secretary of State's experience at Balfron in the west of his constituency. For some time now people have been crossing the border from Strathclyde mainly because, once over the hill, people look down on Balfron in the Blane valley, not at Glasgow. I was the leader of the local council for 10 years so I know the area well. I should like to record my commendation of Jim Fleming, the head teacher whom I knew for many years as a fellow modern studies teacher—just as the Minister used to be before his temporary incarnation as a politician. I am sure that he will go back to teaching when he leaves this place

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

This place's loss would be modern studies' gain. I have heard no criticism of the hon. Gentleman's period as a modern studies teacher, although I have heard him criticised as a Minister.

The school attracts people, but many schools in the same situation attract so many that they squeeze out their local catchment area pupils. Clause 32 is therefore long overdue.

Today, the Secretary of State made his usual and typical disparaging personal remark about me, but we are old sparring partners. My problem with what he had to say was echoed earlier by the hon. Member for Ayr. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that the nursery places being provided are additional. They are certainly additional in the pilot schemes, but that is what bribery is all about. The same happened with the capital offered to opting out schools in England and Wales. Such schools are now being told that there will be no more bribes, with the result that many of them have run into difficulties.

It is easy to get people to take up an option that includes more money. The councils that have taken the money have clearly decided that although they do not like the political ideology behind them they need the extra cash offered in the pilot schemes. So their choice was between taking some money or taking nothing—and some took it. I do not wish to act as judge and jury; I do not know what pressures such councils have been subjected to, or how they have resolved them.

What is clear is that, after the pilots are over, the provision will have to be delivered universally, and if £1,100 per pupil is universally offered it will not amount to that much money on top of what is already spent by local authorities on nursery education. Both the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Ayr know that. Just because everyone queues up for vouchers in one local authority area does not mean that that authority will have the money to provide them all with places—certainly not of the quality to which the right hon. Member for Dumfries aspires. The pre-five organisations in my area, too, know that the provision will not be adequate.

As for clause 24, the administration of the voucher system constitutes a blank cheque for political interference. Some of the clauses in this Bill smack not of a nanny state but of a dogmatic state, because they allow the Secretary of State first to decide on the requirements and then to change them at any time after payment: if the requirements are not met, the money can be called in again. It seems that the Secretary of State can change the rules on his personal whim. He may, for instance, decide that too much partnership with local authorities should result in a shift to the private sector. Failing that, the money can be taken away. There will be continual pressures of this kind, which is why I hope that clause 24 will be examined in great detail by the Standing Committee.

The safeguards written into the Bill may, according to clause 24(2)(b), be varied, waived or removed. In effect, the Secretary of State can apply pressure and then take away the safeguards written into the agreements with the people who set up the system. The whole thing is fraught with difficulties, and clauses 24 and 25 are dangerous parts of the Bill.

Clause 25 deals with setting up a nursery voucher company, Capita. I have visited the Student Loans Company so I know what a disaster it is. This one will be the same. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton described the complexities which the Government say do not exist, and I certainly cannot see how the system can be run on spending of £22 per person out of the £1,100. That represents £1 million of the £70 million. It is ridiculous to believe that an organisation can be run on that, although no doubt a private company will be set up if the banks think that there is money to be made—just as they did with Motability. I predict that problems will follow.

Clause 26 refers to the Secretary of State's ability to release social security information about people. That is worrying. The defence will be that information was released unknowingly to third parties. The Government tell us that they want freedom and choice, and that they want to get the state off people's backs, but clause 26 allows personal information to be passed on to others.

The point has been made again and again that vouchers do not mean places—they just mean vouchers. Because they want to be seen to have introduced broader nursery education for more people, the Government are willing to spread the available jam more and more thinly. The result will be something that sustains no one; it will not achieve the impact to which Headstart aspired in America, or even the impact achieved by the pre-fives groups in Strathclyde and in other local authorities. Yet the Secretary of State is trying to sell the idea to the people of Scotland.

Does the Minister really believe that this £1,100 will buy the same quality nursery provision as local authorities currently make? If he does, his view will be subjected to scrutiny during the pilot period and will be found wanting.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The hon. Gentleman does not have to take my word for it: the National Audit Office has said that £1,100 will pay for everything except the most high-quality and the most expensive places—the voucher scheme was never intended to pay for those places. The independent National Audit Office is saying this, not me.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

It is the independent National Audit Office for England and Wales. I would like to see someone from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy or the Comptroller of Audit in Scotland do it. I remember that when we had the debate about the cost of local authority reorganisation, CIPFA put out a paper to show that the reorganisation cost will be much dearer than the one put forward by the Government. The Government's chosen consultant, Touche Ross, borrowed the Government's watch and told them the time the Government wanted to hear.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

Is the hon. Gentleman not being a wee bit arrogant to think that he knows better than the National Audit Office?

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I was the treasurer of my council and I was the deputy leader of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, so I suppose I can be a little arrogant in thinking that local government experience may outweigh the accountants' slide rule, but we will test that as time goes on.

The Secretary of State spoke about people being brainwashed. I was amazed by the statement. When it was pointed out that everyone is against the proposal, the Secretary of State said that even the parents and people of Scotland have been brainwashed by the Labour party. That is an incredible insult. I see one of the English Members, the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), backing up the Minister and nodding his head. That shows that he does not know much about Scottish society because in Scottish society there is a common weal, a belief among the people, that there are certain aspirations that we should all share. If we do not share those aspirations, or are willing to tread on them, we are betraying not just ourselves but the society in which we live.

I believe that that society aspires to have the best for the largest number of people and it wants to give a chance to the 30 per cent. —it is 30 per cent. at the moment—who are not getting a chance in the Scottish society that we have created over the past 17 years. We are doing it for moral and emotional reasons and for reasons of logic. But there are sound economic reasons as well. Society will carry those 30 per cent. on our backs—through transfer payments, and through social unrest, disruption and disfunctionality for the next generation. I believe that people want to see an effort being made to right that wrong in Scotland. I do not think that the people are in any way brainwashed. The Secretary of State said that the parents are brainwashed and that the voters are brainwashed. The Conservative party is down to 12 per cent. in the polls in Scotland, not because of brainwashing but because people are sick to their teeth of this ideology.

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde

My hon. Friend will know that I was a member of Strathclyde regional council for almost 10 years. I remember what happened in 1978—and we thought that they were bleak years. At that time, Scottish education was renowned the world over and we were praised for the standard that we achieved. We are on rocky ground after 16 years of Tory Government. Education resources are constantly eroded by the Government. The morality of the Government is now in deep question by the people who deliver educational services in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I agree with my hon. Friend, but I hold up one hope. I believe that we survived it. The innovation that I have seen in local government and in education over the past 16 or 17 years has been tremendous. It is not driven by the Government—in a sense people are showing innovation to prevent the damage that the Government wish to do. Education is hit hard because it is the largest and most labour-intensive part of a local authority budget. It is easy to pressure that budget by taking a few hundred thousand pounds out here and a few hundred thousand pounds out there. I know that every local authority is going through traumas in education at the moment because of the cut in the budget, because of local government reorganisation and because of the paltry sum given to them by the Secretary of State.

I believe that there is brainwashing: I think the Secretary of State and some of his colleagues were brainwashed when they went to St. Andrews. The political economy lecturers were Hayekians—now called the Austrian school—and they proselytised the theories of Hayek to their students. They were taken up by the Secretary of State and others. If one looks back at the so-called Thatcher years they were years when the Hayek model of the economy—a free market, deregulated economy—was to the fore.

There has been brainwashing, but it has been of Ministers and the Secretary of State—who has enthusiastically talked for that model. The past 17 years have shown that that model has denuded Britain of its ability to survive in the world, and reduced the capacity of the economy. We are now 35th in the league of investment in education and 18th in the prosperity league in the world. That is not something that happened because the world turned against us—it happened because those theories were carried to the extreme. It is not wrong to have a mix, but it was carried to the extreme—where only the free-market model was acceptable.

I do not believe that the aspiration of nursery education is to have, as the Secretary of State said, a system where some kind of overriding social strategy allows people to parachute in because they have a designated social need and take a place away from a local resident. We have to get the balance right. In Central region there have been revisions of the policy since the new councils came in and they are trying to get the balance correct between social need and the aspirations of local people. One should not be denied by the other.

Another point continually made by the Secretary of State and other Ministers is that we have a voucher system for training and it works. That is not true: we have a voucher system for training, but it does not work. I have spent 18 months studying the skill seekers programme and looking at the aspirations. The people who thought it up—I said this in the Scottish Grand Committee—said that it will work properly only if there is intermediate employment for people to train with their job. Training on its own will not create people who can get a job. We need to get the other half of the equation correct.

In Fast-trac we have a model that we can look at. Fife Enterprise has admitted that it does not have anything going for special educational needs. The Minister said that the nursery providers said that they can cope in the pilots with special educational needs with the funding that is available. That is not true because when we look at the needs of people post-school it is taking 40 per cent. of some skill seekers programme budgets to provide for the 15 per cent. of people who are designated as having special educational needs in some areas.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

I will let the Minister intervene in a moment. I have been looking closely at the figures. In one local enterprise company area they aspired to have 1,000 people in the skill seekers programme with 52 per cent. of them in a job with training. When I inquired, they announced that they had reached the target—in fact, they were over it, with 56 per cent. of people in training. When I looked I found that the total number in the programme was not 1,000 but 700, so it was 56 per cent. of 700, not 56 per cent. of the 1,000 originally targeted. That is the picture throughout Scotland, apart from Grampian, which has been running the longest and has the most buoyant economy. I am not against the voucher system in training—it just needs to have Government input at the right resource level to provide jobs that people can then take their training into.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I tried to intervene on the hon. Gentleman when he was talking about special educational needs. He has to be consistent in this. Ten minutes ago he was lecturing us and saying that local authorities knew best. Local authorities are now saying that they can cope with special educational needs and he is saying that they do not know what they are talking about.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

The simple thing for the Minister to look at is what it costs to look after one special educational needs pupil compared with a pupil in a standard secondary school. It costs £12,000 for a place in the school where I taught for 15 years and it costs an average of £3,000 for a secondary education place. The size of the budget disparity is enormous. I think that special educational needs will suffer. They will suffer because the Government aspire to give this voucher only to four-year-olds.

Every single authority that has looked seriously at a pre-five strategy—through the social work department, and the special educational needs provision, and the psychological services—is doing a complete screening of its younger people and is looking for people with special needs. Problems with dyslexia, dysphasia and minor cerebral palsy are being revealed in this screening. They are the people who are getting priority at the moment in local authority schemes.

If the Minister tells me that the Government will provide for every young person who comes through that screening with special educational needs the extra resources required so that they can start at the age of three or even earlier in home-based pre-school experiences he will at least have said something positive today. If he is not going to do that now, he can do it in his reply. We will need more than £1,100 if we are going to do that. The Government do not recognise that people are going for three-year-olds not just to win votes but because the earlier we intervene in the pre-school experience the better we can do what we intend to do.

As to the idea of regulating testing in secondary schools, the Minister's contention—he said it again earlier from a sedentary position—is that an S1-S2 national testing programme is the only way to get added value in S1 and S2. His mythological education authority in Tayside is not the same as the one that I have heard my colleagues from Tayside speak about. There are constant continual assessments as part of S1 and S2—some in the five-to-14 mode and some in the S1-S2 mode.

Teachers do not survive in the classroom if they do not conduct tests because they will have no information upon which to base further work with their pupils. As a former teacher, I am sure that the Minister tested his pupils regularly to see how well they were doing. The Government put about that mythology because they want to conduct a propaganda and an ideological battle. They do not want to accept that the five-to-14 programme has changed things fundamentally and that the S1 and S2 experience will continue to change for young people. The ethos in primary schools, using all the modes of five-to-14, will continue into S1 and S2.

The idea that any teacher could continue to teach for two years without assessing his or her pupils and using that assessment, as the Minister said, to diagnose their needs, to discover their weaknesses and provide educational experiences that will correct them is nonsense. A barrage of tests or a national testing programme has been put up only because the Secretary of State believes that there is some latent desire in the community for him to champion the idea of grading, setting and streaming. I do not think that there is that desire. I think that the Secretary of State will come a cropper, as he did—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton pointed out—when he tried to do that in primary schools.

In that case, the assessment examples were absorbed into local authorities and worked alongside their continuous assessment and testing programme. I watched that happen in the schools in which I taught and I watched it happen within education authorities that I knew very well. I hope that this mad, hare-brained idea will be absorbed into the continuous assessment programme of secondary schools in Scotland at S1 and S2 if there is some benefit to be gained from national test items.

The real question is how much longer the people of Scotland must suffer from the fanatical zealotry coming out of St. Andrews. That mad Hayekian model of the economy filtered through the Adam Smith Institute and into the heart and the mind of the Conservative party in Scotland. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State says that he went to Glasgow, but he is obviously following in the footsteps of another influence. Perhaps he has not read Hayek—I do not know whether he has read any fundamental economic books. However, the Secretary of State has. He has published little articles for the Adam Smith Institute which show quite clearly where he is coming from—whether it is competitive tendering or the market for nursery vouchers. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton exposed the fact that the Secretary of State still aspires to a market for secondary education and higher education vouchers.

It is logical that we need a full partnership. It cannot be a bit of a partnership with the people whom the Government allow in and believe that they can work with; it must be a partnership with all those who care about, and have aspirations for, our children's future. I do not see any of that in the Bill. The Government have tried to slip in unnecessary and unwanted voucher and testing schemes in a Bill which just tinkers with school boards and pulls together the general aspiration to have one qualifications authority in Scotland. It is a shoddy piece of work. The Government have been found out and the Conservatives will lose the next election as a result.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East 7:32 pm, 4th June 1996

Education has always been a Scottish priority: it is an important part of our life, outlook and culture. Our system is basically strong, but it is under-resourced. I believe that investment in Scotland's education system will pay massive dividends.

I make a plea on behalf of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. That organisation provides quality assurance and training schemes and has 3,000 groups throughout Scotland which represent excellent value for money. It is the largest single pre-school carer and education organisation in Scotland and it needs about £500,000 to build on its existing high quality service. I was shocked to learn that it receives only 37 per cent. of the funding received by its equivalent organisation in England and Wales, and only 13 per cent. of the funding given to the equivalent organisation in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to provide that core funding to the SPPA, as a small investment in such a tried, trusted and successful organisation will reap rich dividends in the long term.

As Scottish education generally has received poor treatment from the Conservative Government, it is incumbent on Scottish Members of Parliament to do our utmost to prevent the Government from inflicting further damage on education provision in Scotland. The Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not oppose everything in the Bill. The establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the principle of a single authority are welcomed conditionally. I say "conditionally" because I do not want to see that body become another quango filled with Tory yes-men. We shall watch carefully to ensure that Lord Lindsay honours his commitment, made during debate in another place, to consult properly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about the SQA's membership. There must be adequate provision to ensure that the merger between the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council occurs smoothly and with minimum disruption both to staff and to those who benefit from the service.

I shall focus on part II of the Bill, which refers to education for children under school age. That is a much greater concern. Although the Bill states that it relates to the provision of grants and social security information to pre-school education providers, we know that they are simply mechanisms for facilitating the Government's unwanted and unnecessary voucher scheme. It is somewhat devious and deceitful of the Government to obscure that fact by not referring explicitly to the voucher scheme.

The Scottish National party is strongly in favour of expanding pre-school education for children under five. We made a detailed pledge to do so in our costed budget proposals, with a commitment to spend an extra £194 million on pre-school education in the first four years of an independent SNP Government. That would ensure a nursery place for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that when those budget proposals were independently costed it was found that they would create an £8 billion deficit?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

That figure exists only in the Minister's imagination. If one stands upside down with one's head at a 45-degree angle and imagines a Tory wonderland, one might arrive at £8 billion, but the reality is that the Minister is a Scottish politician who takes every opportunity to downgrade and debase his country. He cannot believe that, of all the countries of western Europe, only Scotland would run an £8 billion deficit given all of our resources. It has been shown clearly that Scotland has a budget surplus.

The Minister plays down his country because he sees this place as providing his sole career opportunity, but he will not be in Government after the next election, and I hope that, following a future Scottish election, all those who care about Scotland will return to Scotland to legislate on behalf of the Scottish people in accordance with their wishes. If the Government had listened to the Scottish people for one second, this nonsense would not be headed towards the statute book.

The Minister has redefined the word "consultation": he will listen to what everyone says and then ignore them. We do not have government: we have dictation. That poses a danger to every citizen in a representative parliamentary democracy. The Minister does not like that, but he sparked those comments with his distorted view of his country's economy. He does not recognise Scotland's true wealth and he should be ashamed of himself.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

The hon. Gentleman is living in fantasy land. They are not my figures: they are from the Fraser of Allander Institute, which every Opposition Member has quoted in the House at some stage.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The figures have been demolished absolutely. If one stands on one's head, squints a lot and uses one's imagination, one might arrive at an £8 billion deficit, but it is strange that the Minister believes that Scotland is the only country in Europe that would be too poor to run its own affairs: only a Unionist could dream that up, because the reality is very different and the Scottish people know it.

We not only oppose the Government and all their works; we believe that the proposed voucher scheme is morally wrong and completely impractical. It undermines the principle of universality in our education system and the ability of local authorities to maintain existing levels of pre-school provision, which are already under strain due to lack of resources. The Minister does not even understand the basic principles of the education system through which he went and through which the majority of our children go. Those principles have always informed that system and made it strong.

It is widely acknowledged that the £1,100 value of each voucher is not enough to cover a full-time nursery place. The Educational Institute of Scotland estimates that the cost is about £3,000 in the Strathclyde region. In the Select Committee, the Minister himself acknowledged that the voucher will cover only a part-time place. That sums up the Government's attitude to the situation. It is ludicrous to suppose, as the scheme does, that the cost of educating every child is the same. For children with special needs, the real cost of providing even a part-time place is well over £1,100. We heard vague noises from Secretary of State today about special needs children, but that is not good enough. I hope that when the Minister winds up he will give us more than vague noises of concern about special needs. The £1,100 voucher will not cover the necessary educational provision for that important and vulnerable group. I wish to see positive proposals made on that subject before the Bill becomes law.

Better-off families have the option of topping up the value of the voucher, but that option is not open to most families whose need is usually greater. The Government's policy is socially divisive and will not meet educational need. Pre-school education is supposed to begin the process of trying to create a level playing field for children, regardless of background. It is not supposed to reinforce existing inequalities. A £1,100 voucher will not have the same value in the Gorbals as it will in East Renfrew or Eastwood.

The scheme will be specifically aimed at children in their pre-school year, but it will fail to guarantee quality education for all. The English Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment, was forced to concede that possession of a voucher will not guarantee that four-year-olds will be granted a nursery place. Will the Minister concede that the same applies in Scotland? It should not.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

Why is the hon. Gentleman flailing around for an example in England to rubbish the scheme when there is an example in Scotland in East Renfrewshire? Every child who has a voucher has been guaranteed a place. Why does not he use that as an example and stop flailing around in England?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

With his prize test cases, the Under-Secretary of State may be able to achieve those results, but can he replicate that throughout the country? His English colleague cannot. I merely repeated the words of his English colleague who put the scheme into practice and found it wanting. If the scheme fails, I do not want it to be inflicted on Scotland, but the Under-Secretary of State clearly views the situation differently.

Nursery education should be a natural part of our existing national education system, which has a tradition from elementary through to university education. Nursery education should be slotted into the existing Scottish philosophy and system. That would guarantee quality and give assurances to all Scottish parents, who want a system run by the Scottish local authorities which they elect and trust. Scottish parents can put faith in the quality of the product of their local authorities. Instead, the Government are pursuing their economic dogma with a fragmented, socially divisive scheme that will be sheared off from the mainstream provision of education in Scotland. We have already seen the havoc wreaked on the national health service by the imposition of a purchaser-provider split in the delivery of health care. We have witnessed an explosion of bureaucracy which will be repeated in pre-school education if the scheme goes ahead.

The Government like to talk about efficiency. The Secretary of State mentioned 2 per cent. administration costs, but we should consider the process that he is about to inflict on us. Parents will have to request application forms, complete them and send them to the private company that is handling the scheme. That company, Capita, will send out the vouchers which the parents will take to the provider in the private, voluntary or public sector with whom they hope to enrol their children. The provider will then send the vouchers to the local authority, which will gather all the vouchers it receives and send them to Capita. Capita will do the calculations and send them to the Scottish Office, which will send the grants to the local authority. The local authority will then have to distribute the money to the providers according to the number of vouchers received. That bureaucratic nightmare will be repeated three times a year, once in each term. Does the Minister call that efficient? How does he think that it can be run cheaply?

That description does not even take into account the chaos that will result from the parents' confusion about the working of such a complicated system. I will use the English example again because the scheme has been put into practice there. [Interruption.] Would the Minister care to listen? I repeat that I will use the English example because schools there have had inflicted on them what the Minister is trying to enforce in Scotland. After the pilot scheme was introduced in March, the Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment, was forced to admit that parents were confused about the application process. Almost a third of parents failed to apply and there is no reason to assume that the situation would be any different in Scotland, because the scheme will be the same.

The voucher process is outrageous and expensive and it will impose market conditions where no market should be. It will inevitably divert vital resources from the task at hand—the universal provision of top quality education for pre-school children. Resources will be taken from that, not given to it. The voucher scheme marks yet another stage in the Tory Government's war against Scotland's local authorities. Instead of using that valuable asset to provide services for the people of Scotland, the Government bypass, under-resource and attack local government. That is a mistake.

Questions must be raised about the honesty of the pilot scheme. Will the Minister confirm the basis on which the pilot scheme will be independently researched and evaluated? The participating authorities are not representative of local authorities as a whole. They tend to have low existing provision for pre-school education. The evaluation must therefore measure what can be achieved by spending £1,100 per pupil and whether that matches the high standards in local authorities with more widespread provision. The evaluation should be honest and compare like with like. I do not believe that the £1,100 voucher will ever come close to matching the existing provision, nor will it be adequate for the task that will be set.

In the Lords Select Committee in Glasgow, the Under-Secretary of State dodged Lord Addington' s question about whether the whole scheme would be scrapped if, after independent evaluation, the pilot scheme is deemed to have failed. If the Minister cannot give that assurance, how can we believe that the evaluation will be independent? If the evaluation shows that the scheme is not up to standard, will the Minister guarantee to scrap it?

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the evaluation will be real, thorough and intensive. It will be completely independent and we are soon to announce the identity of all those involved in the committee that will carry out the evaluation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the English example, with a third of parents not applying for vouchers. In Scotland 75 per cent. of eligible parents have applied for vouchers, so why does he go on about England?

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

In England the scheme has already been inflicted and we can see it in practice. Is scrapping the scheme an option? The Under-Secretary of State has ducked the question. If the independent evaluation finds that the scheme is not up to scratch, will the Minister undertake to scrap it?

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

We shall conduct a full evaluation of every aspect of the scheme, but the early reports show that it will be a roaring success.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The Minister has failed to answer the question yet again.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

This exchange about the evaluation of the scheme is interesting. Earlier in the debate the Secretary of State put much emphasis on the tests that would take place at S1 and S2. We all recognise that those tests are important, but the Secretary of State could not tell us the cost of the tests. I hope that everyone in the House recognises that the earlier a child with special needs is assessed, the better. I should like the Minister to tell us, in his closing speech, how much money will be spent on the administration of tests at S1 and S2 and how that will compare with the administrative costs of the nursery voucher scheme that he is now trying to implement.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

My hon. Friend poses important questions, which I hope will be answered. Testing at S1 and S2 is no small change but a fundamental alteration that will affect the system from top to bottom. There is already a massive gravitational pull towards standard grade and higher for all Scottish school children who reach that stage. If the Minister proposes to introduce national examinations at S1 and S2, the gravitational pull will be increased—and that will have repercussions throughout the system. I should like the Minister to explain the costings in detail and to answer my hon. Friend's questions. The Government refuse to listen. Instead, they impose their personal dogma on Scottish needs.

The timing of the pilot scheme also raises questions as to its genuineness. The independent evaluation is not due to report until August 1997; yet under the existing timetable local authorities will have to start issuing vouchers the previous May. If the pilot is to be genuine, the Government must await the evaluation—or is this further evidence to justify our suspicion that any negative evaluation will be ignored by a Government who are determined to press on and impose their dogmatic views, despite the wishes of parents and professionals in education? The consultation process clearly lacked all substance, as the scheme is going ahead despite its rejection by more than 80 per cent. of the respondents. Will the so-called independent evaluation also be devoid of substance, or will the Minister commit himself to adhering to the reality of its findings?

I am concerned about the continued erosion of democratic local authority control in state education provision, and about the role of a private company in the scheme's administration. To whom will that company be accountable? If it is to the Scottish Office, that rules out any accountability to the Scottish people. If the Government get their way on this important matter, it will be the start of a programme of back-door privatisation of Scotland's education system. The Secretary of State has clearly shown the way he wants to go. We can expect the voucher system to be extended to primary and secondary schools, because that is where the right hon. Gentleman's dogma leads him. Such a development would be against the wishes of the Scottish people and a disaster for Scotland's education system.

The Secretary of State pretended that there is no assessment of pupils' progress and that parents have no knowledge of their children's attainment. Clearly that is nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman intends to introduce compulsory tests at S1 and S2—not as diagnostic tests, but similar to standard grades and highers. The Secretary of State used that analogy. Standard grades lead to highers, and highers are required for higher education and university. Are we to assume that the Secretary of State's new examinations will be a prerequisite for entry into standard grades?

If the Government go ahead with that further fundamental change, we shall be entering a new rigid and regimented world. It is a pity that the Government did not consult parents as I am sure that they would have given a short, sharp answer. The overwhelming majority of responses to the consultation were against the introduction of a voucher scheme, mirroring the opposition to the Secretary of State's previous test ideas. All local authorities, including the four bribed into participating in the pilot, oppose the scheme. Scotland does not want Government-imposed schemes, but because of the union with England they are again being imposed on us.

One Minister, in his evidence to the Select Committee, had the audacity to say: At the end of the day, it is up to us to manage our own affairs and to keep Scottish education up there at the very top. The Government do not want Scotland to manage its own affairs—and if that Minister has his way, Scottish education's opportunity to stay at the top will be diminished because of fragmentation and the failure of the schemes that the Secretary of State is trying to impose.

My hon. Friends and I—joined, I presume, by other Opposition Members—intend to keep Scottish education to the forefront. Those of us who care about Scottish education are forced to apply time and energy to resisting the Westminster Government's attempts to undermine Scotland's education system. We are forced on to the defensive by alien ideas. The imposition of the Government's insidious scheme is yet another example of why it is so vital that decisions affecting Scotland are made not just in Scotland but by the Scottish people.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen 7:54 pm, 4th June 1996

Conservative Members are in a quandary: while trying to praise their Government's achievements—if their record over the past 17 years can be called such—they keep producing criticisms. The country needs to be forcefully reminded that, for the past 17 years, Conservative Ministers have been responsible for running Scottish education. Most of the faults and problems that exist in the system, if not all, can be traced directly back to Tory Ministers. It is irrelevant to talk about a Labour Government of 17, 18 or 20 years ago, and it shows the paucity of Ministers' ideas and their need to cover up their own record.

Vouchers are part of the Government's agenda of dogma. There is consensus not only in Scotland but in the rest of the United Kingdom on the benefits of high-quality education nursery education and of supporting its expansion. Instead of building on that consensus and achieving unity of purpose, the Government seek to maintain their dogmatic programme and attitudes to education in general and to nursery education in particular.

The roots go back to a Conservative party conference at which a weak Prime Minister tried to sustain his party's support by making all sorts of off-the-cuff pledges—which he handed to Ministers to implement. Almost immediately after the Prime Minister's commitment at a Conservative party conference to provide "over time"—his usual qualification—pre-school places for all four-year-olds, the Secretary of State for Education clearly expressed her doubts about the practicality of a voucher system. She quickly had to come into line, to fulfil the Prime Minister's commitment to a political gathering—which shows the Conservatives' attitude to education and most other issues.

The Government's next step was to issue, in August 1995, a consultation document on a voucher scheme in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he would be inviting the new unitary authorities and existing island councils to apply to participate in a pilot voucher scheme in advance of national coverage, and that £3 million of new money would be available for that purpose. Compare the availability of that new money with the Government's priorities, particularly in Scotland. They could find £3 million for a nursery voucher initiative and for the assisted places scheme, yet when it comes to mainstream education provided by local authorities, it is always the same story—there is not enough money.

Like other hon. Members, I can give more than one example of that in my constituency. Thanks to a Labour Government and Labour-controlled council, the Trinity school in the Cambuslang area of my constituency opened 19 years ago. Unfortunately, that school, together with many others, has been caught by the time scale of a Conservative Government, and still does not have its own playing field. It has a roll of more than 1,200 pupils, but no facilities are available locally. Pupils have to be bussed all over the place to get to sports and playing field facilities. That is an indictment of Conservative Scotland and Conservative education policies in Scotland.

People may laugh, especially those who have absolutely no knowledge of Scotland, its problems and culture, but they would do well to remember that the Conservative party is the biggest danger to the Union, not the Scottish National party. They should pay attention to these debates.

In addition to the pilot scheme and the consultation document, the Government put forward various speeches and other documents in support of their policy initiative, and we awaited the results of the consultation process. Although they may not like it, the fact, according to the Scottish local government information unit and the Education Institute of Scotland, is that more than 80 per cent. of responses to the consultation were against the introduction of the scheme, the main criticism being that such a scheme would drain resources from local authority provision, would introduce the notion of the marketplace into education—that is the real hidden agenda—and be socially divisive, as only relatively affluent parents would be able to top up the cost of their provision.

In the Government's furtherance of their divisive path in Scotland, on 12 December 1995 local authorities were invited to submit proposals for a pilot voucher scheme, and the Scottish Office issued a paper. The Secretary of State announced on 4 March 1996 that the pilot scheme would go ahead in a small number of Scottish unitary authorities.

At one stage, the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State responsible for education clearly stated that the unitary authority of South Lanarkshire had expressed an interest in participating in the scheme. That was clearly untrue, so I raised the matter with the Ministers and received clarification. When South Lanarkshire council received the letter from the Scottish Office, it wrote back—quite properly—to ask for more details about the practicalities. If that council had totally dismissed the letter, it would be described as irresponsible and not fully representing its area, but because it asked for more information, it was accused of supporting Tory policies by wanting to participate in the scheme. I am glad to have this opportunity to clarify South Lanarkshire's record on that.

The Government's determination completely to ignore their own consultation has not been properly explained. Not one Conservative Member has justified their ignoring the consultation, except in terms of, "We know better than everybody else." That sums up their attitude. That is the arrogance of a governor-general who thinks that he is in charge of a colony in the 1930s and 1940s, rather than dealing with the nation and country of Scotland.

The main issues regarding vouchers are hard, if not impossible, to tackle in seeking to amend the skimpy proposals in the Bill, but they are worth pursuing. The Government's determination to go ahead with the proposals despite the rejection by 80 per cent. of those who responded to the consultative document augurs badly for the way in which the scheme, if passed by the House, will start in Scotland and how it will continue. There are a number of holes in the Bill. It is a rag-bag Bill clearly born of dogma.

I have not heard from Ministers any proposals for a clear curricular framework and a guarantee of quality provision. There are no practical details concerning the operation of the scheme—for example, eligibility, identification of parents, flexibility of the voucher, standards of buildings, staff and training of the people involved in providing the service. We have heard nothing from Ministers about their ideas on that.

There are practically no details about the administration of the scheme. There are no details of the role and accountability of the private company to be involved. The introduction of a private company into an area where local authorities have played a major role in the provision of nursery education marks a substantial departure, with major implications for the provision of education.

I am not against change or major departures, but surely in Scotland, where there is a large measure of social cohesion, major change—not minor change—especially in the provision of education, should come about only as a result of consensus, which exists in Scotland, to move forward, because the social and, potentially, educational divisiveness of the scheme will allow better-off families to top up the voucher value, and that option is not open to most families. The Government can say what they like, but that option will not be open to the vast majority of parents in Scotland.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government's resources for the scheme—£3 million, plus the amount that they give to the assisted places scheme—clearly marks out their priorities for education in Scotland. In a key phrase, the Secretary of State, in a moment of honesty, said that the existence of the vouchers will spark off providers in the market. He said quite clearly that the market will deal with the fact that vouchers are available.

Opposition Members are accused of dogma, old-fashioned communism, being left-wing, extreme left-wing and the rest, but here we have the Government's dogmatic approach: the market will provide. There was not a word about the standards that the market will provide, about safety or the standards of the education of the most important people in Scotland.

First and foremost, what the Secretary of State did not say—this is behind the Government's dogma—is that the market will provide profits for private individuals and private companies. That is the real thrust of what the Government are doing. The Secretary of State for Scotland says that it is all about choice, but for whom? It is certainly not choice for the vast majority my constituents, or those of most other Scottish Members, or, I dare say, the Minister himself.

I mentioned the Government's hidden agenda. If they can get a wedge of vouchers for nursery education, the next step—as many hon. Members have said today—will be vouchers for primary and secondary education. It is a rush to the market. That is where the Government are going. The only consolation is that the Conservative Government have less than a year to run, and no matter what happens, there will be consensus on the Opposition Benches to ensure that these people are removed before they can do much more damage to Scotland.

The rush to the market does not take into account the impact on those who will be affected. Ministers made no mention, until questioned by Opposition Members, of special needs and vulnerable people. Only when Ministers were put on the spot did we start to get responses from them. It just demonstrates their attitude when they do not feel it important enough to make those points. They have to be questioned and scrutinised by Opposition Members before we can flush them out.

I shall say a few words about the Secretary of State's announcement on testing for S1 and S2. I do not want to pay him too many compliments. Indeed, I am thinking of some insults. It is indicative of his attitude and the way in which he treats the House and the elected representatives on the Opposition Benches that he made his statement without following the proper procedures, without giving the spokespersons from other Opposition parties a chance to examine it and to prepare a response. He hoped to avoid scrutiny. He had little chance of that, but the fact that he tried to treat the House and Opposition Members in that manner says more about him than it does about anyone else.

The proposals for testing show a distinct lack of preparedness in the Government's approach. The Secretary of State was caught off balance. He said that there would be no compulsion—that parents would not be forced to put their children through the S1 and S2 tests. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman had his fingers burnt last time—by the parents in Scotland, not the politicians. The parents rejected his previous proposals for testing when he was Minister of State. Now, he is saying that there will be no compulsion. If he is setting that precedent, there is a chance that the parents will organise mass withdrawals from the tests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) rightly said that the position is ludicrous—is it a voluntary compulsory scheme or a compulsory voluntary scheme? If it is not a statutory scheme, parents may decide en masse not to allow their children to take part in the tests. The whole scheme will then fall down; it will be a debacle. It is a haphazard approach to providing education in Scotland.

As many hon. Members have said, it is the thin end of the wedge. We are being tricked again. If the Government can achieve testing for Sl, knowing this Government, the next step will be a requirement that children have to pass the S1 test before they can progress to S2, which they will then need to pass before they can progress to the standard grades. I do not like it, but I understand when Conservative Members who are not Ministers claim that they believe in testing as a principle and say that it is good and healthy. Frankly, I do not trust them.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

I noted that the Minister firmly shook his head in response to some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Should he not now make it quite clear that there is not a progression process through S1, S2 and S3? Should not the Minister firmly state that children will not, on an annual basis, be rejected or accepted for a particular course?

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) sought to enter our debate so late in the evening. I earlier gave the assurance that she sought.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

I know that sometimes there can be an element of rough and tumble in the House—I am not one to give much quarter to the SNP as a political party—but there are ways of dealing with interventions and political rumbustiousness. The sort of personal remark that the Minister made does not do him or the House any favours.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

The Minister has said that the S1 and S2 exams will not be necessary qualifications to move on to standard grades and higher. However, in rushing this Bill, and not providing any background information, he has failed to mention the enormous repercussions of the examinations for the new syllabuses in terms of books, teacher training, production of questions, staff time and preparation. We have not heard a word about that from the Minister. Surely we deserve some explanation.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

My hon. Friend—for the purposes of this debate, at least—is right. It is an example of the Government's approach. They have introduced a skimpy Bill with skimpy details. Then, under pressure, we get assurances such as that from the Secretary of State, who said that there would be no compulsion. It is a shambles.

The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) is right about the lack of detail. The Minister, in his less than pleasant response to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), confirmed that there would be no compulsion. The problem is—I am choosing my words carefully—that his record does not inspire any confidence to believe him. I am not referring to him in a personal sense, but as a Conservative Minister dealing with policies in Scotland.

I remember the qualifying examination—the qualye, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) called it. I remember standing in the room while the results were read out. It was a case of separating the sheep from the goats. Every child in the room knew that those who went to the junior secondary school would be the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Those children lucky enough to have passed the exam would go to senior secondary school and have an academic future.

I remember the tears and the tension; children were in a terrible state, and afraid to go home and tell their parents that they had failed. That qualifying examination set in concrete a child's place in society. That is socially divisive and wrong. Now there is to be a return to a qualifying examination, and it will be socially divisive. Our only consolation is that the Government have less than a year to run.

My final word is about school placing requests. Something must be done about that issue. Children in the Toryglen part of my constituency have to walk pass Holyrood secondary school to go to a school a mile and a half away—a school that, to put it bluntly, does not have such a good record as Holyrood. For many years, the children of Toryglen who go to St. Brigid's primary school have to go on to a secondary school well outwith the area. That is wrong. I want to put on the record the work of the late Councillor Hugh McKenna, who opposed that policy. I am glad to say that his work is now coming to fruition, and that there is some guarantee of access to Holyrood for the children from St. Brigid's.

I echo what has been said by many, if not all, Opposition Members tonight. I believe in a United Kingdom. However, the Government are wholly unrepresentative of the people of Scotland. They know that, but they do not take account of it. If only they used a little ingenuity and imagination, they could carry the people with them and get their support. I do not say this lightly, but when politicians do not know or do not care about the effects of their policies on the people of Scotland, that is dangerous to democracy and to the United Kingdom. The Government stand indicted on both counts.

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde 8:18 pm, 4th June 1996

Earlier today, the Minister and I were in the same Committee Room discussing the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. I said then and I say now that the Government have got it wrong. They do not listen to the people in the areas that their decisions will affect. There is no democracy in the Government.

I have sat here for some time. The debate has been dominated by the domini—the teachers. Almost everyone who has spoken has been a teacher, except my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy). I am not knocking school teachers, but I remember the days when I did knock them. I detested them. When I was a primary school kid I could not wait to get out of school at 4 o'clock. I seemed to get the belt every day. I became respectful of my mother and father. I loved them because I had someone to go home and share my problems with.

In defence of Scottish education, I was proud to serve for many years on one of the finest councils in Britain—Strathclyde regional council. I was never on the education committee, but I was involved in social work and I knew of the invaluable work that teachers and staff were doing to deliver an excellent education service in Strathclyde. I knew, however, that the difficulties that we were facing were caused by this Tory Government's continual harassment and the continual cuts that, year on year, constantly homed in on the education that our young people rightly needed and rightly deserved. Sixteen years on, what is happening?

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde

The Minister rightly corrects me; it is 17 years. That is an even worse indictment. Seventeen years on, what has happened to local councils in Scotland? They have been forced into cutting further into education provision. Only this week, I have had representations from local folk who are desperate to see their young kids in nursery provision and the local authority cannot provide it because the Government have cut savagely.

Today's statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland was one of the most horrifying that any Government could have made in the House. It was a reversion to the secondary one and secondary two. It would be a disaster if anything happened to return Scotland to those days. I was born in 1943 and I remember the qualifying examinations. Perhaps the Minister will listen because that is what the Government are driving back to. That is exactly what is going on. That is the road that the Government are trying to take us down.

I know two young men who, if the Government had their way, would have been born to fail. I shall give their ages: one is 25 and the other is 18. From early on, both suffered asthmatic conditions, which killed them in relation to going to school. They could not get to school, they lost half their schooling, they had to receive special education and they had pre-five help. If that raft had not been there, those young kids would have been born to fail.

Those kids went through their whole education like that. During the first years of primary life, they lost half their schooling because of a health problem that seriously held back their education. If the Government had their way, those kids would have been born to fail because of their health.

I am glad that the education system and the courage of school teachers and Strathclyde education officials ensured that those kids were not born to fail and that they received an education. They did not, however, have to qualify in the S1 and the S2. I will go further.

By the way, those schools were state schools. In the league tables that the Government gave them, they came bottom, but one of those young men has a BA Hons. in computing and business. He has suffered badly with his health. He was born to fail under the Government's approach to education, but he now has his BA Hons. and is doing all right. At 18, the other young lad is probably going this year to university, but, under this Government, he would have been born to fail.

The nursery voucher of £1,100 would not give any young person decent nursery provision. In Strathclyde, the estimated cost is £3,000 plus and the Minister is prepared to say that he has given us a good deal. The only person to whom he has given a good deal is the one with plenty of money, who can top the £1,100 and send his kids to nursery school.

The kids that I have talked about were born to fail. Their mothers and fathers would never have the money to ensure that their kids have a good education. The Government deeply want the born-to-fail approach. They are not going to give such young people an education boost.

The £1,100 voucher is nonsense. Why does the Minister not recognise that he has a duty and responsibility not only to parents, but, more important, to children? Give every kid a place. Why give them a £1,100 voucher? Give them a place in a nursery school.

Today, I was delighted to have a cup of tea and a sandwich, so I will declare an interest, with the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. What a tremendous and incredible organisation and what do the Government do? They kick it in the teeth. They have denied it the appropriate money to survive. Because of its funding, it has not been able to continue improving and improving.

Minister, you are laughing.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, as I recall, that he is addressing me and not the Minister?

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is one of the problems that we have in the House after not speaking for so long. We forget the rules, but I will still try to say what I passionately believe. The Minister has failed education in Scotland. He is failing our young folk and therefore he is not giving them the hope that we want. He is not giving them that aspiration.

What is education for? Can the Minister tell me that? Why do we educate young folk and spend money? Why do we bother? Does the Minister want to send them back to work in the mines when they are five years of age and in the mills on bread and butter? Many of us ask, "What are the Government's education policies about?" I know what my education policies are about. They are to ensure a better life for all of us, and that young folk have a good healthy life, retire in comfort and, I hope, achieve their lifelong ambitions. For all of us, that is not easy. A Government can, however, open the door at the early stage of education. They can ensure that education institutions are correct. They can try, but this Government do not try.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

My hon. Friend is speaking with great passion on education and I endorse much of what he has said. Given that both he and I, although I am slightly younger than him, agree that one of the most fundamental aspects of our education system is that we should have a professional qualified staff, has the Minister said whether there will be additionally trained staff to supply the education under the voucher scheme, which we all think is ridiculous?

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde

I am sure that the Minister will attempt to answer that, but, today, we had a profound statement from the Secretary of State for Scotland, which sounded like a bag of wind because there was no substance behind it to deliver what we are rightly demanding: education provisions and resources for our kids to see their education through.

The two young men about whom I spoke are my sons, so I know what I am saying. Both my kids came through state provision. Both were educated in Linwood. Both went to a nursery school, a local primary school and Linwood high school. I am delighted about the state education that our young folk have received and I am overwhelmed at the tremendous generosity of school teachers, who work hard to ensure that not just my two sons, but other kids receive an education.

Many young folk in Linwood have done very well. I remember the devastation that the league table caused to young and older teachers who worked in an area with tremendous unemployment. The Minister is condemning kids to fail because their mothers and fathers have been unemployed since the old Chrysler car factory shut. They are still unemployed after 10 years. Their kids do not have separate rooms and the parents do not have the money to pay for extras for their kids' education—they look to the state to bear the burden because they are living off the state. Many are living on invalidity benefit and are seriously ill but some still have young families.

One of the major problems facing the Tory party in Scotland is its lack of councillors. The Government have undermined local government so much that their own folk no longer want to serve on local government. The Government therefore no longer have the talented old Tories that I remember. By the way, I do not condemn all Tories. Indeed, I remember some very good ones. I remember Len Turpie who was an excellent councillor. He could stand up and argue for quality in education. I remember Guys like old Councillor Farquharson who is dead now. He was a damn good man who also fought to the end. These folk would be turning in their grave if they saw the Government's lack of commitment to education in Scotland. I am not condemning all Tories but I am condemning the Government and the Minister for not standing up for young folk.

I remember when Tory councillors made healthy contributions but I also saw their sadness during the Thatcher years when the Government were for ever making cuts, when their cherished aims and ambitions to see kids in their area educated were failing, when the clubs and youth clubs were shutting and when pre-five education provision was not being supported. They asked me whether there was any way I could get the funding in Eastwood because I looked after part of the Eastwood scene under urban aid. I remember good councillors like old Robbie Robson and others asking me for money for this or that scheme because they needed the resources.

The solution is not just to throw money at the problem. We must ensure proper provision. We need to see a change of heart and direction on the part of the Government. Today was an opportunity for the Government to discuss the way forward with all those concerned in Scotland. Clearly, the Government lack the support and background information that they used to get from the old Tories, the ones who were concerned about and worked in local government. That is all behind them. The Government sit and make judgments in an ivory tower and distrust everyone. It is astounding that there is only one Scottish Tory Member in the Chamber, and that is the Minister.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

And the other one is sleeping.

Photo of Tommy Graham Tommy Graham , Renfrew West and Inverclyde

If I shout loud enough, perhaps other Scottish Tories Members will come and listen to my pearls and gems of wisdom. If I shout loud enough, perhaps old Len Turpie will come to their defence and give them his pearls of wisdom. Jenny Browning might appear; perhaps the great Mr. Farquharson or the old Stan Dean will come and bail them out of the terrible hole they are in. However, it is all our kids who are in a hole because of the Government's lack of commitment.

I mentioned the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. Perhaps the Minister could listen to what it has said and consider its funding. That would be a step in the right direction—we could even be on a winner there.

I have to mention school boards. When I was a councillor I attended my school council faithfully—the Minister can check my record. I attended as many meetings as I could as a regional councillor for nine years. I also attended my community council meetings faithfully for nine years, not out of a sense of responsibility but because I wanted to. I may not have had the greatest of educations. I certainly do not have any degrees—the only degrees I have are the cold ones—but I was an engineer and served my apprenticeship. I worked hard to get my engineering qualification. When I became a councillor, I took an interest in education and my community.

At that time, school councils were well attended. They drew people from a wider area and those people made a genuine commitment and contribution, although perhaps that did not happen everywhere in Scotland. Lo and behold, however, the Minister's grand plan is that every school should have a school board. Parent-teacher associations struggled, went up and down and in and out of the game, but school councils remained a stabilising force. If the PTAs were not too strong, people could at least contribute to the school councils, thus keeping those councils alive.

Since the advent of school boards, it would be useful and interesting to have some facts and figures about attendance, their make-up and composition. I have never seen any statistics giving an indication whether school boards are really working across Scotland. Hon. Members should not get me wrong; I know many members of school boards who attend assiduously and do their best. They tell me, "Tommy, it's a great struggle. There aren't many of us which makes it very difficult." Some hanker for the old school councils. We do not want to turn back the clock but the old system could have been improved instead of the Government's scheme being introduced. The Government thought that they were improving things by providing more devolution but, as the troops were thin on the ground, they felt that they could not improve the system. I hope that school boards are a success, but I believe that there should always be the umbrella of a school council.

I feel that the Government are not listening. They are not getting support from their people on the ground. They do not have many people on the ground—that is what I have been saying all night.

As I have already stressed, many school teachers have been playing their part in highlighting the problems in Scottish education. Many people are dedicated to ensuring good education in Scotland. I see that in some politicians, officials, certainly in the teaching profession and also in people outside the profession. However, I am worried about the Government's totally undemocratic domination of Scottish education over the past 16 years. They say that they will increase democracy but it becomes a closed book. They say that they will listen to people but they then reject everything folk tell them. They have directed education and the curriculum but not to the good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) mentioned the three Rs. I believe that children should be able to do arithmetic and should know the alphabet but, 17 years on, the Government should look at the kids around them. What is happening is mind boggling. Some kids' parents have the wherewithal to provide computers and equipment at home. When my two sons talk to me about the Internet and websites, I have to hang my head in shame. I have not been able to keep up, but nor have the Government kept up with the changes. They have not kept up with the advantages that we could be gaining through the computer network. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has grasped its importance and is pushing ahead. He hopes that the Labour Government will deliver the Internet to every school in the country.

This Government have been in office for 17 years—the Minister himself corrected me and told me that it was 17 years and is very proud of that fact—but how many young folk can now operate computers? I have mentioned kids whose parents have the wherewithal to provide such things, but I have met staff who have asked youngsters whether they can operate a computer. No, they cannot. They never learnt how. I am talking about 17, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. It is horrifying.

How can we have any faith in the Government or in a voucher scheme that is set at such a low level—£1,100? How can we have any faith in a Government who not only turn the clock back but return us to the dark ages of S1 and S2? I tell the Minister: I wish that hon. Members could turn the clock back to 1979, and that we could have had a continuation of a Labour Government. Perhaps the folk in this country who we look after would then have seen the benefits of high technology—of the highways and byways of the computer world.

The Minister may laugh, but I assure him that the folk in my constituency have suffered too long at the hands of this Government—with raging unemployment, factory after factory closing, job opportunities being missed and squandered, education opportunities being missed, and with young folk who were promised an education or training place being denied them.

Who said, "Every kid who leaves school will be guaranteed an education or training place"? The Prime Minister said it. What happened to that commitment? It went in the bin. That was the Government's education and training offer. We cannot trust anything they say because they will not deliver a healthy, educated young man and woman in Scotland to take on the world.

I remember the days when a Scotsman and a Scotswoman, well educated, could go to any part of the world and be given a job. Those people have contributed to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They helped to sail the ships of the nation and to build shipyards and engineering factories from the UK to Russia to America. That is the opportunity that the Government have denied—the opportunity for a good education and a sound, solid and secure future. Those opportunities are driven by a quality education, not by a bum Government.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart 8:42 pm, 4th June 1996

I am, perhaps, old-fashioned—in terms of both major parties—in believing still that education in the modern world is not about drumming a series of rote-learning techniques into kids in what are called the basics of English language and mathematics, but increasingly, or it should be, about learning how to learn, about learning skills that will allow people to learn new things as they go through life. We seem to be turning our backs on that, and I must say that my party is only marginally better than the Conservative party in those matters.

We must now think in those terms, because no one now has a guaranteed job for the rest of their lives. In the past, if people had a certain qualification, they became a bank clerk, for example, and would remain a bank clerk, although they might move up in the bank. That is no longer true. People can now start working in a bank and be made redundant four or five years later because the skills learnt in those first four or five years have been taken over by a computer or a machine. What we need from our education system is adaptability, learning skills and the ability to change and to adapt as we go through life. I fear that we are turning our backs on that.

I apologise to the House, because I heard only the two Front-Bench speeches as I had to go to chair a Standing Committee. I am astonished that, in those speeches on education in Scotland in the modern world, when an information revolution is taking place that will transform not only our television sets and computers and what we do in business—it should also be transforming our education system—the word "computer" never crossed anyone's lips until my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) spoke.

Computers were not mentioned, yet computers, the skills that children will learn and the amount of information they will have at their fingertips will be part and parcel of education throughout the world. If it does not happen here and we do not put computers on our kids' desks, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has promised, we will be overtaken in the coming technological revolution by every country from east to west. That is already starting to happen.

I want to deal with the Secretary of State's comments, starting with the tests that he claims to be introducing in the first and second years of secondary education. I must say, first, that, in relation to the set of statistics that he used on percentages in tests, I have never heard anything so phoney in my life. He is essentially implying that no child in Tayside has been tested on their mathematics, language or writing skills. What nonsense. What he means is that they were not set a test, sat down and told, "Here is the test that you must do." Every teacher constantly carries out a series of tests to understand what are each child's abilities. If there is a problem, it is too often because class sizes are too large to permit teachers always to cope with every child, but they all assess their children all the time.

One of the problems with tests is that teachers become entirely reliant on them and say, "We are working to it, and we will finish with it. That will be my judgment, and the parents', the school's and the state's judgment of the child's ability at that point." That does not judge how the child will do.

A very bright child might pass the examination comfortably because that is the easiest thing in the world for him, but in fact he might be struggling at school, and for many different reasons. He may have a drug problem, an emotional problem or problems at home, and he might not have done as well in the test as he could. The test does not show that. The test shows only the fact that he managed to pass it and that he has the right number of marks to put him way up the scale. That result goes back to his parents, and they say, "He is doing quite well, isn't he?" But at the meeting with the parents, the teacher says, "Your child is very bright, but he is not doing as well as he ought to be."

Conversely, the poorest child, who works very hard, struggles and does not get the top marks—perhaps he manages only just to get through the test—puts in much more effort to pass the test than does a brighter child.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I am grateful to hear of the hon. Gentleman's experience from his days of teaching, and I accept everything that he has just said, but is he saying that national testing and parents' evenings and teachers adding to what they know about the child are mutually exclusive?

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

I accept what the Minister said. They should not be mutually exclusive, but there is always a danger with tests that the teacher will work to the test. They work towards the test, train the child to the test, and the test ultimately becomes the only thing that matters. Because it is a national test, parents will pay much greater regard to the results of it than they do to the teacher's comments at a parents' meeting. Much time and effort will go into the tests; teachers might be less able to hold parents' meetings. That is a danger. In a good and well-organised school, that will not happen, but the danger exists.

I should like to deal with why the Secretary of State said he wanted tests and why we have these new national tests. The only real reason he gave was that it is a way of identifying children who are struggling and have difficulties. I tell him from experience that identifying the child who is struggling and having difficulties is no great problem, because it always happens. Often, it will happen before the child even gets to school. The parents will be aware that the child is not developing as fast as he ought to, or perhaps the problem will be picked up by a social worker or a psychologist. Certainly the problem will be picked up in primary 1 or primary 2. Somebody will know that the child is not doing as well as he or she ought.

Identification is not the problem. What matters is what we do about it, and whether we ensure that there are resources such as special needs teachers to give the child special care and attention outwith the rest of the class, although the child none the less remains part of the class. When dealing with such children, there is a double role. We must ensure not only that they keep up as well as they can, but that they remain part of their peer group. They must not be divorced from it.

Often, what is required is extra help within the classroom. Of course some children must be educated separately, and they are easy to identify. We are worried not about those children but about the children who remain in the mainstream of education but have difficulty there. They must be given special help.

It is absurd for the Government to announce tests to identify children with special needs while they are cutting local government resources so that enough extra teachers cannot be employed. Sometimes, the extra staff may not be teachers; they may be supervisors, or even parents. I do not care which they are. Parents go in to school to help with listening to reading, for example. When schools and education authorities have to cut resources, it is nonsense to say that we need tests to identify people with difficulties. It does not work.

I have seen what happens, and I know the problems that can arise from lack of resources, rather than from lack of identification. The Minister and the Secretary of State have got it wrong if they believe that identification is the problem. We need to spend more money, not less, on resources for such children.

The same is true at nursery school level, which is where the voucher system is wrong. The Government did their testing and trials in East Renfrewshire. As that is a new local authority area, I presume that the tests were done in the old district of Eastwood. Those of us who know that district know that it is a wealthy middle-class area where parents would be delighted to receive £1,100 to spend on sending their children to the nursery schools that will already exist there.

The money is a top-up. It does not pay all the costs, but the parents in Eastwood can afford to pay for nursery education. If they did not get the £1,100, they would probably pay the whole cost anyway. They would not care, because they have the money. It is absurd to say that a trial held in East Renfrewshire shows that the scheme works.

It is not the children of middle-class parents, such as all of us here, who demand and need nursery education. Yes, those children should have it. It should be available for them, and I want them to have it. I wanted my children to have nursery education and I want other children to have it too. But it is not they who absolutely need it, as children from poor and deprived areas need it.

As an educationist I was brought up with the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde has used frequently tonight—"Born to Fail". That was the title of a seminal work in education that showed that children from deprived backgrounds would always have more difficulty coping when they started primary school because they did not have basic language skills.

People may say that that is nonsense, but the standard book with which kids started in primary 1 in those days—I agree that things are not quite the same now—would be one of the "Janet and John" series. The language and concepts in that series of reading books were middle class, and they were often beyond the experience of some of the kids who tried to read them. The idea of going out into the countryside for a picnic with mummy and daddy in the car was difficult for many kids to understand.

As Peter Townsend pointed out in "Born to Fail", by the time many kids started in primary school, they were already well behind their peers who came from a different background. It is those kids who needed, and still need, the nursery school to give them the start they often do not get in their own homes and surroundings. Nursery education is good for all kids, but for kids from those areas it is essential, not only at four but from three to four, so that they can start primary school on level terms with other kids. If the Minister does not understand that, he is simply playing with the idea. The £1,100 will not cover the cost of nursery education for such kids, and it is unreal to imagine that it will.

The Secretary of State made great play of the standard of nursery education, and of what would be provided. The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) jumped up, as ever, to say that his constituents were delighted to have £1,100 to spend on nursery education but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) pointed out, in some areas there will not necessarily be any nursery schools for parents to choose.

Once parents have been handed the vouchers and have the £1,100, they will demand nursery schools, so people will set them up. That is the market working, but the standard of accommodation, and the level of training and teaching, will not be those which, rightly, the Secretary of State and the Minister would like.

What will happen? Either no nursery schools will be set up in the poor areas, so people will have a useless piece of paper in their hands which is theoretically worth £1,100 but does not mean anything, or the standards in those areas will drop. A blind eye will be turned so long as there is at least something for kids in rural and other areas. Something may be there, but standards will have dropped.

The Minister may reply that that is what the two extra education inspectors are for. I do not know what the inspection cycle for primary and secondary schools is, but my kids went through the state system for a period which, between when the first started and the third finished, lasted close on 20 years. In those 20 years, the primary school that my kids went to has been inspected once, and so has the secondary school.

So far as I can see, the cycle of inspections of schools lasts about 10 years. Every 10 years or so—

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

If the Minister wants to contradict me, I shall be happy to be contradicted on that point.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

I realise that the hon. Gentleman was chairing a Standing Committee when I explained the cycle of inspection of nursery providers. Every provider in the pilot areas will be inspected in the pilot year. When we go national, providers will be inspected as soon as possible, and certainly within 24 months.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

My hon. Friend is quite right—then what? What will be the cycle after that to ensure that standards are maintained? What will happen when, for example, two trained nursery teachers start up and run a school, and one—assuming that she is female—becomes pregnant and leaves and they cannot find anybody else so a parent is appointed to stand in? The school will have received its initial inspection, and the next one may not be for God knows how long. It may be 10 years before the school is inspected again. It is fine to say that there will be an initial inspection within 24 months, but that is only part of the story. What happens thereafter?

How many nursery schools are the Government expecting the two inspectors to cover? Presumably, the figure is in the hundreds. If they are to do their job properly, those two inspectors will inspect perhaps one or two schools a week, if that. We are talking about only 40 weeks of the year, because inspections will be conducted in term time, so it will be years before each school is inspected again to ensure that standards are being maintained.

Will schools report to the Scottish Office about staff changes so that, when staff have to be replaced or simply change jobs—which they do—it is possible to ensure that their replacements have the right qualifications? Will there be any system to ensure such practice, or are we simply to accept that some schools had trained teachers to start with but will no longer have them?

The voucher scheme is a mess—the Government do not know how to run it. They do not have an education policy. The Secretary of State's speech was more about attacking the Labour party than about proposing his own education policy. We need proper nursery education for all our children. It is best provided by local authorities. For a start, they have the resources. Schools are increasingly not full, have been closed or are about to close. Facilities are available for other purposes. In many areas, private schools offering poor accommodation will be set up and good schools will be closed and pulled down, and resources will be wasted.

As the Secretary of State tried to claim, every child has a right to nursery education. It will not be provided and it will not work under a voucher scheme. The Bill is a mess and I am glad that the Opposition will be voting for the reasoned amendment.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden 9:01 pm, 4th June 1996

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). I cannot bring his considerable expertise and knowledge to the subject, but I hope that, as someone who has gone through the system and is also a parent with young children, I can contribute.

We have not yet appreciated the fact that the Bill is an example of the Government's failure in many areas of education policy. Part of the Bill corrects the placement requests as a result of the failure of previous legislation. Another part deals with school boards as a result of the failure of what was implemented before. The introduction of nursery vouchers is the result of a failure over 17 years to provide nursery education for all who want it. I therefore consider the Bill to be to a certain extent a failure.

We all make mistakes, but the failures that I have described were all pointed out when the Government introduced the legislation. They were told that there would be problems with placement requests and school boards. I served on the Committee that considered the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 and I remember that we sat night in, night out—we had an all-night sitting—and day in, day out to get the Bill on to the statute book. Nobody wanted it, but it went through.

The Minister used to keep asking us how many schools we thought would opt out. We used to say a handful. My goodness, we were wrong. Not even a handful of schools has opted out. The Minister used to say that school boards would be successful. We said that there might be some trouble finding members for them. My goodness, we did not realise how right we were. People are being co-opted on to them. As hon. Members know from the schools in their constituencies, when the time to appoint members of school boards comes around, headmasters try to force people to stand. We certainly got it right then and the Bill is another example of the failure of the Government's education policy.

I want to talk about something that is not in the Bill—the Secretary of State's announcement about testing. I probably have as much experience as anyone of sitting tests. I sat the "qualy" and the 11-plus. I sat the ordinary as the lowers had just finished and I sat the highers. I went to university for seven years and I sat at least 10 examinations every year for seven years, sometimes five or six a week. When I left, I sat a primary examination and then a final fellowship, so I have some experience of what is involved in testing and I want to make a number of points about it.

My strongest point relates to the absolute divisions and failures involved in all examinations. There cannot be an examination without people failing it and that has a devastating effect on them and their families. Others have spoken about the 11-plus and I want to recount my experience as there are fewer of us around who have sat the 11-plus. I remember to this day when the examination results were announced and suddenly our class was split down the middle. Half went off to the high school and the other half were consigned to failure. Children were weeping in the classroom as we were separated off. Our society was divided as half my school friends were considered to be failures.

We had the same experience when my younger brother failed his 11-plus. I remember it to this day. It was like a death in the family and it has been experienced by people everywhere. I should also say that it was a pretty useless test because my brother who failed the 11-plus is now a professor of aeronautical engineering.

Not only are examinations of limited value, but the social division and the devastation that they produce are overwhelming. We should consider what we are doing to children. The purpose of education is not to fail people, but to prepare them to grasp further information later in life so that they can develop their full potential. When we introduce testing, we are introducing the possibility of failure.

I do not under stand the point of testing. Of course one can make people pass their examinations and schools can do very well. My school did quite well in the "qualy". For an entire year all we did was prepare ourselves for the examination. We sat examination paper after examination paper, year in, year out. As a result, when I went to high school, having come from the school with the best test results, I was deficient in geography and history—aspects of education that I have never recovered to this day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) reminds me every time we talk about history.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

Not to mention music and art.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I play the violin very badly and I am not very good at the mouth organ either.

I hope that the Minister understands my point about the downside of testing. Teachers teach for the tests and pupils take them and at the end of the day they may produce someone who has some knowledge and does well in tests, but I have yet to see the proof that such people are better educated.

I remain bitterly opposed to tests at S1 and S2. I cannot see the point of further examinations and further opportunities for failure. Children have enough problems when they have to sit examinations. At university, we sat exams year after year. I remember the stress, the strain and the failures. Let us not burden our children with that. They have enough to do growing up. Let us not have that and let us not have the precursor of a qualifying examination such as the old 11-plus that the Government may be considering.

Let me move on to other aspects of failure. I shall deal briefly with the provision relating to placing requests. We all know that it has resulted from the Secretary of State's problems in Balfron. The same problems occur in my constituency, where every school is full and receives numerous placing requests. I receive numerous complaints about it because the schools are bursting at the seams.

One thing that particularly annoys parents who move next to a school in April or May is that they cannot get their child into that school. The child is then put on a bus and driven past the school to another school two or three miles away. What sort of preposterous education policy allows that to happen? The Government have been told about that, as I have written to Ministers about the matter on several occasions. They always replied that there were no problems and that the policy was wonderful—the usual jargon. But there is a problem, and I am glad that—at long last—the Government have recognised that placing requests present problems and are beginning to address them. Every school in my constituency has placing requests. They are excellent schools, and it is a continuing problem for them.

I wish to refer to school boards. We spent night after night in debates on the legislation on school boards, and there was no great enthusiasm for them. We all knew that the boards were being set up to allow schools to opt out, and had no inherent function. We predicted at the time that there would be problems filling the boards. In my area, which is highly middle-class, one would think that there would be huge competition for places on boards. But we must still co-opt individuals on to them. The boards are supposed to provide democracy, but it is nothing of the sort if one is being co-opted or forced by the head teacher on to a board because nobody else will do it. That is the reality, even in the schools in my area. That is another failure on the part of the Government.

I wish to deal with nursery provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart was incorrect when he suggested that nursery education is of benefit only to children from lower-class backgrounds, as it is extremely beneficial to all children. It is not just a case of their knowledge increasing, but it is also beneficial to young children who may be less well integrated.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

I did not want to give that impression, and I apologise if I did. The fact is that the need for nursery education of children from poor backgrounds is that much greater if they are to cope with primary school.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I apologise to my hon. Friend, and I understand the point that he was trying to make. The need for nursery education among poorer children is greater. Although it is much less important for middle-class children to attend nursery school, they should do so as they benefit greatly from it—for example, they can develop their social integration. Nursery education is very important and my understanding—I have not read all the literature on the subject—is that children who go through nursery education and pre-school playgroups do extremely well in primary school. We must ensure that all children have access to nursery education.

The problem with the Government's nursery vouchers method is that it is unnecessarily bureaucratic. There are many areas where nursery provision is first class, but the Government are providing a bureaucratic system that will be difficult to work, will not increase the provision and will give hand-outs to those who have already used the private sector. I do not see why people should have to pay, as we have a nursery education system at the moment. There is no need to make it any more complicated.

Finally, I shall refer to the Scottish Qualifications Authority and its representation. I have read the part of the Bill that deals with the matter and, although I understand the need for the complexity of the representation, we could have simplified the method. Is there an absolute necessity to balance the numbers? It is the first time that I have seen such an arrangement, and I wonder whether it is necessary.

More importantly, what will be the composition of the authority? The people whom we choose to serve on it will be selected according to what we decide education is for. That is a debate that we have yet to have. Occasionally it surfaces, but we have never quite reached a decision. Once we have decided what education is all about, we can decide who should serve on the authority.

The Government seem to think of education as a way of taking a child from his early years on into a screwdriver job in a factory—probably a factory brought in by Locate in Scotland. I fear that the new authority will be stuffed with "industrialists". Industrialists have an important role to play, but the idea that they have a special insight into education and its purpose is false. Indeed, I would say that they are not necessarily the best people to decide what education is all about. They have a very narrow view of what society requires. The education of some of the industrialists whom I have met leaves something to be desired.

I do not want the authority to be packed with local industrialists who want to produce automatons that will fit into their system, churning out people who will take up the screwdriver jobs to which I have referred. There is more to education than that.

Education is about developing people's potential and enabling them to use the skills that they have been taught, so that they can make use of their knowledge throughout their lives. Of course people need the basic building blocks; I am not a great one for claiming that they can find out everything for themselves. People need to be able to read and count, but once they have these building blocks they need also to know how to use them. Our education system fails to teach that, even though Plowden tried to square up to the problem.

Throwing facts and figures at people only gets them so far, in life and in education. There comes a time when people can no longer learn by rote: they have to understand. In science and mathematics there comes a time when learning by rote is of no value whatever—in dynamics, sliding planes and forces of velocity, for instance. Students need to understand the principles behind them so as to be able to progress.

In his day Plowden attempted to face these facts, but that achievement will be lost if the new body is to be made up, once again, of the sort of industrialists on whom this Government are so keen. All that they will want to do is to generate wealth.

I hope for a debate on the nature and purpose of education, and I hope that a liberal view will emerge at the end of it. Education is about realising potential and using it. That is the only way to a full life. It is of course necessary to have some wealth to make these choices, but people need first to have the knowledge with which to make informed choices. That is what is lost when people are trained, not educated.

The Bill does nothing about any of those problems. It is essentially a mark of the Government's failure in education policy. It acknowledges the failures of school boards and placement requests; above all it acknowledges, after 17 years, the Government's failure to provide nursery education and to start youngsters off down the most important avenue of their lives. I am therefore delighted with the Opposition's reasoned amendment, and I urge the House to support it.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East 9:19 pm, 4th June 1996

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) in these debates. He has given a considerable amount of thought to the Bill and much of what he says is from the point of view of one who, perhaps more than any other hon. Member, has benefited from the Scottish education system. Through his children, he continues to respect and admire the Scottish education system.

Hon. Members may be surprised to realise that this evening we are discussing a major plank of the Scottish Office's legislative programme for this year. In the closing weeks of the Session we are discussing a major piece of legislation—it is being rushed through. Nothing is more important in forming Scotland's future than the nature of our education system. The Labour party accepts some provisions of the Bill and we shall debate them constructively in Committee. Other aspects of the Bill strike at the heart of the Scottish education system and at the principles that have underpinned it for centuries.

Tonight the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) —in perhaps the worst speech of his career—talked about his secret agenda. He discussed what should happen to Scottish education under his leadership at the Scottish Office. Without warning through the usual channels, we have learned that the Government will introduce new proposals for compulsory testing at S1 and S2. The fact that we are getting this information so late in the day is a measure of the Government's lack of respect for the House and the nature of the debate. These are major issues and we should have had the opportunity to discuss them. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), has said that this is the Second Reading. He seems to have forgotten that there has been full discussion in another place and a Special Standing Committee in another place. A controversial aspect has suddenly been added to the Bill. I shall refer to testing at a later point.

Much in the Bill could have achieved consensus. In fact, I have no hesitation in saying that we shall be constructive about many aspects of it. I refer to the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Arising from the work of Professor Howie and the structure of highers in Scotland, we need to review post-16 education and the nature of the qualifications. When the Secretary of State introduced the provisions of the Bill relating to the Scottish Qualifications Authority he did not refer to the "Higher Still" project that is going on at the same time. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss many of these critical issues relating to the "Higher Still" project in Committee.

We are anxious about some issues, including the representation on the Scottish Qualifications Authority—an issue that has been raised by a number of hon. Members today. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) talked about the prospect of another quango staffed from the bunker of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have a theory that the Secretary of State for Scotland runs the Government of Scotland from the executive departure lounge at Edinburgh airport as there is a surprising recurrence of the names of those who frequent that lounge among those who appear in quangos. However, that is not why I am concerned about the membership of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Broad-based expertise must be made available to the authority. We have seen through the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council how that expertise can be— [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland seems to think that I am going on about quangos. I am not—I am trying to make a substantive point about the nature of representation on the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Broad-based expertise must be made available to the authority. The Minister said by way of intervention that there will be extensive consultation. Every time Ministers refer to "consultation", I hold my breath. They consulted about the introduction of nursery vouchers and when they did not like what the consultation revealed—almost unanimous opposition to the nursery voucher scheme—they changed the rules of the consultation process. I worry when the Secretary of State says that he will do anything by consultation.

We wish to explore another anxiety more fully in Committee. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) referred to the status of vocational qualifications within the examination board. We must ensure that the vocational element of the Scottish Qualifications Authority is not downgraded. I was a little concerned by the remarks of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who suggested—unwittingly, I hope—that the vocational element was a lesser aspect of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

A number of hon. Members—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) —laid great stress on the need to ensure that Scotland has a valid skills base for the future. We can ensure that by enhancing vocational qualifications. All party leaders in Scotland have signed a joint declaration in relation to enterprise education and manufacturing industry—aspects which are critical to Scotland's industrial future. In examining the nature of post-16 qualifications in our schools, it is important to take into account those vocational qualifications.

I take on board—as I hope that the House will—the significant point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the confusion that industrialists sometimes experience. A plethora of qualifications are available. It is a minefield. I have been a personnel director and I know how confusing it is to be confronted with qualifications alien to one's own, which may be rather dated. Several hon. Members have referred to that problem.

We wish to debate other aspects of the Bill more fully in Committee, not least the subject of school boards. Several hon. Members referred in detail to the workings of school boards in their constituencies. Everyone will accept that some school boards operate magnificently and some are an absolute disaster, comprising Philadelphia lawyers who see the opportunity to exercise a little power in another domain. We wish to build on the positive aspects of school boards. The Labour party proposes to extend the concept to school commissions. We will take into account the views not just of those who wish to serve on school boards but of those who currently make a marvellous contribution to school life through parent-teacher associations and those who operate in the wider community. A school is about more than the education of its pupils. I hope that we shall be able to discuss that issue in more detail in Committee.

When we came to the House this afternoon, we assumed that the meat of the Bill would be the nursery voucher proposal, but then we were suddenly confronted with the issue of compulsory testing. My hon. Friends may regard it as heretical, but I enjoy listening to the Secretary of State for Scotland as he employs a little showmanship in his delivery. However, he made a critical error in deciding to upstage the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, and to take over his brief by opening the debate. It was glaringly obvious that the Secretary of State had not thought through some of his proposals, such as compulsory—voluntary, perhaps statutory—testing, and we witnessed a unique spectacle this evening when the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South rose to rescue his boss from the deep hole that he had dug for himself. We are left asking some serious questions about exactly what the Government are up to.

It is obvious from tonight's debate that hon. Members are fast coming to the conclusion that we are going back to the days of the 11-plus when children could be destroyed by the results of tests of their unformed intellectual ability when they had just made the critical transition from primary school to secondary school. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) mentioned the fact that many of those who have spoken today were teachers. I am not a teacher: I am a much more dangerous beast than that—I am a parent, and parents know the trauma that children go through, especially at this time of year, when they have to make the critical change from primary school to secondary school. Every educationist can confirm that the transition from primary to secondary has a significant effect on the performance of young people. Instead of bludgeoning us with outdated diatribes and ideologies, the Government should make a contribution to analysing how best we can advance the performance of children in S1 and S2. The Government should not put another pressure on those children.

The Secretary of State talked about the right of parents to choose. He got himself into an almighty fankle about whether parents could choose whether their children were tested, but he gave the game away when he said that the test would be a qualification. All the Under-Secretary's dancing about will not draw attention away from the fact that the Secretary of State said that the test will be a qualification. We are left with the inevitable conclusion that children must pass the S1 test to move on to S2. Even if the Under-Secretary backs down on that, we have seen tonight that selection will return to Scottish schools over the heads of Her Majesty's inspectorate, parents and educationists.

We have seen a doctrinaire approach to education in Scotland today from a Secretary of State who should have learned his lesson the last time he was hounded out of Scotland for introducing tests that parents opposed. The Secretary of State talked about doctrinaire egalitarianism. I believe in egalitarianism. The Scottish education system, from John Knox onwards, has believed in egalitarianism. I believe in equality of opportunity for every child. [Interruption.] Yes, I may be part of the monstrous regiment. In the Scottish education system, we believe in equality of opportunity. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns. Regardless of the assisted places scheme and the attempts by the Government to anglicise the Scottish education system, to a man and woman in Scotland we are committed to equality of opportunity. We are committed to ensuring that the marketplace should not return to education.

I am not surprised by the doctrinaire approach of the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I am worried. In the document that he published in the 1980s, "Save Our Schools", he made it plain that he favours vouchers not only for nursery education, but for primary and secondary education. I am not the only hon. Member who noticed that when the Secretary of State was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton today to state categorically that there will be no introduction of vouchers for primary and secondary education, he ducked the issue with a smirk on his face. The Opposition will not tolerate the introduction of vouchers for primary and secondary education.

The danger of the voucher system for the provision of nursery education is that it will make children, at their most vulnerable point, a political football in the run-up to a general election. There is no way in which nursery vouchers can be implemented in Scotland before a general election if we keep to the timetable that the Government claim to have set up. In other words, they are running hell for leather so that they can say in their manifesto that they have done something about the provision of early-years education. We have already heard the Secretary of State say that Scottish parents have been brainwashed. He must also think that their heads button up the back. Parents recognise that a voucher for £1,100 does not ensure a place in a nursery school.

In Scotland, we have benefited from a co-operative approach that takes into account the public, private and voluntary sectors. In another part of the House this evening, those who represent the voluntary sector have told hon. Members about the extent to which they have been misled. They are anxious to ensure the best possible start for children in their early years, but the voluntary sector has been put in an awkward position because it cannot provide the quality of education opportunity on which the Government are trying to pass the buck. When we debated the matter in the Scottish Grand Committee in Stirling, the Secretary of State said that we could have nursery schools in church halls. There speaks a man who I doubt has ever been inside a nursery school or to a play group. One must take into account the key factor that little children need special safety facilities. They must be able to turn on a tap that will not scald them and be heated by radiators that will not damage them. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) drew attention to the need for outdoor play areas, which are an important part of a child's development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill also made an important point, which was taken up by other hon. Members, about special needs. Nothing is more important in the early years than identifying the need for special education. The Minister has consistently ducked the issue. He tried to get off the hook by saying that local authorities do not feel that they can handle special needs during the pilot period. Special needs is bigger than a doctrinaire pilot being administered by a Government in the closing days of their life.

There is considerable anxiety about nursery vouchers among members of the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association. The association is concerned about quality assurance and is establishing its own scheme to ensure the highest possible standards. Even if Ministers are not prepared to accept this, SINA knows that the scheme offers great scope for fraud and numerous opportunities for cowboy operators. How do the Government imagine that the 60,000 extra places will be filled, other than with people who are unskilled, untrained and not properly assessed to provide nursery education? I ask the Minister to heed the words of Mrs. Fotheringham of SINA: The voucher system will not particularly help private providers to step up new investment or new accommodation. It does not provide extra income to do something different or provide extra premises. There are still not enough places. The whole issue hinges on there not being enough places.

The Government have been extremely lax in not giving answers about the cost of administration and its nature. The House is asked to believe that the administration cost per nursery voucher will be £22, when 10 different stages will be involved. I think that somebody has run away with the abacus as the scheme will clearly cost considerably more. Where did Capita Management Services, which is to provide the services, come from? The structure already exists within local authorities to administer the scheme. The authorities who expressed to the Scottish Office their interest in the pilot but then withdrew did so because they discovered that the nuts and bolts of the legislation had not been thought through.

The Secretary of State failed to answer the point that I raised earlier, relating to the nursery run by Mrs. Valerie White in Shawlands—which reflects that the Government did not think through what will happen to nursery providers on the boundaries of pilot areas. How come a number of nursery vouchers were delivered to the wrong postcode area? If that is a measure of the efficiency that we can expect from Capita, my hopes are not particularly high.

The right hon.Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made an interesting speech and spoke impressively about the need to encourage young people to respect the environment and to become knowledgable about it. Perhaps he should have a discussion with the Secretary of State as one area badly affected by the cuts forced on local authorities by the Government is the environmental part of the curriculum for five to 14-year-olds.

Both the right hon. Member for Dumfries and the hon. Member for Ayr talked about schools being part of the community. The hon. Member for Ayr talked about schools being used outside school hours to benefit the community. In Edinburgh, Glasgow and my constituency, until the Government cut education funding, schools were used for that purpose. We are seeing from the Government a narrow, doctrinaire approach which fails to take into account the fact that we are talking about children. Those who are concerned about children are appalled at the missed opportunities in the Bill, which is a blatant attempt to paper over cracks. The problems that will be created by nursery vouchers will haunt the Government for the rest of their days and will certainly not be tolerated by an incoming Labour Government.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South 9:40 pm, 4th June 1996

We have had a wide-ranging and useful debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. I shall try, if allowed, to respond to as many points as possible.

We have discussed many areas of education policy where the Government have brought about, and are bringing about, real choice and lasting improvements. That has been in the face, as we have heard throughout the debate, of doubt, protest and resistance from the shower opposite.

Let us take placing requests as one example; since their introduction in 1982, which they opposed, more than 280,000 placing requests have been made throughout Scotland, 90 per cent. of which have been a success story—a success which the opposition opposed at the time.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister of the Crown to use such language as "the shower opposite"? Can that possibly be within even an expanded definition of being in order?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

My observation is that the term is generic, but preferably, the Minister should not use it.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

My, Opposition Members are touchy about their educational record. They really are touchy about what they have proposed in the past. I am sure that we will have ample opportunity to examine all the points in detail in Committee.

To help Opposition Members with their factual understanding, if nothing more, notes on clauses are available in the Library. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to study them, as they clarify the purpose of the drafting, and I am confident that, for those who have the interests of Scottish education at heart, they will underline the value of the proposals.

The substance of our debate has been on vouchers and testing. We have, of course, already heard most of the Opposition's points on vouchers, both in the press and in the debate in another place. The Government answered them then. My right hon. Friend answered them at the beginning of the debate, but I am happy to answer them again now.

The education of our young children is a matter of immense importance. It inspires strong views, but much of what we have heard today sheds more heat than light. We are still unclear about the policy of the Labour party, because we have heard three answers to the same question. When asked: "What will happen to the voucher scheme?" the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who leads the party, says, "I am not abolishing it." The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) says that the Labour party is abolishing it, and the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) says that it will all be left to a Scottish Parliament. Never during today's debate have we been told what the Labour party proposes. To one question there are three answers.

Opposition Members say that they want parents to have choice, but they want to organise education in such a way as to reduce—even eliminate—choice. They say that they want to see further investment in pre-school education, but are unable to say how much, or how they would finance it. They claim to be interested in quality, but have nothing to compare with our robust proposals for quality assurance. None of that will be lost on parents.

We intend to stimulate growth in pre-school education in a way that sustains quality, broadens choice and supports a mixed-economy provision, with the public, private and voluntary sectors all playing a part.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Before we leave the subject of finance, the Secretary of State said earlier that in the winding-up speech there would be an answer to the question about the cost of examining S1 and S2 from outside the school. I wonder whether the figures are available.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

My right hon. Friend said nothing of the sort. He said that we would go out to consult on it, and that he would be more than happy if the hon. Gentleman wished to participate in the consultation.

We are offering local authorities an opportunity to help to shape the pilot phase of the initiative, and we are consulting at every turn with the entire educational community. We intend that there should be choice for parents, because that is the best means of developing a responsive service. We will deliver quality education for children, because that is what they deserve.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

Has the Minister consulted education authorities and personnel on the introduction of testing? When will S1 and S2 tests be introduced? When will the curriculum changes and the accompanying textbooks and other things be introduced? The system cannot cope with the present changes, let alone this new one. What consultation has there been, and what additional resources will there be to allow the professionals to cope with what the Government are imposing on them?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. We have said that we will fund it. We have said that we are taking the necessary powers in the Bill, while at the same time going out to consultation on the detail. The hon. Gentleman is asking us to pre-empt the entire consultation process. That is madness.

The voucher initiative does not require new powers. It can be implemented using existing powers under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Part II of the Bill introduces the more precisely tailored powers of grant, with associated provisions extending the statutory power of inspection and offering opportunities for administrative streamlining in due course.

My right hon.Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) asked whether we could convert from kilometres to miles the walking distances for schools. They are two miles and three miles. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to work that out by dividing the kilometres by eight and then multiplying by five. He tells me that he could do so because he was tested at Arbroath high. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries also asked whether we would consider bringing in a rural affairs element in the five-to-14 curriculum. I know that his education authority is currently working on that, and we would be delighted to give it any help that it wants.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked whether the existence of vouchers for pre-school education would interfere with the ability of families on family credit to utilise the child care disregard. That issue was raised in the Select Committee's evidence gathering in Glasgow. We are still giving it some thought. We are confident that, because the voucher value can in no way be treated as parental income, the ability of families to utilise the child care disregard will not be affected. However, I shall write to the hon. Lady shortly setting out the position in full, if she feels that that would be of assistance.

The hon. Lady,together with the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), spoke passionately and genuinely about pupils with special educational needs, and asked whether they would be disadvantaged. Obviously, the answer is no. We are committed to proper and full provision for children with special educational needs. Local authorities are responsible for provision—

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

I am responding to the hon. Gentleman's earlier point.

Local authorities are responsible for provision for recording children from the age of two, and there are adequate existing powers in relation to others. All those powers will be retained for children in the pre-school sector. On the whole, the local authorities involved in the pilot schemes saw no particular issues relating to SEN children. However, we shall examine the position during the pilot scheme and its evaluation. I must make it clear that local authorities will retain the funds they currently spend on special educational needs.

The hon. Member for Maryhill was right to say that pre-school education is vital in spotting special needs. She should be supporting the voucher initiative, because through it more children than ever before will receive pre-school education, so their needs will be identified and assessed, where otherwise they might not have been.

Several hon. Members raised the whole question of the evaluation of the pilot. As I explained earlier, my Department has appointed a highly respected team from Stirling university to carry out a further operational review of the pilot.

That review's remit is wide. It will look at the experience of parents and providers. It will examine the way in which the vouchers are used and their effects. It will look at the patterns of provision that emerge and the growth in places that is achieved. The review will link in with local arrangements for monitoring throughout the pilot year.

I shall also appoint a broadly based committee to advise the appointed researchers. It will include COSLA, the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association and all other relevant organisations, as well as distinguished independent academics. We are serious about learning from the pilot and about tackling any problems as we go along. We are demonstrating that in what we do.

The hon. Member for Maryhill also raised the issue of insisting on teaching qualifications in the providing centres. Again, during the pilot, we shall consider staff training, the possible need to develop new and additional forms of training, and the skills needed to deliver the curriculum for pre-fives.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

As the Minister admits that the Government have not begun even to think about that yet, would it not have been better to delay the Bill's implementation until they did have answers to that serious point?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

I am surprised at the hon. Lady saying that, because she used to be a great fan and advocate of what was going on in former Strathclyde region, and community nurseries' experience there and recent research conducted in that context point clearly to keeping an open mind on educational qualifications. She cannot shout Strathclyde region from the rooftops when it suits her and ignore its advice and experience when it does not.

In a thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) asked about the frequency of inspections of local authority nursery schools and classes. Local authority nursery schools and classes will be inspected in accordance with sampling arrangements that Her Majesty's inspectors use for schools across the board. All Her Majesty's inspectors, not just the extra ones that we have recruited specifically for nurseries, will be competent, and will be used to inspect local authority nursery schools and classes. All new nursery schools and classes will have to complete a profile of education provision as soon as staff are appointed. Her Majesty's inspectors will consider those in setting their inspection priorities and in assessing the need for reinspection.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton , Glasgow Cathcart

In my experience, many of the inspectors are ex-secondary school teachers or ex-college of education lecturers. Few of them will have had any experience of nursery education. I am not sure that they are the right people to make true judgments about the quality of nursery education.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

That is a terrible slur on the professionalism of Her Majesty's inspectors of schools. Many of them did not come from the rarefied atmosphere of one of Scotland's finest independent schools, but were brought up, like myself, on the hard side of life in the state sector.

The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) asked about the core grant for the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. I join him in paying tribute to playgroups' excellent work throughout Scotland. Playgroups will be a major player in the pre-school initiative, which will be a valuable source of places, especially in rural areas where the provider market is not yet fully developed.

We are seeking to deal with the issue the hon. Gentleman raised by putting resources towards funding development officers in support of the initiative. Their primary role will be to support providers in the voluntary and private sectors to achieve the standards necessary for a successful participation in the pre-five initiative. The development officers will be attached to Her Majesty's inspectors, but will work in the field and will cost some £400,000. It is a considerable investment to support the voluntary and private sectors, and will help the SPPA. It should significantly ease the pressure on the SPPA's core grant.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) raised some issues outwith the voucher initiative, about the Scottish Qualifications Authority. He asked whether it would simplify the public's perception of qualifications and the myriad things that are going on. Bringing together the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council will provide a means of co-ordinating educational pathways in Scotland. Certification of school, work-related and work-based awards will be handled by a single body and, as a result, there will less confusion about the range of provision on offer.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the SVEC's fees being a burden on employers, but in the interests of competitiveness, all employers must invest in the education and training of their staff to optimise efficiency, productivity and output. In the past year, the SVEC was able to reduce its fees by becoming more efficient and it has held those fees level. I expect that the new body will be able to maintain the service being given by the SVEC.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the SEB cutting corners to save money in relation to pre-testing of questions. The SEB's reputation for quality is excellent. That is known and valued throughout the Scottish education system. The SEB's commitment to quality cannot be and is not in doubt, and I am confident that it will ensure that that quality is maintained. We will ensure that the SQA will build on the reputations of both bodies in a variety of areas, but especially in relation to quality, and the Bill makes specific mention of this.

Also in relation to the SQA, the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) asked about whether special educational needs provision was adequate. If he is listening, I can tell him that the Bill makes provision for the SQA to take over the functions of SEB and SVEC, including the procedures for special needs candidates. The "Higher Still" initiative shows that improvements in standards and quality are not incompatible with special educational needs. The access level of "Higher Still" qualifications has been widely welcomed by those interested in special educational needs. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the underfunding of the SQA. We expect it to be self-financing, so that question does not arise.

We have also heard much criticism, especially from the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), about our proposals for national testing, but what she has not admitted is that the atrocious level of testing in Scottish secondary schools has to be improved. When I challenged the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) in the Scottish Grand Committee to say whether he condoned the low levels of testing, he said nothing. I now ask the hon. Lady whether she condones or condemns the appalling levels of testing at S1 and S2.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am interested in the Minister's diversion. He has introduced a proposal for compulsory testing at S1 and S2 in secondary schools. This is not about levels of testing that do or do not exist; it is about compulsory testing being introduced as a qualification, as the Secretary of State said. The Minister would do better to explain exactly what the Government are up to.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

I will ask the hon. Lady again: does she approve of a 6 per cent. level for maths, a 7 per cent. level for reading and a 5 per cent. level for writing? Is she happy with that? I shall keep talking while she gets the answer from her colleague.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he will explain why the right hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), the former Secretary of State for Scotland, backed down from that position. I am happy to stand by the education record of Labour-controlled local authorities in Scotland because they have saved education from the depredations of the Minister and his right hon. Friend.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

So the hon. Lady is now saying that she is happy to defend Tayside region, which achieved 0 per cent. in reading, 0 per cent. in writing and 0 per cent. in mathematics, and Central region, which achieved 7 per cent. in reading, 1 per cent. in mathematics and 1 per cent. in writing. Does the hon. Lady think that that is an acceptable level of testing for Scottish parents for the very basics of education? I ask her for a third time—is she defending what is or is not happening in the vital first two years of Scotland's secondary schools?

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

Perhaps you could guide me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether this is parliamentary language, but was that not gibberish? Given that this system of testing was introduced by the right hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, why on earth is the Minister getting himself into such a fankle?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

Here we have it. At 3.30 this afternoon, the Opposition were against it, but word got out to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)—"Do you realise what the Scottish element of the party has just said—that we are against improving standards in Scotland and against testing? Get the policy changed before the wind-up at 9.30 pm."

Education authorities had the time to improve their performance, but made no tangible progress. The reality is that they will do nothing unless they are compelled to do so. The time has come to take powers to ensure that those authorities can no longer stand in the way of the full implementation of the system of national testing, and the five-to-14 programme of which it is an integral part, which has already proved of immense benefit to teachers, parents and pupils.

The future prosperity of Scotland relies on the performance of our education and training system. The Bill reaffirms our continuing commitment to the training system and takes forward proposals to enable our present system, with its high and improving standards, to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Our aim is nothing short of the improvement of Scottish education, improvement in the quality of provision offered to the Scottish people, and an improvement in the standards of education they achieve.

Our aim is an increase in diversity within the system and the ability to take advantage of that by promoting freedom of choice. This Bill is part of our drive to achieve those objectives, and we are confident that the voucher system provides the best means of ensuring the expansion of preschool education. We are confident that our proposals for national testing will raise standards, to keep Scottish education up there with the best.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 253, Noes 276.

Division No. 133][21.59 pm
Abbott, Ms DianeCousins, Jim
Ainger, NickCunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Allen, GrahamCunningham, Roseanna
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)Dafis, Cynog
Armstrong, HilaryDalyell, Tam
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyDarling, Alistair
Ashton, JoeDavidson, Ian
Austin-Walker, JohnDavies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)
Barnes, HarryDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Barron, KevinDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Battle, JohnDenham, John
Bayley, HughDewar, Donald
Beckett, Rt Hon MargaretDixon, Don
Bell, StuartDobson, Frank
Benn, Rt Hon TonyDonohoe, Brian H
Bennett, Andrew FDowd, Jim
Benton, JoeDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Bermingham, GeraldEagle, Ms Angela
Berry, RogerEastham, Ken
Betts, CliveEtherington, Bill
Boateng, PaulEwing, Mrs Margaret
Bradley, KeithFatchett, Derek
Bray, Dr JeremyFaulds, Andrew
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Fisher, Mark
Burden, RichardFlynn, Paul
Byers, StephenFoster, Rt Hon Derek
Caborn, RichardFoster, Don (Bath)
Callaghan, JimFraser, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Fyfe, Maria
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Galbraith, Sam
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Galloway, George
Campbell-Savours, D NGapes, Mike
Canavan, DennisGarrett, John
Cann, JamieGeorge, Bruce
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)Gerrard, Neil
Chidgey, DavidGilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Chisholm, MalcolmGodman, Dr Norman A
Church, JudithGodsiff, Roger
Clapham, MichaelGordon, Mildred
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Graham, Thomas
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Clelland, DavidGriffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clwyd, Mrs AnnGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Coffey, AnnGrocott, Bruce
Cohen, HarryGunnell, John
Connarty, MichaelHall, Mike
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Hanson, David
Cook, Robin (Livingston)Harman, Ms Harriet
Corbett, RobinHattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Corbyn, JeremyHenderson, Doug
Corston, JeanHeppell, John
Hill, Keith (Streatham)Olner, Bill
Hinchliffe, DavidO'Neill, Martin
Home Robertson, JohnOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hood, JimmyPearson, Ian
Hoon, GeoffreyPendry, Tom
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)Pickthall, Colin
Howarth, George (Knowsley North)Pike, Peter L
Hoyle, DougPope, Greg
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Hutton, JohnPrescott, Rt Hon John
Ingram, AdamPrimarolo, Dawn
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)Purchase, Ken
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)Quin, Ms Joyce
Jamieson, DavidRadice, Giles
Janner, GrevilleRaynsford, Nick
Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)Reid, Dr John
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)Rendel, David
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Jowell, TessaRoche, Mrs Barbara
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldRooker, Jeff
Keen, AlanRooney, Terry
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)Rowlands, Ted
Khabra, Piara SSalmond, Alex
Kilfoyle, PeterSedgemore, Brian
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Lewis, TerryShore, Rt Hon Peter
Liddell, Mrs HelenShort, Clare
Livingstone, KenSimpson, Alan
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Skinner, Dennis
Loyden, EddieSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Lynne, Ms LizSmith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
McAllion, JohnSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
McAvoy, ThomasSnape, Peter
McCartney, IanSoley, Clive
Macdonald, CalumSpearing, Nigel
McFall, JohnSpellar, John
McKelvey, WilliamSquire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Mackinlay, AndrewSteinberg, Gerry
McLeish, HenryStevenson, George
Maclennan, RobertStrang, Dr. Gavin
McNamara, KevinStraw, Jack
MacShane, DenisSutcliffe, Gerry
McWilliam, JohnTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Madden, MaxTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Maddock, DianaTimms, Stephen
Mandelson, PeterTipping, Paddy
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Touhig, Don
Martin, Michael J (Springburn)Trickett, Jon
Martlew, EricTurner, Dennis
Maxton, JohnTyler, Paul
Meacher, MichaelVaz, Keith
Meale, AlanWalker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Michael, AlunWallace, James
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)Walley, Joan
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Milburn, AlanWareing, Robert N
Miller, AndrewWelsh, Andrew
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)Wicks, Malcolm
Moonie, Dr LewisWigley, Dafydd
Morgan, RhodriWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Morley, ElliotWilliams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)Winnick, David
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Wise, Audrey
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)Worthington, Tony
Mowlam, MarjorieWray, Jimmy
Mudie, GeorgeWright, Dr Tony
Mullin, ChrisYoung, David (Bolton SE)
Murphy, Paul
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)Tellers for the Ayes:
O'Brien, William (Normanton)Mr. Robert Ainsworth and Mr. Peter Hain.
O'Hara, Edward
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Aitken, Rt Hon JonathanEvans, Roger (Monmouth)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)Evennett, David
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)Faber, David
Amess, DavidFabricant, Michael
Arbuthnot, JamesField, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)Forman, Nigel
Ashby, DavidForsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Atkins, Rt Hon RobertForsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Forth, Eric
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Baldry, TonyFox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)French, Douglas
Batiste, SpencerFry, Sir Peter
Bellingham, HenryGale, Roger
Beresford, Sr PaulGallie, Phil
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnGardiner, Sir George
Body, Sir RichardGarnier, Edward
Bonsor, Sir NicholasGill, Christopher
Booth, HartleyGillan, Mrs Cheryl
Boswell, TimGoodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bottomley, Rt Hon VirginiaGorman, Mrs Teresa
Bowden, Sir AndrewGorst, Sir John
Bowis, JohnGrant, Sir A (SW Cambs)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir RhodesGreenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Brandreth, GylesGreenway, John (Ryedale)
Brazier, JulianGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Bright, Sir GrahamGrylls, Sir Michael
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)Hague, Rt Hon William
Browning, Mrs AngelaHamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Budgen, NicholasHampson, Dr Keith
Burns, SimonHannam, Sir John
Burt, AlistairHargreaves, Andrew
Butler, PeterHarris, David
Butterfill, JohnHaselhurst, Sir Alan
Carlisle, John (Luton North)Hawkins, Nick
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)Hawksley, Warren
Carrington, MatthewHayes, Jerry
Carttiss, MichaelHeald, Oliver
Cash, WilliamHeathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Channon, Rt Hon PaulHendry, Charles
Chapman, Sir SydneyHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Churchill, MrHicks, Robert
Clappison, JamesHiggins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)Horam, John
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyHordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Coe, SebastianHoward, Rt Hon Michael
Colvin, MichaelHowell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Congdon, DavidHowell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Conway, DerekHughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Cope, Rt Hon Sr JohnHunter, Andrew
Couchman, JamesHurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Cran, JamesJack, Michael
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)Jenkin, Bernard
Davis, David (Boothferry)Jessel, Toby
Day, StephenJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Deva, Nirj JosephJones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Devlin, TimKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Dicks, TerryKey, Robert
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenKing, Rt Hon Tom
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKirkhope, Timothy
Dover, DenKnapman, Roger
Duncan, AlanKnight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Duncan Smith, IainKnight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Dunn, BobKnight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st