Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 2:15 pm, 22nd March 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5775, in the name of Hugh Henry, on celebrating success in Scottish education.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 2:57 pm, 22nd March 2007

I am delighted to open a debate that gives us an opportunity to put on record all the significant developments that are taking place in Scottish education.

As Robert Brown and I travel around Scotland visiting schools, we hear a remarkably consistent message: our head teachers are positive and excited about the future; our teachers are engaged in a highly positive agenda and are delivering a superb quality of education; and our support staff, who come in many forms, are making a remarkable contribution to Scottish education. Perhaps the most significant feature of what is happening in our schools is the optimism, excitement and enthusiasm with which pupils of all ages have responded to it. We cannot overstate the change that has taken place in Scottish education since the advent of devolution and the resulting decisions by the Parliament.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

If such substantial progress has been made since the Labour-Liberal Executive came to power, can the minister explain why in 1997 there were 1,707 teachers in secondary schools in Fife but by 2005 that figure had fallen to 1,691?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

The Executive has delivered on its commitment to bring in more teachers. Indeed, by August, we will have met our target of 53,000 teachers in Scotland. As the bald statistics will make clear to Tricia Marwick and others, class sizes in primary and secondary school have been falling year on year. That is the reality of Scottish education, and that is the reason why our teachers have been responding so well.

We should shout it from the rooftops: we have a good education system that is already delivering for our children. However, the Executive has further ambitions. We want to be the best in the world, which means building on the system's strengths while continuing to adapt, modernise and innovate to meet the challenges ahead.

As Tricia Marwick has demonstrated, there is a tendency to dwell on the negative and to talk ourselves down. The SNP's glass is always half empty, never half full. It moans, it groans, it is full of despair and it never has anything positive to say. It does not sing about our achievements or highlight the positive things that are happening. It looks for failure, it seeks to criticise and it tries at every turn to be negative.

Just for once, the nationalists should try to be a bit more positive, because there is much to celebrate in Scottish education. Indeed, as I said earlier, Robert Brown and I have seen those achievements at first hand. Susan Ward from Juniper Green primary school, who won the United Kingdom teaching award for outstanding new teacher, exemplifies the excellence in our teaching profession. She is one of the new young teachers who are making teaching their profession, making a difference for our children and inspiring others to achieve. I want to do everything that I can to promote such excellence in the profession.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

The minister is not the only one who visits schools in Scotland; as he would expect, we all do. Secondary schools have been telling us that a quarter of primary 7 pupils are failing numeracy and literacy standards, which means that the senior schools have to carry out more remedial teaching. What is the minister doing to address that problem?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

We can address some of the issues that still have to be tackled. The fact is that Scotland's performance ranks in the top third of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, and our 15-year-olds are among the best performing in the world. However, we need to address the transition from primary to secondary school.

That said, I do not know what schools David Davidson has visited. In the past couple of weeks, Robert Brown and I have met teachers in different parts of the country, and we have not only brought them together and thanked them for their remarkable contribution to Scottish education but thanked the janitors, classroom assistants, cleaners, learning support staff and clerical and administrative staff who are often overlooked as team members. We simply do not do that often enough.

This week, we visited St Mark's primary school in Barrhead, which, under its inspirational head teacher and highly motivated teaching team, has achieved the best results from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education of any primary school in the country. Other schools are beginning to show the same results. For example, Bannockburn primary school has a fantastic head teacher who is carrying out terrific work with children who have emotional and learning problems.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that it is unfortunate that many of the rural schools in Moray that have received excellent inspection reports in recent years have been threatened with closure and merger by a local council seeking to cut costs? Should education not always be the first priority in any decision on the future of rural schools?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Any such decision—and, indeed, the quality of education in the area—is a matter for the local authority in Moray. However, we are determined to raise standards, which is why HMIE carries out such rigorous inspections. This week, I visited Forthill primary school to celebrate not only the opening of an extension but its excellent education provision. Margaret Jamieson and I visited St Joseph's academy in Kilmarnock, and Alasdair Morrison and I visited the Nicolson institute to find out what was going on there. Tremendous work is also being carried out at Laxdale primary school with children whose first language is Gaelic and with others.

The examples are numerous. Cathie Craigie and I went to St Maurice's high school in Cumbernauld, which is trying to encourage excellence in sport. With Councillor Brian Fearon, I visited the ABC nursery in Clackmannanshire, which is stimulating children at the youngest possible age. I could name schools in my constituency that are doing a fantastic job. Excellence is being delivered in Scotland, and we do not want anything to disrupt that or to challenge or stop the progress that has been made.

We are not complacent. We want to know how we are doing, so we have asked an OECD team of experts from Finland, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium to come to Scotland to do a country review and tell us what they think, from the outside, about Scottish education. We have nothing to fear from that. If improvements need to be made, we will make them. We will build on the foundations of our system.

The Executive has delivered free pre-school education for all three and four-year-olds in Scotland, which is a major step forward. The latest statistics show that 96 per cent of three-year-olds and 99 per cent of four-year-olds take up pre-school education places.

We are making progress on the curriculum. The curriculum for excellence programme will produce a single curriculum for three to 18-year-olds that takes into account the significance and importance of early years provision in children's education. We are revising the early stages of the curriculum and considering a child-centred approach in primary 1. Work is being done to build on the investment that we have made and the measures that we have introduced, such as extra teachers, new schools, the 49 schools of ambition and improved standards for headship. We have made huge progress in the eight years of devolution. For example, we have delivered 320 new and refurbished schools and we are on course to deliver at least another 100 by 2009.

I am fascinated by the SNP's amendment, in which Fiona Hyslop yet again points to the weakness in the SNP's proposals. The amendment refers to giving councils "an alternative funding scheme", but the experts say that that funding scheme will not work. The SNP says that it will match our proposals brick for brick, but how will it do that? We are told that it will issue Scottish bonds in its futures trust, but the Scottish Executive cannot issue such bonds. The delivery of the bonds relies on the break-up of the United Kingdom. The SNP talks about trying to borrow money, but how would it do that without ruining economic stability, even if it had the financial wherewithal?

The reality is that the SNP's proposals will not and cannot work. We have asked questions about them week after week. Peter Peacock asked questions, but the SNP would not answer. I have asked questions, but it will not answer. The SNP cannot tell us what will happen to the proposed new schools. I say to parents in Dundee that the proposals for eight new schools there are under threat from the SNP, as are the proposals for three new secondaries in Clackmannanshire, eight new schools in Edinburgh, nine new schools in Perth and Kinross, four schools in Falkirk, three secondaries in the Scottish Borders, 10 schools in Dumfries and Galloway, four new schools in Inverclyde, two secondaries in West Lothian, 10 new schools in Aberdeen, six new secondaries in East Dunbartonshire, six schools in West Dunbartonshire, two schools in Moray—I point that out for Mr Lochhead—five schools in the Western Isles, for Alasdair Morrison, and two in Orkney. Proposals for 82 new or refurbished schools are under threat from the SNP. That is the reality of what the SNP says.

We have a record of which we can be proud. We can celebrate the success of our children and the excellence of our teachers. The Parliament has nothing to be ashamed of when we talk about education, but we have everything to fear from the SNP.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the commitment shown by the Scottish Executive and its partners to the most comprehensive programme of modernisation of Scottish education for a generation; recognises that the Executive's investment in over 320 new and refurbished schools, increased teacher numbers, a world-leading induction scheme, reduced class sizes, strong parental involvement and stable industrial relations has rebuilt the foundations of a successful school system; welcomes the significant increase in pre-school education entitlement that has been delivered since 1999; further welcomes the high quality of leadership in Scotland's schools and congratulates the 973 teachers who have achieved the Scottish Qualification for Headship; welcomes the Executive's investment in Scotland's 49 Schools of Ambition, and congratulates staff, teachers and pupils in schools and centres across Scotland for the contribution they are making to the delivery of excellent learning and teaching.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:09 pm, 22nd March 2007

I greatly appreciated the minister's list of visits to schools in marginal constituencies with Labour members who are in their final days in office.

The SNP is pleased to congratulate teachers, other staff and pupils on their role in contributing to excellent teaching and learning in the Scottish education system. Government can provide stewardship, leadership and direction, but the heart and dynamo of Scottish education are the teachers, other staff and pupils, and it is they who should receive plaudits from the Parliament for their efforts in delivering teaching and improving learning.

Since this is likely to be his last debate in the Scottish Parliament, I would like to give the best wishes of the Scottish National Party to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. [Applause.] We may not have agreed with all of his policies as a former education minister, but we should put on record our recognition of his public service, and in particular his role in steering the important Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which holds the interests of children as paramount in Scots law.

The duty of politicians is to look to the future, and to offer fresh thinking and a new approach. The SNP will do that today. The Executive's claims for success go so far back that its motion looks like a tribute to Sam Galbraith. Indeed, many of the points in the motion reflect the McCrone agreement, with its genesis in the previous century. Indeed, its content and disposition could be characterised as so last century. The Executive may look backwards, but we will look forwards. Our education system must match and draw out every child's potential. Early intervention and support is critical for success. We would, for example, increase nursery provision by 50 per cent, to give every child access to a nursery teacher, starting with provision for those from the most deprived backgrounds. It is such a pity that the Government has failed to expand nursery provision, despite promising to do so in 2005.

Children with additional support needs should have those needs identified early if possible, and services from agencies should be provided promptly. Initial teacher training needs to be revamped to give training in supporting special needs. Teachers' co-ordinated continuous professional development programmes on additional support needs must be driven forward.

Class sizes matter in the delivery of one-to-one attention to deliver firm foundations for life. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have dropped their pledge and changed the goalposts on class size reductions. There are too few teachers and they cannot get permanent jobs, and there are too many pupils in classes that are too big. The reality in Scottish schools is that 41 per cent of primary 1 pupils are in classes of more than 25, and 48 per cent of new teachers are unable to find permanent positions. Scotland should be cutting class sizes to 18 in the first three years of primary and delivering firm foundations for learning and more one-to-one support from teachers for reading and writing.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Does the member have any information on the geographical location and sociological demographics of the classes that she describes as being too big?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Margo MacDonald makes a good point. Indeed, in the debate on the Crichton campus at lunch time, the issue was raised in relation to Dumfries and Galloway. Perhaps one of the ways in which we can ensure that teachers are not only on the register but employed in classrooms is to work on that with the Crichton campus, the University of Glasgow and others.

Up until the age of eight, a child learns to read. From then on, they should be reading to learn. Let us help them get the best start in that lifelong learning. Minister, that means recruiting and employing teachers sooner rather than later in a term of Government. In the face of falling school rolls, we should be maintaining teacher numbers to deliver smaller class sizes. Decisions should be made locally to take account of local circumstances. Our schools should be fit for purpose and open for use by all in the community, with playing fields, pitches and halls for use by youngsters.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I want to move on.

We should be introducing a baccalaureate as a group award in highers for top performance, first in languages and then in science, to encourage pupils to take those subjects in school, college and university. We should be making available vocational education opportunities for all pupils over 14, to encourage them to excel where they can. Vocational learning should have parity of esteem with academic learning. All the parties signed up to that in 2003, but no progress has been made by the Executive, and its promises now look hollow.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

Will Ms Hyslop enlighten us on the science baccalaureate? What plans does the SNP have to fill the current shortages in science teachers at the top end of school, because they seem to be few and far between?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The SNP plans to maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls. We will encourage people to become teachers, particularly early years, science and language teachers. To encourage them to become science teachers, we have to get pupils to take more than one science—that is what universities are telling us. If we can get them to take more than one science subject at higher level, they will be more likely to take a science course later on. Thinking ahead in that way is part of the SNP's approach to education.

We want to ensure that pupils have a sense of themselves and of their country, which is why Scottish history, culture and heritage should be at the heart of the curriculum. We should teach through the Scottish prism and from the Scottish perspective on the world.

There is a desperate need to renew the school estate, which deteriorated through lack of investment under Conservative stewardship. Its renewal needs to continue apace. An SNP Government will match the planned school building and refurbishment programme brick for brick. Our not-for-profit trusts will give resources back to teachers, instead of lining bankers' pockets with excess profits. Public-private partnership is Labour's school tax. The cost of Labour's PPPs is almost £1 million for every school in Scotland over 30 years. PPP finance brings with it an opportunity cost that will hold back education in Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am in my last minute.

The extra cost of PPP finance means that schools will lose at least £900,000 that could be spent on more books, better equipment and more teachers—and that is just a conservative estimate.

Leadership in education is about not just technocratic management—as produced by the Executive—but the drive for self-improvement of the individual, society and the nation. Renewing the sense of purpose of all those who are involved in education must be the lodestar of leadership. Opportunity, achievement, progress and confidence are what our children deserve and what our nation needs. The SNP will be delighted to rise to the challenge of driving Scottish education forward to a new era of excellence.

I move amendment S2M-5775.3, to leave out from "notes" to end and insert:

"congratulates staff, teachers and pupils in schools and centres across Scotland for the contribution that they are making to the delivery of excellent learning and teaching; recognises that it is the duty of government to provide stewardship to drive standards forward, providing leadership and direction for a strong Scottish education system for the purpose of self-improvement and a healthier, wealthier and socially and environmentally more responsible Scotland, and notes that the following can all contribute to this aim: early intervention to increase nursery provision and identify and serve additional support needs at an early stage, cutting class sizes in primary 1-3 to 18 and maintaining teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls to cut class sizes in secondary so that every child gets the attention they deserve and to ensure that essential literacy and numeracy skills are developed, embedding Scottish history, culture and heritage in school life, offering vocational courses from S3 onwards with parity of esteem for academic courses, introducing a new languages and science baccalaureate recognising top performance at Higher level to encourage take-up of these subjects, focussing on support for those pupils particularly from families living in poverty who are currently left behind in society and continuing the planned school building and refurbishment programme but providing councils with an alternative funding scheme to provide better value for money and access to communities and clubs to schools at evenings and weekends."

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 3:16 pm, 22nd March 2007

Like Fiona Hyslop, we all believe strongly in the pursuit of educational excellence. I thank her for her kind words about the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. It was a great joy to take that legislation through Parliament, even though I was strongly reprimanded by the Speaker for accepting too many Labour amendments. I am completely unrepentant about that, as they were good amendments.

General Patton summed up leadership with the following comment:

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

From time to time, that approach can work in education, but I fear that the current Lib-Lab pact may be producing too many strategies, initiatives, targets and—dare I say it—glossy brochures.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I pay tribute to Lord James for the contribution that he has made to public life in Scotland over many years. He has played a distinguished role not only in the House of Commons but here in the Scottish Parliament. It is magnanimous of him to accept that Labour amendments improved greatly the 1995 act that he introduced. Does he recognise that Scottish education has improved significantly since the Parliament was established?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

There have been substantial improvements to Scottish education since before that time. Those improvements have been steady and we must learn from them. However, not everything is perfect. Too much paperwork is thrust on teachers, and anything that the minister can do to lessen that burden will be greatly appreciated. Teachers are not always as interested in or preoccupied with a gale of creative new policies as ministers are; they may be more interested in teaching their subjects and getting on with the job. Too much outside pressure can represent at best a distraction and at worst an impediment.

HMIE has pointed out that school leavers' attainment has flatlined during the Executive's current four-year term. That is true of those who leave after S4 and of pupils who stay on for S5 and S6. The problem of young people who are not in education, employment or training remains stubborn. Nearly 8,500 young people did not enter work, education or training when they left school last year.

We believe that a change in culture is necessary. We propose an education bill to redress the balance of powers between the Executive, local authorities, head teachers and parents. Local authorities are best placed to make decisions at local strategic level, so they should have a more focused role and should control the level of the education budget, the infrastructure and the catchment area system. However, local authorities should no longer be allowed to impose artificial caps on school places. Such caps can frustrate head teachers and parents. Pupils who wish to attend schools with spare capacity are being turned away. Local authorities should also, in conjunction with head teachers and further education institutions, develop an action plan for furthering science and technology in their areas—Fiona Hyslop referred to the need for such action.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I will take a brief intervention, but I have quite a lot to say.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Does the member agree that it is important that Scottish history be taught in our schools, if for no other reason than to remind children of the important role that he and his family have played over the years?

If the Presiding Officer will indulge me, I want to pass on to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton my good wishes and the good wishes and thanks of the people of Edinburgh West, whom I represent in the Parliament, for his hard work and his commitment and service to them over many years in the Scottish Parliament and as a member of Parliament at Westminster.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I thank Margaret Smith and Hugh Henry very much for their kind words.

I support the teaching of history in schools, although not for the reason that Margaret Smith suggested—all families have a few skeletons rattling around in their cupboards. [Laughter.] The curriculum should be geared to satisfying the demands of young people throughout our country.

Head teachers are a huge, untapped pool of potential for improving our state school system. In order to become a head, a person must have a teaching qualification and extensive training and experience, not to mention proven leadership qualities. Heads quickly become best placed to know the needs of their schools. In contrast, the Scottish Administration might appear somewhat remote, and the level of micromanagement that it attempts is not achievable through national policy. It would be desirable for every head teacher to be given more freedom to respond to local requirements.

The Executive's policy on devolved school management has been more successful than we anticipated it would be, although there has been variation from area to area—if the minister is wondering how I know that, it is because we checked up under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which the Executive introduced.

This is the last education debate in the Parliament before the election. We pledge ourselves to making certain that Scotland will have an education system that lives up to our proud traditions. Our education system must be a shining example to the world and it must be second to none. I wish my colleagues who, subject to the electorate's wishes, might be here in the next session of the Parliament every good fortune in making certain that Scotland's education system is every bit as good as the very best in the world. [Applause.]

I move amendment S2M-5775.1, to leave out from "notes" to end and insert:

"supports giving top priority to ensuring that our education system enables every child to find fulfilment according to his or her ability, aptitude and inclination; believes that head teachers should have greater freedom to make decisions relating to their schools, in co-operation with parents and pupils, and further believes that particular areas for giving greater control include budgets, permanent exclusions, wearing of uniforms, setting, and the continuing professional development of teachers in their schools."

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:23 pm, 22nd March 2007

I am pleased to follow Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in the debate, because that gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to him after his final speech in this place.

I have had the privilege of working with Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in a number of capacities in the Scottish Parliament. In the early days of the Parliament, we were members of the Parliamentary Bureau and, more recently, he was my deputy after I took over the role of convener of the Education Committee. I was also fortunate to be part of two Commonwealth Parliamentary Association branch visits that he led to Canada in 2001 and 2003. Both visits were valuable and enjoyable experiences.

In an earlier life, of course, Lord James was a minister in the Conservative Government, as Fiona Hyslop said. I might not agree with everything that he did, but he can take credit for and be rightly proud of steering the Children (Scotland) Bill through the House of Commons. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 remains the definitive piece of children's legislation in Scotland.

I thank Lord James personally for his generosity and kindness in everything that we have done together in this Parliament, and particularly for his support to me in my role as convener of the Education Committee. I wish him well in his retirement to another place. He will be missed here.

Today's debate gives the Parliament an opportunity to take stock of the progress that is being made in Scotland's schools, which the minister ably did earlier, and allows each party to lay out its stall for the next session.

It is sad that the debate so far has merely shown the lack of vision of the other parties. The Conservatives remain stuck in another decade, harking back to a golden age that never existed. They are irrelevant in Scotland. They talk about an education bill, but they will not be able to introduce it because, as they have said, they will not go into government, which means that they will be unable to deliver any of their policies.

The Scottish National Party, on the other hand, tries to hide its dearth of policy in a lengthy amendment that adds up to little. Of course, that is not a problem for the SNP because its sums never add up.

The SNP's ambition is to match the current Scottish Executive rebuilding and refurbishment programme "brick by brick"—my, that is ambitious. However, the SNP plans to dismantle the funding system that enables that programme to take place, which will immediately prevent any new school building or refurbishment programme from starting. Not until some point in the future will the SNP will be able to replace the public-private partnership/private finance initiative arrangement with its fantasy funding mechanism—which will basically be the same as PPP/PFI but called something cosier. In the meantime, it will abandon hundreds of thousands of kids, leaving them stuck in crumbling old schools. That is the reality of the SNP's policy.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Will the Treasury have an interest in whether the PPP-style mechanism can be replaced with another one, or will it be something that is just for the Scottish Parliament to determine? I ask the question seriously.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

My understanding is that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create the bonds that the SNP proposes to have, which means that the policy would not work. The Treasury would have to be involved in the introduction of such a scheme—if, indeed, it proved to be possible to introduce it. Therefore, the process would take a considerable time and many school refurbishment or rebuilding projects could not be started until it was complete.

The SNP also claims that it will provide more teachers. However, at the same time, it says that it will introduce council tax capping, which will starve councils that they keep claiming are already underfunded of the money that they need to pay even the current teachers.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

We are going to abolish the council tax, not cap it.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Whether it is the council tax or the local income tax that is capped, it will starve local authorities of resources.

Worse than that, the SNP will put all the money for early years education into increasing hours for three and four-year-olds—even though there is no evidence that that increase would provide any additional educational benefit—and ignore the under-threes, even though all the evidence suggests that that is where new investment is urgently needed.

We think that our children deserve better. That is why the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be going into the election with a series of policies that will look to the long-term needs of Scotland and our children. We will be investing in our youngest children, which is where investment is needed most and where all the evidence suggests it will make the biggest difference. We will ensure that every two-year-old has access to a free place in a local supervised playgroup, if their parents wish them to have one, where they can learn language, social and physical skills through play, supported by a skilled workforce.

We will build on the investment that the Liberal Democrat-Labour partnership Government has made in extra teachers by continuing to increase the number of teachers in our schools, despite falling school rolls, by driving down primary and secondary class sizes and by increasing opportunities for children by providing more specialist teachers, particularly in sport and physical education, to build on the active schools initiative to help to develop active and healthy kids. Further, we will continue to invest in new and refurbished schools to ensure that our children are taught in schools that are fit for the 21st century.

We must ensure that local councils deliver. It is not acceptable that councils such as Fife Council strive for mediocrity and use the extra cash that is meant for extra teachers to pay for overspending and financial mismanagement. It is unacceptable for Fife Council to sit on its hands and do nothing about the appalling accommodation at Madras college in St Andrews, about which nothing has been done, even though it was condemned by HMIE in its inspection report a year ago. Young people in Fife are being let down by Labour's administration in Fife and the Liberal Democrats are determined to change that.

Only the Liberal Democrats think that young people matter, and nothing matters more to young people than the quality of education that they get and deserve. We think that education is the single most important issue for our nation's future, which is why Liberal Democrats will continue to invest in that future.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 3:28 pm, 22nd March 2007

I start by adding to the tributes to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. Some 30 or so years ago, Lord James was my MP, although I am afraid that I did not vote for him. Whether or not people agree with Lord James's politics, we all agree that he is a gentleman in every sense of the word.

As this might be my last speech in the chamber—this session—I hope that members will allow me to be a little self-indulgent and talk about some of the educational successes in Dumfries and Galloway. Unfortunately, Dumfries and Galloway's progress in refurbishing and replacing its schools estate has been slow and, compared with other local authorities, the ride has been rather rocky.

In 2002, the Scottish Executive offered Dumfries and Galloway Council £103 million for the refurbishment and replacement of its schools estate. Councillors could not give the ambitious original proposals political approval, because they were too controversial. The council produced a rejigged proposal, which was eventually considered not to offer best value, because it could not attract more than one interested bidder.

The council returned to the drawing board and made further proposals for rebuilding 10 schools in the region. Those proposals have been much more successful and councillors will decide on and announce the preferred bidder next week. The final contract is expected to be signed in the summer.

Lockerbie academy will be rebuilt and Lockerbie primary school—which burned down some 10 years ago—will be rebuilt on a shared campus with the academy; Moffat all-through school will be rebuilt; a new Roman Catholic primary school will be built in Dumfries; and the community of Heathhall in Dumfries will have its own primary school for the first time. That community has aspired to that goal for at least 20 years. Some people who now have children of their own had been expected to attend a Heathhall primary school. The construction of that primary school and of the Lockerbie and Moffat schools is planned to start before the end of this year.

In addition, because the PPP bid is smaller and because the Executive provided additional capital consent to the council, Troqueer primary school, Cargenbridge primary school and Lincluden primary school in my constituency will be rebuilt with conventional funding. Construction of those schools is also expected to start before the end of this year.

The only thing that can go wrong for those schools is the election of an SNP Executive that is committed to cancelling all PPP contracts that have not been signed. That would set the PPP schools in Dumfries and Galloway back to square 1, as alternative funding would have to be sought. In that scenario, how much longer would the community of Heathhall have to wait for its much-wanted primary school?

There is other news of progress in Dumfries and Galloway, where the council has embraced the Executive's determination to promote healthy eating in schools. Primary pupils are offered a healthy two-course lunch. Cafe DG, which was launched in September 2006 as part of the Executive's hungry for success programme, offers secondary school pupils a healthy meal with a pre-order facility and express food bars to reduce queueing. That is important, because when the Communities Committee took evidence on the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill, it heard that one factor that puts secondary school pupils off school meals is the length of time for which they must queue.

Dumfries and Galloway Council has successfully participated in the Executive's determined to succeed programme and it was one of only four councils to have received supplementary funding when its further bid for £84,000 was awarded in full. That funds the gift of the gabs speaking competition, which started in January.

The council's determined to succeed team, which Janice Rough leads, is also using the funding creatively. She has worked closely with partners to prepare a bid to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's socioeconomic fund to use the Chapelcross legacy to promote science and arts in schools. Local pupils wrote poems to commemorate the power station's 50th anniversary and I look forward to attending a presentation by secondary 3 pupils of Lockerbie academy on research that they have done into what could be located on the Chapelcross site in future. I will hear all about that on Tuesday next week.

Further up the age scale, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council has allocated £28 million to rebuild Dumfries and Galloway College at the Crichton site. That is one reason why it is disappointing that the University of Glasgow has decided not to fund its intake of new students there this year. One reason to take the college to the Crichton site was to achieve better progression and better interaction between the college and higher education institutions. The college will be larger than it needs to be to provide dining and library facilities, for example, at the Crichton site.

I believe that the Crichton campus has a great future and I hope that we will overcome the current difficulties. We need seriously to consider how we provide further and higher education opportunities for people throughout Scotland—in rural areas as well as urban areas. For that reason, I welcome the University of Paisley's recent announcement of its merger with Bell College and of the increase in the number of courses that it will offer at the Crichton site, which will contribute much to my constituents and offer them opportunities to progress further than they could in the past.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 3:35 pm, 22nd March 2007

I, too, pay tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton; the House of Lords' gain is our loss. I hope that when Scotland becomes independent he will come back here. We look forward to both those things happening.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

Does Mr Neil intend to set up a House of Lords in Scotland?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Mr Davidson will be disappointed to know that we are not planning to have an unelected house in an independent Scotland.

I want to go back to the opening speech by the Minister for Education and Young People. At the time of his appointment, it was said in the press that he was not Jack McConnell's first choice for the job. Having listened to his speech, I can understand why. Perhaps Jack made a mistake; perhaps Rhona Brankin should have got the job instead.

I want to deal with the nonsense that was put forward by the minister, and then by Iain Smith and Elaine Murray, about PPP—profit, profit and profit; profiteering, profiteering and—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I will in a minute. If Hugh Henry will let me finish my point, I will give him a chance.

Audit Scotland has assessed the impact of PPP on the cost of school building in Scotland over a 30-year period. It found that, compared with the traditional ways of funding capital projects in the public sector, the additional cost to the taxpayer over a 30-year period of using PPP was up to £134 million a year. Over 30 years, we will be paying up to £4 billion over the odds because of the PPP way of funding. Given the number of schools that we could build with £4 billion, I would argue that it would be far better not to use PPP but to use the traditional method of public sector funding. That would allow us to have all those extra schools.

I will let the minister in now.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Thank you for that. Now, leaving aside that the report to which Mr Neil referred is outdated, that interest rate issues have changed, that the gap has narrowed significantly, and that his figures are therefore outdated, we come back to the nub of the argument: how will Mr Neil use conventional methods to deliver the scale of building that we require in this country within a short period of time? It cannot be done with conventional methods. Fiona Hyslop is reluctant to do so, but will Mr Neil answer the 34 questions that we have posed to the SNP about how it intends to make things work?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

It is amazing that the Executive is making such a meal of this. If we consider one of the largest infrastructure programmes not in Scotland but in the whole of the UK—namely, the regeneration of the London underground—we see that the vast bulk of the programme is being funded through the kind of bond mechanism that we are recommending to replace PPP. The idea that we cannot do that for Scotland's schools and hospitals, but instead have to allow the level of profiteering that we have seen under Labour, is nonsense.

The minister has a long history in local government. Has he never heard of municipal bonds? Municipal bonds have been used for 100 years to fund physical projects in the public sector. All the evidence shows, and all the expert opinion outside shows, that not only can it be done, it should be done, because it is a lot cheaper than using PPP. The price tag on schools alone is £4 billion for PPP under Labour and the Liberal Democrats—and I shall now let the Liberal Democrats come in as well.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will Alex Neil explain precisely what will happen if and when the SNP brings in the futures trust? When will it cancel, or stop progressing, existing PPP projects? For projects for which contracts have not been signed, will that be when the SNP takes office or at some later point?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The documents that we have published make clear two fundamental things. First, any agreement that is already signed and sealed cannot be reversed; we cannot reverse a contract, no matter how daft or costly it is. Secondly, every project in the pipeline for which a contract has not been signed will be funded by our funding mechanism, which will be far cheaper.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Nothing will be stopped. We have said that the same projects will be delivered brick for brick and within the same timeframe. I notice that one of the people jumping up and down is Mr Smith, who has just told us that the Liberal Democrats want to introduce a local income tax that is not capped. How much will that cost every taxpayer in Scotland?

The reality is that we are hearing all the scaremongering again from a second-rate Administration that cannot add up. PPP has been a disaster for schools and hospitals. We will replace it with a system of funding that is cheaper and will allow us to use the money saved on more schools and hospitals, not just for the next four years but for the next 30 years.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 3:41 pm, 22nd March 2007

I preface my remarks with my own tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. It has been a pleasure to know him for the past eight years and I hope that he keeps in contact with us. He is definitely not retiring but going to another place. In my view, he has been a long-term example to us all, given the elegance and clarity of his presentations and his ineffable courtesy at all times.

The debate has been a political one, although some serious points have been made. However, the one statement to which I take exception is Iain Smith's remark that only the Liberal Democrats think that young people matter. I do not think that that applies to the SNP, Labour Party or Conservatives, because we all think that young people matter, although we might want to address their problems in different ways. I hope that the debate proceeds on that basis. We are all united in the common hope and aim that Scottish education is the best in the world.

I will pick up on one or two points on which the Green party has concerns. I am glad to hear about the Lib Dem commitment to nursery education and playgroups for children from the age of two and the Executive's dedication to pre-school education. Having spoken to many people, I am concerned that nursery education could be seen simply as preparation for primary education. It must be appropriate to the needs and developmental stages of the children who are in it. It should not be seen simply as preparation that gives children numeracy and literacy advantages when they go into primary 1. We got a hint of that when the Executive indicated that it was looking at child-centred education in primary 1, which is an advance that should be encouraged.

Having met teachers from throughout the country, I echo the concerns evinced by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton about the amount of paperwork in school. I remember that, when I was a guidance teacher, I found that if a child misbehaved, my school had invented so many back-covering pieces of paper that I could generate 32 different pieces of paper to fill in for one example of minor misbehaviour by one child. The school addressed that, I have to say, and things are now much simpler.

There is something missing from the debate that we have had on PPP schools. Malcolm Fraser resigned from Architecture and Design Scotland not just over the cost of PPP schools but over the quality of design of some of them.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

One of the schools that Malcolm Fraser took exception to is a school in the Black Isle that I visited recently. I found that his comments on the school are nonsense. I will show Robin Harper the photos to prove it, if he wishes.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I would be happy to see the photos and engage in conversation about the design. However, one exception does not mean that we can ignore the point that Malcolm Fraser drew to the Executive's attention through his resignation. He was trying to make what he feels is an important point.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I invite Robin Harper to visit Carlibar primary school in Barrhead, which has a stunning design and is a fabulous environment in which to learn. Where lessons can be learned for future contracts, they should be learned, but it would be wrong to ignore the excellent design work that has already been delivered.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I was going to come to that. I have never said that the use of PPP necessarily results in poor design. Councils that take advice from architects who know how to use the procurement regulations and who dedicate themselves from the beginning to securing the best designs manage to secure those designs, and the PPP process does not interfere. It is councils that do not prepare properly that make the mistakes. They find themselves being rolled over by developers who want to make as much profit as possible.

I was reassured last week that the Executive is looking into the matter, but I call on ministers to pursue it with the utmost energy and as quickly as possible so that we can, if possible, put right the things that are going wrong in the PPP process. As the minister said, we are engaged in the PPP process. We are halfway through it. If it has to go ahead, it should do so in the best possible way. It should not deliver poor schools that we will be saddled with for the next 25 to 30 years and from which pupils will not benefit. The best—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now, Mr Harper.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Sorry.

The best design can increase pupils' performance by 10 per cent. That improvement can come simply from the design of schools.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 3:48 pm, 22nd March 2007

James Douglas-Hamilton and I go back to the early 1970s, when we were both councillors on Edinburgh Town Council. I will draw a veil over that.

I am happy to support the motion, which sets out the Executive's position on education, but I would like to add to it. The motion, like many motions for debate on education, deals with young people as learners. We do not consider trying to make young people rounded individuals and appropriate members of the community. We concentrate too much on learning. We should widen our policies to provide young people with a richer experience. In some respects we deny them that, as I will try to explain.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I agree with the member. The SNP amendment identifies the need for a more rounded education system. We recognise all the points that he raises.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

I am sure that there are good points in the SNP amendment but, for reasons that the member will appreciate, I will not be voting for it.

My first point is that we are denying our young people ordinary, civilised human contact. We have tried to approach the issue through the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill, which improved as it went through Parliament. I am arguing not about the bill but about the background. The current ethos is that it is considered a crime to touch a child. If someone picks up a child who has fallen in the playground or if they cuddle a child who is weeping and obviously under stress, they are somehow doing something wrong. That is a profoundly uncivilised attitude for which we will pay because young people will be stunted emotionally as a result.

My second point is about robbing children of the chance to take reasonable judgments about risk, whether that is in climbing mountains, playing games or doing ordinary activities. Part of growing up is evaluating risks, and now children are not allowed to do that. We are completely under the control of the lawyers of the insurance industry or local councils or whoever draws up the ridiculous rules that prevent children from doing ordinary childish things and learning what is safe and what is not. We have to get that issue sorted out.

We also need more enriching activities. The Executive has recently produced a youth strategy, which has some good ideas. It is up to ministers or their successors to deliver them. For example, we need to brace up our attitude to sport—both individual and team. Many children are still being denied the exhilaration and pleasure that they can get out of sport and learning individual and team activities. It may be a Victorian attitude, but I believe that learning about teamwork is a profoundly civilising and community-type activity. Many children do not learn that at all. We can learn how to accept defeat and victory, to play hard but fair and to achieve a bit of health. In many areas, children are denied that. In some areas, things are done well, but in others they are not.

The next point is on the creative side and the pleasure that can be got from a creative art. That can include singing in a choir—we have made some advances on that recently—playing a part in a play, playing in an orchestra or band, and painting. However, the creative arts are still not in the main stream of education, which they should be. They are much more important than some of the ritualistic things that we make children learn.

Many young people are also denied civilised socialising because there are no youth clubs or facilities in their area where they can learn to associate with their peers in a reasonable way. There is also a lack of outdoor education, which is beneficial to people and widens their views on life. They can learn about nature, the environment and attitudes to risk. Often related to that, we deny children residential education, which again teaches them to mingle with others when away from home. In many cases, we do not give children a chance to learn to manage activities or to get involved in youth clubs and suchlike. There are many youth clubs that young people get involved in, but many children have no opportunity to do that.

Those are some of the areas that I think we have to address in order to produce a good educational system. It is not just about learning; it is about what in another sphere are known as soft skills and developing human beings. We want the future generation of Scots to be really good-quality human beings. That is a noble aim that, regardless of party, we can all share.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative 3:54 pm, 22nd March 2007

I echo what Donald Gorrie said about extra-curricular activities in schools—which the Conservative party greatly supports—and pay tribute to my esteemed mentor, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, for his support and for his excellent speech in his final parliamentary debate. As a former teacher, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

When I heard Tony Blair give his triple education pledge more than a decade ago, I thought that he was a politician who understood the importance of education. I thought that he would mess up, but no one could doubt that education was a Labour priority. True to form, Labour has spent a huge amount of money on our education system in Scotland—indeed, the £2 billion McCrone deal was heralded as a bright new future for Scottish education—but there are still major resource shortcomings throughout Scotland's education system in information technology, smart boards and text books, for example. I have mentioned that to Hugh Henry in the past week. The priority should be not only making extra money available, but greater achievement, progress and attainment. If more money is going into the education system, I want to see the results.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I look forward to receiving from Dave Petrie a letter that lists the schools in which such problems exist. My experience from going round schools is that the extra money we have given directly to schools is making a significant difference to the provision of the materials and equipment he mentions.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

I had not realised that we have reached such an agreement, but I look forward to sending the minister a letter.

If the results of the extra money that has been made available are not good enough, I want to know why that money is being wasted.

The Executive wants to talk up the successes of its education policy in this debate as much as possible, but it is interesting that there is not a mention of pupil attainment records in its motion. I will try to fill in the gaps. Literacy and numeracy levels are falling. Some 15 per cent of school leavers are in the not in employment, education or training category. That is the highest rate in the UK. The performance level of the lowest 20 per cent has not been raised. There is an attainment gap of two whole standard grades in the 15 per cent most deprived areas. Ill discipline and violent behaviour in schools are increasing. Those are not achievements to be proud of and that is not an education record to be proud of. Our young are not being supported.

The motion mentions reduced class sizes, but the Executive has failed to meet its own S1 and S2 targets for maths and English. It has simply moved the goalposts.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

I am sorry, but I have a lot to get through.

Attainment is clearly important to pupils and parents, but the Executive has not prioritised it.

Lib-Lab policies are damaging our education system, but the Scottish National Party's proposals are just as reckless. It is astounding that SNP members claim to be in favour of increasing investment by abandoning PPPs and moving to a system of public bonds, because the Scottish Executive cannot legally issue bonds. Therefore, from the beginning of a theoretically SNP-led Executive to Scotland being duped into separation, the SNP would have no means of funding its planned investment in our education system.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is the member aware of the SNP's policy to introduce a Scottish futures trust, which would be able to issue the required bonds? Is he aware that every contract will be continued and that PPP will be squeezed out for a better, not-for-profit, alternative?

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

We should clarify that nothing of the sort could happen until there was full independence.

We are faced with a number of options. The Lib-Lab pact is prepared to invest money, but it has failed to raise attainment levels. The SNP is prepared to spend money, but it would not have the means to raise it. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Rather than the Government controlling matters, telling teachers what to do, tying teachers' hands behind their backs and increasing the bureaucracy that teachers must deal with, teachers should be given greater freedom to run the system and parents should be given more freedom to be involved. After all, they know best what is needed. That is why our party proposes a new education act that would involve teaching professionals far more actively in the education system. By strengthening devolved school management, giving head teachers greater powers over discipline, restoring school boards and giving school boards greater influence over the curriculum, the Scottish Conservatives' proposals will bring power back to schools, involve parents more and ensure that education in Scotland does not run on a one-size-fits-all basis. We will give the state sector the best from the private sector and consequently create a renaissance in Scottish education.

The Scottish Conservatives represent the best interests of children and the professionals. We are on the side of teaching professionals and are focused on how to give them more freedom to provide Scotland's children with the best start in life. Politicians should not always assume that they know best. I want teachers to use their professionalism to improve the education system and I want parents to feel that they are involved in their children's schools.

I am disappointed to be delivering such an indictment of the current Executive's performance on education, but I am happy to speak up for a range of Scottish Conservative policies that have real potential for a bright future for education. It gives me great pleasure to support our amendment in the name of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 4:00 pm, 22nd March 2007

It is fitting that, in the penultimate week of the current parliamentary session, we have returned to a subject that is central to much of our vision of what Scotland can be, to mark it by celebrating the success that is Scottish education. We are not only celebrating success in the remarkable transformation of Scottish education over the past decade; we are looking forward to a future in which success is rewarded and in which achievement, in all its forms, is recognised and praised—a future in which we celebrate the talents and success of all our young people.

It is fitting, too, that we are having this debate during a week in which we have all shared in the success of one of Scotland's schools—St Mark's primary school in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education introduced the category of excellence in its school inspection reports a little over a year ago. The first school in Scotland to be so recognised, with five excellent commendations, was Netherlee primary school, in East Renfrewshire. Last year, Our Lady of the Missions primary school in Thornliebank, East Renfrewshire, was declared the best school in Scotland after receiving nine recognitions of excellence—a truly outstanding achievement. Earlier this week, St Mark's primary school in Barrhead was recognised as achieving excellent status in 11 of the 15 categories, with the other four categories all starred as very good. That was an absolutely remarkable report by any standards.

How have those schools done so well? In short, it has been due to the efforts of the staff, the pupils and the parents, working together. When both ministers joined me at St Mark's on Monday, I asked Mrs Kennedy, the head teacher, where the school would go from here. She said, in all seriousness, that she was a little annoyed and disappointed that the school had not got 13 rather than 11 excellent commendations, which she thought it deserved. That is the sort of attitude that has transformed our schools and the life prospects of our pupils. There is a head teacher who wants to give every young person in Barrhead the best start in life, whatever their circumstances. St Mark's is a truly comprehensive school, with the whole range of abilities, social backgrounds, talent and disadvantage. With the investment that we have seen in buildings, in staff, in classroom assistants and in new technology, we have liberated teachers and schools and have allowed them to transform the life chances of our young people.

On the matter of celebrating achievement and success among our pupils, I suggest to ministers that there are still some areas that we need to address. For example, when my daughter came back from her school sports day last year and I asked her how she had got on, she said, "Daddy, we don't have first, second and third place any more—but I won all my races." I pay tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's contribution to public life and in the Parliament. In a Parliament in which we have to reach across partisan divides on occasion, he has shown how to play a constructive role from the Opposition benches. If we will miss him, I feel truly sorry for his colleagues on the Tory benches. Heaven knows what David Mundell will say about the lack of thinkers and leaders in his absence.

Talking of partisan divides, I think it is fitting that, as we mark the end of the parliamentary session and look forward to the new, we look at our choice of futures. Do we want to look forward to a Parliament that debates, discusses and celebrates the success of our youngsters, or do we want to focus on division and difficulty? Do we want to continue to invest in our children's futures and to build new schools—a new Barrhead high school and a new Eastwood high school, for example—or do we let the SNP's ideological fixation with and opposition to PPP blight the chances of a whole new generation? Do we want to spend our time in the Parliament working for the betterment of all young people and their families, improving the economy and giving them opportunities, or do we want to spend our time picking fights with Westminster?

The Parliament has made genuine political choices of which we can be proud. The investment in the McCrone settlement, which has radically improved teachers' pay, conditions and status; the investment in school buildings; the investment in reducing class sizes and in classroom assistants are all feeding through and leading to improved attainment and results in our schools. However, we are not doing that alone; we are doing it in the context of a Government in the United Kingdom that is also committed to doing what is best for our families.

For example, yesterday's budget invested millions more in education, so we will get a consequential uplift in our budget. Yesterday's budget also made a huge investment in families by increasing the level of child benefit—which was £11 a week back in 1997—to £20 a week in just two years' time. The nine out of 10 Scottish families who benefit from child tax credit will continue to gain from the increases that were announced yesterday.

Bringing up a family can be one of the most difficult financial times for all working people, so we should contrast the Labour party's commitment to a 2p cut in income tax for all working people with the 3p increase on all workers that the SNP proposes. The choice before us is between a Labour party that believes in celebrating the success of our young people and investing in their future and a Scottish National Party that is obsessed with ripping apart the family that is the United Kingdom. We want to open up opportunities to allow our young people to make their way in the world; in cutting us adrift, the SNP would narrow their horizons and close off opportunities. I urge colleagues to vote for success.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 4:06 pm, 22nd March 2007

I think that Ken Macintosh forgot to mention the plague of boils that will hit us all if the SNP is successful.

I associate myself with the genuine and warm tributes that have been paid to James Douglas-Hamilton. I also notice that Donald Gorrie may well have delivered his last speech to the chamber and that Susan Deacon is about to make her final contribution. I would not want to allow things to pass without expressing my gratitude to Donald Gorrie for the help and support that he has given me and for the patience that he has shown with my impatience. I wish Susan Deacon all the best. I can tell her that it is my experience that, when people take a while out to see and learn a bit more, they are better when they come back. I have probably known James Douglas-Hamilton longer than any other member—we met at a murder trial, but I will not go into that—and I am certain that he will continue to adorn the House of Lords in a way that many of the newer arrivistes might not. To protect the innocent, I will say no more than that.

I almost decided to vote for James Douglas-Hamilton's amendment—not just on sentimental grounds, but because it is well expressed—but I have doubts about the extent of autonomy that we should grant to head teachers. I am not at all certain about where the limit should be set if our local authorities are to provide an organised and orderly system of education.

I agree that the Executive deserves perhaps a bronze star. I would not give it a gold star or a silver star—out of principle—but it has done much to improve education. The Executive has tried to identify many areas that should have been priorities. That said, the Executive should not ignore the points that Dave Petrie made. As I have mentioned in the chamber on previous occasions, our universities need to run catch-up classes on basic literacy. That should not be ignored when we are congratulating ourselves on some of the good things that have emanated from the Parliament.

An indeterminate thing that has emanated from the Parliament is the emphasis on class sizes. I urge ministers not to get hung up on class sizes any more than they should get hung up on waiting lists. We are dealing with people, and people do not fit lists. In China, maths classes may have 100 children but, because there are 100 motivated sets of parents behind those children, the teacher does not have to cope with the ill-discipline that our teachers face. As I tried to suggest when I asked Fiona Hyslop for more information during her speech, in the more affluent areas, where parents are self-confident and work with teachers, larger classes could easily be accommodated even in subjects for which the teacher must do a lot of preparation and jotter work the night before, but in areas that are under stress it will be true to say that the smaller the class, the better it will be. In those areas, the more direct one-on-one communication pupils have, the better.

I have noticed that we have begun to slip into the bad habit of looking at class sizes as we looked at waiting lists for hospital treatment—and look at the mess that got everybody into. Furthermore, can we please admit that subject setting in schools is a sensible way to teach? Comprehensive education was meant to be a socialising policy; it was not meant to be about trying to teach children of all abilities in the same way in the same class at the same time. Subject setting according to ability is better for the child and will improve their confidence and attainment levels—and make life a little more bearable for teachers.

As the minister will know, I have a particular interest in PE. Much has been done in that area—I appreciate that a target of each pupil having two hours of physical education a week has been set—but much remains to be done. For example, we talked at lunch time in the cross-party group for sport about the difficulty of meeting that two-hour target in two-stream schools that have only one hall that serves as the dining hall, the assembly hall, the gym hall and so on. There are particular difficulties, and if the minister and I are back in the next session I will let him know about them.

There is also the question of the PE content in the teacher-training modules that are undergone by general classroom teachers. It is not good enough and must improve. A new goal should be set—for primary schools at this stage. It should not be about having two hours of physical activity a week, but about having some form of physical activity every day. That would require a more imaginative use of facilities and could involve other forms of physical activity that are perhaps neglected and which could be undertaken off the school premises. Again, if the minister and I come back, we will talk about that.

I commend to the minister what Donald Gorrie said about the socialisation that goes on in sport. I also commend to him the sensible remark passed by Ken Macintosh's child, who knew fine that she had come in first in a race. It does not matter how we try to fool kids, they know—so we should allow them to learn how to win and lose gracefully. While we are doing that, because we cannot do it all through schools, we must go to really good football clubs, such as the winners of the CIS cup last Saturday, and ask them how they manage to imbue their young players with a standard of behaviour on the pitch that acts as a standard for young followers. Poor behaviour by young people is one of the things that teachers should not be blamed for. We must look more widely than schools for encouragement of socialisation and good behaviour through sport.

I will not vote for the SNP amendment because, although I share the SNP's attitude to PPP, I doubt its methodology on this one. I am not quite sure that it has worked out all the wrinkles. I have decided, however, that I really cannot vote with a party that tells me about education with syntax as atrocious as is found in its amendment. Therefore, I might yet vote for James Douglas-Hamilton's amendment.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour 4:13 pm, 22nd March 2007

It is a pleasure to follow Margo MacDonald. As ever, she made a genuinely independent contribution—in every sense of the word.

Perhaps this is a time for reflection and confession. I do not mind admitting that a certain by-election in the early 1970s, when I saw a very strong and, dare I say, attractive young woman triumph, sparked something in me. I was at primary school at the time, I may say—just for the record—but the occasion let me see what perhaps could and should be done in politics. I may not have followed in the same direction as Margo MacDonald in terms of views, but I believe that she has been an inspiration to many of us.

Not going quite so far back, I reflected, when I was preparing for this debate, on the fact that at this time eight years ago I was Labour's campaign spokesperson on education. I well remember the huge amount of hope and expectation during that period. A vast number of meetings took place with all sorts of stakeholder groups, with all their competing and conflicting demands and agendas. Looking back over the past eight years, I can say in all sincerity that I think that we on this side of the chamber can hold our heads high about we have done and, indeed, about much that the Parliament has taken forward. I think we can say that a lot has been achieved.

I am certainly very proud of the investment that has been put into education. Huge developments have taken place in nursery education and in the use of information technology in our schools. New school buildings have been built and not only are there more teachers, but we have had stability in the classroom. Crucially, there have been great developments in health promotion work in schools and a massive expansion of breakfast and out-of-school clubs. In addition, as other members have mentioned, the provision of extra-curricular activity—the value of which, in my view, must never be underestimated—and areas such as sport, music, the arts and drama have expanded.

There is a positive story of achievement to tell and I would like to hear my party tell it even more often. I hope that that will happen in the weeks to come. That said, complacency is our biggest enemy. We all face the challenge of striking a balance in celebrating the successes of the Scottish education system and talking up its strengths without becoming complacent. The world is changing, and we cannot rest on our laurels and our achievements in a bygone age. Nor can we rely in the future on the reputation that our education system has gained in the past. We cannot assume that, because our education system served us well in the 20th century, it will serve us well in the 21st century. We should be willing to challenge ourselves and each other as we determine the education system that we need for the future.

As well as continue to improve standards of educational attainment, the system must unlock human potential by fostering confidence, creativity and ambition in our youngsters, by stimulating innovation and by operating in a truly dynamic way. I share other members' belief that we must acknowledge that there are limitations to what legislation, guidance, rules and inspection can achieve and that such an approach often has unintended consequences, in that it can sap energy and resources and sometimes get in the way of, rather than add value to, what goes on in our schools and communities. That is a big challenge that the Parliament will face in its next session.

Another issue that has been mentioned is our propensity to count. Of course we need to monitor and evaluate effectively, but we must recognise that not everything that matters can be counted or measured. There are dangers in encouraging too much teaching to the test and there are risks associated with placing too much emphasis on a tick-box culture. Playing things too safe can present a danger. Over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about how we handle risk, especially in relation to young people. Our aim should not be to eliminate risk—that would be impossible—but to ensure that the right risks are taken. Of course we want our youngsters to be safe and secure, but we must not breed a generation of cotton-wool kids. Of course we need good rules and procedures, but we must not stifle innovation.

We must build a culture in which we encourage a certain freedom of expression and in which we allow our teachers and our children to take the right risks. There are three areas that I would like to highlight.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does Susan Deacon agree that, in effect, she is reinforcing the point that Donald Gorrie made and which I make frequently, which is that outdoor education has a tremendous part to play in how we approach risk?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I entirely agree.

In that context, I highlight the role of enterprise education. Although it has developed tremendously, it needs to be much more about fostering an enterprise culture. It should not just be about teaching business; it should be about encouraging people to be entrepreneurs. We must recognise that not just business, but society, needs entrepreneurs.

We must also encourage and foster talent. Every child has a talent. It is a question of bringing it out and ensuring that the child is able to shine. Carol Craig has talked about the dangers of having a conformity culture in Scotland, which we must be alive to.

We must ensure that our schools encourage our youngsters to learn for life, as the national education priority says, so that they are equipped to engage with the world around them. We live in a complex and challenging world and, as colleagues will know, I worry about how we deal with some of the challenging social issues that we face.

Our young people need to be equipped with the information, knowledge and confidence to make informed choices about issues such as sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol. In giving them that information, that knowledge and those skills, we must not run scared of what tabloid headlines or other voices say.

I will end by paying tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. Over the years, I have listened to his speeches on many sensitive social issues, and I have very often found his contributions to be by far the most sensitive, thoughtful and informed.

It is not fashionable to say this in the run-up to an election, but the truth is that no party, minister or politician has all the answers. The real challenge for the Parliament in the next session will be for politicians to work together to ensure that our next generation of children get an education system that enables them to be true individuals and ensures that they—and our nation—can compete effectively on the world stage.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 4:20 pm, 22nd March 2007

That was one of the finest speeches that I have heard in the chamber for a long time, and I am very sorry that it marks Susan Deacon's final contribution to Parliament.

Like everyone else, I want to pay tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. I was working with Shelter when the Children (Scotland) Bill was going through Westminster. I think that I am right in saying that, in the Scottish Grand Committee, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton was absolutely steadfast in ensuring that, for the first time, local authorities had a duty of care to young people and a duty to assist older children who were leaving care.

However, I will remember Lord James best for what he did not do. As Minister of State for Home Affairs and Health at the Scottish Office, he ensured that homelessness legislation that the Tories introduced in England and Wales was not introduced in Scotland. He, his officials, Shelter Scotland and many other organisations fought very hard to ensure that that regressive legislation did not see the light of day in this country, and we should pay great tribute to him for that. I wish him well in whatever he does in the future. He has graced this Parliament and has been a real gentleman to most of us.

Before I turn to the motion under debate, I should also say that Parliament was visited by a group of Madras college pupils, led by Lynn Brown, who is an absolutely inspirational modern studies teacher. Despite the HMIE report that Iain Smith referred to, which slammed the college's physical state, the institution itself does extremely fine work, and teachers such as Lynn Brown must be congratulated on their commitment to the young people in their care.

Iain Smith mentioned Fife Council's education service. Last month, the council's latest education budget indicated a cut next year of £5 million, which comes on top of the £10 million cut that was made in 2006-07. Over the years, it has been almost impossible to find out from Fife Council the number of teachers who are employed in Fife—in fact, one official document gives two separate figures. It is hardly any wonder that the council has never allowed the information to emerge. As I made clear to Hugh Henry, in 1997, 1,733 teachers were employed in Fife; however, that number has now fallen to 1,691. That has not happened because pupil numbers have fallen: the current teacher pupil ratio in Fife is exactly the same as it was in 1998. The Labour mantra might well be, "Education, education, education", but any analysis of the figures for Fife's education service as set out in the statistical bulletin will show that there has been cut after cut after cut.

I am not the only one who is saying these things. I have a leaflet from two Labour candidates that was distributed in Levenmouth, which is part of Gordon Brown's Westminster constituency as well as being in the Central Fife constituency. Of course, none of the existing Labour councillors is standing for election in Levenmouth, as they have all taken the money and run, but one of the Labour candidates states:

"Labour in Fife will conduct a root and branch review of all funding with the objective of cutting out waste and bureaucracy and getting more money to the front line, to teachers, to classrooms and ultimately to pupils".

That says it all. Labour has been in power in Fife for more than 30 years; the Labour Executive has been in power since 1999; and we have had a Labour Government at Westminster since 1997, but despite that, teacher numbers in Fife have gone down and levels of attainment in our secondary schools continue to fall.

I visited a school in Glenrothes recently, where the children were absolutely wonderful. They put on a debate for the MSPs who were present, the subject of which was whether school trips are necessary. Of course, most of us would say that school trips are necessary and that it is good for children to get out of their environment and visit places such as the Scottish Parliament. However, the two sets of children in the debate argued about whether school trips are necessary. The argument that was articulated against school trips was that they are too expensive and the money should be used for books and other equipment. The money that they were talking about is money that schools and pupils raise in open days and jumble sales. That money should be used for school trips and other extras, but it is being siphoned off to pay for essentials, such as books.

That is the record of Fife Council and the Labour Party in Fife in the past 30 years. If the Labour and Liberal Democrat Executive is prepared to put up with that, that is disgraceful. Those parties have let down the pupils and parents of Fife through their refusal to get involved in the difficult situation in Fife Council's education service.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We come to the closing speeches. I call Frank McAveety to close for the Labour Party.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In the light of previous correct strictures from the chair about members who participate in debates sitting through them, is not it rather offensive to Parliament that the Minister for Education and Young People has not been present for at least half an hour and that we are now at the summing-up speeches but he is still not present? Oh—here he comes at long last.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The minister is back in time for the closing speeches. That is, of course, good practice that the Presiding Officers encourage at all times.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Further to that point of order, Presiding Officer, I point out to Mr Neil that I was invited to meet children from the Children's Parliament, who wanted to meet the Minister for Education and Young People. The only time we could do that was during the debate. Given that we are talking about our children's future, it was entirely appropriate that I went to meet them.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That just goes to show that one should never ask a question until one knows what the answer is.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 4:28 pm, 22nd March 2007

I thank the minister for rushing back to hear the concluding speech from the Labour spokesperson and for giving me more time to write the concluding paragraph of my speech.

Like other members, I welcome the debate and, obviously, I welcome the Executive motion. No one can say that education is not important, given the number of discussions that we have had on it in the Parliament. The case loads of parliamentarians of all parties and their visits, whether to pre-five provision, primary schools or secondaries, show that much of our important work is on education and how we use it as a tool for self-improvement.

I served as a local councillor in the 1980s and 1990s in Glasgow and, at the same time, taught in the east end and south side of Glasgow, so I can testify to the marked difference between teachers' experience now and their experience in those years. Confidence now is markedly better. At that time, we talked about teacher unrest. Another issue that was fundamental to the students whom I taught was their limited expectations about the opportunities that they should have. That has changed markedly because of the progress that has been made by the Labour Government at UK level and by the partnership approach in Scotland. I welcome Margo MacDonald's recognition that progress has been made, even though there are caveats about issues that need to be addressed.

To take a simple example, there are high schools in my constituency that serve some of the most disadvantaged communities in Scotland and have either been totally refurbished under the Administration or have been replaced with brand new schools. Much of the debate about how we fund such programmes—and the heat that is generated—is legitimate, but what has been ignored is the fact that if we waited for a conventional funding mechanism, some of those schools would not have been improved and the experience and quality of the education of those children would have been diminished. That does not come out in an audit report, but in real-life experience. Those who have a fundamental ideological opposition to using elements of funding that include PPP ignore them at their peril.

Alex Neil's contribution was a PPP—pure political posturing—of the best order, which he has learned over the years. The SNP has had eight years in Parliament and even now, just before we end this session, we have heard no rigorous detail about how it would develop a replacement funding mechanism. Despite the language that is used by the SNP, both in public and in the chamber, when pressed it is all down to that lovely little qualifier at the bottom of the page—a bit like an insurance claim—saying, "All dependent on whether we have independence." We cannot wait for independence. We have been given promises. Alex Neil was one of the architects of a remarkable promise that I heard when I was a younger man: "Scotland free by 1993". We are still waiting. If that was the SNP's prediction, I lack confidence in the future. The SNP is obsessed with not only how things are funded but the constitutional arrangements and how funding decisions are made. Pupils, parents and communities do not necessarily need to wait.

I see that Margo MacDonald is back in the chamber. We have heard about the heady events of Sunday and Hibernian Football Club's victory at the league cup final. There are well-known Hibs supporters called the Reid brothers—the Proclaimers—who also have strong nationalist political affiliations. When I consider the threat that is posed to our school programme and the limited funding mechanism that is proposed by the SNP, I think of a song by the Proclaimers. Unfortunately, it is not "Sunshine On Leith", which I have heard every day for the past four or five days here in Edinburgh. It is a paraphrase of "Letter From America". I shall call it "Letter From Alex", and it is to all the communities across Scotland that will have their school investment threatened. It goes: "Lochaber high no more. Portree high in Skye no more. Nicolson in Lewis no more. Linwood high no more." That is the reality of the SNP's position.

Eastbank academy, St Andrews secondary, St Mungo's academy and Holyrood secondary in my area have, year on year, made progress in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Scotland. Only last week, one of Scotland's entrepreneurs, Willie Haughey—who I admit has Labour affiliations; at least we concede that when we send letters to or write articles for newspapers—who attended Holyrood secondary, was invited back as a high achiever after the head teacher said that he had rescinded his expulsion programme. Willie said last week to students in the south side of Glasgow, "I can take you on in my company, which now employs 10,500 people, for £25,000 a year as a university graduate in accountancy, but I can take you on for £40,000 a year if you're a plumber or an electrician." That is a remarkable transformation of both the economy in Glasgow and in Scotland because of the stable economic structure.

I have served on the Education Committee with Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. He attended Eton; I attended All Saints secondary. We are both here—I do not know which of us is lucky or unlucky, but the one advantage that he has over most other members is that at least he knows he is going. The important issue to reflect on is that those who want to continue to make their contribution can do so. All I ask is that another product of Eton is not given significant political leadership in Scotland and the UK over the next few years. I could have lived with Lord James, but I am not convinced that I could live with David Cameron.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 4:34 pm, 22nd March 2007

I was not aware that David Cameron was offering lodgings to Frank McAveety.

The debate has been interesting, especially as there is a lot of common ground, despite the rants that we have heard. The minister's rant against the SNP was very enjoyable. Amazingly, for once, a minister's speech actually had some content. Those little bits I agree with, but the rest of it I am not sure about. The minister cannot take credit for everything because things progress gently.

However, Conservative members support the minister in thanking staff, who make it all happen, despite the bureaucracy and tedium of some of the systems that are forced on teachers, to which Lord James Douglas-Hamilton referred.

All members are grateful and pay tribute to Lord James. He was a great guiding light when I first entered Parliament because he has a wealth of experience. As a friend and colleague of Lord James, I know that he uses his experience for the benefit of others. It has been an abiding passion of his life to put children first. The legislation that he has steered through, his tenure of the education brief and his time in Parliament have been all about giving children opportunity in life—helping families to help their children and helping teachers to help children. We must put children at the centre and ensure that the systems that we put in place are not centrally run but exist to benefit the individual. When we talk about special needs, I worry that we are telling people that their only option is mainstream education. That is nonsense. We must look at education in a new light and consider individual children's needs.

Today Susan Deacon and Donald Gorrie made excellent speeches. I do not disagree with anything that either of them said, and there going represents a great loss to the parliamentary process. However, I was puzzled by some of Fiona Hyslop's speech. She talked about nursery provision, but did not mention parental choice. SNP members made no mention of where parents come into the scheme of things. I agree with Fiona Hyslop that there needs to be better continuous professional development for teachers—that is true of all the professions—and about the problems that exist with regard to training places. We all get letters from potential teachers who cannot find training places or permanent work, so Parliament should address that issue.

I agree with Fiona Hyslop on community access to school establishments. My local primary school is being rebuilt, in combination with another school, and will be a community facility. That is a good way to spend our money. However, the member did not answer my question about how to attract senior science teachers. We cannot leave the problem until the people who are now in primary school have grown up, because by then we will have missed the market. I am not sure whether I heard Fiona Hyslop right, but it sounded as if she wanted to nationalise banks because they make a profit. That is a matter for another day.

Everyone who has spoken has had a go at the SNP's proposed bond scheme—once again, the SNP has failed to recognise the facts of life. There may or may not be an independent Scotland, depending on what the people choose, but the scheme cannot be happen if the SNP ever leads an Administration under the Scotland Act 1998.

James Douglas-Hamilton discussed a number of aspects of our proposed education bill and covered all the points that many of us have agreed over the years. He took a little time doing so, because members were being so kind to him.

We must bring back school boards, involve parents and deal with the discipline problems in schools. I agree with Iain Smith's comments on the SNP's proposed bonds, but not with what he said about coalition. Coalition can be discussed only after the election—it is not an issue to blether about now, when people want to know what policies are so that they can decide whether to support them.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I draw the member's attention to Glasgow Housing Association, which has a legal status similar to the trusts that we propose, is able to raise money on the market and has done so successfully to fund part of the housing programme in Glasgow. Why cannot we fund schools and hospitals in the same way?

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

It is not. Hugh Henry does not know what he is talking about.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

It would be more useful for us to concentrate on children. If Mr Neil wants to come outside to be talked to about what is wrong with his policy, I will be happy to oblige him. Robin Harper and I agree on one important point—dedicated PPP planning advice needs to be available to authorities or organisations that wish to use it. I saw that in action in Stirling, when a PPP scheme was in operation at Balfron high school. The scheme was supported by both Labour and Conservative councillors. We got it right because we planned it correctly. There is a need for central Government to provide such advice.

Dave Petrie, who is a former teacher, was right to talk about pupil attainment, which is a scandal, as the report of the programme for international student assessment demonstrates. I ask the minister to have some ambition and not just to tick boxes about what has worked. What about children who need remedial teaching when they move on from primary 7 to secondary school? What about the children from the poorer parts of society, who are being left behind? Those are major issues, which must be addressed in the next session of Parliament.

Margo MacDonald spoke eloquently and I agreed with everything that she said, which is amazing.

Although I have no doubt that the debate will generate headlines that bash the SNP's proposed Scottish futures bonds, members—particularly those who have made their final speeches in Parliament—talked much common sense. Once in a while the parties have to agree, but the public wants to know the difference between our policies. Conservatives put children at the centre of our policy and we support teachers and parents. We need to get politics out of the education system wherever possible and give people choices in child care and nursery care. We must ensure that the professionals are not interfered with and are given the tools and opportunity to deliver their professional capability.

The SNP's approach is still pie in the sky and the Lib-Lab pact has failed in many ways, although it has had one or two successes. Some 25 per cent of children entering secondary school do not have the right standard of literacy and numeracy, which is a major failure.

I thank members who are leaving Parliament for their contributions and I wish them every success in the future.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:41 pm, 22nd March 2007

I associate myself with the tributes to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, who truly deserves them. He will be missed in the Scottish Parliament.

Given the everything-in-the-garden-is-rosy motion, we might have predicted that the debate would be an electioneering stunt on the part of the Executive parties. As the debate has progressed, the stunt has backfired on the Executive. Iain Smith said, "Only the Liberal Democrats think that young people matter". As for Labour members' speeches, I am sure that I am not alone in having had a bellyful of Labour's fears, smears and despicable scaremongering.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

No, I will not. I have heard enough from the minister today.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr Henry, the member is not giving way.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Let us consider what is behind the bombast and the bluster in the Executive motion, starting with the claims for the school building programme. The motion does not say that current and future taxpayers are and will be paying through the nose at credit-card rates of interest for the privilege of Labour's chosen finance vehicle, PPP, which is a rebranding of the Tories' private finance initiative.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

No.

Audit Scotland estimates that the higher costs of capital under PPP as opposed to conventional borrowing methods, which Alex Neil mentioned, add costs of between £200,000 and £300,000 per year for each £10 million invested. That means that in my patch in the South Ayrshire Council area, where six schools are being rebuilt at a capital cost of £76 million, an extra £45.6 million must be paid by south Ayrshire taxpayers during the next 30 years.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Will the minister please sit down? We have heard from him throughout the debate. Now we have an opportunity to speak.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

The taxpayers of south Ayrshire have started paying for the schools, because the Tory Administration in the council, supported by Labour, has imposed a 1 per cent levy on council tax to help to bridge the PPP affordability gap.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

The Scottish National Party, by contrast, offers a far better deal. We cannot undo existing contracts, of course, but we will match future rebuilding programmes brick for brick, at a significantly lower cost than would be possible under a PFI or PPP deal, by using our funding vehicle of a Scottish futures trust. We will provide new schools without new Labour levies.

To answer Elaine Murray's point, I say that we will not prohibit councils from signing up to PPP projects. However, we will offer an alternative, cheaper vehicle in the Scottish futures trust.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

We therefore expect PPP to wither on the vine. It will be squeezed out over time. As for the practicality of the trust, if the likes of the Glasgow Housing Association can go to the market for housing investment, which Alex Neil mentioned, why could an independent trust not go to the market for schools? The minister will have to explain that.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Members should not intervene from a sedentary position. I have never had the pleasure of expelling a member from the chamber and it would be embarrassing for us all if I were to begin with a member of the Cabinet.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

The Labour motion makes no mention of the biggest challenge facing Scottish education, which relates to the system's failure to improve the performance of the lowest attaining 20 per cent of our pupils, which has resulted in Scotland having more young people not in employment, education or training than most of our European neighbours. As The Sunday Times illustrated the other week, using HMIE statistics, tens of thousands of our youngsters are failing to master the basics of literacy and numeracy by the age of 14. Why is this happening? It is happening because Labour has failed to keep its promises on cutting class sizes. We need to give our teachers time and space to teach the basics and not overload them with endless Government initiatives, over-assessment and bureaucracy. We also need to break the vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation, low educational attainment and poor employment prospects, which prevents many of our children from fulfilling their potential. That situation has been brought into stark prominence by the publication the other week of the United Nations Children's Fund report, which concluded that Britain is a "picture of neglect" when it comes to the well-being of children.

Unlike the Executive, the SNP is determined to break the vicious cycle. We will give all our children a head start by investing heavily in health and child care in the early years of a child's life, intervening where necessary and supporting responsible parenthood. We will increase nursery education by 50 per cent, with a nursery teacher for every class. We will cut class sizes to no more than 18 in primaries 1, 2 and 3, so that every child gets the attention that they deserve.

The SNP's programme for government has, at its core, the aim to make Scottish education truly world class once again. It contrasts sharply with the smug, self-satisfied and self-serving attitude of the Executive parties that is shot through the motion. Scotland has suffered that lot long enough. It is time they were shifted.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:48 pm, 22nd March 2007

Am I alone in detecting a certain note of irascibility in the SNP's contributions to the debate? I hope that that is not what this debate is remembered for.

I want to place on record my thanks to head teachers, teachers and support staff in schools across Scotland for their outstanding work in leading the education and development of our young people. I also want to acknowledge the achievements of the pupils themselves. In doing so, I hope that I can return to the positive note on which Hugh Henry opened the debate.

One of the few points that Fiona Hyslop made with which I agree is that Governments can provide the structures, national policies, funding and inspection regimes, but that it is the people in the schools who deliver the goods and make Scotland's education system one of the highest performing ones in the world and who impart dynamism, confidence, tolerance, respect and values to the next generation.

We still face many challenges from outside the system. Some children have truly appalling starts in life, some young people struggle in the care system and other young people are not motivated by the school system and leave without the skills and personal resilience to survive and prosper in adult life. Those are the wider political challenges that we must increasingly focus on. Resolving those problems entirely will be a long-term job. However, those issues should not disguise the huge successes of our schools and our young people or how far we have come since the Parliament was established. Dave Petrie is a nice guy and I have a lot of time for him, but I was struck when he spoke—oh, is he not a moaning Minnie, is he not negative and is he not ungenerous about such matters?

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

The criticism was realistic and positive.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Thank you. I hope that we see Dave Petrie back in the next session.

We are entitled to say that, since the days of the Conservatives and the Parliament's establishment, our efforts across parties to support, nourish and improve Scottish education for all Scotland's children have made a difference. The investment in schools, in teacher numbers, in teacher training and CPD and in educational leadership has been unprecedented.

As Hugh Henry said, in our travels throughout Scotland, he and I and many members have seen fabulous schools, hugely impressive and motivated teachers and head teachers and many extraordinarily talented, confident and impressive young people. We have seen schools that are wellsprings of innovative and creative ideas and at which music, art, drama, sport, international education and outdoor education, on which Donald Gorrie and others touched, provide the depth and the lateral approach that we need in our schools. Those subjects are provided to a high standard of technical excellence and are used to inspire and motivate young people. We want to celebrate such success.

A few weeks ago, I indulged myself in a little nostalgia and visited my old school—the Gordon schools in Huntly—where I was taken round by the head girl and the head boy. They are enormously talented and impressive young people, as are so many. They were surrounded by a mind-boggling range of sporting, musical, artistic and educational opportunities. Earlier on the same day, I went to Rothienorman primary school near Inverurie, which is one of the 320 new schools on which Hugh Henry touched that are making much difference. That is a fabulous school in all respects. It has an Astroturf pitch, a super gym, lots of storage space, which is important to teachers, and a chill-out facility. The school has a very able head teacher and staff, who are highly tuned in to the surrounding community and parents.

We have touched on Barrhead high school. It is important to mention that Barrhead is not in a leafy middle-class suburb; it is a typical school in an ordinary Scottish community, but it has received the best HMIE report under the new inspection system. It is a beacon of excellence for what can be done in all our schools. In my area of Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, Shawlands academy supports with panache about 50 languages in the school and it is right to describe it as one of the most international schools in Scotland. It recognises the opportunities rather than the challenges of the bewildering mix of cultures and languages in the school. Cathkin primary school in Rutherglen, which is just up the road from me, is another new-build school that—TARDIS-like—is much bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. The school's superb facilities are outshone by the staff's talents and commitment. The school faces many social challenges but has an atmosphere of purpose and direction that hits people when they walk through its doors.

I have instanced five schools, but they represent many schools throughout our country. We realise that there is more to do. We need to foster and increase a sense of common purpose throughout the sectors of our education system to deal with the transitions, which one or two members mentioned, from nursery to primary school to secondary school and through to further education, higher education and the world of work. We need to do more to engage young people. Learning must be made relevant to them, to help them to lead more productive lives. Young children are keen and active learners with natural curiosity and it is vital that the eagerness and enthusiasm for learning that many young children in early years settings have is maintained throughout their school career.

It is clear that Scottish education is being transformed by our agenda for change. We are and have been a modernising Executive. We are delivering on our commitments to improve learning and teaching and to create a dynamic and progressive education system that is fit for the 21st century. It has been increasingly clear for some time that there is largely consensus on the main direction of our education investment and reform—David Davidson was right to touch on that.

The debate represents Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's swan-song in the chamber. I will pay tribute to him, as others have—I feel that I am coming along at the end. When I was convener of the Education Committee, no meeting, however poor my performance, would pass without his saying to me afterwards, "Very well done, Robert. Extremely well chaired." There have been few debates at which he has not wished me good luck beforehand and offered congratulations afterwards. Again, that has been quite independent of my merits and the superbity or otherwise of my performance.

I say to Lord James that his support, encouragement and friendship were enormously important to me. I will miss him very much when he leaves us, and I am sure that I speak for the chamber in that regard. [Applause.]

Make no mistake about it, consensus or not, the achievements that we rightly celebrate today will be put at risk by the approach taken by the main Opposition parties in the chamber. It is extraordinary how obsessed the Conservatives are with structures, with school boards and with messing about with local authority involvement, and how much less obsessed they are with what actually goes on in schools. Schools already have the powers to deal with the sorts of things that the Conservatives talk about in their amendment to the motion.

However, the real threat to Scottish education, as we have heard so often during the debate, comes from the SNP. The SNP threatens investment in schools. The party pays lip service to early intervention and makes uncosted promises to double nursery provision—or is it to increase the provision by 50 per cent? There was little clarity on that earlier. As we discovered during our previous debate on that issue, the SNP had no policies at all for the under-threes. We now hear in Adam Ingram's winding-up speech that the party will provide teachers in every pre-school facility in Scotland. At some point, I would like the SNP to explain what its position will be on the voluntary and private sectors and whether it will fund that particular promise in those sectors.

We have heard it all before, but the SNP has promised to match, brick for brick, the school-building programme of this Executive. "Brick for brick" is a good public relations phrase, but like so many of its kind it is hollow and meaningless. The SNP alternative does not stand up to examination. The SNP supports—

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

The members will let me make the point. The SNP supports a Scottish futures trust. Who could not warm to a "Scottish futures trust"? It is a warm expression, and nice things would go with it. However, the borrowing for that body would have to be guaranteed by the Scottish Executive in order to produce the borrowing rate that the SNP requires. Accordingly, that would count as public expenditure and would be on the balance sheet.

I will take an intervention from Alex Neil.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Why does it make sense to waste up to £4 billion on the profiteering from PPP? How many extra schools could we have if we saved that £4 billion instead of wasting it on profiteering as the Executive is doing?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

We have not had any enlightenment from the SNP. What we want are the details of how its system would work. The SNP's key education policy is built on sand. It should be consigned to the same room in never-never land as the £11 billion price tag of independence and the infamous, unending list of SNP spending pledges that the party thinks it can finance with tax cuts. If I were the SNP, I would keep that room in never-never land very tightly locked.

Education lies at the heart of the philosophy and approach of the Liberal Democrats and of Labour in this partnership Executive. We have built on solid and stable foundations the path to even greater success for Scotland's education system. I believe that we can be, not among the best, but the best in the world. Scotland's success in the global economy of the 21st century depends on having such an education system. When people come to vote in the Scottish election, they will perhaps bear it in mind that the SNP will cancel the progress that is to be made in schools.

I take great pride and pleasure in supporting the motion before us on the achievements of the Scottish Executive in education.