Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:30 am on 17th March 2005.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 9:30 am, 17th March 2005

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2597, in the name of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, on education.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservative group of members of the Scottish Parliament. We know that Scotland pioneered the enlightenment ideal of education—a national system that offers education to all. The Scottish system was meritocratic and democratic. It rested on a ladder of opportunity that ascended from parish and burgh schools to universities and allowed able children to rise to eminence simply on the basis of their talent.

The Executive is taking education in the wrong direction. Education is over-centralised. Teachers are snowed under by directions from national and local officials who are too distant from the needs of parents and pupils. Better-off families can escape by paying fees or moving to a more sought-after catchment area, but those in areas of urban deprivation remain trapped in a spiral of decline.

In some cases, education is characterised by indiscipline and falling standards. Indiscipline will continue to haunt the Executive until it accepts that indiscipline is destroying teacher morale and adversely affecting other pupils' learning. We accept that in many cases indiscipline will take the form of low-level disruption in the classroom, but in an increasing number of cases, teachers and the well-behaved majority of pupils are subject to verbal and physical abuse.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Will Lord James Douglas-Hamilton highlight exactly what his party would do to improve discipline? I am thinking of youngsters who are very disruptive in schools.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I am happy to do so. I will elaborate my theme and come to that point soon.

In 2003, a member of school staff was attacked every 12 minutes of the school day. Of the 1,660 exclusions for physical attacks on teachers in 2004, only 21 were permanent. Professor Pamela Munn's research found that 59 per cent of teachers consider discipline to be a serious problem. Despite all that, the Executive has decided to discontinue its annual publication of statistics on violence and indiscipline in schools.

The Minister for Education and Young People pledged to issue guidance to local authorities to help to maintain and develop robust arrangements for monitoring incidents of violence against school staff, but the recent inspectors' report on the implementation of the recommendations of the discipline task group report, "Better Behaviour—Better Learning", noted that many local authorities had yet to implement the guidance.

We want to protect teachers' rights to pursue their profession and to teach. Equally, we want to protect the right of the majority of children to learn unhindered. We would give schools and head teachers—not local authorities—final say over whether a pupil was expelled. We understand that adequate sanctions must be available that can be implemented effectively and which will deter bad behaviour. When absolutely necessary, teachers should have the power to expel.

Sylvia Jackson asked me a relevant question about how we go through that process. With exclusions, we support second-chance learning centres, which are most certainly not to be confused with last-chance saloons. Second-chance learning centres will have a team of experts—educational psychologists, behavioural experts, health professionals, social workers and guidance counsellors—which means that the difficulties that a child encounters, which might differ in every case, should be properly dealt with.

We have made it clear that funding should follow the pupil. A premium or additional funds will be provided for children with special educational needs, which include behavioural difficulties.

Under our proposals, every child should have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. For those with additional support needs, additional support will be provided. I say to Sylvia Jackson that I understand that funding for a pupil with special educational needs could be about £50,000 a year. We must face up to reality. My key point is that the vast majority of pupils in classes should be allowed to proceed with their work unhindered. The final discretion should lie with head teachers.

We have long wished for Scotland's further education colleges to have an enhanced role. For too long, pupils, parents, teachers and some employers have viewed FE colleges as the poor relation of universities. That perception must change. Our business leaders desperately need people who have the vocational training that is necessary to plug Scotland's much-publicised skills gap. In partnership with the business sector, our FE colleges are best placed to meet that need.

We would enable all pupils aged 14 or over who so wished to access vocational courses at FE colleges as part of their school education. We would also ensure that pupils were properly informed of the alternatives that are available to them on leaving school and were not pressured to attend university. We would support and encourage greater co-operation among schools, colleges and businesses, to ensure that courses provide the skills that business demands.

A more flexible education system that genuinely met the needs of children of all aptitudes and abilities and provided respected qualifications would enable all children to achieve their highest level, whether in floristry, higher history or whatever the subject might be. The existing one-size-fits-all system does not provide achievement for all. The state monopoly of education, coupled with poor motivation and classroom indiscipline, means that some standards of attainment are poor. Despite ever-increasing levels of Government spend, half of Scottish 14-year-olds do not meet the Government standard for writing; more than 11,000 young people did not enter work, education or training when they left school last year; and 3,185 young people left school with no qualifications in 2003—that represents 5.5 per cent of school leavers.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

If we accept for the purpose of argument some of the points that have been made, will Lord James Douglas-Hamilton say how the measures that the Conservatives propose would have the remotest effect on such issues?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Our proposals would have a great deal of effect. They would provide far more opportunity and flexibility.

Grade inflation exists—that is not in doubt. The standard grade pass rate has reached 98 per cent and the number who gain five or more standard grades has increased by 10 per cent in the past five years. The ever-increasing pass rates suggest dumbing down in the constant effort to meet Executive targets.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I would very much like to give way to Mr Swinney, but I want to develop my theme.

We believe that we must stop concentrating on achieving centrally set targets and start concentrating on maintaining exam standards so that pupils' qualifications are held in high regard and receive appropriate recognition.

The School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 was passed under the previous Conservative Government and has served parents and schools effectively for the past 17 years. It gave parents a statutory right over the appointment of head teachers and deputy head teachers. Parents and school boards enjoy strong rights in shaping the management and ethos of a school. The Executive threatens to strip parents of those rights with its proposed legislation—

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

That is what the Executive threatens on the appointment of head teachers. The Executive is failing parents, who expect to be involved in their children's education. Far from reforming existing legislation, it will repeal the 1988 act and dilute parents' rights in the name of offering more flexible participation.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I take Lord James back to his point about dumbing down educational attainment to satisfy the targets of Government front benchers. Who is responsible for the dumbing down? I take it that he is accusing teachers or the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Mr John Swinney is incorrect. The Executive is responsible for the Scottish education system. If that system does not measure up to the required standards, we are entitled to hold the Executive to account. John Swinney has not shrunk from doing that in the past. We would ensure that parents retained their statutory rights regarding the appointment of head teachers and deputy head teachers.

The Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000 contained a presumption in favour of mainstreaming pupils with special educational needs. We want to do away with that presumption, because we believe that the introduction to mainstream schools of children with severe behavioural difficulties and autistic spectrum disorders is not always the best solution for the children concerned. We would like the case of each child to be weighed on its merits.

Under our proposals, state funds would follow the pupil to any school of the parents' choosing, with a premium for children with special educational needs. As I have said, we would end the presumption in favour of mainstreaming.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I have only a few more moments and would like to finish by making a couple of key points.

Under the proposals that we have made, state funds would follow the pupil, so that any parent would be able to choose to send their son or daughter to an independently run school. Each pupil would bring with them £5,058 per annum, to which the school or charitable body could add a bursary or scholarship.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I would like to develop my theme.

Loretto School, for example, helps 106 of the 274 pupils in the senior school. Merchiston Castle School helps 199 pupils and Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen helps 200 of its 1,000 secondary pupils. Of the large Edinburgh day schools, both George Watson's College and George Heriot's School help well over 10 per cent of their senior pupils. Instead of considering withdrawal of charitable status from independent schools, we would give greater autonomy and charitable status to all state schools.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I will do so after I have finished making my point.

Our proposals would mean that state schools would be able to enjoy many of the benefits that are currently reserved to the independent sector. Specifically, all schools should have the incentive to tap into the vast network of former pupils and the wider community as a means of raising funds.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I would like Lord James Douglas-Hamilton to clarify two points. First, I understand that the Conservatives' policy is to allow the average cost of a child's education to follow them to the school of their choice. What happens when the cost of education at that school is above the average, which is the case in many parts of Scotland? Would the parents have to top up the funds from their own money? Secondly, will the member be precise about whether he is saying that the cash that the Conservatives would take from the state system could be used to subsidise current fees in the private sector?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

On top-up fees, it is clear that those who are currently able to afford private education already have choice. Our scheme is intended to give choice to those who do not currently have it. Under our proposals, parents would be free to send their children to private schools, provided that the fees were not more than the per capita funding element. As I mentioned earlier, private schools can and do offer full bursaries to many students. It would be possible for them to redistribute those funds to allow more pupils access to the school. Although parents would not be allowed to top up school fees from their funds, there is no reason why a philanthropic individual or charity could not establish a benevolent fund to which children could apply to facilitate access to a private school.

We want to widen opportunity. The minister constantly addresses me as if I were a member of the Government, so I say to him that before we as an Administration introduced a bill to Parliament, we would want to consult the people fully on the details. The funds would follow the pupil and we would take into account the kind of point that the minister has just made.

We believe that reform is needed to restore Scotland's education system and that there is a need for more diverse schooling provision. By ending the monopoly of provision, devolving financial and budgetary control to schools and allowing parents, community groups and companies to start up new, state-funded schools, we can drive up standards and ensure that all children are allowed to fulfil their potential.

I move,

That the Parliament acknowledges that, as a result of the current government's centralising agenda and top-down approach, education in Scotland is characterised by low levels of attainment, alarming levels of indiscipline in too many of our schools, inadequate vocational provision and over-regulation; believes that developing a system of independently-managed but publicly-funded schools will reduce inequality by giving all parents a choice of school for their children; believes that, as well as supporting alternatives to exclusion, headteachers should have the right in statute to exclude violent and disruptive pupils permanently; opposes the repeal of the School Boards Act 1988 and believes that parents should retain their statutory rights regarding the appointment of headteachers and deputy headteachers; supports the retention of charitable status for independent schools and the extension of this status to all schools that wish it; believes that schools for children with special educational needs are vital to ensure that all are catered for and should be maintained where there is a demand, and notes that the direct funding of schools by the Scottish Executive on a per capita basis will create competition, drive up standards and benefit the council tax payer.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 9:44 am, 17th March 2005

I have been looking forward to this debate immensely and so far my expectations of it have been met in full. I expected to hear nonsense from the Tories, and we have heard absolute nonsense from them this morning in Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's speech.

What an extraordinary nerve the Tories have to come to the Parliament to lecture us about improving standards in Scottish education. They may chuckle, but they are the party that during the 18 dark, awful, long years in which it was in charge of Scottish education brought Scottish education to its knees. They are the party that failed to invest in Scottish education. When they left office in 1997, they left crumbling schools the length and breadth of Scotland, lower pupil attainment, larger class sizes than we have today and demoralised staff in every school in Scotland—unlike today. There was no universal early years provision—unlike today. The Tories left a cluttered curriculum with which teachers could not cope and with which we are now contending. They left colleges collapsing and almost bankrupt the length and breadth of Scotland.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

Will the minister explain why our universities increasingly have to deploy precious resource to provide remedial instruction to supposedly qualified and educated undergraduate students?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

The students to which the member refers went to school when the Tories were in office—that is when they started primary school. The member has made my point exactly. The students who are now entering university went to school when the Tories were in charge.

What an absolute nerve the Tories have to talk to us about standards in education, indiscipline and inadequate vocational options. When they were in office, they did nothing about any of those issues and left the situation worse than it was when they arrived. If they ever get the chance to be in Government again, they will make the situation worse again. People should never forget that. As we heard this morning, if they are elected, the Tories plan to carry out a major onslaught on everything that we value in order to disable Scottish education.

The Tories' 18-year legacy was not just one of neglect. Of course, there was neglect of education, but what they did was worse than that: it was the purposeful, wilful running down of our state education system. They plan to do that again if they are given the chance.

First, they will abolish local education authorities, which run our schools and give strength and add value to the system. Secondly, they plan massive cuts in education spending, which Lord James Douglas-Hamilton did not mention. I refer to the £600 million that David McLetchie has promised already and the £35 billion-worth of cuts that Michael Howard is planning across the public sector. They cannot take that kind of money out of the education system and public services and expect to see improving standards. Under the Tories, there would be no extra teachers, support staff or new schools. The motion that we are debating today makes no reference to investment, because the Conservatives do not plan any investment.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Will the minister substantiate his claim that the Conservatives plan to make cuts of £600 million? Will he bring to the chamber and place in the parliamentary library the evidence to back it up, or will he withdraw it? He knows that the claim cannot be substantiated. Every time that he has been challenged to substantiate it, he has not been able to do so. He simply continues to repeat the accusation, without offering any basis for it in fact.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Brian Monteith needs to pay more attention to what his leader says. Just a few months ago in the chamber, I showed him the leaflet that states that there will be cuts of £600 million. I have a number of other quotes from the Conservative leader that make the same point. I fully intend to make those public over the coming weeks, as the matter becomes even more topical and we move into certain events.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I need to make some progress.

The Tories would take us back to the bad old days of cuts and demoralised staff. Members should be under no illusions—what they are about has a clear purpose and is not the result of neglect or accident. They want to undermine state education, because they are against comprehensive schools. Indeed, recently David McLetchie challenged Jack McConnell on when he would abolish the comprehensive system. The Tories want to disinvest from our schools. They want to cause dissatisfaction by lowering standards in them to force people to opt out of the state system and to create the independent network that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton has described. The Tories' clear purpose is to end state education. They want to retain the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 so that, when they abolish local authorities, they can force parents to take over and run schools, just as they tried to do when they were in office before. Parents rejected that option when they had the chance.

The Tories have not said much today about the voucher-type system that they plan to introduce. The international evidence on voucher systems, the choice that the Tories propose, does not sustain the arguments that they make. Members should look at New York, Washington and Dayton for evidence of what happens under such systems. Overall standards do not rise. The majority of parents do not participate in such systems because they want a decent local school that the state has invested in where their kids can be educated. The Tories want to mimic what has been going on in Sweden by creating small, elite schools for the few—let us be clear about that. They want to run down state schools to force people to move into their market system, which only the more socially mobile will be able to take advantage of. There would be choice for the few and chaos for the many.

It is interesting that the Tories promote the Swedish system, which lags behind Scotland on performance. Why do they not promote the system in neighbouring Finland, which is undoubtedly the most successful education system in the world? I will tell members why: it is for the ideological reason that the Finnish system is a comprehensive system, unlike the system that the Tories are trying to promote in Scotland. The comprehensive system breeds success throughout the world.

The Tory recipe for the future is clear: massive cuts in spending; run-down state schools; undermining of the state system; choice for the few; and chaos for the many.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I tell Tommy Sheridan with great respect that I would rather not because I want to keep pasting the Tories for a while longer if I can.

The Tories also have the gall to mention levels of attainment—they have an absolute nerve to do so—as if standards were lower today than they were when they were in office. The opposite is the case. Part of the Tories' plan is to talk down state schools, to try to undermine the system and morale and to paint a wholly false picture of what happened. Scotland is one of the top-performing nations in the world in education and all the objective evidence shows that. In the recent programme for international student assessment—PISA—study, only three countries outperformed Scotland in any significant way, and Sweden does not happen to be one of them.

We have seen steady improvement in our higher and standard grade passes. Under the Tories, just under 70 per cent of 5 to 14 pupils reached required levels in test results. Now almost 80 per cent reach required levels and, since the Tories left office, the average increase across the board has been 9 per cent. In English writing in secondary 2, the level is up by 14 percentage points; in English reading in S2, it is up by 20 per cent; and in maths in S2, it is up by 17 percentage points since the Tories left office. We all have a duty to ensure that attainment never goes backwards, and the only way in which that would happen would be if the Tories returned to office.

I admit that Lord James seemed to make an honest attempt to get more balance into what he said today, but the Tories misrepresent schools on indiscipline. Serious problems of indiscipline exist, but our schools are not riot zones as the Tories like to paint them. The system is not in chaos and total meltdown. As John Swinney mentioned, head teachers have not lost control of their schools and teachers have not lost control of their classrooms.

The Tories' record on indiscipline was truly abysmal. It was the Tories who gave rights to rowdy pupils in their Education Act 1980. It was the Tories who spent not a brass farthing on supporting teachers—nothing on staged intervention, nothing on restorative practices, nothing on the pupil support bases that they now argue for and nothing on in-service training or continuing professional development. What is worse, the Tories tried to sweep the evidence of indiscipline under the carpet. It was the Tories who refused to fund the study of teacher opinion on indiscipline in the mid-1990s and left it to the teachers unions instead. We have rectified that by picking up the task. The Tories made a blatant attempt to hide the facts from themselves.

We will not do what they did. We will deal with the indiscipline problems in our schools and we are already doing so. We regularly develop policy, survey teacher opinion and experience and employ extra support staff, who the Tories would cut if they got the chance.

Where the Tories failed Scottish education over so many years, the Executive is investing in and strengthening Scottish education. There are better pupil-to-teacher ratios, smaller class sizes, more teachers in training than ever before, the biggest school building programme in Europe, choice in what pupils study—

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Does the minister accept that the Tories are not going to cut a single penny from education, are not going to cut £600 million and have made it absolutely clear that we support direct funding of schools? That has been made clear to the minister repeatedly. Does he accept that, however often he repeats a blatant falsehood, the truth will out?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I would love to be able to believe Lord James. I genuinely believe that he tries to be an honourable man at all times. However, I tell him that his party leader has made it clear that he would take £600 million out of our planned spending, which we will commit to extra teachers and extra support staff, and out of the spending that we have already committed to new schools. Those are the kinds of cuts that the Tories would make and their record is clear to see. When they had the chance, they did not invest in Scottish education; they cut, cut and cut again and demoralised the whole system.

That is not what we will do. As I said, we will keep investing in the biggest building programme in Europe and we will provide more choice for our pupils about what to study, when to study it and when to sit exams. We will provide the new vocational options to which Lord James is a latter-day convert—we are doing that now; we do not need the Tories to do it. Those are the measures that people are getting from this Executive through the investments that we are making, and they are in stark contrast to what the Tories offer, which is massive cuts, choice for the few and chaos for the many.

Since the sun started shining on Scottish education again in 1997, it has had the warmth that it required to start growing and flowering to serve our people well. We must never allow Scottish education to be plunged back into the darkness that the Tories would bring if they were ever elected to office. That is why the Parliament should support our amendment. The Scottish people will do the right thing in the weeks to come.

I move amendment S2M-2597.3, to leave out from "acknowledges" to end and insert:

"recognises the dedication of teachers and support staff in Scotland's schools to achieving excellent outcomes for the young people of Scotland; supports the Scottish Executive's agenda for the most comprehensive modernisation programme in Scottish schools for a generation, as described in Ambitious, Excellent Schools; acknowledges the Executive's commitment to building on the investment and successes in education over recent years; welcomes plans to bring a transformation in ambition and achievement through higher expectations for schools and school leadership, and recognises greater freedom for teachers and schools, better parental involvement and choice for pupils, increased and further enhancement of school/college partnerships to extend learning opportunities for pupils and better support for learning so that the individual needs of young people can be better met through tough, intelligent accountabilities to drive improvement."

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 9:56 am, 17th March 2005

Having watched the Scottish people defeat the policy of forcing schools to opt out of the system in the 1990s, the Tories now seem to want individual pupils to opt out of the school system. The Tories failed to get schools to opt out, so now they are trying to make individual children do so. If at first a Tory in Scotland cannot succeed, they should just give up.

Whom are the Scottish people most likely to believe about the figures for the proposed Tory cuts—the honourable Lord James Douglas-Hamilton or Hatchet Howard? Hatchet Howard was a minister in the Tory heyday of the 1990s, when 30,000 people protested on the streets of Edinburgh about Tory education policies. The Tories brought our teachers within touching distance of industrial action, which was only averted by the Scottish Parliament and the McCrone settlement.

The Tories left the fabric of our schools in disrepair because back to basics never meant the basics of school buildings. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have addressed the fabric of our buildings, but they have mortgaged our children's futures to the hilt with the financial millstone of dangerously expensive public-private partnerships.

The Tories want market choice in education. The SNP rejects on principle a free market in education. The idea of using children with special needs as some kind of commodity to be traded at a premium in an education marketplace is absolutely disgraceful.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

The member is criticising the Swedish model of per capita funding in schools. Will she tell me the difference between that proposal and the one that she supported just last week for per capita funding of children in early-years education?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I believe in a comprehensive system of places for three-year-olds based on the system used in the Scandinavian countries and not based on the free-market operations that the Tories propose. I believe in a comprehensive, universal system that provides free education and, where possible, child care for all. That is a genuine option and opportunity that the Tories would deny young families in Scotland.

The new Tories down south—by that, I mean the Labour Party—have adopted the choice agenda. We have to address the competition agenda, but Scotland is not England. It is not a country of large conurbations and small villages. By and large, Scotland is a country of large county towns with one, or perhaps two, local schools in the area.

Even in Perth, which I visited yesterday with the Education Committee, there are only four secondary schools. Even if we were sold on the free market of the Tories' so-called choice agenda, which we certainly are not, that system could not apply to Scotland in practice. Parents want their children to get the best education possible and to reach their full potential at school. The Tories want parents to be detached from schools; they see them as consumers with purchasing power rather than as part of the wider school community. The Tories would have parents shopping for schools when most hard-pressed families want to have confidence in their local school and do not want to worry about whether they have made the right choice.

The wider school community needs to be addressed. The sense of ownership and belonging among parents is not as strong as it might be. I acknowledge the Government's efforts in relation to its proposed legislation on school boards reform, but I appeal to the Government not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Statutory parental powers must remain, in whatever format the Government ultimately proposes in its bill.

If pupils and parents are to have a sense of the school community, there must be a shared understanding of what the school and the education that it provides are for. I fear that the idea of the purpose of education has been lost in the current education generation. National priorities in education exist in statute and the minister talks about them, but does the nation know about them? What happened to the great education debate? It turned into a monologue in Victoria Quay. If we want to achieve a stimulating, motivated education system in Scotland, we need a shared understanding of that vision, which requires leadership from Government. That is critical. We want dialogue, not drift; we want focus, not a frenzy of initiatives. I do not know how some teachers have the time to think, let alone teach, after they have filled in the forms for the man in the ministry.

Above all, education policy must be shaped and driven in Scotland for Scotland. It must not be dictated by an English agenda and a Government whose priorities must always be determined for the bulk of the population that lives in England and whose votes decide the future Government of the British state. The greater good of the greater English interest does not serve Scottish education and the greater good of the greater English electorate does not serve Scottish education. We need a Scottish vision, not a hand-me-down from a Labour chancellor whose contribution to the education debate in Scotland is to throw down the bawbees. Blair and Brown represent two sides of the same Westminster-hewn coin. The Westminster Government holds the purse strings.

The SNP amendment mentions pupils' need for "sufficient time and attention". Smaller class sizes have been SNP policy for many years. The Executive finally took up the policy, but it did so haphazardly and it knew that it could not meet its own target. Class sizes in English and maths for S1 and S2 were to be reduced to 20 pupils, but the minister has already dumped that target. He was bailed out by head teachers, who knew that the target was not deliverable when it was set.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am happy to correct Fiona Hyslop on that point. First, we have not dumped the target. Secondly, we will meet the target and are well on the way to doing so.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If the minister has not dumped the target and will meet it, why did he tell us that he listened to head teachers and would offer more flexibility because he would not meet the target? He should reflect on the comments that he made. We want more flexibility, but the Executive should have listened to head teachers when it reduced class sizes in primary schools from 32 to 30 pupils and introduced composite classes throughout Scotland, to the detriment of education for children in their early years. In the current context, the Executive should reflect on its commitments: either it has a target or it does not have one.

We should consider the vision of the school in the community. There are proposals for community schools in which pupils would receive social and health support, but perhaps those proposals ignore the role of the school in the wider community. We must support schools in the community and there must be a presumption against the closure of rural schools.

As our amendment says, schools should provide a peaceful environment. At First Minister's question time on 20 January, I raised the serious issue of the proposal to end the publication of annual indiscipline statistics and to replace them with a three-yearly survey. A couple of weeks later, the Conservatives woke up, smelled the coffee and realised that the matter should be taken up—I applaud them for doing so. If we regard indiscipline as a serious issue, it is important that regular statistics should be produced so that there can be accountability. The production of statistics every three years is not good enough. Indiscipline is to do with poor behaviour and lack of motivation and I am glad that the Education Committee is addressing the issue.

We must reflect on the inclusion agenda. I certainly do not blame children who have social, emotional or behavioural needs, but if support is not provided we grind down teachers' spirits and strip from pupils the time and attention that they need. In 2003, I warned that that could happen and, in September of that year, in a debate on an Executive motion on better behaviour, the Parliament agreed to an SNP amendment that called for more resources. Additional support for learning requires far greater resources than are available just now and I warn the minister that the code of practice relating to the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 will probably be more important than much of the primary legislation that the Parliament is currently considering. I appeal to the Presiding Officer to ensure that the statutory instrument that will introduce the code of practice is given the time and attention in Parliament that it needs. That is essential.

The Headteachers Association of Scotland has commented on funding and expenses in relation to initiatives. Similar schools in different parts of the country receive different levels of resources and I welcome the minister's investigation of that matter. Wendy Alexander and I asked for such an investigation when the Education Committee considered the budget in 2003. We must examine the role of education authorities and consider local accountability. Is the function of education authorities the duplication and regurgitation of guidance from the Executive or can they provide a furnace in which new ideas can be forged before being piloted and shared? We must examine those issues properly.

The Executive should do three things—four, if we include ignoring the Tories, although, to be fair, I should add that we live in a democracy and the Tories have the right to make their case. First, there should be a serious, deliverable class-size reduction policy. Secondly, there should be a real examination of how resources reach the chalkface and of local authorities' involvement. Thirdly, there should be an assessment of how to make social inclusion work, instead of hindering the progress of the mainstreaming policy.

We should acknowledge and celebrate the hard work, dedication, professionalism and enthusiasm of the thousands of teachers in Scotland who help to shape and inspire our children. If learning is the liberation of the mind, teachers are our freedom fighters.

I move amendment S2M-2597.1, to leave out from "acknowledges" to end and insert:

"recognises the efforts of teachers to deliver a quality education for pupils in increasingly challenging circumstances, the potential of Scotland's pupils to succeed and the need for national government resources, which directly impact on the classroom experience, to provide sufficient time and attention for pupils from teachers in a peaceful, stimulating environment with a relevant, flexible curriculum for them to achieve that potential, and calls on the Scottish Executive to, in particular, develop policies to cut class sizes, to examine the plethora of initiatives and complexity of competitively bid-for funding streams and to reassess the impact of, and support given to, its social inclusion and mainstreaming agenda to ensure that all children can get the most out of their time in school education."

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Before I call Mr Sheridan, I should say that a number of members have contacted me about the temperature in the chamber, which is unacceptably high for a March morning in Scotland. The matter is being urgently dealt with by facilities management and I am told that there should be some relief shortly.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 10:06 am, 17th March 2005

On a March morning that begins with a Tory debate on education, we must expect the heat to rise, given all the hot air that emanates. The debate seems to be about giving the Tory party a kicking—sometimes I like to be different, but sometimes it is good to be part of the crowd.

The question of class pervades the whole debate. It was interesting that James Douglas-Hamilton said that the Tories would not abolish charitable status for independent schools but develop the approach and make it flourish. In other words, he supports the continued public subsidy of the private school sector through charitable status. Class pervades the debate because Lord James never mentioned the Tories' refusal, during their 18 years in government, to apply the same principle to Scotland's mines, shipyards and steel yards. When those manufacturing and essential concerns required subsidies, the Tories' class interests were clear.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Mr Sheridan classifies charitable status for independent schools as a "subsidy". Does he accept that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton proposed that we extend that subsidy by giving state schools charitable status? Surely he would welcome such a move and will join me in agreeing with Lord James.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

The only matter on which I agree with Brian Monteith and James Douglas-Hamilton is the argument that the standard and quality of education that money can buy in this country should be available to every child in this country as of right.

The motion sets out an elitist vision of education, which means that Fettes College can have classes of 18 pupils, George Watson's College can have classes of 20 pupils and St Serf's School can have classes of 10 pupils. At Fettes, 99 per cent of pupils pass five or more standard grades at grade 4 or above. At George Watson's, the figure is 98 per cent and, at St Serf's, the figure is 100 per cent. A common feature of the educational attainment successes in the independent schools sector is small class sizes, which the state schools sector should also have. I do not want parents who cherish and love their children dearly to feel that they are letting their kids down unless they make financial sacrifices to send their kids to an educational environment where they can benefit from a wide choice in the curriculum and from class sizes of a maximum of 20 and sometimes as low as 10. In an independent Scotland, our vision would be to offer those benefits to every school pupil. We should not have an exclusive school system that is based on the size of a child's father's wallet or the size of a child's mother's purse. For that reason, the Tory vision for education should be rejected 100 per cent. It is an elitist, exclusive and expensive vision.

Class pervades the debate not only in relation to class division but in relation to class sizes. Class division is at the very heart of the problem. The other day, I spoke to a teacher of 20 years' standing who recalled a tutorial 20 years ago at which the tutor showed, on an overhead projector, a slide of Glasgow and the surrounding parts of Strathclyde. The slide showed colour-coded but unnamed secondary schools and the tutor said that the brighter the colour, the greater the educational attainment of the school. The tutor then slapped another slide on the projector. That slide was produced not by the Scottish Office, but by the local estate agents. It showed that the more expensive the homes in an area, the greater the educational attainment of the schools. In other words, the single biggest determinant of educational attainment in this country is still income and class. That is why the overriding aim of any Government that wants to improve educational standards and to close the gap between the educational attainment of middle-class kids and working-class kids must be the redistribution of wealth to close the wealth gap.

I have to have a kick at the new Tories rather than the old Tories. Unfortunately, in 2005, the wealth gap is growing. It is now larger than it was even in the dark days of the old Tories. While the wealth gap grows, the educational attainment gap will also grow.

The Scottish Socialist Party's amendment stresses that the primary aim of our education policy is to deliver uniformly smaller class sizes, especially in the early years. All studies show that the single biggest improvement in educational attainment can result from smaller class sizes in the early years of education. However, that improvement should be made across the educational experience of all Scotland's pupils.

Anyone here who has had the benefit of a university education will, I am sure, testify that one of the beauties of that education was the tutorial system, in which, in smaller groups, we could investigate subjects and feel confident enough to ask questions. That is the type of environment that we have to create in our schools.

When I visit schools where the classes have 25, 30 and sometimes even more pupils, I do not envy the task of teachers. On the one hand they have to educate; on the other hand they have to control. It is difficult to do both at once. That is why we have to aim as high as possible. We have to invest as much of our national wealth as possible to ensure that we have smaller class sizes in primary and secondary schools.

Problems in society—whether it be misbehaviour at school, vandalism or a general lack of hope—can be tackled if we start improving things for people at school age and if we deliver smaller class sizes. The comprehensive education system should be defended, but it has to be expanded and improved. The way to do that is to deliver smaller class sizes for all.

I move amendment S2M-2597.2, to leave out from "acknowledges" to end and insert:

"fully endorses a comprehensive education system based on equality of opportunity for all from the nursery sector through to secondary education and beyond; supports a reduction in class sizes to no more than 20 or, indeed, less, along with suitably-qualified support teachers with expertise in working alongside classroom teachers to support pupils with special educational needs and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and recognises that early intervention in early years, learning styles and developing emotional intelligence are key areas that require different approaches to learning and teaching, alongside flexibility to ensure that all children and young people reach their potential."

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:15 am, 17th March 2005

I am grateful to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and the Conservatives for calling this debate, which gives us the opportunity to quash some myths and to take a considered view of the state of the education system in Scotland today.

As many members have suggested, education is the single largest force for good in our society. Accordingly, the many issues that it gives rise to are often the subject of intense political debate. It is right that, as the convener of the Parliament's Education Committee, I should say at the outset that our schools—our teachers, our janitors and the various other committed members of staff—get a great deal right. In consequence, they produce a lot of bright, ambitious, socially conscious and nice young people who are a credit to their teachers, their parents and themselves. Schools operate in society. They cannot always repair the damage that is done by parental neglect, by fractured communities or by antisocial attitudes.

As Fiona Hyslop said, she, Lord James and I—together with other members of the Education Committee—visited Perth yesterday, where we saw the smart young people project, which has been set up by schools in Perth and Kinross in association with the YMCA to motivate young people who are apathetic or turned off by school. For me, that was a truly inspiring experience. We heard about the newly established pupil-led student council at Perth Grammar School. Despite its name, the school contains a diverse social mix in the city of Perth. We heard about peer counselling, in which older students volunteer to help younger ones with problems. We met a dynamic and innovative pupil-support worker with skills in counselling, family therapy and alternative therapies.

We saw the success of the smart young people project, which claimed to have had only one failure with some challenging young people among the several hundred who had been through the programme. I can think of few better uses of the £34 million funding that the minister recently announced to help with discipline in schools than to provide more pupil-support workers and to provide steady funding for more places on schemes such as the smart young people project. I know, and Lord James knows, that that kind of picture—inspirational, optimistic, realistic and making the most of our young people—is not unique to Perth but can be found with innumerable variations across the bulk of Scottish schools.

In the motion, the Conservatives make a number of propositions. Some are more meritorious than others, but they have one thing in common: they are all on the fringe of the issue. They are not, as Lord James would have us believe, uplifting drivers of public policy; they are whimpers off-stage from a party that had 18 years in which to do those things had it wished to. As the minister pointed out, the Conservatives presided over what was probably the historic low point of the Scottish education system. Neglect, demoralisation and lack of leadership—that was the sorry legacy of the Conservative years.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Will the member take this opportunity to address the proposals of Aberdeenshire Council—which is controlled by Liberal Democrats—to close prestigious special needs schools such as St Andrew's School in Inverurie and Carronhill special school in Stonehaven?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No, I will not. This is a national debate and I do not have the details of the particular cases that the member mentions.

Many issues remain to be discussed. We could have had a useful debate on the low-level indiscipline in classes that wears teachers down. We have not had such a debate. We could have had a debate on the relative merits of using the improved and improving teacher-pupil ratios to cut class sizes generally or on a targeted basis. Oddly, some evidence has shown that cutting class sizes benefits schools in more popular areas, where the classes are full, rather than schools in more deprived areas where the classes are half full and where, arguably, need is greater.

But no—the Conservatives offer us a spurious and unachievable choice. Local authority placement figures for 2003-04 were published on Tuesday. Almost a quarter of all children were the subject of placing requests, the vast majority of which were granted. The Tories would apparently target money to ensure that everyone went to their requested school. However, because the schools in question are full—whether in the public or private sector—the Tory plan can only mean building huts or extensions to accommodate the extra children. Fiona Hyslop made a good point about the single-town situation that applies across most of Scotland. In many places, there is no room for school extensions. The result would be the necessity of spending even more money on bricks and mortar, beyond our existing programme, while creating empty classrooms elsewhere. Does that really improve education? Is there the remotest basis for saying that that is good value for money? What on earth has that to do with improving attainment?

The Tories have an irrelevant obsession with structure and arcane funding mechanisms. The Liberal Democrats believe that the education system should be grounded in good and improving local schools, linked to and part of local communities. Of course people should have the freedom to send their children to private schools, but what counts for most children are the opportunities offered by education in the state sector.

I conclude by setting out the alternatives on offer on some key issues. On discipline in schools, the Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition provides substantial funding for more suitable staff to give the specialist attention to young people who have issues. Such pupils constitute a tenth of students in the Perth school that the Education Committee visited. The Tories exclude such pupils and fling them out—with no follow-up—on the street, where they are likely to start or to continue a career of crime and nuisance. That is the Tory solution to discipline. On attainment, we invest in leadership development, in developing inspiring teachers, in the range of participative innovations that the committee saw in Perth, in targeted reductions in class sizes and in remotivating young people. The Tories are exercised about who appoints deputy head teachers. On vocational provision, the Tories moan but offer nothing at all.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, but I do not have time to take further interventions.

The Liberal Democrats, through the Scottish Executive, give young people new options to attend college to do a wider range of vocational courses in a more adult environment within the overall school framework. The Executive has surpassed its targets for modern apprenticeships two years ahead of time.

The Liberal Democrats demand quality for all, not a spurious and unworkable choice for the few. Education is and should be about encouraging, inspiring and motivating our young citizens to fulfil their potential. It should be about opportunity, ambition, leadership and self-belief.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I want clarification. Robert Brown introduced himself as the convener of the Education Committee and his speech was broad to begin with. However, he is now talking about Executive policy. In what capacity is he speaking?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr Brown is speaking in his capacity as the convener of the Education Committee, if that is what he said. I was not here at the beginning of his speech.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Mr Brown is speaking as an elected MSP for the Liberal Democrats in Glasgow, who happens also to be the convener of the Education Committee. It is reasonably clear that, in today's debate, I have been speaking primarily as Liberal Democrat spokesman on education.

If I may, I will finish my peroration. I had thought that I was giving the chamber reasonable stuff. I was talking about opportunity, ambition, leadership and self-belief. I was also talking about the pride of parents and the achievements of young people and about liberty in the widest possible sense. Instead of all that, the Conservatives have today offered us a dish of cold kale: uninspiring, fearful, obsessed with structure and out of touch—a sort of Alf Garnett view of education. I urge the chamber to have nothing to do with it.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 10:23 am, 17th March 2005

The motion is long and rambling, so I intend to focus on the Tories' proposals on parental choice and publicly funded independent schools. My apologies to the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Socialist Party if I do not address their amendments, but, as this is a Tory debate, I particularly want to consider the Tories' suggestions.

I have looked at the Tory party policy document "Action on Education", which is available on the website of the United Kingdom Tories—the UK Tory leader has made it clear that the only way is Howard's way. The document promises parents of all school-age children the right to choose.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

No, I will not take an intervention at the moment.

"Action on Education" says that parents will be able to apply to any state-funded school. It says that parents will be able to send their child to any independent school that offers a "good" education for the cost of a place at a state-funded school and that those independent schools will not be allowed to charge fees. It also says that funding will follow the pupil.

I have a few questions on those proposals, which I hope that Tory members will answer in their contributions. First, how much money will follow each pupil? The Scottish average is £3,500 a year to educate a primary school pupil and £5,000 to educate a secondary school pupil, but figures released in January show that that varies significantly between local authorities. In Shetland, for example, it costs £5,800 to educate a primary pupil and £9,500 to educate a secondary pupil. In Glasgow, the figures are, respectively, £4,200 and £5,800. In Dumfries and Galloway, which is either worryingly cheap or particularly efficient, the figures are £3,000 and £4,500. However, within those local authorities there are significant variations between individual schools. In small rural schools, which usually cost much more per pupil, the figures can be two or three times the local authority average.

If those schools were to be independently managed but publicly funded, how would the funds be allocated? Would they be based on the Scottish average? Would they be based on the local authority average? Alternatively, would the funds be the actual cost of sending a pupil to that school? If the answer is either of the last two, what funding will follow the pupil: the cost of the education that they were receiving or the cost of the education that they will receive? I ask the self-styled champions of rural Scotland what the effects of their education policy will be on small, rural primary schools.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Would the member like an answer to that?

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Mr Monteith can answer in his contribution. I want to make progress.

How feasible is the Tories' choice in rural communities? I was in Annan Academy on Monday morning, seeing the sci-fun programme. Annan Academy is a good school, but let us assume that a parent wanted to send their child to another school. Where could the child go? The nearest choices would be Lockerbie, which is 13 miles away; Dumfries, which is 16 miles away; Carlisle, which is 18 miles away; Langholm, which is 23 miles away; or Moffat, which is 29 miles away. Who will be responsible for school transport to exercise that choice? That question applies in urban areas, too. I suspect that the third of Edinburgh parents who ship their children to schools outside their local area are contributing fairly significantly to congestion in the city.

Let us consider the parents who want to send their children to independent schools—

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

No, I want to make progress. I still have quite a bit to say.

Let us consider the independent sector in Edinburgh. St Serf's School, which Tommy Sheridan mentioned, costs £4,000 for a primary child and £4,600 for a secondary child—not terribly expensive. Erskine Stewart's Melville schools—when I went to Mary Erskine School, it was still a direct grant school—are now much more expensive: at primary 7 level they cost £6,200 and at secondary level they cost £7,600. At Fettes, which has a well-known former pupil, primary costs £9,300 and secondary costs £14,000. I do not think that any of those schools will offer to take pupils for the cost of a state-funded place or that they will offer many bursaries.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Sorry, Christine, but I am still trying to make progress with my points.

Let us consider uptake and whether attainment is improved in the international comparisons where state funding follows pupils into the independent sector. Do children from low-income families benefit? What about Milwaukee and Cleveland in the United States, which have had voucher-based programmes for 15 years? Helen Ladd's testimony in the House of Representatives is that the programmes have resulted in no difference in achievement among students from the same socioeconomic background. Thirty per cent of students return to public education after initial experience of the independent sector and fewer than 7 per cent of those eligible bother to apply. Let us consider Chile, where the voucher system was introduced in 1980, under Thatcher's great friend, General Pinochet. There has been no improvement in achievement among students from lower-income backgrounds in private schools and 72 per cent of students from the lower half of income distribution remain within the public sector. The only people who benefit are the privileged.

Let us consider the Netherlands, where 70 per cent of pupils are in subsidised private schools but where there are extensive waiting lists for "better" schools, which have started to charge fees. The 30 per cent of pupils remaining in the public sector are from low-income families. Even in Sweden, where 800 independent schools have been created, the independent sector educates only 6 per cent of pupils.

Are colleagues thinking what I am thinking? When it comes to education policy, the Tories do not seem to have done their homework. Tory policies will not work for rural schools, which are more expensive to run. They will not offer parents in rural communities any real choice. They will not work for children from low-income families. They will not raise attainment. They will not offer parents the choice of the current independent sector. Zero out of five. In my book, that is a fail.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 10:29 am, 17th March 2005

I want to talk about some local issues in primary and secondary schools in North East Scotland. There are two main high-profile issues in the area at the moment: education and dentistry. I am delighted that we will be talking about dentistry later today. It is disappointing that the North East Scotland Lib Dems have not turned up for this debate, given that education is one of the biggest issues dominating MSPs' mailbags in the region.

The education issue in the north-east relates primarily to Aberdeenshire Council's recently published 21st century school improvement programme, which is a mixed bag of proposals, one of which is to invest about £200 million in school infrastructure in Aberdeenshire in the next 10 or 15 years. Of course, that depends on when the Minister for Education and Young People notifies the council of the funding stream. I would be grateful if the minister could tell us before the end of the debate when the funding stream will be coming along. The education officials in Aberdeenshire Council say that everything is up in the air until the Government gives them an indication of the timescales.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Is it not the case that if Richard Lochhead and I were Liberal Democrats representing North East Scotland, we would choose to be as far away from the chamber as possible during an education debate?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Yes. If I were a Lib Dem MSP for North East Scotland, I would be highly embarrassed to take part in any debate on education, given the unpopularity of many of the proposals that are being made in the north-east. No one is suggesting that education provision should stand still, but we have to be careful about such provision in rural areas and about special needs provision.

One of the biggest issues, to which Alex Johnstone has alluded, relates to St Andrew's School in Inverurie, which has excellent special needs provision. It has an excellent reputation and is one of only seven schools in Scotland that are accredited by the National Autistic Society. A huge public campaign is being run because of the level of concern about its future. When Aberdeenshire Council announced its original proposals, the options were closure, closure or closure. Thankfully, the options now seem to have shifted to closing the school, upgrading it or having a new build. A recent survey of local parents found that 98 per cent wanted to rebuild the school or have it upgraded.

A number of MSPs visited the school a few weeks ago. We were totally taken aback by the staff's professionalism and dedication. No one is arguing that the status quo is an option; the school has to be upgraded or rebuilt. However, there is clearly concern among the parents about the proposal to establish two new stand-alone units—one co-located with a local primary school and the other co-located with Inverurie Academy. Parents think that there is a danger that the education provision for the children will be harmed if they are not kept together in one school in order to maintain the current ethos. We heard from the head teacher that the teachers come in over the holidays to create false walls for new classrooms because the building is so antiquated and that they have turned broom cupboards into new rooms for the kids. That illustrates the challenge for our education provision in Scotland, particularly in relation to infrastructure.

There is a lot of public interest in the future of special needs schools in the north-east—not just St Andrew's School in Inverurie but Carronhill School in Stonehaven. A huge petition is circulating in the north-east and I urge the Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock, to come to the area to visit those two schools and some of the other local primary schools. He should visit St Andrew's School in particular, which is a beacon of excellence in special needs education whose future we need to protect. I ask Peter Peacock to take that on board and consider visiting the area soon.

Local managers in some of the secondary schools in Aberdeenshire, particularly the smaller rural schools, have expressed concern to me about the proposal to restructure management in the schools. The Government's objective is to have more flat management, more responsibility payments and faculties within secondaries. The changes will create difference not only between local authority areas but, in some cases, between secondary schools in the same local authority area. That is causing a lot of concern.

One of the issues with rural secondaries, which in most cases are smaller than urban secondaries, is the fact that the principal faculty teachers in urban schools will be paid more than the depute heads in rural schools. That creates an issue to do with the recruitment and retention of senior managers in rural schools. Why would a principal teacher want to apply for a depute head post in a rural school when they would get paid more for staying where they were? Likewise, why would someone in a rural school want to keep their post when they could apply for a higher-paid post in an urban school? We have to address those issues and I would be interested to hear the minister's comments on them.

On funding, I was interested to read the report by the Headteachers Association of Scotland, "Fair Funding to Schools", which was published a few days ago. It states:

"at neither school nor subject level is any consideration given to the level of resourcing allocated by the education authority to the school or by the school to the subject."

That relates to the comparisons between schools that the Government keeps using. It is important that when it compares secondary schools it takes into account the different levels of funding from each education authority; otherwise it will make unfair comparisons. I ask the minister to respond to that point before the end of the debate.

I turn finally to workforce issues. I support all the sentiments that Fiona Hyslop expressed in her speech. Stress continues to be a huge issue in our primary and secondary schools. I would like to know what the minister is doing to measure and treat it. Schools in the north-east are trying to recruit new teachers from Malta, because of the shortages in the area. That is not a long-term solution. We have to attract teachers in this country back into the classroom. That involves tackling discipline, but it also involves tackling stress, treating teachers and giving them a sense of self-worth and self-respect. I support the SNP amendment.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 10:35 am, 17th March 2005

Last month, a former maths teacher made a remarkable speech about Scottish education. In it he slammed left-wing education policies pursued by Labour councils, which he claimed had ruined two generations of schoolchildren. They had suffered as a result of a non-competitive culture and the move away from rewarding academic achievement. He said:

"Things like school award ceremonies became unfashionable ... School uniforms became unfashionable, criticising people for underachievement became unfashionable, not celebrating achievement became fashionable. ... We need to turn that culture round."

The speech was particularly remarkable because it came not from some Tory dominie put out to grass and mourning better days but from the First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell. It is bizarre that Jack's Minister for Education and Young People, who is not here at the moment, still appears to support the system that his First Minister criticised. Peter Peacock continues to deplore the publication of school league tables, which give at least some indication of achievement in schools.

How are our schools ever again to reflect the qualities that, I presume, Jack McConnell remembers from his halcyon days at Arran High School and which I certainly remember from mine at Madras College in St Andrews under a Conservative Administration? Those were ordinary state schools to be proud of, as were Dunoon Grammar School, which produced politicians such as John Smith, Brian Wilson and George Robertson, Arbroath High School, which produced Michael Forsyth, and Kirkcaldy High School, where Gordon Brown went to school. I say to Peter Peacock, who I am afraid is still not here, that that includes Hawick High School, his alma mater, where my cousin spent many years heading up the music department and witnessed the disintegration of the system.

Conservatives have always believed that to empower and enrich the individual there must be choice. That applies as much to choices in education as it does to choices in consumer goods and in the hospitals in which people are treated. We have heard a lot about the Executive's much-vaunted initiatives, targets, goals and aims, but beneath all the rhetoric is a chronically failed school system demanding change.

Everyone agrees that improving standards and raising levels of attainment in schools should be the priority for our education system. By allowing good schools to expand, with parents rather than local authorities controlling funding, Conservatives will ensure that poorer schools are given a clear incentive to raise the standards. Introducing a degree of competition—that word that the First Minister was talking about—among schools means that the more successful will flourish, while the weaker will be encouraged to do better. By stopping the unjust postcode lottery for catchment areas, we will ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are not relegated to less popular schools.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am curious to know how reducing funding for the so-called less successful schools will help them to improve standards.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Robert Brown has totally misunderstood what we are saying. The funding will follow the pupil and the parents, who can decide where they want it to go.

We also need to address the growing number of pupils whose persistent bad behaviour has a serious detrimental effect on others, one of the most worrying aspects of which is the increasing number of assaults on teachers and other pupils. I am proud that my alma mater, Madras College in St Andrews, still tops the league tables for Fife, despite having one of the largest school rolls in Scotland. However, according to newspaper reports and correspondence that I have received from concerned parents, there have been a growing number of cases of bullying as well as allegations of assault on at least one female member of staff. Although I welcome the additional funding to Fife Council to improve discipline in schools in Fife, extra investment is not the only answer. We have to give our teachers the backing that they need.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour

To return to Mr Brocklebank's point about large schools, I distinctly remember that his first members' business debate in the Parliament was about the Madras College campus and the fact that Fife schools are in general rather large. How does that issue fit with the concept that more parents should be able to send their children to successful schools? Surely his point about the size of schools runs against the policy that he advocates.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Absolutely not. The main problem with the size of schools in Fife is directly attributable to the chaotic approach that Fife Council has taken for many years in not providing more secondary school buildings. The issue is still being addressed, because even though the council has had about 20 years to address it, it has failed to do so.

Teachers and pupils should not be the victims of violence as a result of the thoughtless actions of a few, which is why teachers must have the right to refuse to teach violent pupils. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton outlined, we propose introducing special units—second-chance learning centres—to educate such pupils until they return to mainstream education as reformed young people. We want teachers to do what they do best—teaching—so we must stop smothering them with bureaucracy. James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh has received no fewer than 71 glossy publications on the curriculum, which run to approximately 3,500 pages. How are teachers supposed to wade through those volumes and at the same time teach, which is what they are supposed to do?

Outside the classroom, the Executive's failure is even more palpable. According to a report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the amount of time that is devoted to physical education in Scottish schools is among the lowest in the world, which is not what Peter Peacock claimed in his league tables. Of the 29 nations that were surveyed, Scotland was 27th—no wonder our rugby and soccer teams languish near the bottom of their attainment leagues.

The Executive has failed to get to grips with the education system in Scotland. It does not put teachers and pupils first and its initiatives, targets and goals and the raft of Orwellian speak that accompanies them do not deliver higher standards, better discipline, lower levels of truancy or less bureaucracy. On any report card, the judgment on Mr Peacock and the Executive would have to be "Must do an awful lot better."

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 10:42 am, 17th March 2005

I will comment briefly on what Conservative members have said. I want to examine the word "choice". The word is sometimes related to the value of freedom, but we need to think about what it means. Does choice in education mean that people can choose to walk away from a school, with the funding following them, while leaving the poorer or less able pupils in what might become a sink school because the money has moved away with parents and children to schools that they perceive to be better? Do we have the right to choose to walk away from people who are less able and less well off than we are? That is a profound question that we should continue to ask when we think about choice.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I will take an intervention if Mr Brian Monteith will answer that question.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I welcome the fact that Mr Stone has given way—I would try to answer members' questions, if they would let me intervene.

If pupils chose to go to a different school, the school that they left would have two opportunities to improve. First, the emigration might begin a move for new management in the school. Secondly, the smaller class sizes and improved teacher-pupil ratio would give teachers the chance to improve discipline.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

That is twisted logic. It is a fundamental point and a cardinal truth that more able pupils bring on less able pupils when they work together in a comprehensive system. A linked point is that a benefit of mainstreaming is that it prepares pupils for life after school. If pupils are kept entirely segregated, they can get a shock when they come out of school. There are of course cases in which pupils cannot be mainstreamed, but I am with Lord James Douglas-Hamilton when he says that there should be a strong presumption for mainstreaming.

In my remaining time, I will turn to the far north, setting aside general election big-time politics. Anyone who, like me, has put children through school or has served on an education committee, knows that education has improved hugely. In the past few years, my three children went to Tain Royal Academy, a state school in the Highlands, and I have no complaints—they were better taught than I was all those years ago. For example, there have been huge improvements in the teaching of modern studies, modern history and mathematics. However, that is not to say that everything is perfect. We have problems in the Highlands. If I was fly, I would stick those problems on the chairman of Highland Council's education, culture and sport committee, who is the SNP councillor Andy Anderson. However, that would be deeply unfair and wrong and a cheap point that would not wash.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Why did the member say it, then?

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I said it because Richard Lochhead's attack on Lib Dem MSPs who are not here was out of order. That is an easy argument to make, but it is not true. I will not attack Andy Anderson, who is a quality chairman of education in Highland Council.

On the issue of teacher morale, in the Clasper building in Thurso High School in my constituency, the heat cannot be adjusted—it can be either switched off or switched on. If the heating is switched off, the pupils and staff freeze, but when it is on, they are too hot. All Highland list MSPs are aware of the problem. I do not know why it cannot be solved, but it is a challenge for Highland Council and the Executive.

Through discussions on the issue, the Minister for Education and Young People knows about the problem of recruiting teachers to some of the more remote schools in the Scottish Highlands, such as Thurso High School, Wick High School and Kinlochbervie High School. The minister and the Executive are attempting to address that issue. We have the same problem with supply teachers, who are hard to get in the area. Inducements are offered, but there is work still to be done. I do not say that everything is perfect—there has been improvement, but more needs to be done.

Finally, I turn to another Jamie—Jamie Oliver. I am sure that all members watched with great interest the television programmes about his experiments with school food. Last night, the programme linked improved attention in class to improved diet and food, which was profoundly interesting. I am sure that members from all parties acknowledge that link. I am pleased to applaud Andy Anderson and others in Highland Council for the initiatives that they have taken on school food. However, we can do much more on the issue. We need to buy quality local products, provide quality cooking and give more money and time to dinner ladies and other people who cook and serve food. I hate using this expression, but we need to make school food sexier for youngsters. As a result, the health of the nation and educational attainment would improve.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 10:47 am, 17th March 2005

I declare an interest: I am a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

The Conservative motion mentions

"the current government's centralising agenda", which is a bit hypocritical. The Conservatives seem to forget the years of Michael Forsyth.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I know that some members do not.

Michael Forsyth tried to introduce a rigid five-to-14 programme and a national testing programme.

However, with support from the teaching profession, the education establishment and parents, the worst excesses of the measures were stopped from moving north of the border. The Conservatives should not waste their time lecturing members about a centralised agenda, given that they had such an agenda.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Does Sylvia Jackson concede that the five-to-14 initiative was, in part, a response to the problems that the First Minister has talked about and an attempt to bring Scottish education back to what parents wanted and away from the trendy reforms that bedevilled it in the 1970s and 1980s?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Mr Monteith shows his ignorance on education. There is no doubt that the education system in Scotland wanted a curricular review, but it did not want the rigidity that went with the five-to-14 proposals. Luckily, the proposals were adapted somewhat for Scotland. Also, the education system in Scotland did not want a national testing system. Mr Monteith should know that the system did not come into being here in the same form as it did down south and that, since then, it has improved. Again, that shows Mr Monteith's ignorance.

The EIS regards discipline as the biggest single problem that confronts schools today. It is a serious issue. No one doubts that and it has been one of the big issues in the chamber today. However, research shows that the big problem is not with the extremely serious incidents, which are quite rare, but with the persistent minor offences. Through its surveys, the EIS has shown that the main problem that teachers have is with the pupil who constantly makes a noise in the classroom, who disrupts the work of the class, who turns up late for class, who breaks class rules and who is eating or chewing in class. Those minor offences are what cause the problem.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Does Sylvia Jackson agree that the EIS has homed in on the class-size issue as being a solution not only to classroom discipline problems but to the question of how to improve educational attainment?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Mr Sheridan is correct to say that the EIS has said that class size is one of the issues that should be addressed, but it has also pointed to other issues, such as social inclusion. Tommy Sheridan will know that certain moves have already been made towards reducing class sizes but that, nevertheless, there are constraints in the system, such as the number of available classrooms and teachers and the implications of the McCrone settlement. The issue is much more complex than the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish National Party seem to think that it is.

In relation to discipline, the central issue is the disruption of other children's learning. One of the many ways in which we could be doing more in that regard—not that we are not starting to do a lot—is in relation to continuous professional development. I would like the minister to say what is being done or what it is projected will be done on discipline with regard not only to teachers' initial training but to their continuous professional development. If teaching and learning are the essence of the McCrone settlement and so on, discipline must be viewed as being a big aspect of that as it is through tackling discipline problems that the education environment will improve.

As we know, Professor Pamela Munn has done a lot of work on ethos indicators in the school. Her work has shown that everyone in the school—not only the teacher but the senior management and the head teacher—must be involved in discipline. Many of the initiatives that the Scottish Executive has brought in, particularly those for head teachers, are helpful in that regard, as are the extra support staff that the minister mentioned. The EIS is complimentary about the Executive's idea of spreading good practice to other schools.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton talked about second-chance learning centres. I would like the Conservatives' summing-up speech to be a little clearer about exactly who they envisage would go to those learning centres. Am I correct in understanding that special educational needs children would be in those centres along with extremely disruptive children? We should be told the answer to that question, as parents will be concerned—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I am sorry, Lord James, but Dr Jackson is in her last minute and cannot take an intervention. You must finish now, Dr Jackson.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton can answer my question later.

On the social inclusion agenda, I know that there is concern, as the EIS has pointed out, not only about continuous professional development in the area but about resources.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You must finish now, Dr Jackson.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I am sorry, you must finish now.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I urge members not to support the Conservative motion.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 10:54 am, 17th March 2005

Any debate on Scottish education should start from points of principle and I believe that the parties should set out their attitudes to the way in which Scottish education should be structured and the curriculum directed. For me, the principle is that, in all our decisions, we must do two things: first, we must maximise the opportunities for every pupil in the education system; and, secondly, we must take every step that we can to realise the potential of every child in the education system.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton accused ministers of misdirecting the education service. I have many criticisms of what the Executive does in a range of policies but I do not believe that it is fundamentally misdirecting the education service. However, I believe that the Conservative motion is about misdirecting the education service. The motion is about fostering a culture of inequality that will create advantage for some at the expense of others. It is about trying to create a system that gives some people a leg up at the expense of other people. I quite understand that there are many inequalities in our society and that people need support to help them to advance, but that should not happen at the expense of others. However, that is what lies at the core of the Conservative proposition.

That consideration also lies at the heart of the debate about choice, on which Jamie Stone made a particularly helpful point. The choice agenda that the Conservatives put forward is irrelevant in many areas of the country. In my constituency—a large, rural area, with small communities surrounding major towns, none of which has more than one secondary school—there is no way that individuals have the choice of taking their voucher for however many thousands of pounds to some other educational establishment. The Conservatives' policy is a disgraceful attempt to lure parents in areas in which there is poor educational achievement or a concern that the education system cannot deliver the quality that we all want for all of our children to take their voucher and go off into another sector, particularly the private sector. That will simply cause even more inequality to fester in our society.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Does the member accept that the potential exists for the funds that are transferred with the pupil to become the lifeblood of many rural schools, such as those that are threatened by councils such as the SNP council in Angus?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

No, I do not believe that. I think that the voucher system would be the death knell for rural schools in Scotland. It would be the final testament to the Conservatives' vicious attitude towards the delivery of public education in our communities. It is a malicious measure that would undermine rural schools.

I understand the difficulties that all councils face about educational provision at a local level. My colleagues on Angus Council know that I do not support them in one respect of their education proposals in my constituency. I have made that clear to them. However, I accept that councils are responding to the Government's direction to improve the quality of the school estate and that, at times, that requires firm decisions to be made. That said, I say to the council and the Executive that a one-size-fits-all approach should not be taken to the delivery of services in rural schools because, in many cases, the quality of the rural schools is of a high order, even if the quality of the estate might not be. The Government has to be sensitive to the particular needs of rural areas in that respect. There must not be an absolutely uniform approach.

For Alex Johnstone to take me to task about the attitudes of an SNP council when his colleagues in the Borders have shut schools left, right and centre is a disgrace.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Does Mr Swinney accept that the widespread closure of rural schools throughout Scotland—it happens much more often in Scotland than it does south of the border—demonstrates that there is a vital need for a national presumption against the closure of rural schools?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am in favour of a national presumption against the closure of rural schools. It would have been particularly helpful to have had that national presumption when the Conservatives were closing rural schools in my constituency in a previous era.

I want to draw together two points relating to educational achievement. There is a compelling argument for reducing class sizes and I would have hoped that, in our new politics in the Scottish Parliament, the Government would have given a bit more credit to the SNP for leading and advancing the debate about reducing class sizes. It is the most reliable way to ensure that educational attainment improves, because smaller class sizes improve the opportunities that children have to participate actively in their learning. I hope that the Government will intensify its efforts to reduce class sizes and will accept the well-prepared and well-marshalled arguments of the SNP that there should be a widespread reduction in class sizes throughout Scotland.

My final point is on support for children with special educational needs. I voted for the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill with a heavy heart and only because of the assurance that the Minister for Education and Young People gave the Parliament that resources would be made available to local authorities to provide support to children with special educational needs. I hope that the minister will remain true to that assurance, because the fragile individuals in our society who need support depend on his ability to deliver on it and I do not think that that has happened to date.

Photo of Kate Maclean Kate Maclean Labour 11:01 am, 17th March 2005

Like the Minister for Education and Young People, I welcome the opportunity to be involved in this debate, and—again, like the minister—I would say that the Tories' motion and their contributions have entirely lived down to my expectations.

Lord James's contribution on behalf of the Tory party showed a distinct lack of any grasp on reality. He stated that education should allow able children to rise to excellence, based on their talents. That demonstrates a simplistic attitude to the complicated situation in education. The motion sets education in the context of a Ready Brek advert, where, following a warming breakfast, a well-dressed, warmly wrapped-up child is waved off to school by a loving parent, surrounded by a rosy glow.

The stark reality for many children is very different from the la-la land that the Tories inhabit. Many children have to get themselves, and often younger siblings, up and out to school with no breakfast, no parental interest and certainly no rosy glow. Some children in Scotland start school barely able to speak, to use cutlery or to dress themselves properly because of the chaotic lifestyles that they have at home. I say to Lord James that education should be not just for the majority of children, as he stated, but for all Scotland's children.

Under the Tories' proposals, the children who need the most investment in their lives would become a failed by-product of the system. We could argue all day about whether the Tories would cut £600 million from Scottish education—fortunately, the proof of that pudding will never be in the eating—but it is clear that their intention would be to redistribute education spending away from the very children who need it most. The Tories would create a two-tier system, in which per capita funding would inevitably lead to schools in more affluent areas and private schools being able to meet the needs of their pupils and schools in areas of deprivation being unable to do that.

It is no coincidence that there are lower levels of attainment, more exclusions and worse behaviour at schools in deprived areas than at schools in areas that do not suffer from deprivation. In the education league tables that Mr Brocklebank mentioned, attainment in Dundee is shown as poor and truancy and exclusions are shown as high. However, if he looks at the league tables that measure poverty by every indicator, he will see that there are significant areas of deprivation in Dundee.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member share my concern that, for some reason, there is difficulty with schools in Dundee achieving the level of attainment of schools in similar areas, or even that of schools in areas that are even poorer? That is a major challenge. I welcome what is happening in Dundee to address the problem—

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

—but it should have happened far sooner. Does the member recognise—

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

—the work of Joe Fitzpatrick, in particular, in raising this—

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No, really. That is long enough.

Photo of Kate Maclean Kate Maclean Labour

No, I do not recognise the work of Joe Fitzpatrick or that of any of Fiona Hyslop's SNP colleagues in Dundee, who demoralise teachers, parents and pupils by using the situation as a political football. I accept that the league tables show below-average performance in some of Dundee's schools, but Dundee has specific problems. Deprivation is widespread in Dundee and is not limited to pockets, as it is in some other areas. Throughout Dundee's schools, teachers are working hard to try to overcome the difficulties that they face. Other league tables show that in some cases the level of improvement in attainment is higher than the Scottish average—that shows that the teachers' efforts are working.

Dundee City Council's education department welcomes the Scottish Executive's support for the learning together in Dundee initiative, of which I am sure the minister is aware. The council would like to pilot ways to free up more time in the curriculum to extend that initiative and I hope that a proposal on that matter will come from the curriculum review. Teachers need more support under Labour, not less support under the Tories, and they do not need the carping and headline-grabbing that they get from the SNP group in Dundee.

It is our responsibility as a Parliament to try to create learning situations that overcome the difficulties that many of our children face. That is why, at decision time, I will vote for Peter Peacock's amendment. I do not support the Tories' crackpot plans; I will vote to support all Scotland's children, not just a privileged few.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 11:06 am, 17th March 2005

My colleague James Douglas-Hamilton eloquently described the deficiencies in our education system, and I agree with him.

I wish to draw attention to the state of some school buildings, especially those in the Argyll and Bute Council area. If we want to encourage teachers and pupils to attain higher goals, it is imperative that school buildings are properly maintained and continually updated and, at the very least, that they do not fall below civilised standards.

Last Friday, I visited Hermitage Primary School in Helensburgh, which is Argyll's largest primary school. Although I was impressed by the atmosphere that prevailed among teachers and pupils, I was appalled by the state of the building. There were damp patches on the walls and leaky ceilings in some of the classrooms. Children had been moved out of those rooms, creating overcrowding elsewhere. In the corner of one classroom that was being used, foliage was growing through the floor—I do not think that it was an environmental sciences project. The state of the toilet facilities left a great deal to be desired, and the dining room was in the gymnasium. I have yet to visit Arrochar Primary School but I am told that its building is in an even worse condition. Dunoon Primary School's building is also in a bad way.

Those three schools were all in the original non-profit distributing organisation scheme for rebuilding, which initially included 28 schools in Argyll and Bute. I welcomed that scheme, but in July 2004 the council reduced the figure to 17 schools and in January 2005 it further downgraded the list, which now includes only 11 schools. In addition to the three schools that I have mentioned, many other schools are in a bad structural state and require urgent maintenance. The catch-up figure for repairs alone runs into eight figures, and Argyll and Bute Council, which has a school estate that comprises 95 schools, is in the unenviable position of having to find that money.

I hope that there will not be talk of tests of proportionate advantage and a threat of schools closing. Good local schools are pillars of local communities and wherever possible they should be maintained, but they must be maintained in good condition. Argyll and Bute is only part of the story in the Highlands and Islands and many other councils face similar problems. There is obviously a crisis that urgently requires a solution.

In rural areas, people often have little choice about where they send their children to school. Some parents are therefore forced to send their children to schools that have substandard buildings. The situation is intolerable and must be remedied as soon as possible. A society in which some children are educated in comfortable surroundings while others are forced to experience deprivation of the kind that I mentioned is hardly an inclusive society.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

Is the member aware that before devolution BBC Scotland came to the school that I worked in to film it as an example of the poor state of school buildings that had developed under the Tories? Will he tell me how many new schools were built in Highland or in Argyll under the Tories?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

An enormous number of schools—all with flat roofs—were built in the 1960s under the Macmillan Government and the Wilson Government. They are all falling to pieces now; they have not been properly maintained by Labour.

The Conservatives are committed to introducing choice into education for all Scotland's children. The current situation allows choice only if parents can afford to pay for it either by moving to an area in which their preferred choice of school is situated or by sending their children to a private school. We think that things should change.

No matter how much Mr Peacock denigrates the Swedish education system, it is still interesting to observe the results of educational policy in Sweden, which has a socialist Government. New organisations can apply for funding to the national agency for education, and if they meet the required conditions, they can set up new schools that are independently run but Government-funded. That policy has been successful, especially in rural areas.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

No—I am sorry.

Initially, the largest number of applications was for schools in urban areas, but three of Sweden's northernmost municipalities—which are at or above the Arctic circle, in the rural and sparsely populated county of Norrbotten—are now among the municipalities with the largest share of students in Government-funded independent schools. The Conservative policy of allowing the setting up of new Government-funded independent schools has often been criticised as a policy that would benefit only urban children. However the Swedish experience clearly shows that a policy of allowing new schools to be created, with Government funding, where they are desired allows exactly that—the creation of good schools where they are wanted and needed. In answer to Elaine Murray's explosive outburst, I inform her that new schools have been so popular in socialist Sweden that, since 1993, their number has increased by 480 per cent.

Such a policy would be good for schools in both urban and rural areas and would safeguard schools that are threatened with closure. In turn, our rural communities would be helped to remain vibrant and active and young people and families would want to live in them. As I said, the local school is a strong pillar of the community and schools with good reputations draw people to the surrounding area. Therefore, they are a focal point that can encourage the repopulation of much of Scotland. Our policy will mean that such things happen.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 11:12 am, 17th March 2005

First, I want to make some general comments on discipline and class sizes. We all know that one unruly child can contaminate an entire class. Support for teachers in the school environment must therefore be real and financed and the personnel must be in place. I am pleased that the power to exclude as the ultimate sanction has now been returned to head teachers. That power must be used.

In passing, I mention Jamie Oliver—in fact, I have lodged a motion on the 2005 Sodexho school meals and lifestyle survey. Jamie Stone made important points about the impact of additives in food on the behaviour of our schoolchildren.

I turn to class sizes. From my historic experience—and it is quite historic—as a primary and secondary teacher, I have no doubt that when I had a smaller class, the exchange between the teacher and pupils was far more rewarding. On a practical level, with five classes from first year to fifth year, hundreds of children passed through my classroom doors every day, and each child generated work that required my attention. Quite simply, if jotters were not taken home every week—if not every night—they could not have been marked.

Primary teachers—of which there are two in my family—are now buried in assessments and forms and spend unpaid hours preparing. Although they have a vocation, they sometimes get weary. Add to that the impertinence and unruly behaviour that trickles down even to primary 1. My sister recently narrated an incident in which she tried to separate two very young primary children who were at each other's throats. However, she could not intervene for fear of being accused of assault by the two little children who were at each other's throats.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's motion mentions independent schools, with which I have no issue. If parents want to spend £10,000 or £15,000 a year to send their children to independent schools, that is a matter for them and is their financial choice. There are big distinctions within the range of independent schools. I think that schools such as Donaldson's school for the deaf and Rudolph Steiner schools will still have charitable status—that is not a matter for me or for the Conservatives, but for the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. However, I cannot see how schools such as Fettes College, with their unduly restrictive entrance fees, can possibly pass the test in the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Bill. I have continued to make that point on behalf of my party.

School closures are as much about the coalition's intransigence as anything. In its document entitled "Building our Future: Scotland's School Estate", the coalition focuses on buildings. Buildings are important, but that document states:

"The school is a core part of the physical community and should play a role in building strong, confident communities and a safer environment, and contribute to an improved quality of life for the community."

So everything is about the community. However, councils are taking up PPPs and private finance initiative contracts, which are pretty much all that they can use. They are building schools that will cost a fortune at the end of the day. As with buying a car on hire purchase, things look good at the top of the balance sheet. However, then we see that we have actually paid a vast amount of money, and when we eventually get the asset, it will be 25 or 35 years old.

Of course, risk for a building in such contracts does not simply pass from a local authority to a company, as we have seen with recent bankruptcies and with the dispute about who would pay for moving prisoners following fire damage under PPP and PFI contracts in prisons in England. Such deals are bad deals.

Those contracts are also a bad deal for the structure of buildings. Recent reports have made it plain that, under such contracts, classrooms that are too small and which are inappropriate for children from an environmental point of view have been built. Even gymnasiums have been made small to comply with contracts, just when we need our children to take more exercise. There are huge problems.

I turn to closures and the Conservatives. Bearing in mind what my colleague John Swinney said, I quote what David Mundell said in a speech in a members' business debate on a motion in my name on the closure of Borders schools. He said:

"It would be helpful to make clear the position—which is also my position—of my Conservative colleagues on Scottish Borders Council. They clearly believe that no school should close unless closure has the support of parents and the community."—[Official Report, 25 March 2004; c 7180.]

Well, goodbye Burnmouth Primary School, Hutton Primary School, Cranshaws Primary School and others, which the Conservatives all voted for. Obviously, people were not listening to David Mundell's speech.

Such things need not happen. In that members' business debate, we argued for a presumption against school closures against the background of a commitment that schools should be at the heart of the community. We should take a lesson from the Highland Council, which does not close schools. It has a presumption against school closures and makes great attempts to keep them open, even when there are no children at a school in a community. Such schools are mothballed for two or three years while the council finds out whether it can draw people into the community and therefore bring in children. The council does so because the death of the local village school means the death of that community. We must stop such things happening.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 11:17 am, 17th March 2005

All sorts of motions—from the laudably ambitious to the absurdly parochial—are brought before the Parliament, but rarely has a party that still likes to regard itself as politically mainstream asked us to debate such a hotch-potch of inaccuracy, prejudice and dogma, or expected the Parliament to take such things seriously. Whether in its offensive description of Scotland's schools or in its even more alarming vision of what the Tories would do to our education system if they were given half a chance, the motion is blinkered and reactionary nonsense. In a world in which the Labour-Liberal Administration is promoting achievement, devolving school budgets and encouraging greater parental involvement, the motion uses words such as "centralising", "top-down" and "over-regulation". Those words might ring the bell of the Tory faithful, but they bear no relation to what is happening in our schools. It is redolent of what our colleagues in the Scottish Socialist Party at their class warfare worst—or best—say. Why let the truth get in the way when one can argue from a position of simplistic ignorance? But for the fact that many people will find the motion insulting, I would say that the Tories should be the object of our pity rather than our scorn.

The description of our schools might be laughable, but the proposed solution is positively dangerous. I use the word "solution", but the Tories seem to have listed a ragbag collection of policies in the hope that some of them—or one of them—might appeal to some small section of the population. It appears that bringing back the tawse is the only policy that is missing, but I suspect that it is missing because the motion's author forgot to include it, rather than because there was a lack of support on the Tory benches for it. The suggestion that the answer to whatever difficulties face us in our schools lies in using public money to create an ersatz private school system should be the object of mockery and ridicule. The Tory party is so out of touch that it would genuinely throw away centuries of Scottish tradition in the interests of a market-driven ideology that denies the idea of the public good.

Perhaps most galling of all, the Tories claim that treating education like a consumer product—treating schools and teachers like a packet of washing powder—would reduce inequality. Who do they think they are fooling? Do they seriously think that they can pander to the few—or, as John Swinney said, lure or prey on the fears of some parents who are let down by the system—and encourage the already privileged to opt out, but pretend that that is for the good of all? I would have more admiration for them if they simply admitted the truth behind their proposals.

I take particular exception to the Tories' misappropriation of the word "choice". They know full well that the choice that they describe can only ever be choice for the few, not for all. Choice is important to our school system. Parents and pupils no longer accept having no say in education. Families want schools that are geared to their children's individual needs, not schools that have rigid and inflexible systems. We can and are introducing choice: we are moving towards more individualised, child-centred learning, relaxing age-and-stage regulations in areas of the curriculum, developing vocational as well as academic options, encouraging specialist schools to increase diversity and, where appropriate, allowing young people to learn in alternative environments, such as colleges. Those measures represent choice and a recognition of the individual. The Tories hold out the pretence that we can have the consumer choice of the private school system paid for by the taxpayer, which is fundamentally misleading.

Let us look at what is actually happening in our schools and contrast that with the Tory alternative. Since Labour came to power, nearly every school in East Renfrewshire has benefited from substantial rebuilding or refurbishment. Pupil attainment has increased across the board. More than 70 per cent of young people go on to further or higher education. Teachers are better paid and more motivated, and inclusion is practised in every school.

The mention of inclusion brings me to discipline. The Tory criticism of school discipline is ill-founded and positively damaging. Two primary schools in East Renfrewshire were recently the target of some very ill-judged headlines in the national papers that described the schools as violent. Neilston Primary School and Auchenback Primary School are excellent and are among the most supportive schools in our area. I quote our director of education:

"The fact is that the statistics reflect our policy of recording every physical contact with teachers whether violent or otherwise for pupils with additional support needs. Such recorded contacts make up the vast majority of the so-called assaults recorded. Neither school can be classed as violent by any stretch of the imagination."

That quote is from the same director of education who was recently described as outstanding by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education. His comments stand in stark contrast to the scaremongering inaccuracies peddled by the Tories.

I believe that the Tory motion is laughable—crackpot, to use Kate Maclean's description. However, the scary fact is that an election is looming and today's lunacy could easily become tomorrow's reality. I believe in choice, and we are faced with a choice between those who believe in Scotland's schools and those who would abandon our traditions and achievements; a choice between those who want excellence for all and those who want it just for a few; and a choice between Tory and Labour. People should choose Labour.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We move to closing speeches. I call Tommy Sheridan to close for the SNP—I am sorry; I mean the SSP.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

It was entirely unintentional.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I begin by suggesting that, when the Tories decide to develop their pick-'n'-mix approach to education policy, rather than pick the example of socialist Sweden, where a tiny minority of children are still educated in the private sector and the majority are educated by the state, it would be better if they picked the real McCoy. If they had used the example of the socialist republic of Cuba, they would have given us a more appropriate example of the success of state education in a small, developing country that apparently has lower wealth than the majority of the world but which is still able to deliver classes with a maximum of 10 pupils and one of the best educational attainment records in the world. I look forward to future debates in which the Tories laud the success of the socialist republic of Cuba.

Reducing class sizes is not a panacea for all the problems that confront education in Scotland. There are other, deep-rooted problems. Addressing poverty, low income, inequality, and the lack of parental support is vital when it comes to tackling Scotland's educational problems. However, class size is central to delivering the answer to those difficulties. If we reduce class sizes to a maximum of 20—not an average, because an average of 20 means that some classes will have 25 pupils—we will provide every child with the educational opportunities that a rich nation such as ours should be able to offer.

It is quite proper that due recognition has been given to our teachers and other school staff. Teachers and early-years education workers are a source of great pride for Scotland. They deserve praise and their numbers should be increased. In particular, nursery nurses deserve a radically improved salary and conditions package. Given that early-years education has been mentioned, I hope that the minister will take the opportunity to inform us about the progress of the national review of early-years education and the delivery of an improved salary for nursery nurses across Scotland.

In addition to giving due recognition to our teachers and the absolutely essential role that they play in schools up and down our country, it would remiss of us if we did not take note of the fact that the priority campaign of the main teaching union—the EIS that Sylvia Jackson mentioned—is to improve educational attainment and tackle class indiscipline by addressing the issue of smaller class sizes. If it is good enough for Scotland's main teaching union to prioritise that as its main educational policy, it is good enough for the SSP, and I invite the Parliament to agree that we should take a lead from those at the chalkface when we try to deliver improved education.

Last night, at the Òran Mór bar in Glasgow, I was privileged to attend the launch of a new organisation called Scotland's for peace. I mention it because the launch brought together people from all walks of life who shared one commitment: an improved and peaceful Scotland. The point was highlighted that Scotland is home to every single one of Britain's nuclear weapons and to the largest pockets of poverty in Britain—there is a correlation. The commitment that we all gave at last night's launch of Scotland's for peace was that we do not need more independent schools; we need an independent Scotland that dedicates its resources to education, peace and learning and not to weapons of mass destruction. If we had the will to dedicate a larger proportion of our national wealth to our schools and classrooms, we would not have the restrictions that Sylvia Jackson mentioned when she talked about schools not having the capacity for more classes because commitments have been made to build PPP buildings, with the result that there is less room for education.

It is time that the Parliament grasped the nettle as far as education is concerned and drove with passion towards a policy of small class sizes for all our pupils so that we can improve their educational attainment and opportunities.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:29 am, 17th March 2005

Like many members, I welcome the opportunity to speak in a debate on Scottish education. I declare that I am still a member of the EIS.

I bring a bit of the experience of the 1980s and 1990s to the debate. Many of us who were at the chalkface of Scottish education in the 1980s and 1990s felt that the dialogue was with the deaf when it came to the Tories and trying to deal with the experience of pupils and teachers in our schools. However, I also recognise that we in Parliament have an opportunity to make the real difference that many of us who argued for a Scottish Parliament wanted.

The reality of education policy in the 1980s and 1990s was—I do not mean to discourage today's ministers about the documents that they publish—that the normal assumption of most teachers was to welcome any new publication when it arrived on their desks but to file it either close to, or in, the bin. The day-to-day reality was that teachers had to deal with their students and the curriculum of their schools.

In the 1980s, the 1990s and—sadly—today, the Tory narrative on education in Scotland has consistently displayed an obsession with education in the private sector rather than in the state or public sector, where the vast majority of our youngsters are educated. The Tories have also been obsessed with discipline. Although indiscipline needs to be addressed, discipline is not the central issue in education. The tired and predictable Tory response has been to try to address those issues by privatising education. It has been dressed up as choice, but the individuals involved would face not so much Howard's choice as Hobson's choice.

Since 1999, we have provided leadership in Scottish education through education legislation that creates a framework that reflects both the Scots tradition and our experience of the autonomy that Scottish education has had over the past few centuries. Although there are still many myths about the lad o pairts tradition to which Lord James Douglas-Hamilton referred, that was not the reality before formal state education was provided by local authorities. In the school board debates prior to and during the first world war and between the wars, the genuine issue was about how to ensure that maximum opportunity was provided to ordinary children from ordinary backgrounds.

The second big debate since 1999, in particular since the 2003 election, has been about how we use the investment that we are making to improve schools and to tackle indiscipline, which is a prevalent issue for many members of teacher unions. Those are the real debates, which I believe the Executive is trying to tackle head on.

Allusion has been made to poor levels of literacy among current university students. If we were to play a numbers game, we could assume that we are talking about 20-year-olds who are at university just now. Given that the evidence from all the research is that the building blocks for literacy are laid between the ages of three and half or four and eight, it is obvious—I do not mean to make a party political point—that Labour was not in Government when those students were at that stage. That reference may come back to haunt me in four years, but that will depend on the progress that we make. However, for the acquisition of literacy, the building blocks are important.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Without wishing to be the ghost of Government future, may I suggest that cutting class sizes for children between the ages of three and eight would make a big difference to literacy and numeracy levels in Scotland?

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I recognise that a reduction in class sizes is a welcome development for all age groups and that much research evidence favours differential approaches. In principle, I approve of reducing class sizes. I believe that the Executive has made progress on that, but I recognise that a reasonable amount of flexibility is required in developing that policy effectively. In principle, I certainly agree that smaller class sizes can assist the educational process.

However, the changes that have been made are exemplified by what has happened in my home city, where evidence suggests that people face challenges in education, given that—as Tommy Sheridan rightly mentioned—poverty, income and class are key, although not the sole, determinants of educational performance. Since 1997 and in particular since 1999, through the happy and fortuitous coincidence of there being Labour-led policies in the Scottish Executive and the local authority, education has for the first time been prioritised in any real sense. Glasgow has made real progress both in improving the fabric of its schools, especially in its secondary schools estate, and in seeing schools as a continuous process, thanks to policies such as the learning community initiative, which Glasgow City Council pioneered. That initiative has improved people's attitudes to their local schools, as we have reversed some of the many difficult trends of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the rise in numbers of placing requests.

There are still issues that we need to address in the future. Like Tommy Sheridan, I accept that poverty is a key determinant of educational performance. I believe that recent research evidence suggests that the United Kingdom is making substantial progress in tackling poverty and, although I accept that that might not be happening at the pace that Mr Sheridan would argue for, progress is certainly being made.

I will end by making a point about some phrases that it was regrettable to hear. Instead of saying "Well done" to school students who have performed well, the Tories made an accusation about the "dumbing down" of educational performance, as if Peter Peacock sitting in Victoria Quay has some great power to influence what happens in the classroom—what an absurd notion. The reality is that pupils and teachers have worked incredibly hard to achieve those results. Rather than denigrate that progress, we should celebrate and welcome that development.

In conclusion, we can make real differences. There are many challenges, especially in a constituency such as the one that I represent, but progress can be made if we provide investment, and if we support teachers in the classroom and ensure that indiscipline is tackled. I believe that we are making substantial progress in those areas.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 11:35 am, 17th March 2005

From the terms of the Tory motion, it is clear that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Brian Monteith are trying hard to keep the sacred flame of free-market provision in education flickering. Fortunately, the originators of that policy approach—Margaret Thatcher and Michael Forsyth—have long since faded from the political scene. I suspect that hell will freeze over before the Tories are given another opportunity to preside over Scottish education.

The Tories advocate an education marketplace, with parents and pupils as consumers and schools as producers.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Not at the moment. If Brian Monteith will let me develop my point, I am sure that he will agree with my interpretation.

If the consumers are not satisfied with the goods on offer, they will supposedly be able to take their custom elsewhere. Competition between schools for consumers will thus drive up standards and require school staff to become more accountable to parents. That is the Tory view.

If we set aside for a moment other arguments against that ideological approach, which John Swinney and Ken Macintosh exposed, we might ask whether there is any evidence that the Tory approach works. For example, let us consider the advent of placement requests back in the 1980s. All the research shows that the parents who were most likely to exercise their right of choice were from higher socioeconomic groups and were dissatisfied with their designated schools. Surprise, surprise. Parents also disproportionately chose schools that had higher concentrations of pupils with the same status. Birds of a feather flock together. Little consideration was given by such parents to the fact that some schools with relatively low social-class intakes provide above-average teaching and educational practices or that some schools that serve pupils from advantaged backgrounds achieve results mainly because of their pupil intake. An individual pupil might indeed benefit from moving from one school to another in that way, but it damaged the whole system.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Under such a system, the schools that are already advantaged benefit from choice, but the disparity between the advantaged and the disadvantaged grows. Instead of having schools with balanced communities, we end up with a system that is segregated by social class. That market model is just not appropriate for Scotland.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I am concerned at the member's suggestion that the parents of a child do not have the right to seek the best for that child. The only alternative that he proposes appears, as ever, to be the politics of the lowest common denominator.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

That is just nonsense. I am saying that, historically, parents have not looked at all the information. They have not had—to use a term that Brian Monteith might use—perfect market information. Parents have used very crude indicators of school performance, which do not pan out in practice. I must move on.

Members will also have noticed that the Tories' policy is nothing if not inconsistent. Why should the free market be the answer for the public sector when they advocate feather bedding for the private sector? I do not challenge people's right to purchase private education, but why should the rest of us, through the provision of tax relief, in effect subsidise them for doing so?

Of the other issues that have been raised in this morning's debate, tackling indiscipline is perhaps the most important for our front-line teachers. However, they are being let down by the Executive, as was evident in the EIS perspective that Sylvia Jackson gave. Having visited a number of primary and secondary schools in the past few months, I urge action in three key areas: early intervention, class sizes and in-school back-up for teachers.

Although the SNP supports the principles of mainstreaming, there is no doubt that the demands on teachers from pupils who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are extremely stressful. Most of those problems are evident pre-school and could and should be addressed at that stage. We need a comprehensive early years, child care and education system. The nurture group initiative in Glasgow has proved that children's behaviour can be turned round permanently. Many primary teachers have also told me that they are able to cope with the demands of children who have additional support needs only because class sizes are falling as our population declines. Others, particularly secondary teachers, claim that they lack back-up from senior staff, and there is a great need for behavioural support units to which disruptive pupils can be sent. It is time the rhetoric on zero tolerance was replaced with systematic action.

There are a number of other points that I would like to make, but I shall finish on parental involvement. We are certainly sympathetic to the Executive's proposed reforms. Anything that can be done to encourage parents to support their children's learning at school should be considered, and we look forward to the debate on the proposed bill. Unlike the Tories, we do not regard school boards as having added significant value to our schools; we believe that there are more gains to be made from involving more parents informally within schools.

As I said at the outset, we reject the Tory desire to impose a market model on Scottish education. We will not be sorry to see the last vestiges of the Forsyth years swept away, never to return.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 11:42 am, 17th March 2005

I am pleased to have the opportunity to sum up for the Scottish Executive in this debate. I take some pride in our achievements since May 2003, when Peter Peacock and I took over the Education Department and were given the opportunity to build on the work of our predecessors, to turn the ideas and conclusions of the national debate into reality, and to ensure the implementation of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000.

As Robert Brown and Ken Macintosh said, the great majority of our young people are being well taught in good schools by inspirational teachers. Parliament should acknowledge that. Half of our young people go on to higher and further education, and the vast majority turn out to be excellent citizens. I agree entirely with Frank McAveety's condemnation of people who suggest that increased achievement comes from dumbing down of standards. That is absolutely not the case.

Today the Conservatives have set out their stall in their motion and we have heard from Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues about their pre-election goods for Scotland's education system. The goods are those of a car-boot sale of worn out and fringe ideas, irrelevancies and the downright ridiculous. The motion claims that the Scottish Executive has a "centralising agenda" when the reverse is the case. The Tories would nationalise education spending and cut millions from local government, apparently to fund schools from the centre and—I presume—to pay for the army of bursars and accountants that would be needed to make the system work locally.

We should contrast that with the Executive's record investment in the schools estate, which enables local authorities to meet local needs via the prudential capital financing regime, our record investment in the school fund and, of course, our £12 billion public-private partnership programme, which will ensure that 300 schools are refurbished and rebuilt by 2009. Jamie McGrigor referred to Argyll and Bute and said that the catch-up amount runs into eight figures. I have to ask, "Catch-up from whose legacy?" We should also contrast the Executive's record and policies of strengthening and improving all Scotland's schools with the Conservatives' prescription for chaos. Far from reducing inequality by giving choice, Tory choice, as has been said by a number of members, would be a free-for-all as catchment areas were abandoned in favour of a free market for school places. As John Swinney rightly said, that policy is largely irrelevant and impossible to implement in rural areas. My prediction is that if, unfortunately, the Tories were ever to have their way, we would be back before long to controls from the centre and we would see that, in effect, the few had exercised their choice at the expense of the many.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

How does the minister explain the fact that when the decisions of local authorities up and down Scotland are challenged locally, the councils' reply is that the decisions are being forced on them by the Executive?

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Local decisions must be taken locally; Alex Johnstone should know that.

As to the motion's contentions about attainment, I have to say that it is factually incorrect to claim that attainment is poor or falling in Scotland. The attainment of pupils between the ages of five and 14 in the key areas of reading, writing and maths has been steadily improving over the past six years from where the Tories left those levels. As Peter Peacock said, pupils in primary schools in particular show good levels of attainment overall. The international data for 15-year-olds show that Scotland does very well in reading, writing and mathematics in relation to our international competitors, being in the top third of reported attainment.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Will the minister confirm that the actual number, and the actual percentage, of pupils who leave Scottish schools without any qualifications has, in fact, risen since his Executive has been in power?

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Let us look at the results. The five-to-14 data show continuous improvements in the level of attainment in primary schools in reading and mathematics. In secondary 2, the five-to-14 data show big improvements in attainment over a six-year period. For S2, there have been gains of 20 per cent in reading, 14 per cent in writing and 18 per cent in maths. About 60 per cent of pupils are achieving nationally expected levels in reading and maths, and more than half are achieving those levels in writing. The trend is one of steady improvement year on year.

However, the Executive is far from complacent, which is why we set out our action programme in our response to "A Curriculum for Excellence: The Curriculum Review Group". A programme of work is under way to create for the first time a single coherent Scottish curriculum for between the ages of three and 18. Among other things, we shall declutter the curriculum in primary schools by revising and streamlining guidelines to free up space for children to achieve and for teachers to teach, for implementation by 2007. We shall bring the three-to-five and five-to-14 curriculum guidelines together to ensure smoother transition. That will mean extending the approaches in pre-school and the early years of primary in emphasising the importance of the opportunity for children to learn through purposeful and well-planned play.

There will be a reformed approach to education in S1 to S3, which will increase opportunities for challenge, choice and motivation, and we shall deliver a new way of recognising the achievements and attainment of all young people from S1 to S3 from 2007. We shall deliver a new course and qualification in learning for skills for 14-year-olds to 16-year-olds by 2007. A cycle of continuous updating and reform of the curriculum across all areas of learning will begin immediately, starting with the science curriculum, and we shall ensure that reform of assessment supports learning and that there are valid and reliable measures of national levels of attainment in key areas of children's learning. The age and stage regulations, which say when young people can sit exams, will be abolished and replaced with clear guidance to safeguard young people's interests.

I turn briefly to Ted Brocklebank's points about physical education, to highlight one example of an area where the Tories mislead. The Executive is recruiting 400 extra PE teachers by 2008, but not a word was said by Ted Brocklebank about our expectation of there being at least two hours of PE in schools.

The choice is between parties such as the Greens—who did not even turn up for the debate—and others who might have good ideas, and the Tories, who play a worn-out gramophone record of old ideas, none of which will work in the future. The Executive offers an improved and refreshed curriculum, better buildings and facilities, 53,000 teachers by 2007 in order to reduce class sizes, the teachers agreement, continuing professional development for teachers, information and communications technology investment for broadband connections for schools and investment in better behaviour and better learning. It also offers investment in looked-after children and young people, raised educational attainment, child protection policies, review of the hearings system, investment in fostering and a review and modernisation of adoption law. The choice is clear: investment by the Executive parties or no investment by the Tories. With those comments, I draw my remarks to a conclusion.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 11:49 am, 17th March 2005

I have to say that this has been one of Parliament's better debates. We have not found a great deal of common ground and there has not been much agreement, but the fact that we have had only one debate in our allocated time has given members far more time to speak and has enabled them to take more interventions. That is a lesson that we should all remember when we have such debates in the future. Labour members will probably not agree with anything else that I say.

It will come as no surprise that I intend to refute a number of accusations that the minister made. He accused the Tories in the past—we always know that there is an election coming when we are referred to not as "the Conservatives" but as "the Tories"—of bringing education to its knees. He said that under the Tories there was a period of neglect and that there was no universal early years provision. Those are only some of the falsehoods that were perpetrated by the minister.

The truth could not be more stark. Spending on education rose in real terms over the time the Conservatives were in Government, pupil-to- teacher ratios fell dramatically and falling attainment levels were identified and reversed. I say that they were identified, because the difficulty in the 1980s was that no information was available to enable people to find out what was happening in schools. Many members who were in councils at the time or who represented the Educational Institute of Scotland fought tooth and nail against revelation of what was happening in schools.

Universal nursery provision was introduced by the Conservatives: it did not exist before then. However, nationalisation of that provision by Brian Wilson and then the Scottish Executive brought about what the Executive claims is its universal provision.

I went to a state school—Portobello High School—in the 1970s. My sister went to Portobello High School in the 80s and my sons went to, and are still at, Portobello High School in the 90s and the noughties. I am well versed in what happened in that school, which is typical of so many schools. There was the end of school uniform, the end of the house system that meant so much to the pupils and the end of celebration of achievement. That was not brought about by Tory ministers: it was brought about by Labour councillors in Lothian Regional Council, who imposed those things on the school against the wishes of teachers and parents. There were no school boards to prevent that from happening and only the school boards, which were introduced by Michael Forsyth, Ian Lang and James Douglas-Hamilton, reversed that trend and ensured that schools began to respond to what parents wanted.

The minister went on to say that we would cut £600 million from education spending. That is a falsehood, as James Douglas-Hamilton pointed out, and there is no evidence to support the claim. I await that evidence and look forward to its being published in the Scottish Parliament information centre.

The minister also said that the Conservatives would mimic Sweden but ignore Finland because Finland is ideologically uncomfortable for us, and that we should really look to Finland because international studies show that Finland is better. Let us consider those studies. The progress in international reading and literacy study of 2001 showed that Sweden was top of the league table—13 places ahead of Scotland. The children from Sweden came through the study after the Swedish reforms, so that clearly shows that the reforms did not damage the position in Sweden: if anything, they helped it.

Let us consider the Scottish programme for international student assessment study for 2003. Between PISA's report of 2000 and the one for 2003, the mean reading literacy score in Scotland dropped by 11 points. That certainly did not happen under the Tories' watch. Only 9 per cent of Scottish students reached the top level in reading literacy, compared to 11.4 per cent of Swedish students. Sweden is doing better than Scotland again. Not only do the international tables show that Sweden's attainment is better than Scotland's, but they show that Finland has more pupils enrolled at independently managed state schools than Sweden and that it has double the number of pupils at independently run state schools than is the case in Scotland. It is clear that Finland is doing something right: it is doing something similar to what Sweden is doing. That is also what the Netherlands and Denmark are doing. The evidence shows that where there is a good performance in international tables there is a large proportion of independently managed schools.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

What Finland and Sweden have in common, which we do not share, is that they are small independent nations.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

We do not need to change our passports to achieve what they have achieved. As any patriotic Scot—such as myself—knows, we have a different educational institution in Scotland from that which exists in England. We do not have to break up the United Kingdom to achieve that. Does Christine Grahame not agree?

If the minister wishes Finland to be his example, let us see independent schools such as those that exist in Finland flourishing here in Scotland.

Fiona Hyslop also set her face against state-funded independent schools. However, when she was challenged, she was not able to tell me why she is in favour of the state-funded independent nurseries and child-care provision that exists in Scandinavia. Has there been a shift? Do we detect the Scottish nationalist party moving to the right? I welcome that if it is the case and I look forward to the day when the SNP shares our policies and we might be able to kick the current Executive out. However, I have to say that the SNP has a long journey to make—as many of the SNP members behind Fiona Hyslop clearly showed.

Fiona Hyslop also said that choice should not and does not apply to Scotland: Scotland cannot handle choice. That view was echoed by Robert Brown of the Liberal Democrats. The contention was that we cannot have choice because too many parts of Scotland would not have access to choice. That is like living in East Germany and people being told that they can have any colour of car but that it must be a Trabant and that, by the way, there is a queue for the red ones.

What happened in East Germany was that the restrictions and the socialist centralism that Mr Sheridan seems to think works in Cuba were got rid of. Very few people now drive Trabants in what was East Germany. They have choice; they drive Opels, Audis and BMWs. East Germany became part of Germany and choice entered the market. Capacity expanded and choice for all was made possible. The lesson in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is that new schools have been created that deliver choice, create competition and drive up the standards of municipal schools.

The accusation was also made that rural schools would close, but in Scandinavia there are more rural schools north of the Arctic circle than there are in Scotland north of the Highland line. Why is that? How is it that countries such as Sweden can maintain rural schools in such inhospitable and bleak landscapes where people are few and far between? It is partly because there is a presumption against closing rural schools, but it is also because by giving parents a voucher or a passport—whatever members would like to call it—and empowering parents with that spending power, they are able to defend rural schools. If we had had that system in Scotland in the past five years, would Abercorn Primary School in West Lothian have closed? It would not, because the parents would have kept it open. Would St Vigeans Primary School in Arbroath have closed? It would not, because the parents would have kept it open, as they would be able to keep open Eassie Primary School in John Swinney's constituency.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Can Mr Monteith say whether more people live north of the Arctic circle in Sweden because the Government there supports economic development and thereby the livelihoods of people within those areas? Is the reason why not so many people live above the Highland line in Scotland that the Conservative party and this Government are responsible for reducing economic opportunity and for depopulation in those areas?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Mr Monteith has one minute left.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

That was a spurious point. Mr Swinney was just trying to eat into the time that I have left on the clock.

Let me make it clear that children with special educational needs would not be put into schools where children had been given a second chance because of their bad behaviour or indiscipline.

I agree with Tommy Sheridan—I agree that the standards of schools such as Fettes College should be available to all. I agree that charitable status should not be the privilege of the few: it should be extended to all state schools. I agree that a father's wallet or a mother's purse should not determine the educational opportunities of a child. We must remove the two-tier system. Our proposals will do that. I support the motion.