Legislative Programme

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:59 am on 16th June 1999.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 10:59 am, 16th June 1999

In the spirit of new politics, I welcome the inclusion of an education bill in the Government's first legislative programme. Our education system is our investment in the future and it is only right that it should be at the heart of this Parliament's agenda.

I also welcome the First Minister's comments on partnership. As Alex Salmond has already indicated, nowhere is a partnership approach more appropriate or imperative than in our education system. The First Minister cannot have failed to observe the growing gulf between those who make education policy and those whose job it is to implement that policy in the classroom. The president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, writing in The Scotsman this morning in defence of the strengths of our education system, observes-quite rightly-that many of the problems of our education system are the fault of the national policymakers, not of the teachers who, on so many occasions these days, have to make do and mend. Less blame and more listening from the Executive ought to be the order of the day.

Increasingly, initiatives in education are introduced without consultation and are driven by ideological rather than education concerns. Inevitably, in those circumstances, it is the children in our schools who suffer the consequences.

I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to embrace genuine partnership and I look forward to Sam Galbraith's statement on the details of the consultation process. There must be an open and rigorous consultation exercise, involving all the partners in education-local authorities, teachers, employers and, of course, parents, who, more than any other group, understand and care about the interests of our children. Who knows? Perhaps the consultation process will even provide a last chance for the Liberal Democrats to have some of their policies included in the education bill.

The crucial point is that the consultation process must not be simply a sham. We must listen to the views that are expressed in that process and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

The education bill must build on the strengths of Scottish education, of which there are many, and tackle its fundamental weaknesses. Its aim must be to improve the educational experience of every single child in every single school in Scotland. In child care and pre-five education, that means introducing regulations to ensure not just the quantity of places available, but the quality of the care and education that our youngest children receive. In schools, we must bring forward proposals to reduce the administrative burden on teachers and allow them to do what they do best-teach children. We must allow our teachers the professional freedom within the curriculum to ensure that no children emerge from the early years of education without the basic skills that will allow them to go forward and fulfil their potential.

The Government's stated aim is to raise standards in schools. I hope and expect that that will be one of the areas of consensus that the First Minister mentioned earlier. However, there must also be recognition that raising standards in schools is about more than the publication of meaningless statistics. It is about real improvements in real schools-improvements that are relevant to pupils and understood by parents.

I hope, therefore, that the education bill will propose a radical reform of the discredited target-setting regime. In fact, I would go so far as to say that such a move is essential if local authorities are to be at the heart of the drive to raise standards. It is the obligation of everybody in society to work to raise standards in schools. Local authorities share that obligation, but it is the obligation of Government to create the conditions in which local authorities can raise standards in schools.

The debate about raising standards cannot and must not be divorced from the debate about resources in our education system. Scotland has an education system that is based on sound philosophical principles, and its many strengths must be protected. For some 20 or 30 years, however, the education system has been starved of essential resources. I hope that the education bill addresses the issue of resources. Before the election, the SNP outlined a variety of proposals to inject much-needed resources into our education system, and I hope that some of those ideas will be included in the education bill.

I hope that there will be proposals to reduce class sizes, not just in the early years of education, but from primary 1 to the second year of secondary school. I hope that there will be a Government commitment to work with teachers in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee to bring about that reduction in class sizes.

Investment in books and learning materials is absolutely essential, as is investment in language teachers and special needs teachers in primary schools. I hope that during this debate we will hear some indication of how many extra modern language teachers and special needs teachers will be employed in the course of this Parliament.

This Executive-this Parliament-has the opportunity over the next four years to do what Westminster, under Labour and Tory Governments, has failed to do, that is, to get it right for Scottish education, to get it right with teachers, with parents and with local authorities, and to get it right for Scotland's children. I hope that the Executive seizes that opportunity, and that as a result there are radical and necessary reforms in Scottish education.