Education Bill (Consultation)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:34 pm on 23 June 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:34, 23 June 1999

I remind all members who have not inserted their cards in the microphone unit in front of them that they do not exist until they have done so.

We now move on to a statement by the Minister for Children and Education. The procedure will be the same as before: a statement followed by questions.

I am ready to call Mr Galbraith, but I gather that he is waiting for the furniture remover. While we wait, it might be useful for members to know that lecterns that are more removable than the one that is shared at present will be made available.

Please put your card in the slot, minister. [Laughter.] A credit card will not do.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour 3:04, 23 June 1999

I would like to make a statement on the procedures that will be adopted to ensure that there is full public consultation on our proposals in the forthcoming education improvement bill. I intend to launch the consultation during the first week of July.

I should make it clear first that I will not be giving full details of our proposals at this stage; those will come later. I am making this statement for two reasons: first, the consultation document setting out our proposals can be launched only shortly after the Parliament rises for the summer recess and I felt that, out of courtesy, I should give Parliament the details of the consultation process that will follow. Secondly, I want to make clear the nature of the general process, as this consultation will be the first to launch a bill to be put before this Parliament. I do not expect that we will follow exactly the same procedure for every bill put forward by this Administration, but the approach that we take for the education bill will serve as a general template.

Before that, however, let me say briefly why we intend to legislate on education. The Scottish Executive is committed to an agenda of continuous improvement that will progressively raise standards in education. It will build on the groundwork laid by the United Kingdom Government since the 1997 election, with the aim of delivering a world-class system with world-class standards.

This Parliament should not make the mistake of thinking that legislation on its own can deliver higher standards, nor should we suggest that continuous improvement will start only once we have legislated. In recent weeks, I have met many teachers, parents, pupils and others involved in the school system. Their commitment to excellence stands out and they tell me that it is an exciting time to be in education.

We have already achieved a great deal through the significant additional resources that are now being made available to schools. Those resources are targeted on activities that make a difference to children's and teachers' experience and which directly support improvement. Pre-school provision for all three and four-year-olds, 5,000 additional classroom assistants, smaller class sizes, and early intervention to support better literacy and numeracy in the primary school, add up to a package that gives children a much better start at school.

The excellence fund is reaching all parts of the school system in other ways: for example, by supporting alternatives to exclusion. New community schools, training and staff development and the delivery of modern information technology to all our schools will make a major difference. We are delivering better education in better schools.

We also want to support and develop our teachers, strengthening their skills and professionalism. I want to pay tribute to their commitment. [MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I recognise very well the pressures on teachers and their feeling that they are undervalued. However, we all know that a world-class education system will not happen without them and that their expertise is already delivering huge improvements. We want those improvements to be continuous and to extend throughout the school system in Scotland through the sharing of best practice, using it to raise standards. Her Majesty's inspectors' reports show how that is already happening; how school after school is delivering a high and rising quality of education for its pupils.

Our aim in legislating is to consolidate and build on the momentum that is already under way. It is to provide a framework through which Government, local authorities, teachers, parents and children can work in partnership to secure improvement and to achieve and celebrate excellence. That requires an education service that is guided by shared priorities and is responsive to local circumstances and to the needs of children. We need to meet the challenge to help those who still need to achieve the standards of the very best. I believe that we can do that with a few simple measures that will strengthen the culture of improvement and make clear the responsibility of all those in the education system for taking them forward.

That means that those who support, fund and direct schools must also be encouraged to continue developing the culture of excellence. We often speak of the partnership of schools, local authorities and Government as a strength of Scottish education. I believe in that partnership and that each of the partners must pull its weight. That means that we ourselves, the Scottish Ministers and the local authorities should be provided with a clear statement of our responsibilities for delivering improvement.

The measures that we will bring forward will create a new partnership between central and local government, and between authorities and schools, to raise standards and to target and celebrate excellence. None of us-schools, parents, authorities or this Parliament-should be prepared to accept second best for our children when we see what the best can achieve. This bill is about achieving the best. It will be a framework for partnership. Our approach to the preparation of the bill is designed to reflect that. The first principle adopted by the cross-party consultative steering group was that power should be shared between the Parliament, the Executive and the people of Scotland. We have the chance to make that a reality in our approach to this legislation. The people of Scotland will, therefore, have an unprecedented opportunity to express their views on our proposals before the bill is finally presented to this Parliament.

Education interests and the general public have already had a substantial opportunity to comment on the basis of the proposals that were set out in the UK Government's white paper "Targeting Excellence", which was published in January. The detailed plans for legislation will take into account the many comments that were made on the white paper.

The next step is to set out the details of the proposals for legislation in a consultative document to be published early in July. That will set out and explain the draft provisions and the policy behind them. I can assure this Parliament that the document will be made widely available. We are all stakeholders in the education system and our approach to consultation will be designed to ensure that our proposals are considered by as many people as possible. The document, therefore, will be sent to local authorities, schools, school boards and a wide range of organisations with an interest in children and schools. A summary of the main elements will also be published and made available on request. The consultation document will be made available on the internet. That will allow many more people to have access to it, to comment and to see what others have said about the bill.

I am particularly concerned that the consultation should go beyond the normal range of interests, and that many parents and pupils are involved. Pupils who have access to the internet through the national grid for learning will have an excellent opportunity to get involved in the debates, and we shall be ready to take their views into account. I consider that young people's views about schools should be listened to. The consultation will also give them an early opportunity to learn about the processes and procedures of the new Parliament. The consultation will continue until the end of October to give plenty people plenty of time to comment after the schools are back. Peter Peacock and I want to meet as many people as possible to hear their views, and we will want to take part in a series of meetings throughout Scotland.

I hope that the outcome of the process will be a bill that the widest spectrum of people agree reflects the best way forward for Scottish education. It will take account of the knowledge and experience of those who are directly involved as providers and consumers of school education. Parliament can then be confident that our proposals are soundly based and will make a real difference to the education of our children.

At the end of October, the bill will be revised as necessary to take into account the consultations and to make any technical changes needed to refine the drafting. Once that has happened it will be passed to the Parliament, which will, as a first step, put it to the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. The committee will comment on the approach taken in the bill, and in particular on how good the consultation has been. It will report to Parliament on whether the bill should be approved in principle. If the report is favourable, the bill will go through three stages: a debate and vote on the key principles, detailed consideration in committee, and a debate and final vote on the bill with the amendments accepted by the education committee.

We will not deliver a world-class education system overnight, and we must always remember that it is schools, teachers, pupils and their parents working together who will achieve the highest standards. I believe, however, that establishing a clear framework of duties and responsibilities will allow us to focus more closely on the action needed to achieve such a system. Our bill, developed with the help and participation of our partners in the education system and the Scottish people, is an opportunity to do that. It will also set a new standard in consultation that I hope this Parliament will welcome. I commend it to the Parliament.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have three questions for the minister. It was my understanding, and I think the understanding of most people in Scotland, that today he would outline details of an innovative consultation process. I am struggling to detect the innovation in the minister's statement. If it is, as the First Minister suggested last week, an example of early thinking on pre-legislative consultation, I suggest that the Government should go away and do some more thinking, this time of the creative variety.

What is the minister proposing by way of consultation that is new? We all recognise that the committee structure will be a significant improvement in the pre-legislative process, but I am sure that he will agree that consultation at an even earlier stage is essential in education. What he suggests in his statement reflects what already happens-green or white papers are circulated to interested parties, and comments are invited and more often than not ignored. That is the type of consultation that the CSG condemned in its report, when it said:

"Consultation, in the form of inviting comments on specific legislative proposals, for example, would not meet our aspirations for a participative policy development process."

That is exactly the type of consultation that the minister has just proposed.

My second question refers to the content of the proposals; I understand that the minister cannot go into detail today. As publication is only a few days away, it is fair to ask for some early indications. As the minister and his deputy travel round Scotland to take part in their series of meetings, they will detect a fair degree of unease at the contents of the recent white paper, "Targeting Excellence". Will the minister give us a guarantee that his proposals will represent a significant departure from that white paper, which was rejected by people representing a range of interests in education?

Thirdly, is the minister yet able to expand on the proposals in the partnership agreement to establish an education forum? Today would seem an ideal opportunity for him to have brought forward detailed proposals for the early establishment of such a forum, so that it could facilitate the type of consultation and participation that the CSG envisaged.

The minister's statement was a missed opportunity, but I hope that his answers to my questions will go some way towards reassuring me on those concerns.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I am grateful to Nicola Sturgeon for her response if slightly disappointed by its rather ungenerous nature and tone, which does not augur well for consultation. I hope that her criticism will improve in tone in the future and that it will be better than the usual soundbite of "missed opportunity". I would have hoped that we could move on to more constructive criticism.

Nicola Sturgeon asks me what is new in the consultation. We are proposing not only the use of new technology but a draft bill along with an explanation of it for further consultation and consideration. If she appreciates that what used to happen was that a bill was thrown at members on second reading and then off it went, she may find that significant. I should have thought that that was to be welcomed rather than slightly sneered at.

Nicola Sturgeon also asked about content. We have taken the responses to the white paper into consideration. I cannot say anything more about the forum at this stage, as we are still considering it.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I thank the minister for making the text of his statement available early enough for us to give consideration to it. I welcome a period of consultation on the forthcoming bill, but I am naturally quite disappointed that we cannot have the bill prior to the recess. If the document that is to be released in early July is consultative, I am not sure why we cannot see it before the recess.

The minister said that the consultation would be the first to launch a bill. Does that mean that it will be the first bill or that there will be other bills that will not have any consultation? I doubt that it is the latter and think that it is likely to be the former. If that is the case, we are not likely see an amended draft and a bill until November at the earliest. Does that mean that-this being the first bill-we will see no bills in this Parliament until November or possibly even next year? It would be useful if the minister gave more detail of the likely timetable for consultation and indicated when the chamber and the committees will have an opportunity to discuss the bill.

Will the minister tell us why he did not use the word employer in his statement when he was talking about partnership? It is important that the education that we give our children is world class and is tailored to ensure that they can not only go into academia but obtain employment and contribute to society as a whole.

Will the minister clarify the aspects of the bill on which he has had consultation? He says that that might not be possible. A simple example is that when community schools-an idea that was first taken up by the Conservatives in the mid-1970s-were relaunched last year, many agencies such as social work and health were involved and brought into the schools. Does he intend to involve the police in community schools, as they were left out? Community schools are used to bring those agencies together for the benefit of the community, so it is important that the police, who have much to contribute on drug education, should be involved. I should be grateful if the minister responded to some of those comments.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I am grateful for the constructive nature of Mr Monteith's comments. The consultation document will contain the draft bill. I am sorry that we cannot produce it earlier, but that is simply because of the time factor involved in delivering on these matters. I want it to come out as soon as possible, but as that will happen after the Parliament rises, I thought that it would be discourteous of me not to speak to the Parliament before the recess.

It is not the case that bills will be presented without consultation. I am not yet sure about the train in which the bills will come. The reason for the delay is that we want consultation. We are going into a holiday period and do not want to rush. I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to comment.

Mr Monteith asked me about employers and the police. As always, we consider that employers have an essential role. We are often criticised within the Labour party for adopting that stance. The police are already involved in education in many ways, and that will continue.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

Will the minister clarify the role of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee in relation to the draft bill? Will the committee be able to hear witnesses and give a view at the draft stage, as I expected, or will its role begin only once the bill is fully published?

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

As Malcolm Chisholm knows, the committees are their own masters. They will get a copy of the draft consultation document and it is for them to pursue the matter as they wish. I am sure that they will want to contribute responses.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I welcome the minister's statements. I echo his response to Mr Monteith that we do not want to rush the process. In the past, legislation has been introduced too quickly, and on an issue as important as our children's education, we must take a careful approach.

In the past, glossy documentation has been thrown at school boards. I have been a member of a school board for some years and have seen that happen. Teachers have said to me, "Do not rush this; do not make change for its own sake. Let us see our way through this issue." They think that things are happening too fast. I would like to know the minister's thoughts on publications being produced which school boards can understand and have the time to read and respond to.

The Westminster Government's innovation in introducing the scheme whereby two community schools were to be put into each local authority area was warmly welcomed across the political spectrum. In Highland, where Mr Peacock and myself were formerly councillors, we fairly rubbed our hands with glee when we saw that.

I want to make a plea for community schools, as it strikes me that the minister is absolutely right on that point and that it is the way forward. What plans might he have, which he could reveal to us today, to build on the scheme of two schools per authority and to take it further? To help him with his answer, it does not necessarily cost money, as cash can be accessed from a variety of sources to establish such institutions. I would welcome the minister's thoughts on the matter.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I like those who ask me questions and help me with the answers. I hope that it is a precedent, as it would be great if it were followed.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I could not agree more with Mr Stone on the issue of community schools. Only yesterday, I was at the community school in the Raploch, and I was much impressed by the teachers' commitment and by the high standards. In all the schools that I have visited, that has been my experience-commitment and high standards of education. I commend them.

Our plan is to keep rolling new community schools forward. I do not see any limit to them. The first batch is out and there are two further batches to come. As we roll them out, our commitment is to two in each education authority. I also have a vision that such schools can be in any area, as long as there is a concept of pulling together.

I agree with Mr Stone that we should not have change for the sake of change. That is the worst reason for change. Change should be introduced only when it is necessary to achieve the objectives that have to be delivered, and for that reason alone. In this case, our objective is continuous improvement, and we want to achieve that. However, I can assure members that this is a time for a bit of stability, and for us to settle down, put plans in place and consider what we have done. That is not to say that we do not have to have continuous alterations and improvements, but major, continuous overhauls are in the interests of no one.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

I wish to ask the minister two questions, one of which is being asked again. Why cannot the document be published before the end of July? As he knows, schools in Scotland are now well into the final countdown period to the summer holidays for both pupils and teachers, and, by delaying the publication of the document for two weeks, he is effectively taking six weeks from the consultation period.

On the consultation process, the minister said in his statement:

"The people of Scotland will, therefore, have an unprecedented opportunity to express their views".

He went on to say that young people's views were very important to him. However, the list of organisations to which information will be disseminated consists of the same organisations and the same dissemination routes that were used for the white paper, "Targeting Excellence". There is no mention of pupil councils, nor of the many youth forums that have been established around the country; perhaps most glaringly, there is no mention of the Scottish Youth Parliament that is to meet for the first time on 30 June. It is very important for young people to be consulted in their own forum, not through adult forums. I hope that the minister will ensure that that happens.

Education is a major priority for Scottish people. To reiterate Nicola Sturgeon's comments, this statement offers no vision of a truly open, accessible and participative consultation process for our first major piece of legislation.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I can kill two birds with one stone when I talk to Fiona, as not only is she an MSP, but she is one of my constituents, so she is. Therefore, I will take her questions as if they were from both.

The publication of the document is a physical, practical exercise in writing, consulting, putting the words down and getting the document printed. Time constraints are involved, and there is nothing more to it than that.

I take to heart Fiona's point about consulting youth, and I am determined to do that. I will take on board her comments about youth forums, which is a good suggestion. I hope that, when the document is sent to schools, it will also be sent to the pupil councils. As far as the Scottish Youth Parliament is concerned, I will be attending the meeting on 30 June as an MSP in order to discuss the document. I am grateful to her, and I will take all her points on board.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Does the minister agree that the pupil-teacher ratio in the state sector is one of the major concerns in Scotland? Will the consultative document include the visionary setting of targets, to move state schools closer to the pupil-teacher ratios of private schools?

I recently read a report which said that Eton College-the most exclusive of British private schools-had a pupil-teacher ratio of 8:1. That can be compared to Drumchapel High School in the First Minister's constituency, where the pupil-teacher ratio is 30:1. When class sizes are in the high 20s or even in the 30s, the issue of teaching is sometimes surpassed by that of management and control. Will the minister give us information about lowering secondary school class sizes to a maximum of 20 pupils per class by the end of the first Parliament?

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I am grateful to Tommy for his comments, but he will know that setting targets for class sizes does not require legislation such as this bill. That is dealt with through executive action, but I agree with what he says about class sizes.

The bill is about continuous improvement and about continually raising the standards of school education. I will apply the same principle in the education service as I applied in the health service: to drive up the standards in the state sector to make it so good that everyone will want to be a part of it.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I will take one last question if it is very brief.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I recognise both the minister's commitment to world-class education and the amount of resources made available by his predecessor at Westminster. I trust that he recognises that, year in, year out, the Conservative Government consistently made better provision for education. Does he agree that the major problem facing Scottish education has been the failure of local authorities to deliver over a lengthy period? Which sanctions, methods of persuasion or encouragement will he introduce to ensure that local government gives us the performance that our children deserve?

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

Mr Aitken will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with all that he says. Can we please put a stop to such language as sanctions, bludgeons and attacks, and to driving wedges between us and education authorities?

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith Labour

I have seen Mr Aitken's kind of persuasion. I greatly deprecate attempts to drive wedges between Government and teachers and Government and local authorities. This is a partnership in which we all have to work together. Having been round many schools in a short time, I have been impressed by the high standards of education, the buzz in schools and the quality and the commitment of teachers. It is time for Mr Aitken and other parties to recognise that instead of attacking us all the time.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

That concludes the questions and answers on the statement on consultation on the education bill.