Education

Scottish Executive – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 24th June 1999.

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 2:30 pm, 24th June 1999

To ask the Scottish Executive what failures of educational provision by local authorities the creation of a statutory duty on them to raise standards in the proposed education bill is intended to redress. (S1O-86)

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

Mr McLetchie will accept that if we do not compete successfully and do not continue to raise standards, we will get into difficulties. Our aim is to raise standards in all parts of Scottish education. The education bill will contain provisions that are intended to facilitate that process and I would like to think that even the Scottish Tory party will support it.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The Conservatives invented the phrase "raising standards in schools" and we achieved it during our term of office.

I draw the First Minister's attention to the remarks made yesterday by his colleague, Mr Galbraith, in response to my friend, Bill Aitken. The Minister for Children and Education said:

"Can we please put a stop to such language as sanctions, bludgeons and attacks, and to driving wedges between us and education authorities?"-[Official Report, 23 June 1999; Vol 1, c 674.]

As the First Minister will recall from his days at law school-if not, I am sure the Deputy First Minister will remind him-the essence of a duty is that it is an enforceable obligation. Accordingly, will the imposition of a statutory duty to raise standards in schools be accompanied by sanctions to force councils to toe the Government line or to meet its targets? If so, how does that square with the warm words uttered by Mr Galbraith yesterday?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

We have repeatedly made it clear that we want to work with teachers to reinforce and buttress their professionalism and to make progress on raising standards. That process is already under way.

Ronald Smith, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland said on television the other day:

"I would like to see positive obligations on local authorities and governments to support schools".

For that, he went on to say, the Government must "provide the wherewithal to make it possible".

He then talked about his desire for a national educational development plan within the framework of which new ideas could be developed.

As Mr McLetchie knows, the excellence funds-to take one example-will add £377 million to education authorities' funds over this and the next two years. From 1997-98 to the end of the comprehensive spending review period, education authorities will have additional spending power of £379 per pupil. The Government is providing the wherewithal. That provides a good basis for co-operation to work towards common aims and objectives. I invite the Conservative party to take a constructive interest in that process and to move into the 21st century with us.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I notice that the First Minister did not answer the question and did not advise us whether there would be sanctions to back up the proposed statutory duty.

Moving into the 21st century, the First Minister will be aware that there were reports this morning that a number of local education authorities in England are being rapped over the knuckles by his opposite number down south for spending too much money on red tape and not enough on schools. Will the First Minister please tell us how he intends to ensure that that situation does not occur in Scotland and that additional funding is directed towards our schools and not to expanding council bureaucracy?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I find it quite extraordinary that having rapped me rather pompously over the knuckles on the grounds that I am making accusations against teachers and seeing darkness in their activities on all sides, Mr McLetchie gives us a question that clearly implies that he thinks that too much is being spent on bureaucracy and that funds are being maladministered.

I do not jump to that conclusion. I rely on local authorities, with whom I look forward to working through the inspectorate and the department, to ensure that, given their circumstances, the right balance is struck. The common aim that unites us all is the need to support children with needs, to allow them to realise their ability and to equip them to compete in future life. If we do that, rather than assume that something terrible is happening-as Mr McLetchie implied-we will get on a good deal better.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Does the First Minister agree that there is some danger in continually putting further duties on education authorities, rather than allowing them discretion to act locally? Does he agree that there is little point in local authorities dealing with education if we continually restrict their ability to act locally?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I am not aware that we are continually restricting their ability to act locally. We have increased funding and we have taken steps to ensure that it is used in the areas for which it was intended. That does not detract from the wide sweep of discretion that applies to local authorities across the range of their education budget. I repeat again that the Government has an interest-a proper interest-in ensuring that we give children the best possible chances. I think that everyone, including everyone in education authorities, shares that view.

There is no reason why we should not work in harmony to achieve those aims, but we are not helped in that by the constant accusations from the Scottish National party-which were a such a feature of the election-that the instinct of everyone in the Labour party, if they see a teacher, is to punch them on the nose. That is not the spirit in which we approach the problems of education.