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– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 13th September 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 13th September 2007

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-457, in the name of Hugh Henry, on education.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

After the euphoria of last night, it is hard to come back to the reality of politics in Scotland. We all celebrate with Alex McLeish and his squad the magnificent victory over France last night—although perhaps not all of your staff will be so happy this morning, Presiding Officer. However, the rest of us still have smiles on our faces.

Fiona Hyslop's amendment says it all about the Scottish National Party's attitude. For SNP members, everything has got to wait until the spending review. It does not apparently matter that they made promises and commitments in order to get elected. It does not matter that they could, in fact, deliver many of them without securing a majority in Parliament. It is simply a case of their trying to blame others for their inability and unwillingness to deliver. Some might call it naivety; some might call it plain deception. Whichever it is, the SNP's attempt to blame Westminster is another case of claming that a big boy did it and ran away.

No one can doubt the importance of having a highly educated, highly trained, highly skilled and well-motivated workforce, nor can anyone doubt the need for lifelong learning. In the debate on the skills strategy yesterday, we heard a clear call for urgent action from all the Opposition parties. We heard condemnation of the SNP's failure to deliver a clear, coherent, effective strategy, and Parliament voted down the minister's dismal offer. I hope that the minister will ensure that the will of Parliament is reflected and that she will return quickly with a better effort and more detail.

Everything that the SNP has had to say so far has fundamentally lacked an explanation of how Scotland's universities will compete with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The minister's prevarication and delay is causing worry and uncertainty. We have heard this morning from Audit Scotland about the investment challenges that face us. We have also heard about the contribution that further education colleges can make. Labour, in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, invested heavily in the FE sector. We can see the results, with 21st century facilities springing up all around Scotland. Now, however, there is uncertainty over capital investment, there are worries about unfair and inadequate funding, and there is deafening silence about what will be done to allow further education colleges to rise to the challenges ahead.

Even on its foolish and ill-considered proposal to write off student debt, the SNP is squirming. We can be in no doubt that the SNP said that the debt was to be written off, not serviced or assumed. For the moment, let us leave aside the fact that the proposal would not put a single extra penny into higher education or improve the quality of education. It is a bizarre spending priority. However, it was a promise made by Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and others. Student nationalists told fellow students to vote SNP on the understanding that it would deliver on its promises. Allan Wilson, a minister at the time, exchanged letters with Nicola Sturgeon to warn her that the SNP's promise was unaffordable. He was denounced by the SNP. Now, however, he has been shown to be correct.

The SNP cannot afford the £1.85 billion that would be needed to write off student debt. To use a notorious historical phrase, if you are going to tell a lie, make it a big one. Now, a completely different promise has been made to assume responsibility for servicing student debt. In other words, we would have to spend more than £40 million every year to service the debt without eating into the capital—we would be paying the money for ever and a day. That would divert £40 million from front-line services—and only if the SNP was able to assume responsibility for paying a debt to a third party. Why do we need to wait for the spending review when Fiona Hyslop and others have been so adamant that they will act?

Let us consider teacher numbers. The difference between the present Administration and the previous Administration is that the Labour-Lib Dem Executive spelled out what could be offered and what could be afforded, and then it delivered. We said that we would deliver 53,000 teachers to Scotland's schools. The SNP said that we would not deliver them, but we did. We said that we would cut class sizes in primary 1. Despite criticism from the SNP, we delivered. We said that we would deliver smaller classes of 18 pupils for maths and English in secondary 1 and secondary 2. Fiona Hyslop said that the target was not being met but, as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, she knows that we delivered as promised.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Can you tell us that, as of now, you have met the target of having classes of 25 in primary 1 and, I think, 20 in—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I remind all members to speak through the chair—to speak in the third person.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am sorry, Presiding Officer. Is it not the case that, as of today, we still do not know whether those pledges—made not a few months ago but four years ago—have been met?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I find that quite staggering. The minister, with access to all her officials, all the statistics and all the information, has not had the competence to go and ask the question. Instead, she is asking me, with the one researcher at my disposal, to go and find out the figures from all around Scotland. What have you been doing, minister? We delivered the money. We delivered the teachers. If you have not got the wit or the ability, move over and let someone else do the job.

Despite the minister's persistent criticisms of our decision to allow flexibility in S1 and S2 maths and English, she has decided that flexibility will continue. What a hypocrite. The SNP claims that it will deliver class sizes of 18 pupils in primary years 1 to 3. Let us leave aside for today the questions whether that is the wisest thing to do and whether the international evidence justifies it. Let us instead consider the practical consequences and the matter of whether the SNP will do as it has promised. It is debatable whether it will be able to deliver all the teachers that it says it will for early years and primary schools by 2011. It has failed to assure councils that the money will be available to fund its proposals. That is particularly relevant if the SNP insists on a council tax freeze. Will it provide extra money to ensure that there are no cuts to education services? It has no answers for councils, which point out that the capital investment that is required is way beyond what has been promised.

We will see a rash of Portakabins throughout Scotland. Worse, children will be squeezed into accommodation that is needed for other necessary subjects, such as art, drama, music and physical education—and possibly even into dining halls. What about those schools that cannot adapt? Where will the children go in those cases? We already know that more parents will be refused a choice and that more children will be taught in composite classes. In some schools, there will be classes of 36 with two teachers, because that is the only way in which the promise can be met. In other words, there will be larger classes, not smaller classes. That is if the SNP can deliver, as promised, by 2011. So far, however, there is no detail on revenue or on capital costings, far less any discussion on cost-benefit analysis. There is also no detail on how teachers will be delivered for early years education, as was originally promised. There has merely been backsliding and mumbled generalisations, with no real thought given to what would actually work best.

What about the real problem that faces teachers the length and breadth of Scotland? There is a rising level of indiscipline in some areas, allied to wider social factors, which is impacting on the morale and health of teachers, as well as on the ability of other pupils to learn. It often leads to general disintegration and contributes towards wider, longer-lasting social problems. We have heard plenty from the Administration on a wide range of issues, yet it is strangely silent on any action to tackle indiscipline.

What about public-private partnerships? We have heard the SNP's views about the evils, inefficiencies and expense of PPP. We heard that the SNP was going to abolish PPP. It promised that, and people voted SNP on the strength of it. What do we have, however? PPP is continuing and is still available to be used, despite its apparently being so bad. What about the so-called Scottish futures trust? No doubt we will debate another day whether it can be delivered and used. For the purposes of this debate, let us assume that it will be available.

If the Scottish futures trust is so good and so cost efficient, why leave PPP in place? If the trust delivers better value for the public purse, why should anyone in their right mind—never mind an SNP minister—allow PPP to continue? The SNP has said that PPP is bad and inefficient and that the Scottish futures trust will deliver. Given that, would any minister with any sense of responsibility let councils choose between the trust and PPP? The SNP says that PPP is more expensive and less efficient, yet it is all right for the Administration to foot the bill. Ministers have told us that no big decisions can be made until the spending review is decided, yet they are agreeing to allow councils to use what the SNP argues is a more expensive funding option for building schools and to pick up the bill for it. Is that stupidity, naivety, dishonesty or downright incompetence? We should be told.

I will touch on ministers' complacency about new teachers.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

On a point of order. The Labour spokesman used the word "hypocrite" in referring to a member. I seek your assistance, Presiding Officer, to give him the opportunity to withdraw that remark, which is unparliamentary. I hope that direct use of the word "hypocrite" will not be part of proceedings.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Thank you for that point of order. Whether Mr Henry wishes to withdraw the remark is entirely a matter for him, but I have to say that such language sails very close to the wind.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Perhaps you should see what I originally wanted to say about SNP ministers and their duplicity and deceit, Presiding Officer. I assure you that the language has been softened.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am sorry, Mr Henry, I cannot take that entirely lying down. I ask members to think carefully about the language that they use in the chamber.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I do that. I assure you that I have softened my language, Presiding Officer.

The SNP agrees to allow councils—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

On a point of order. The member might have softened what he planned to say, but surely words such as "deceit" and "duplicity" are unparliamentary language. [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. That is not a point of order and I do not believe that those terms were used in a personal reference. I ask members to move on.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

When I consider the language that SNP members have consistently used in Parliament over the years, I am bemused that they are suddenly tender in strange places.

The SNP agrees to allow councils to use more expensive options.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party

On a point of order. I point out that the accusation of being a hypocrite was made. Is that in order in the chamber? The point is straightforward: the use of such a term directly to a member is unworthy. I seek your ruling on that, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I hear what Mr Welsh says and I will reflect on it. I have made my position clear at the moment. I think that we should move on.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

On a point of order. While the SNP is being so tender about our accusing it of hypocrisy, I quote a Scottish Government source, who is reported this morning to have said:

"Labour are making these figures up to cover their embarrassment for leaving a shortfall".

Who was the Scottish Government source? Was it a member of the SNP or of the civil service?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I say with respect that that is not a point of order.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I respect what you say, Presiding Officer, and I hope that when you come back to Parliament you will give us a word that describes people who say one thing and do another.

I will touch on ministers' complacency about new teachers. I have heard from teachers throughout Scotland, as I have no doubt Fiona Hyslop has, that the quality of new teachers is far higher than ever before. Other countries are examining as examples of good practice the training initiatives that the previous Administration undertook.

I know that Fiona Hyslop's officials will tell her that the problem will even out and that everything will be fine eventually, but that cannot excuse SNP ministers telling new teachers to get on their bikes and move across Scotland—they have obviously learned from Norman Tebbit. Never mind new teachers' families; never mind their commitments. In this brave new Scotland, they will have to move.

A solution would not take a huge investment. The sum involved would also reduce as vacancies arose and new teachers obtained jobs. However, instead of giving new teachers jobs, the SNP has decided to scrap the graduate endowment and to fund a range of nice-sounding projects because they give good headlines.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Presiding Officer, I hope that you will reflect on the time that SNP interventions wasted.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Last year, the previous Executive created 1,000 additional posts; 300 is small in comparison. If the political will existed, action could be taken now to create another 1,000 jobs immediately. The Administration could make a difference to the new teachers who are working one or two days a week and are unemployed on the other days. It could keep in teaching the new teachers who are moving into industry. It could do something for Lesley Webster, who e-mailed me to say:

"I am a single parent and gave up employment to begin to study ... I have been unable to secure ... work."

It could do something for Sharon Boisson from Paisley, who cannot get a job. It could do something for Heather Love from Paisley and Lindsay Moore from Ayr, who are both featured in today's Daily Record. They left well-paid and well-established jobs to go into teaching and they both have to rely on a day here or there.

It is clear that there is a lack of political will and an attempt to blame the situation on someone else. Overall, there is unwillingness or inability to show leadership in taking action. The sum total of the story so far is overpromised and underdelivered. Worse, SNP members made promises that they knew they could not keep.

They were prepared to say anything to be elected. Politicians have a bad name, but the SNP has reached new depths in posturing, spin and downright deception.

It's time for SNP members to come clean to the Parliament. It's time for them to give the people of Scotland an explanation. Presiding Officer, it's time.

I move,

That the Parliament regrets that education has not been given a higher priority by this administration; calls for an urgent explanation to be given on funding for higher education and further education; calls for the missing detail to be given on the manifesto commitment to write off student debt; calls for a statement on how the commitment to reduce class sizes for primary 1 to primary 3 which has not been fully explained or costed will be delivered by 2011; calls for more detail on how a teacher will be provided to every early years class by 2011; regrets that nothing has been said about tackling indiscipline in Scotland's schools, and calls for an early statement on how funding will be provided to improve the school estate in Scotland.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 9:31 am, 13th September 2007

Glad confident morning, after Paris last night. I point out that Scotland has had four victories in a row under the SNP Government.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Will the minister be so kind as to acknowledge that those great Scotland victories have all come while Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I think that I will return to this morning's debate.

Some folk never learn. That much is evident from the relentless negativity of the Labour motion and from the tone of Hugh Henry's opening speech. Lacking in ideas and vision, Labour members resort to the politics of smears and fears—witness the Daily Record this morning—and knee-jerk opposition to anything that the SNP says or does. Labour's fantasy figures on the 1,000 extra teachers are a case in point. It is obvious that a few more electoral hidings will be needed before the Scottish Labour beast changes its spots.

That said, I make it clear that the Government is prepared to work with anyone who will engage constructively in building a smarter Scotland. The Parliament must be able to mobilise the Scottish consensus that education is the key to unlocking the potential of all our people, as individuals and as a nation.

I am happy to acknowledge that the previous Administration was not without its achievements. The McCrone agreement stands out, and we intend to progress the curriculum reform programme, which promises much through making the learning experience in our schools relevant and inspirational. However, those successes pale into insignificance with the failure to address the core problem of our education system: the persistent underperformance of one in five school pupils. Despite 10 years of Labour rule, with Liberal Democrat support for most of them, the lowest-performing 20 per cent of the school population have shown absolutely no improvement in attainment levels. The vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation, lack of qualifications, low pay and unemployment was unbroken.

The Government is determined to stop that criminal waste of human potential, which is holding Scotland back and blighting the lives of too many of our citizens. We should be judged on how well we tackle that task, and rightly so.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does Adam Ingram agree that in order to tackle the group of people who are not in education, employment or training, an adequate skills strategy is required?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Yes, and we have produced one.

In just over 100 days we have set out our vision, our priorities, and our challenges. We have backed that up with an ambitious and wide-ranging programme focused on developing the capabilities of all our people—the wellspring of our country.

In 100 days we have made a good start, but there is much more to come: Government is about years rather than days. We await the budget settlement from Westminster and our own spending review, which will frame the delivery of our remaining commitments. We remain committed to making progress as soon as we can.

The first 100 days is our statement of intent, but what a statement. Look at our early actions to see the scale of our ambition. We have increased the entitlement to pre-school education for all three and four-year-olds to 475 hours a year, and we have provided councils with extra resources to deliver that increased entitlement from this summer term. We will trial free school meals for all primary 1 to primary 3 children in selected local authority areas from next month. We are funding an extra 300 teachers, and are targeting them first at pre-school settings and then at cutting class sizes in primary 1 to primary 3.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

Will the minister give an absolute commitment today that the SNP minority Government will achieve class sizes of 18 in primaries 1, 2 and 3 by 2011?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

We will need the co-operation of local authorities to deliver those commitments. In that light, perhaps the member's own council in Glasgow should be taking a more constructive approach.

On the resources that we are using to cut class sizes in P1 to P3, we want to focus them on deprived areas, from which international evidence indicates the greatest benefits will come. Not for us Labour's equivocation on the gains to be made here.

There are 250 more teacher training places since August, and that increase is only the beginning. The autumn workforce planning exercise will be followed by further increases in intakes for the one-year programme.

We are investing an extra £40 million to bring forward school capital works to help address the most acute pressures immediately and to enable councils to create the space needed in later years to meet our class size commitments.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Yesterday, the cabinet secretary confirmed to the Parliament that the £40 million is from this year's budget, which has already been agreed by Parliament. Why is it that under the guidance issued by the Executive, only 5 per cent of the £40 million is for areas of deprivation?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I think that the member misunderstands the methodology of weighting. The £40 million was focused on areas with high occupancy levels, in other words the areas that were under the most pressure in respect of expanding their accommodation. I also point out that we spent £40 million in three months to meet our class size targets, whereas Labour spent £60 million in three years. We need not take any lessons from the previous Administration.

Our agenda for a lifelong skills strategy for Scotland, "Skills for Scotland", sets out our ambitions for skills in a lifelong learning context and for making Scotland's skills base truly world class.

The abolition of the graduate endowment fee, which will reduce the burden of graduate debt, will benefit 50,000 students immediately.

We have set a challenging pace, but we will not allow it to let up. We will continue to act decisively, underpinned by our guiding principles of ensuring that every child gets off to the best start in life and, above all, focusing on the individual needs of the child and the learner and providing support to meet them. We will tackle early the factors that hold people back. We will tackle root causes and ensure that all our young people have more choices and more chances.

Our ambitions for the early years are the first building blocks of our education and lifelong learning agenda. By extending pre-school entitlement from this autumn, we have created a solid platform for progress towards our 50 per cent commitment. We will set out our longer-term plans in a comprehensive strategy in 2008.

Supporting vulnerable children and families is at the heart of a smarter Scotland. That means the provision of high-quality, effective and joined-up support for children and families.

Our move to reduce class sizes in P1 to P3 to 18 pupils is widely supported by parents, by the teaching profession and by educational researchers, who have found that it is in those early years that reduced class sizes make most difference.

In delivering those improvements, we will of course work closely with local authorities but also with universities, to continue to recruit and produce the high-quality, newly qualified teachers whom we have seen in recent years.

I know that Parliamentary colleagues will be interested—indeed, impatient—to hear more detail on implementation. However, they will have to be patient for just a bit longer, until we can complete the spending review and have the productive discussions that we anticipate with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the universities.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The minister has so far not mentioned the Scottish National Party's commitment to end student debt. I understand that the intention is now to service that debt. If that is the case, will the debt remain with the student or will it be transferred to the Executive?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Our position was always that we would stand in the shoes of students and service the debt. Obviously, we will have to push forward with our negotiations with the Treasury on the issue of removing the debt altogether.

We have seen schools adopt a range of approaches to improve relationships and behaviour, which are now beginning to bear fruit. Whole-school approaches such as restorative practices can create a positive ethos, which helps to both prevent and tackle indiscipline, and create calmer school environments. We will continue to support the introduction and embedding of such approaches in schools, including training and follow-up support.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

In conclusion, we are providing the leadership and the vision to start to transform our attitude to learning and our awareness of our place in the world. With our early actions we have signalled that we will not delay in taking the steps that are needed to energise Scotland's education system and to support individuals at all ages to realise their potential.

We are still at the start of the process but, as we look ahead to the coming years of this Government, we invite others to share in the agenda so that all Scots can have the opportunities that they deserve to flourish and excel.

I move amendment S3M-457.2, to leave out from first "regrets" to end and insert:

"recognises the importance placed on education in Scotland by all parties in the Parliament; welcomes the prospect of early legislation to abolish the graduate endowment fee; appreciates that the delay by over a year of the comprehensive spending review has dictated the timing of comprehensive announcements on spending plans for education on student debt, teachers' numbers and the school estate, and looks forward to positive and constructive discussion with COSLA on outcome agreements as part of the spending review to improve the education of pupils, recognising that the pace, scale and delivery of improvements in pre-school provision and class size reduction in P1-P3 will be a key element of such agreements."

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 9:43 am, 13th September 2007

It is right that the first education debate with a substantive motion asks the Government to clarify its commitments. I will outline some of the Liberal Democrat thinking on the way forward for education in Scotland.

We are building on a strong base in education, but we want to go further. Liberal Democrats are arguing for at least 250 new schools. We are also arguing for school building and renewal developments to make the type of building different from traditional schools, and not to focus only on the numbers. We want to take the excellent schools for the future design models much further and develop them into genuine, sustainable and healthy community and learning resources. Of course, we want class sizes to be reduced, which is why we have committed to 1,000 more teachers, but we do not favour a limited and prescriptive approach on minimum class sizes in primary schools. We would rather look holistically at schools and ensure that capacity issues are addressed while allowing headteachers the flexibility that they need. That is consistent with the approach that has been taken over the past eight years. There are targets on class sizes, but there should also be flexibility within schools.

We argue for free playgroup places for two-year-olds, greater powers for headteachers, and the need to develop a clearly focused approach to school discipline with much greater active involvement with young people, but based on published solid evidence. The Government has already been found wanting in its refusal to collect and publish clear data. There is also confusion about the future role of the ministerial task force on school discipline.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I remind the member that it was his former minister, Robert Brown, and his colleague Peter Peacock who stopped collecting and publishing such data.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I asked the cabinet secretary whether she was prepared to collect and publish clear data on school discipline issues and about the future of the ministerial task force on school discipline. She had no answer to those questions, which is telling.

Liberal Democrats want the eco-schools initiative to be developed and transformed into a healthy-schools initiative. That would be an anchor to make every school a healthy school with active and outdoor pursuits, well-being education, good food and an increasing awareness of the fantastic role that young people play in society.

Ken Macintosh made a good point yesterday about the upcoming early years strategy. We all believe in increasing early intervention and we look forward to the strategy that is being prepared. Unlike the skills strategy that was defeated by Parliament yesterday, the early years strategy must have substance, or I fear that Parliament will ask for it to be taken back as well.

Research indicates that for every £1 spent on early years provision we see a £7 return. Together with a proper approach to supporting families, we would like to see a new Scottish play approach, with the increased use of green space in playgroups and schools, a free place for every two-year-old in their local playgroup, and the transformation of primary 1 into a transition year that focuses on learning through play. Together, those approaches would invigorate the playgroup moment. That is not just wishful thinking. We need solid investment with a proper return for the public purse and real results for our young people.

Liberal Democrats have never said that, because of the work done by the previous Government, there is nothing more to do. The test is how we move forward, and what the current Government decides to do in its period of office with the budget available to it. Since May, there have been frequent announcements from the Government, and we have seen early on that it puts new Labour to shame on spin. Just yesterday, the Scottish Government press release on youth funding said:

"More than £2 million has been unveiled for over 200 projects under Moving Forward, the Scottish Government's strategy to improve young people's chances through youth work."

Only later on in the notes section does one see that the announcement was made in March—the decision of the Liberal Democrat-Labour Scottish Government.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Given the member's earlier contribution, I am not prepared to hear more from him this morning.

Last month, the Scottish Government announced new funding for library services, but that funding was already committed. Yesterday, the cabinet secretary had to admit that the much-heralded £40 million for the schools fund—so-called additional money—was actually from this year's funding, which was set by the previous Government.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I would if I had a moment, but I wish to make progress.

I have mentioned just some examples of the 28 announcements made by the Government since it took office. It is short on legislation but heavy on press announcements, and we have a right to question ministers on such announcements.

Incidentally, of those 28 announcements, in the space of three months three of them were about the much-vaunted skills strategy. The Government's response to the defeat on the strategy yesterday was disappointing. It could have produced a carefully worded statement acknowledging the concerns of more than 70 members of this Parliament who believe that the strategy is weak on detail and on how it could be delivered, and who are concerned that there are no baseline data on which to make progress, but it is spin to suggest that this Parliament is somehow neutral and that it endorsed the strategy's principles. Such early signs of arrogance from this Administration are not healthy.

The former Government established record levels of investment in education, but that was dismissed yesterday by the Minister for Schools and Skills as a target culture. She said that the era of targets was over and

"The priority of this Government is not to meet targets".—[Official Report, 12 September 2007; c 1632.]

Whether that was a slip of the tongue or an early admission, we shall see in coming months. The Minister for Schools and Skills and the Government missed the point about targets yesterday. No one suggests that policies should be driven by targets—of course not. Nor are we saying that outcomes are less important than outputs. The Government has published no baseline data to indicate the success of a policy. It cannot say, as it did in its skills strategy yesterday, that it will

"always seek value for money" if there are no objective criteria for gauging success.

Last week, the First Minister was happy to tell Parliament that the pledge to reduce class sizes in primaries 1 to 3 will be met in this parliamentary session, before 2011—he was unequivocal about that. He also said last week that he would deliver his election pledge to remove the burden of debt for Scottish students. Now we hear that the commitment to reduce class sizes in primaries 1, 2 and 3 will be achieved only with the co-operation of local authorities—maybe aye, maybe no—and that the Scottish Government is seeking from the Treasury the right to assume the student debt, which is £1.8 billion straightaway on the Scottish budget.

The Government does not know the number of pupils in our classes today, as the cabinet secretary has said. God help us if it does not know how many teachers we will need to fulfil its promises or how many classrooms will need to be constructed. It is not good enough that only 5 per cent of the £40 million funding that has already been committed has been allotted to areas of deprivation. We need clarity about that. More work has to be done and the Government needs to come back to Parliament with a clear statement on how it will deliver its much-vaunted promises.

I move amendment S3M-457.1, to insert at end:

"and further calls for an early announcement on when the SNP manifesto pledge for a 50% increase in free nursery education for 3 and 4-year-olds will be met and how much it will cost."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 9:51 am, 13th September 2007

When I first entered this Parliament as an inexperienced member a few months ago, one of the wise old heads, in the form of Mr Alex Neil, told me that it would be a different experience from the classroom. I say to Mr Neil that, today, I am beginning to wonder.

At the time, I was a bit puzzled that the Scottish Executive, as it was known back in May, gave so little time to debating education and skills. That seemed particularly odd, given that the SNP's two flagship policies of removing the graduate endowment and reducing class sizes for all primary 1 to 3 pupils were hailed as top priorities for the Administration, and were trailed in the press and the SNP manifesto as such. Was the explanation that there were so many other priorities on the agenda that education was beginning to be squeezed out, or was it that the Administration had woken up to the fact that some of its manifesto pledges were already hostages to fortune?

Like Labour, the Conservatives have grave misgivings about the SNP's ability to deal with the real issues that currently affect education in Scotland. I begin with the wrong-headed policy of abandoning the graduate endowment, which—as Hugh Henry rightly said—will do nothing to secure better funding for our further and higher education institutions so that they can maintain both the highest possible standards of teaching and research and an important level playing field for students throughout the United Kingdom.

The cabinet secretary must be aware of our universities' concern that they will be unable to maintain their international reputations if they lose staff and resources to better-funded universities south of the border. She must—I hope—question the wisdom of a policy that, instead of putting money into the system, will in fact take it out. We repeat our demand that she should establish an independent review of higher education as soon as possible, to convince colleges and universities that we are taking the matter seriously.

Secondly, the policy of a universal reduction in class sizes to 18 for all pupils in primaries 1 to 3 is simply not sustainable and should not be paraded as a one-size-fits-all panacea that will drive up educational standards in the first three school years. Although it is true that reducing class sizes can, in some instances, help to improve both educational standards and discipline, that is by no means a universal assumption that can be made about every school in the land, and it should not be the Government's role to decide on class sizes and what is best for individual pupils in individual schools. That should be a matter for the head teacher, and I know that many teachers and parents throughout Scotland agree.

Effective learning is, first and foremost, about good teaching in a calm and disciplined environment. There are many circumstances in which parents would opt to have their child taught in a slightly bigger class if it meant better teaching, better discipline and better access to a better school. There is by no means always a direct correlation between lower class sizes and better attainment, so the cabinet secretary must acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all policy is not the best way forward. It is increasingly out of date, and it is out of tune with the need for more diversity in education.

Last Thursday at First Minister's questions, I raised my concerns about the ability of local authorities to deliver that policy. I cited some estimated costs from Perth and Kinross—incidentally, an SNP and Liberal council—which says that it cannot put the policy into operation. No sooner had I raised those points than the council administrations in both Glasgow and Edinburgh told the cabinet secretary that they, too, will not be able to deliver on the policy, given the resources that she is proposing to make available.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will after I have finished the point.

I put it to the cabinet secretary that the policy of universally reducing class sizes in primaries 1 to 3 is economically unsustainable and educationally unsound. I also fear that it could do great damage to the freedom of parents to choose the school that is most suited to their child.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member has previously raised a point about Perth and Kinross Council requiring 19 extra classrooms for the policy. Does she acknowledge that the council welcomed the extra £2 million that it has received in recent weeks to help with such capital projects, and that it has also received £156,000 to employ more teachers from this autumn?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Quite frankly, that is nowhere near enough. The key point is that the council cannot deliver the Government's policy because of the strictures that the Government has put on it. That will not lead to better education, which must the overriding principle.

The theme that I want to dwell on in my final couple of minutes is that of discipline. Discipline is the most important issue currently affecting our schools, and I believe that parents, teachers and the wider public would agree with that. I ask the cabinet secretary again, as I did on 20 June, to place the improvement of school discipline at the very top of the school agenda. Without scaremongering—and I stress that point—and without taking anything away from the excellent teaching that goes on across Scotland all the time, I say that head teachers must be given the appropriate powers to deal with unruly pupils. In my opinion, those pupils should not be allowed back into the classroom until they have learnt how to behave. I ask the cabinet secretary again to ensure that a far more rigorous approach is taken to the publication of statistics to assist teachers and local authorities identify where the real problem lies.

Like Labour members, I am strongly of the opinion that discipline is the most important issue that we have to deal with. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps only a small number of pupils are causing problems, but if we let them get away with it, we will have serious difficulties in times ahead.

As the First Minister is very quick to tell us, the Scottish Executive has, since last May, apparently grown up to be a Government—a decision that we are told is based on common sense and the added responsibility that goes with running Scotland. The Conservatives intend to hold the Government to its word. Let us hope that that means that the Government will become much more responsible and will address the real educational priorities that face this country, because to date the record has been very poor.

Yesterday, my colleague Murdo Fraser awarded the cabinet secretary six out of 10 for her skills strategy. Let us just say that today's report card would read: "Could do better if attention was focused on the real things."

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 9:58 am, 13th September 2007

I rise to support the Labour motion, and I promise to be careful with the language that I employ, in case I offend the sensibilities of the minority Government's back benchers. Heaven forfend.

As a former teacher with 20 years of classroom experience gained in a variety of secondary schools throughout the west of Scotland, I know at first hand how central education is to the proper development of our young people's talents and abilities and to the wider aim of the creation of a more prosperous and more egalitarian Scotland. That is what we are all aiming for, and that is why I think it fitting to discuss, a few weeks into the new school term, a number of important issues, all of which require detailed clarification from the new SNP minority Government. Each of the matters highlighted in my colleague Hugh Henry's motion merits such discussion. This debate is the first opportunity—and it is much needed—for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the national party's more grandiose pledges from its 2007 manifesto.

The debate also affords members a chance to question ministers in important areas in which the SNP has been—let us say—uncharacteristically silent. For instance, as Elizabeth Smith said, the SNP needs to foster a culture in which there is an intolerance of indiscipline, with appropriate support given to professionals to create a climate in which learning can flourish. However, from the SNP we hear little, if anything.

The SNP made a number of extravagant promises in its May manifesto. Perhaps the most breathtaking was its promise to end student debt. Where is that promise now? The SNP was told that it would cost approximately £1.7 billion to remove current student debt and that a further £3 billion would be required to introduce grants. During the election campaign, the nationalists loudly claimed that we were wrong, but since 1 May there has again been uncharacteristic and deafening silence from the SNP.

The SNP promised a nationalist nirvana, but I can tell the cabinet secretary that happiness does not course unrestrained through the student body in Scotland. With each passing day, it is becoming more obvious that SNP promises—on education as on much else—cannot be delivered. I believe that if promises are made and targets set, they should be capable of being delivered. The previous Labour-led Executive promised to cut class sizes in English and mathematics for S1 and S2 by September of this year, but that target met with derision and ridicule from the nationalists. That was undeserved, because the target, which was promised to the people of Scotland, was met.

It is no good the SNP blaming others, as it does in its amendment to today's motion; that is the Christopher Brookmyre strategy and it will not work if the SNP is serious about being a real Government. Irresponsible promises made for short-term political gain are a subterfuge—I hope that that word is okay for SNP members. It is bad for any democratic party to indulge in that, because it carries with it a real danger of feeding a corrosive cynicism about the business of democratic politics itself.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

But everybody agrees with me these days.

Does the member agree with me that the biggest political broken promise was when Mr Blair was elected on a promise of education, education, education, and we ended up with Iraq, Iraq, Iraq?

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

I disagree with Mr Neil, and I say to him as politely as possible that it is very poor indeed to connect the tragedy in Iraq—which many of us voted against—with what we are discussing today. It is a "C minus—see me" for Alex.

I want to turn the chamber's attention to another rash and ill-thought-out assurance made by our new SNP minority Government, which said that it would deliver class sizes of 18 in primaries 1 to 3 by May 2011. How realistic, how rational and how deliverable is that undertaking? Let us consider my home city of Glasgow. Mr Ingram said that people should be positive, but I tell him that they are trying to be helpful and constructively critical because they know the reality of what they will face in meeting the SNP promise.

There is evidence for and against the notion that simply reducing class sizes will improve education, and there is an interesting argument to be had about that. However, let us leave it to one side for the moment. Achieving the new SNP minority Government's target of a maximum of 18 pupils in primaries 1 to 3 would require the provision of 186 new teaching spaces in 68 schools across the city. Glasgow would also require an extra 397 teachers across its 170 primary schools. In total, such an exercise would cost Glasgow City Council some £45 million. Would that be affordable? In the present circumstances, no. Even if Glasgow City Council utilised the extra £2.17 million that it has been allocated, it is still left with a shortfall of £45 million.

There is a more important question that people who believe in education would like an answer to: would the policy result in an improvement in the educational experience of pupils? I do not think so. The best-case scenario that Glasgow City Council can extrapolate from the figures has primary 1 classes of 18 but composite classes in primaries 2 and 3 of 25—and that scenario would still leave the city with a shortfall of £9 million.

To govern is to choose, but to choose responsibly. To ignore reality may make sense in public relations terms, but I submit that it is educational nonsense. I support the motion.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 10:04 am, 13th September 2007

I congratulate Hugh Henry on choosing to lodge a motion on education for us to debate this morning. Indeed, that comes no great surprise, given that Labour made education a central theme of the recent election campaign.

Following the campaign, Labour found itself no longer in government, but in opposition. In June, Hugh Henry brought to the Parliament a motion on skills and vocational education that called for 100 skills academies for Scotland. I disagree strongly with that Labour policy and spoke against it when the motion was debated. However, credit must be given to Hugh Henry and Labour for the fact that they were willing to step up to the plate and to advocate their policy—albeit one that is deeply flawed—as a party of opposition. On the day of the debate, despite Labour having allies in the Conservatives, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats voted down the Labour motion, which both parties considered would undermine the comprehensive education system. Thank you, Hugh.

I mention June's debate because back then Labour was willing to let Parliament shine a light on its policies. I admit that, in doing so, it provided a degree of constructive opposition. However, today's motion departs from that model. I genuinely hope that that will not continue, for both Labour's and the Parliament's sake. The Labour motion suggests that the SNP Government has not given education high enough priority, despite the fact that the Government has already acted to remove the financial barriers that existed under Labour in the form of the graduate endowment; that we are employing an additional 300 teachers and creating an extra 250 training posts for new teachers; and that significant capital expenditure has been made available to local authorities to enable them to take steps towards meeting the Government's targets for reducing class sizes in P1 to P3. From October, there will be a pilot in which P1 to P3 children in five local authority areas will receive free, nutritious school meals. This week we also launched our skills strategy, which was debated in the chamber only yesterday. Given those and other initiatives, it is laughable and plain daft to say that the Government has not given high enough priority to education.

By all means let Labour put before the chamber a motion stating that it is against reducing class sizes, that it opposes the abolition of the graduate endowment or that it will not increase the number of teaching professionals in our classrooms—let it stand or fall by the weight of its arguments. However, when Labour members come to the chamber and say that education is not a priority for the Government, they lack credibility.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

If, as the member says, education is such a priority for the new Government, why does it still not know how many teachers are required to deliver its flagship policy?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I know that the extra £9 million that the Government has provided will fund 300 more teachers than we would have had if the Liberal Democrats had still been in government.

Education always attracts its fair share of political soundbites, whether it be the mantra of teaching the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—or Tony Blair's famous, "Education, education, education". An analysis of today's Labour Party motion provides us with yet another. Instead of being about the three Rs, the motion is about the three Ws: it is whining, whingeing and wide of the mark. I will explain why. The Government has committed significant sums of money to making early progress on certain key elements of its programme. Those include the £25 million package for early years education, increased nursery hours, 300 new teachers and 250 new student teachers; the £40 million of capital spending that has been made available to local authorities to enable them to meet the class sizes targets; £15 million to fund the abolition of the graduate endowment; £5 million that has been provided for free, nutritious school meals; and £1.5 million to fund the further development of the Crichton campus, whereas the Labour Party would have been happy to preside over its closure.

I would love Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, immediately to throw shovels of cash at every project imaginable, but that would be feckless and reckless. The Government will not do that, even if Hugh Henry would. I am sure that the cabinet secretary would love to know from John Swinney what slice of the overall funding cake is coming her way. Indeed, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth would love to know how much he will be awarded. However, until the UK Treasury informs the Scottish Government of the final results of the spending review, large, grandiose spending commitments would not be about each portfolio getting a fair share of the cake but would be political pie in the sky.

I am proud of the Government's commitment to education and of the speedy progress that has already been made. Everyone accepts that there is always a need to lever in more cash, where possible. We agree with Hugh Henry and the Labour Party that we should maximise the financial input into education. However, if the Labour Party, which is now in opposition, joined us in seeking full financial independence and full fiscal powers over our economy, we could increase the overall income of the Parliament and spend it on all our priorities, including education.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I will put on my teacher's hat to remind members that, when they address another member in the chamber, they should use their full name. When a member takes an intervention, only the person who is intervening should stand. When a member is speaking, they are the only person in the chamber who should be on their feet. I ask members to turn off their mobile phones and BlackBerrys and not to put them on standby or whatever it is called.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 10:11 am, 13th September 2007

Bob Doris may be the minister's pet today, but am not sure that the rest of the class was particularly impressed by his speech.

Few issues with which the Parliament deals are as important or as fundamental as education. The opportunities that are opened up by a high-quality education system, both for the individual and for society, are increasingly important in the global economy. We can no longer compete with other parts of the world in the low-skill, low-wage economy. We must ensure that all our citizens are equipped with the skills and learning abilities to compete for employment opportunities in the 21st century. The starting point for that process is in our local education services. Increasingly, nurseries provide a solid foundation for the more structured learning that will take place during primary and secondary education. What happens between the ages of five and 16 can ensure that a child is ready to move on to further academic work or skills training. Today, I will focus on two main issues that have an impact on the learning process during that important period: the continued need to improve learning environments; and the potential impact of the SNP commitment to reduce class sizes.

One of the greatest achievements of the previous Administration was to begin the process of renewing Scotland's schools. I urge the current Administration to continue that process. Where renewal has happened, as in Caldercruix and Chapelhall in my constituency, the learning environment has been transformed. Not only do the children from those villages now enjoy brand-new, state-of-the-art educational premises, but local communities have access to high-quality sporting, recreational and social facilities. In the two villages, that has been done successfully using a joint campus model.

There has been a similar transformation at Airdrie academy, which only a few years ago was in such a poor state of repair that pupils were forced to sit their exams in Airdrie town hall. Now pupils at the school enjoy an educational environment that is second to none. As with the primaries to which I referred, the local community benefits from improved sporting and leisure facilities in the evening and at weekends.

Those are good news stories, but there remains a substantial problem in North Lanarkshire. The current PPP programme ends in 2008, with only 24 new schools completed. That leaves a large number of schools still in need of substantial refurbishment or rebuilding, at an estimated cost of around £550 million. It is vital for my constituents—for the parents and pupils of Caldervale and Calderhead high schools, for example—that the Administration finalises its proposals for funding large-scale capital projects and that it provides the resources that North Lanarkshire Council requires to ensure that education does not become a two-tier system in which some pupils enjoy the benefits of high-quality new schools, while those in other schools endure facilities that have long outlived their usefulness.

Over the summer, I lodged a number of written questions about the Government's proposals for the Scottish futures trust. I was not encouraged by the responses to those questions, which, in summary, said, "Wait and see." Actually, I will not summarise. Mr Swinney's answer to one perfectly reasonable question was:

"The Scottish Futures Trust is our alternative funding mechanism to the 'standard PFI model', and will be able to deliver better, more efficient major public infrastructure projects for taxpayers. Work has already started on the design aspects of the Trust and an announcement will be made when we are ready to explain it in more detail."—

[Official Report, Written Answers, 24 July 2007; S3W-1736.]

I can tell the Government that the pupils of Caldervale high school and Calderhead high school, and their parents, and are not prepared to wait until it is ready to

"explain it in more detail."

Perhaps the detail should have been worked out before the SNP placed the Scottish futures trust in its manifesto, or perhaps the SNP meant something different by the word "futures"—for example, that funding might be available, but only some time in the future.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Am I to take it from the comments that have been made about PPP and its supposed benefits that Karen Whitefield not only is criticising the Government's proposals for a replacement to crowd out PPP, but is actually endeared to, and enamoured of, the idea of PPP and the prospect of paying credit card rates for ever for school buildings that may end up outside public control?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

I point out to Mr Allan that if PPP is so bad, why did Fiona Hyslop come to my committee and tell members that PPP was going to be available as one option in a range of options? If PPP is so bad, the Government should get rid of it. The SNP is in government. It makes the decisions, and it needs to fund local authorities.

My constituents are—rightly—demanding urgent action to ensure that funding will be made available quickly to North Lanarkshire Council. Will the minister give me an assurance that Scottish councils will shortly know how much will be made available?

On the Government's commitment to reducing class sizes to 18 in P1 to P3, I know that there are grave reservations in local government about the cost of that proposal. If the Government is to meet its commitment, councils will have either to introduce additional teachers into classes to increase the teacher pupil ratio or to build new classrooms, but both options come at a cost. Will the minister stand by that commitment and invest the money that is required? Finally, will the minister please explain to the Parliament how local authorities will be able to deliver a reduction in class sizes in the face of an imposed council tax freeze? Quite simply, £40 million spread across Scotland's 32 local authorities is not going to do it.

We are all agreed on the importance of education in Scotland. That is why we in the Scottish Labour Party placed it as our number 1 priority. To be fair, the SNP, too, made education its number 1 priority, along with independence, Scottish broadcasting, North sea oil—in fact, every issue is a priority for the SNP Administration, regardless of cost, as long as it causes conflict with Westminster. My constituents are not interested in constitutional wrangling—they want action now.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 10:18 am, 13th September 2007

The speeches so far have more than adequately demolished the uncosted and unrealistic commitments on a range of education issues that were made by the Scottish National Party in the recent election campaign. It is no wonder that the programme for government that was announced last week was full of easy options but ducked or deferred the hard decisions.

From my discussions with the principals of universities and colleges in Edinburgh over the summer, I am in no doubt that there are genuine fears of falling behind and of Scotland's educational institutions ceasing to be competitive with institutions south of the border, which will have access to substantial funding streams from tuition fees.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will make one more point, then I will let Mr Purvis in.

The graduate endowment has few friends; it is the illegitimate child of the uncivil partnership between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in the previous Executive and, in fairness to the Government, its demise may well be of limited financial significance in the grand scheme of things. However, one could say that with far greater confidence if one felt that there actually was a grand scheme of things and that, overall, the Government was more interested in funding universities and colleges than it apparently is in funding students. It is the unbalanced nature of the SNP's programme on higher education that is the source of real concern, which will only be greater when our principals look at the terms of the Government's amendment today, in which there is not one word about the funding of higher education itself.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to Mr McLetchie for giving way. I agree entirely with his final point. I also agree with his comments that the programme that was published last week is uncosted and irresponsible. Annabel Goldie claimed credit for most aspects of the Government's programme during its first 100 days. What areas for which the Conservatives took the credit does Mr McLetchie think were uncosted and irresponsible?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The uncosted and irresponsible things are those that were not actually in the programme for government because none of them was budgeted for, as has been adequately demonstrated by speeches in the debate so far.

Turning to class sizes, in my seven years at Leith academy primary school, from 1957 to 1964—

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Thank you, Hugh.

I do not recall being in a class that had fewer than 42 pupils. Others of my vintage in Parliament will have had similar experiences. We were educated in an era that had very different methods of teaching. There was much more learning by rote rather than by discovery; it was a more didactic style that was enforced by a disciplinary regime that could on occasion quite literally make one wince. Before I am falsely accused by my political opponents, may I say that I do not recommend a return to the model of those days for today's schools. I welcome the progress that has been made since then in reducing class sizes in our primary and secondary schools. However, we must beware of drawing simplistic linkages between class size and educational outcomes. In that respect, I question the causal link that has been claimed in aid of the Government's policy. I do not think that the research is anywhere near conclusive on the matter, as Elizabeth Smith pointed out.

No current debate on SNP education policy can be allowed to pass without comment on the Edinburgh schools closure saga. It is difficult to characterise the actions of the SNP group on the City of Edinburgh Council. Were they political dupes who were conned by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners? They would not be the first party to fall into that particular trap. Were they political cowards who ran away at the first signs of trouble? Are they political puppets who take orders from our new masters, who were quite determined last week that nothing was going to rain on the self-proclaimed Government's parade? I suspect that they are a mixture of all three. However, it did lead to the extraordinary spectacle of the Scottish National Party proclaiming its commitment to small classes and early years intervention while proposing at the same time to close single-stream primary schools in areas of disadvantage in which there already are small class sizes.

In fairness to the Liberal Democrat-SNP coalition that is running Edinburgh, I will say that the Labour Party's synthetic opposition to the proposals was almost equally breathtaking. It is, of course, the party that pushed through its own schools closure programme in Edinburgh two years ago, albeit in the guise of mergers, which led to the loss of three primary schools in my constituency. It is the party that, as everyone knows, in essence devised the ill-fated schools closure plan, then stuck it on the shelf as too hot to handle before this year's election. Finally, and most damningly, I am afraid to say that it is the party that so mismanaged the finances of the City of Edinburgh that there is a structural deficit of £6 million a year in its budget and not a penny piece in the council's unallocated reserves to see it through, as we were told by the council's director of finance earlier this week.

As I said last week in questions to John Swinney, the City of Edinburgh Council is caught between a rock and a hard place, and its predicament is compounded by the Government's determination to enforce a council tax freeze as part of a disastrous strategy to switch to a local income tax. The harsh financial reality is that, unless the Government gives the City of Edinburgh Council a grant that is sufficient to cover both the inherited structural deficit and a council tax freeze, cuts in services are inevitable.

If economies are no longer to be made in the education, children and families budget, where will they be made? The next biggest budget heading for the City of Edinburgh Council—as it is for most councils—is that of social care. Having run away from pupils and parents, is the council now going to focus on Edinburgh's pensioners? I make no apologies for focusing on the situation in Edinburgh, although the same financial pressures apply across Scotland.

A supreme effort on the part of the Government and councils will be required simply to sustain current services and to meet commitments that Parliament has made, such as on delivery of free personal care. Now is not the time to place additional burdens on councils; for that reason, the Government would be wise to park its policy and instead focus on the fundamentals.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 10:25 am, 13th September 2007

My curiosity was piqued by the motion in Hugh Henry's name, which appears to suggest that the new, active and energetic SNP Government is being lax in the education portfolio. That suggests that the first Labour Administration in 1999 came in with all guns blazing, straw hats and trumpets, and got right down to the mark.

I looked at what Labour did for education in its first four and a half months in power in Scotland—the period for which the SNP Government has been in power. By mid-September 1999, the Labour Administration had announced its intention to set up an inquiry into tuition fees, which had been imposed by London and—not content with that achievement—had announced an intention to launch a consultation on a possible education bill, which never came to fruition. That is all. There was nothing else on education—not a peep. There had been no indication that the Administration was giving priority to education, which is what Hugh Henry's motion calls for.

The motion also calls for an "urgent explanation" on funding for further and higher education. Although the Administration in 1999 included Labour ministers who had held office at Westminster immediately before the election, by September 1999 there had been no word about funding for further or higher education, far less an "urgent" statement on the issue. No Labour minister or Labour member had expressed concern about student debt, let alone asked how it might be written off.

By September 1999, class sizes were not on the agenda for Labour and had not been mentioned, nor had Labour mentioned the appalling conditions in which PPP projects were leaving Scotland's schools. Labour had not even signalled intentions about teachers in early years education—far less made a commitment to ensure that every early years class should have a teacher, as the SNP Government has done. Labour had not provided details on how teachers were to be provided.

The indiscipline problem in Scotland's schools had been completely ignored. No Labour politician had uttered a word about the problem, far less set out a plan for tackling it. The schools estate in Scotland was being pimped out by Labour ministers under PPP, as a milk cow for international merchant bankers, without a word to Parliament. The most insidious and disgraceful tuition fees were those that were being foisted on children who were entering primary 1 in PPP projects for which they would pay well into their working lives. However, Labour did not think that Parliament had a right to know about that.

Members will forgive me if I regard the motion with more than a touch of scepticism.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The member disproves the notion that attack is the best form of defence. The SNP has pledged to abolish all graduate debt. How will it pay for that? No SNP member has answered that question.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Labour created the problems; we are finding the solutions.

To be fair, the 1999 Parliament eventually had a chance to debate education. On 30 September it debated a motion on teachers' pay and conditions, which led directly to the establishment of the McCrone commission and the deal that properly rewarded teachers for their efforts. The motion was in the name of Alex Salmond and the debate was led by Nicola Sturgeon. Not much changes: the SNP led the way eight years ago and is still leading the way.

I am sure that Labour members will say that Sam Galbraith had made a ministerial statement on teachers' pay in the week preceding that debate. However, they know that the original remit was flaccid and that the Labour Administration had refused to take part in negotiations, as Mr Galbraith made clear. Only an imminent strike by teachers brought ministers scurrying to the table.

Let me be clear. The SNP brought education into Parliament in 1999 and has pursued education issues ever since. The SNP Government has been tasked with cleaning up the education mess that the Labour Administration left behind.

The Scottish Government had made early commitments in a range of policy areas, including education. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has pledged to introduce legislation to end the graduate endowment tuition fee that was imposed by Donald Dewar's Administration. A Labour wrong is being righted by an SNP Government. That legislation, which will be introduced soon, will represent a step in the right direction for Scottish education.

Fiona Hyslop has made a commitment to improve early years education and make it proper education. Hugh Henry asks how that policy will be delivered and wants costings. I advise him to consider what has happened in the past: the Administration of which he was a member never laid out costings before introducing the budget bill—with good reason, because costings make sense only when they are seen in the round, as part of the whole package. The SNP has introduced holistic government in Scotland. Policy is linked across portfolios, which is far more sensible than the piecemeal approach that Hugh Henry seems to favour.

I invite Labour members to think about the issues, discuss them with us and join the conversation. We can find the best way forward for Scotland only by discussion. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has laid out Scotland's SNP Government's vision for education and the case has been put for that vision. Scotland—and the Opposition's needs—would be better served if, instead of indulging in the negative sniping and general impotence that is demonstrated in Mr Henry's motion, Labour took time to examine the issues and come up with positive ideas of its own, or if Labour backed the SNP Government in its determination to improve Scottish education.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 10:30 am, 13th September 2007

The SNP said in its manifesto that it wanted to reduce class sizes to 18 or less in primary classes 1 to 3. It did not say that it wanted to end parental choice in Scotland's schools, but that is precisely what will happen. Ministers tell councils that they must cut an average class size of 24 to a maximum class size of 18, but offer no significant new resources to meet that objective.

I am glad that the Minister for Schools and Skills, Maureen Watt, is in the chamber. She hails from the north-east and I hope that she shares my astonishment at how quickly the consequences of the policy on class sizes have been felt in Aberdeen—I am sure that they will be felt elsewhere soon. In my constituency, families are already being told that Aberdeen City Council will put an end to out-of-zone placings for primary 1 pupils as a consequence of the SNP Government's policy. That is what happens when a party makes rash promises in opposition in an attempt to get elected, and then tries to deliver those promises although they were not costed or thought through.

Aberdeen City Council can hardly be accused of seeking to undermine SNP Government policy—the council's convener of education is an SNP councillor. However, the impact of SNP Government priorities is being felt by councils whatever their political colour, as Elizabeth Smith said. What Aberdeen City Council is telling me is unambiguous. The council's chief executive wrote to me on 4 September, to spell out the implications of ministers' commitment to class sizes of 18 or less in P1 to P3. He wrote:

"The potential impact of this policy on schools, recognised by all local authorities, is that parents may not be able to enrol their children at preferred schools and local authorities will have to robustly pursue their policies of local schools for local children ... It is therefore essential we maintain high standards of education by allowing the 'out of zone' population to decrease naturally. It would therefore be extremely irresponsible of the Authority to continue to take out of zone pupils."

The chief executive went on to refer to an excellent primary school in my constituency. He wrote:

"each year's P1 forecast at Mile-End (which previously included 8 parental choice places), must now have these removed from the equation due to the required reduction in class sizes."

He concluded:

"It would be irresponsible of the Council to continue to admit 'out of zone' pupils to the educational and physical detriment of those already in attendance."

Never mind that Mile-End primary school is about to be replaced by a brand new school, thanks in large part to the positive commitment to new school building of Labour and Lib Dem ministers in the previous Scottish Administration. That new school is being built, but it will accommodate only the forecast in-zone population from the immediate vicinity. Even if the school building programme can increase capacity to accommodate classes of 18, as SNP ministers demand, the commitment can be met only by sacrificing the interests of families who already have a child at the school but who live out of the zone. Parental choice in Aberdeen is dead and SNP ministers killed it. That is the clear view of a council in which education policy is the responsibility of an SNP convener.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Does the member realise that parents and children have told us that children would rather be taught in smaller classes? Parents take that into account when they place their children. Parents would much prefer their children to be taught in decent schools that have smaller class sizes, nearest to where they live.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

That is very interesting. In her last phrase, Maureen Watt seemed to acknowledge that SNP policy is to abolish parental choice. It is funny that that was not in the manifesto, yet that is the consequence of her proposals. I know what parents in my constituency want—they want to have an element of choice. When one sibling is at a certain school, they want to be able to send the other sibling to that school. In the past few weeks, I have been told on their behalf that that choice is no longer available, as a consequence of the policy of SNP ministers.

That is not the end of the tale, as that same council, Aberdeen City Council, will consider next month a recommendation from officials not to expand the schools estate but to reduce it. Ministers are saying that class sizes should be reduced, and that we will need on average four classrooms for every three current primary school classrooms, yet that local authority is talking about closing schools, not opening them. It is talking about cutting the school week to four and a half days, not about improving the quality of teaching time.

It has taken the SNP only four and a half months to bring that chaos to Scotland's schools. Ministers are insisting on cutting the number of children in each classroom, yet councils are forced to consider cutting the number of classrooms. Ministers have simply failed to provide the resources to pay for smaller class sizes. A figure of £40 million throughout Scotland has been cited, and only £2 million for a council the size of Aberdeen City Council—not even enough to restore spending to last year's levels in real terms.

When even local authorities that are led by the SNP are planning to cut classroom time, to close or merge schools and to abolish parental choice, it is time SNP ministers woke up to the consequences of their uncosted commitments.

Too many of my constituents are already paying a price by losing the element of choice they have enjoyed in the past. Many more will pay the price of ministers' failing to resource their plans in my constituency and throughout Scotland. That is a shocking indictment of only four and a half months of SNP Government. As Hugh Henry said, it is already time for a change.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:37 am, 13th September 2007

One of the signal achievements of the past two sessions was the rebuilding of the Scottish education system, battered as it had been by years of neglect, the teachers dispute, crumbling buildings and sagging morale. As Hugh Henry and others have mentioned, over the past eight years, the face of Scottish schools has been transformed, with 300 new or renovated schools in the last session of Parliament alone. I have been in many of them, as I am sure have the education secretary and her colleagues, so I am disappointed in Adam Ingram's extremely niggardly recognition of the achievements of the past eight years.

The McCrone settlement was a key building block in remotivating our teachers, but there were other major initiatives: in nursery schooling; in developing the key driver of school leadership; in training; in the curriculum review; and in achieving our target of 53,000 teachers by October 2007, supported by classroom assistants, to target the key transition stages and to widen and broaden the school experience. In further and higher education, the landmark student settlement and the careful investment in universities and colleges set Scotland on a different and better path than the sorry tale of tuition fees and top-up fees south of the border.

Those are some the highlights in the hugely ambitious education programme that was delivered by Liberal Democrats and Labour in the previous Executive but which was shaped and signed up to by the whole Parliament. It is a matter of note that there were few real disagreements on the shape of those reforms or on the philosophy that underlay them. I am enormously proud of the major contribution of the Liberal Democrats to those achievements, but I very much fear that the SNP Government is now embarked on a course of action that is setting them at significant risk. I have obtained no comfort from the superficial and inadequate strategies that have begun to emerge from the Government after its summer cogitations.

The skills strategy yesterday was rightly gubbed in the debate and defeated at decision time, not because the SNP is a minority Government, but because its policies did not stand up to examination. We are now seeing the results of an election campaign in which the policies of the putative Government were not put under the microscope as they should have been, and were not challenged for the incoherence we now see pouring forth. That is the real price of political and media obsession with the constitutional question.

Liberal Democrats welcome the prospect of abolition of the graduate endowment but, welcome as it is, it is a far cry from the bold promises to get rid of student debt. The SNP is already running away from this one, even before Opposition fire has been trained on it, not because it is a minority Government, but because its manifesto promises do not stack up. It is all very well to blame a delay in the spending review, but I rather think that the SNP will have to search pretty hard in the entrails of a tight spending round to find the funds for this particular little promise. David McLetchie spoke well about that issue.

Then there is the mess the SNP is getting into over class-size reductions. The two biggest councils say that it cannot be done with anything like the likely funds available to them, and without knock-on effects on other facilities in the schools.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

As part of the Government's pledge, Edinburgh has just received £2.3 million for capital and £400,000 for teachers. Glasgow has received £2 million for capital, and will receive £650,000 this autumn. Does the member not recognise that the "likely funding" he mentioned is exactly why we need the information from Westminster for the comprehensive spending review? That is the "likely" information.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

If the member says so. In any event, Fiona Hyslop has no idea how much money it will take to deliver the pledge or how many teachers will be needed. The SNP mentioned £105 million in its manifesto promises. Will Fiona Hyslop confirm today that on any view, if we take the capital and the revenue consequences together, far more than that will be required? What a contrast to the careful targeting by our Executive on key education stages.

Over the years, I have heard Fiona Hyslop wax lyrical about the benefits of early years education—admittedly in suspiciously general terms—as if the SNP had made a discovery that no one else had thought of. The reality is that it was our Administration that delivered a free nursery place for every child—an achievement that was rather overlooked by many people. I well remember one of the last debates before the election, when it was discovered that the SNP had no policy proposals of any kind for the under-3s, and the proposals for nursery schools had a back-of-a-cigarette-packet look about them, as the promise went from doubling nursery provision to increasing it by 50 per cent. Adam Ingram spoke of a strategy by 2008. I was not quite sure whether he promised a comprehensive strategy or a comprehensible strategy. Astonishingly, the SNP's promises on nursery schools did come from the back of a cigarette packet and, like the contents of a cigarette packet, they are bad for our health.

Parliament and the country have some sympathy with SNP ministers struggling to master difficult new portfolios and to bring some coherence to the election manifesto, which was so clearly a manifesto for Opposition, with hints and promises to every interest group under the sun. Now, however, the first joys of the honeymoon period have waned and we—and Scotland—look for coherence, for joined-up thinking and for programmes that will improve the situation of the people. In short, we look for a sense that this Administration, which claims to be a Government, has the capacity to govern as well as to spin. So far, unfortunately, we look in vain.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 10:42 am, 13th September 2007

Having listened to what the minister, Adam Ingram, said in support of his party's claims that reducing class sizes to 18 at primaries 1, 2 and 3 is the best way to deal with what he called the persistent underperformance of one in five of Scotland's pupils, and having considered the implications of directing resources towards meeting that arbitrary target, I share the concerns that have been expressed around the chamber about what the SNP is about.

The cabinet secretary has in the past defended her policy by referring to a study that was conducted in the United States of America in a very different social and economic setting from that of Scotland. There are, however, much more robust studies, including a multiple-level literacy initiative in West Dunbartonshire, the second most disadvantaged council area in Scotland, which is responsible for dramatic improvements in raising attainment and eradicating illiteracy. As a result of the outstanding outcomes it is delivering, the West Dunbartonshire initiative is attracting national and international attention. My concern, and that of many education professionals and parents in West Dunbartonshire, is that the minister's policy will put those achievements at risk.

The West Dunbartonshire initiative has a number of unique features. It has a strong research focus, with intervention strategy being based on the existing and developing evidence base for enhancing literacy levels. As well as raising literacy levels among children in the early years of schooling, it has greatly reduced the numbers of children who experience reading failure as they enter the later primary years, which has enhanced self-esteem and given greater scope for intensive individual support for pupils with difficulties. Success is linked to recognition of the importance of the context within which children learn, as well as the content of materials, with the focus of the intervention strategy being on creating the right learning environment to promote literacy. I would be happy to pass on to the minister further details of the approach that has been adopted.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Just let me carry on for a little while yet.

The research is particularly well documented and the outcomes that are being delivered are striking when they are set against the challenging levels of deprivation in West Dunbartonshire. We have moved from a position in which between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of school leavers were functionally illiterate to the problem of illiteracy in the school years having been largely eliminated.

I hope that the minister is aware of other highly significant research on poverty and health in Scotland, which shows that the cognitive abilities of children in poor families are significantly impaired relative to those of their counterparts in better-off family circumstances. That research also points to the importance of targeted early intervention to promote cognitive development.

There is overwhelming evidence that sustained and targeted intervention in literacy and numeracy support where it is necessary is effective when it is begun in the pre-school years and sustained throughout the school career. It is unacceptable that the minister is apparently rejecting the conclusions of top-quality Scottish research and the evidence of what is being delivered in favour of a convenient political slogan that is not well supported by relevant research or evidence.

The most exciting aspect of the West Dunbartonshire initiative is the fact that it has been implemented on a whole-authority basis over an extended period, during which the results have been thoroughly evaluated, creating a model that works but which others want to eliminate. Do you want to eliminate it, minister?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member makes a very good case for early intervention. That case is exactly why this Government, unlike the previous one, will put far greater emphasis on greater early intervention. In the West Dunbartonshire example, of which we are very supportive, the issue is pre-school support. That is very important. I am talking about access to nursery education and nursery teachers. The previous Government was quite happy for nursery teachers to be removed from nurseries.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Let me explain the economics of the situation. West Dunbartonshire Council is currently backing the approach with all the resources that it is able to commit—resources that are squeezed from every pot it can access—but, as we have heard, the Scottish ministers know better. They have other priorities, which will direct resources away from authorities that are wrestling with deprivation and disadvantage, such as West Dunbartonshire Council. Your colleague Adam Ingram admitted it this morning, if you listen carefully to what he said. Reducing class sizes will inevitably rob resources, even in West Dunbartonshire, from a tried and tested programme that is delivering exceptional outcomes. In West Dunbartonshire, 23 staff are currently engaged in delivering the targeted specialist support that is associated with the literacy project. They will have to be redeployed if the minister imposes the target for reducing class sizes.

No one is arguing that reducing class sizes is a bad thing—it can deliver and has delivered significant benefits—but you cannot spend money twice. That is the reality of the situation. Politics is a matter of choice. The best focus would be on improving literacy and the cognitive development of the kids who most need it, through programmes that have been demonstrated to work rather than through the generalised approach of reducing class sizes.

It is not only the minister's money that comes into the matter. I do not speak to West Dunbartonshire Council all the time, but I listen to what its finance convener says, and he says that the council faces £10.5 million-worth of cuts as a result of the SNP Administration's requirement to impose a freeze on council tax. The reality is that every non-statutory element of expenditure within West Dunbartonshire will be affected by the financial squeeze to which that authority is now subject, and the children who have been helped by a highly successful project over the past 10 years will be adversely affected. That is the effect of the choices that the minister wants to make.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I remind members that only the Presiding Officer should be addressed in the second person.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 10:49 am, 13th September 2007

I draw your attention to the first clause of Hugh Henry's motion:

"That the Parliament regrets that education has not been given a higher priority by this administration", or this Government, as I would call it.

I will give Mr Henry a few facts about how the previous Labour-Liberal Administration gave education a high priority. Like him, I have one researcher at my disposal—as you know, Hugh, I am a back bencher—and my researcher and I discovered that, as Christina McKelvie mentioned in her speech, the previous Administration had very few debates on education. There was one in 2002 and then one in 2006. In 2002, when Cathy Jamieson was Minister for Education and Young People, she said:

"It would be easy to resort to knee-jerk reaction or political sloganising; indeed, some people already have done so."

If the cap fits, Mr Henry, I am sure that you will wear it. Presiding Officer, I am sure that that is not deemed to be unparliamentary language.

Cathy Jamieson went on to say:

"We have choices and we need to know where our priorities lie. Let us have a debate."—[Official Report, 6 November 2002; c 14940.]

I could not agree with her more.

The motion is indeed a knee-jerk reaction. Sadly, it simply attempts to achieve political gain on a serious subject and contradicts the Labour Party's claim that education is its top priority. It is easy for everybody inside the Parliament and outside it to see from the motion what Labour's priority is. It disappoints me and I am sure it disappoints many people in Scotland that, instead of using parliamentary time to discuss the important choices that we face in the Parliament and in Scotland, as you always said yourself, Mr Henry—the best way forward for our children, our schools, nurseries and universities and, ultimately, the success of the Scottish public—you have chosen to take a negative approach.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Members should not address other members by using the words "you" or "your".

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I hear Sandra White's analysis and interpretation of the motion but, if that motion became the will and view of the Parliament, would she and her party accept that the Parliament had expressed a strong view? Would the present Administration reflect on that and come back to Parliament to address the points that the motion makes?

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I always respect what Hugh Henry and, in particular, the Parliament says. I am sure that the minister in summing up will have an answer.

I echo Adam Ingram's words regarding funding and will explain to the previous Administration exactly what they mean and the responsibilities that they bring with them. Future levels of funding will be announced in the upcoming budget. We have heard all about the comprehensive spending review. It must be completed and any other course of action would be imprudent and incorrect. I am sure that Labour and Liberal Democrat members are aware of that fact. The Finance Committee will rightly scrutinise the budget and report to the Parliament. That scrutiny is a parliamentary process and will ensure that all parties will have the opportunity to express their opinions.

I am certain that the Opposition is not suggesting that we should spend money before we know exactly how much we have in the purse and that we should bypass the proper parliamentary procedure. Mr Henry's comments made a good case for the Parliament to have further powers to ensure that we do not have to wait for the money to be doled out to us once again. I am sure that he is aware that, as the First Minister stated last week and in the weeks previous to that, we will work to deliver all our manifesto commitments over the four-year session.

We must ask ourselves why students are the only people in the country who have debts before they even get jobs. Apprentices get paid but students do not. We must address that.

I am appalled at the Opposition's attitude towards smaller class sizes. We are considering our children's future. Bill Butler waxes lyrical on all the numbers that came from Glasgow City Council, but it takes a piecemeal approach to smaller class sizes. It must produce a paper on a long-term strategy and its implications, but so far it has not done that. I urge Glasgow City Council and the other councils that have not produced strategies to go ahead and do so.

I am appalled at the attitude of the Opposition parties, particularly Labour and the Lib Dems, because it is not impossible to do what we propose. Smaller class sizes can be achieved and student debt can be eradicated. We cannot tell our children and students that education is the best way forward for them without backing them in it. The language that the Opposition parties are using—cannot do and will not do—is what lost them the election. The Government says that it can do and will do. We will carry on over the next four years, as the First Minister said.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 10:54 am, 13th September 2007

A headline in one of the Sunday broadsheets that I read recently asked:

"If a class of 25 pupils is cut to 18, what happens to the other 7 children?"

That is a good question, which the SNP Administration has not answered thus far.

I will focus on three things. First, I will talk about reducing class sizes. Secondly, I will say why having that one flagship policy diverts attention away from more important priorities, such as discipline in the classroom and literacy and numeracy. Thirdly, I will explain why the policy will not work, by focusing on the Edinburgh situation, in which the SNP councillors, along with their Liberal Democrat colleagues, voted to close 22 nurseries, primary schools, secondary schools and community centres.

We have heard from a number of members that reducing class sizes is impractical and hugely expensive and will have minimal benefit—thus far, we have heard almost nothing about what the educational benefits would be. I understand that there might be small benefits in reducing class sizes, but, given the massive costs and impracticalities involved, I do not think that the case for it has been made.

How many new classrooms will have to be built to fulfil the pledge, bearing in mind that dozens upon dozens of schools have been completely rebuilt over the past 10 years? Would it not make a mockery of that work to try and hatch some kind of classroom on the back of a new school? How many schools would have to use temporary classrooms if the pledge is to be fulfilled? How many teachers would end up teaching in the gym or the dining room? So far, we simply do not know.

The SNP has pledged to match, brick for brick, previous pledges to build 100 new schools by 2009 and, potentially, another 150 before 2011. Will those new schools be designed only to accommodate classes of 18 or fewer, or will the SNP be a little more broad-minded and build bigger classrooms, just in case the policy does not go ahead or does not work out in the future?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Gavin Brown makes an important point. I am pleased to say that in at least three local authorities, including Falkirk Council and West Lothian Council, school building projects are progressing to plan. We always said that we would match brick for brick the school building plans of the previous Government. In my recent visit to Dumfries, I raised with Dumfries and Galloway Council the point that Gavin Brown makes about classroom sizes in new-build schools.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I welcome the pledge that the cabinet secretary restated, but she did not answer my specific question: will the schools that will be built over the next four years be designed to accommodate only 18 pupils in the classrooms? I hope that the cabinet secretary will answer that question when she sums up.

I urge the cabinet secretary to listen to the warnings that we have heard from local authorities. We heard eloquent contributions about Glasgow City Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and SNP-run Perth and Kinross Council. I heard about the situation in Aberdeen City Council for the first time this morning. We must listen to what councillors are saying about how unworkable the pledge to reduce class sizes is on the ground.

We also heard about parental choice. The SNP will deny parents the chance to send their children to the school of their choice, purely because of the inflexible limit of 18, which is based on ideology and not on proven educational benefits.

The SNP needs to trust headteachers a bit more. On page 48 of its manifesto, on education, the SNP said:

"We recognise and respect the crucial role of educational professionals in this vital task."

It said that it believed firmly that headteachers should be allowed to decide class sizes for P4 to P7, but not P1 to P3. Why does the cabinet secretary trust headteachers to decide class sizes for P4 to P7, but not for P1 to P3?

Another danger of focusing so heavily on this flagship policy is that we ignore much greater priorities that need to be dealt with. My colleague Elizabeth Smith talked a lot about school discipline. There has been a large increase in the number of attacks on teachers over the past 10 years or so. We do not know the precise figures, but we have a pretty good estimate. It is utterly unacceptable that any teacher is attacked in school. We really need to nip that problem in the bud and adopt a zero tolerance policy to it.

We need to work far harder on, and give greater priority to, literacy and numeracy. We have heard numerous statistics, but most people seem to agree that at least one in five of our children leaving school cannot read or write properly. Why is addressing that issue not a higher priority than reducing class sizes, which we have heard so much about?

Yesterday, my colleague Derek Brownlee spoke at length about the success of the West Dunbartonshire Council project, which Des McNulty spoke about in even more detail this morning. On the face of it, we have a project that works. Why are we not implementing it across the board right away instead of focusing on class sizes?

The policy has not worked in Edinburgh, where the SNP and the Liberals voted to try to close down 22 busy and popular schools; those schools had lower rolls and would have met the policy, but they wanted to close them down because of the low rolls. One of the consequences of the SNP changing its mind over a two-week period was that 62 children in Edinburgh were uprooted and moved to different schools because their parents thought that their school was closing down. That is unacceptable and I want the Government to do something about it.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 11:01 am, 13th September 2007

I rise to support the Labour Party motion. I welcome the opportunity to put education on the agenda as we begin the new session of Parliament.

It is important to have the opportunity to compare the SNP hype with the reality of what is happening on the ground. If the new glitzy Administration is looking for a theme tune, it should look no further than the Simon and Garfunkel song, "The Sound of Silence", because silence is precisely what we have had on many of its manifesto promises. Its promises have crumbled as it has taken the reins of power and has had to deal with the reality of doing so.

One example of the hype versus the reality is the situation with probationer teachers, which is a live issue in my constituency. Over the summer months, I was approached by 15 probationer teachers throughout Cambuslang, Rutherglen and Toryglen, who were made unemployed at the end of June and faced a summer of uncertainty about their future prospects, because they were unsure whether they would get a job in education.

In June I noted the cabinet secretary's announcement of 300 new jobs, but the previous Administration had committed funding for 1,000 probationer teachers. Moving that forward would have given those probationers real hope.

The school that I went to taught me that 1,000 minus 300 leaves 700. That deficit of 700 means that many probationer teachers have spent the summer chasing jobs. The minister might respond that a lot of those teachers are now doing supply jobs, but many of those to whom I have spoken over the past few days have said that they get to work a day here and a day there. One teacher e-mailed me last night to tell me how delighted they were that they were getting another morning's work. I certainly welcome that, but when someone is working only two and a half days a week, it is difficult for them to plan their future life and career.

We should not waste the talent of probationer teachers. Among them are lawyers who have given up their profession to move into teaching, mature students and young people who have come out of school to follow their dream of working in the classroom. They are committed and we must not lose their talent but invest in it.

One of the issues on which all parties agreed during the election was the need for economic growth. If we are to sustain that growth, we need to start by taking positive action in the classroom. In Scotland, only one person in 100 is a scientist.

We want to increase that number by placing more emphasis on science, as well as on languages. That will feed into the key economic areas of life sciences and renewable energy.

The SNP has come up short on education, because it has had to face up to the financial reality of being in power. The slogans of the campaign trail are coming under scrutiny—that is what happens when a party is in power. The SNP Administration has been caught like rabbits flashing in the headlights. Analysis has shown that the SNP programme has £3.2 billion of additional spending commitments, and potential savings of £1.2 billion have been identified. That leaves a spending gap of £2 billion.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I promise that there will be no flashing rabbits in my contribution.

On the issue of probationary teachers trying to find posts, does the member accept that many of those posts are advertised around Easter time and that, last Easter, the Labour Party was still in power? Therefore, if any teacher was struggling to find a job, that would be a failure of the Labour Party and not the SNP.

Three weeks ago—I draw a comparison with the member's comment—200 teaching jobs were advertised.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party


Does the member believe that it is encouraging that although three weeks ago only 200 teaching posts were advertised in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland, just last week there were 600 posts? Does he agree that that is a clear benefit of the extra 300 posts?

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the member for his speech, but I point out that as recently as August, only 3 per cent of probationary teachers in Renfrewshire had a post. The SNP is in power, and it has to deal with that situation. I suggest to the SNP that, during the summer, it was absolutely galling for probationary teachers to watch this Administration spend £100,000 on sending teams of people round to scrape the word "Executive" from the signs on the Scottish Executive buildings, and replace it with the word "Government". Politics is about making a difference to people's lives—it is not about posturing.

The council tax freeze has had a strong impact in my area. South Lanarkshire Council is embarking on a positive school building programme, and I seek a commitment from the minister today that any freeze on council tax will not impinge on the ability of the council to deliver the new school building programme.

I acknowledge that education is a key building block. Teachers, parents and pupils are asking questions of this Administration, and it is time that they had some answers.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 11:07 am, 13th September 2007

Members are, I hope, agreed that Scotland needs to build on its reputation for educational excellence, that we all have a role in contributing positively to that shared enterprise, and that, when it comes to education, the motives of all members are probably honourable. If I had the choice, I would—in the spirit of the new politics—politely avert my eyes from those parts of the motion that in the cold light of day must seem petulant, ill informed or unreasonably doom laden even to its supporters. It would serve no purpose to add to their probable embarrassment, but averting our eyes from those bits of the motion would leave us little to discuss regarding the overly and ridiculously negative contribution to today's debate from the Labour Party.

We can agree on one thing—the motion catalogues some of the problems that are facing Scottish education, from indiscipline to crumbling school buildings. There are certainly enormous challenges, and the SNP does not shirk from that fact. However, it must be evident to the supporters of the motion that eight years of Labour rule in Scotland, and 50 years in many councils, left a record that I make no claim my party can solve within 100 days. The Government is setting about that task, big as it may be.

I welcome the fact that the Labour Party is hungry for our manifesto promises on education to be implemented. It is even hungry for us to implement pledges that it simultaneously appears to oppose, such as the reduction of class sizes in P1 to P3, to be piloted in the areas of Scotland that have the greatest social need.

Other members have commented on many aspects of the Government's plans for a smarter Scotland. I will focus briefly on higher education. If we want Scotland to flourish culturally, economically and socially, we have to move away from the culture of student debt that ballooned under the previous Government. The SNP made its intentions clear by setting out plans to abolish the graduate endowment fee, by beginning the process of replacing the loans system with fair and affordable grants, and by making it clear that the funding of our higher education institutions will not be raided in the process.

Something that sets the Government's proposals for higher education apart from others' is that they are based on principle. I do not suggest for a moment that the Labour members are strangers to principle, or indeed the Lib Dems, one of whom I see rise.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Principle is all very well, but universities cannot live on principle. Will the member comment on the SNP Government's failure to match the pledge that was made, I think, by the Labour Party but certainly by the Liberal Democrats, to meet the necessary requirements for university investment over and above where we are at present?

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The SNP Government has made it clear that the process of making student funding fairer does not involve raiding the money that is allocated for the provision of universities and for university teaching and research.

I conclude with a comment on the principle of free education. I do not suggest that our opponents in the argument are strangers to principle. However, during the election campaign I heard an argument from principle—or at least from first principles—that it is a good thing for education not to be free. A Labour Party person at a political meeting suggested that the fact that education was free in the bad old days was a bad thing, because it meant that the poor had to subsidise toffs to go to university. All that I can say is that my grandparents would have been amused. They did not get a chance to go to secondary school because of their circumstances. They would have been amazed to be told that the system of free education that used to operate in this country was a wicked scheme and one that we should not aim to reintroduce.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 11:12 am, 13th September 2007

I welcome this important debate on a wide range of education issues. One thing that should be taken from the debate by all the political parties that are represented in the Parliament, and certainly by the SNP Administration, is that rash promises that are made in a manifesto but not costed will almost certainly come back to bite. That is clearly the case in relation to the SNP's promises on education and other matters.

No one who understands the vital importance of education to the future success of our country and its prosperity would question whether it is valid for the Parliament to debate education, particularly in the light of the Government's apparent lack of clarity regarding its plans. Yesterday's debate on skills revealed the weaknesses in the SNP's approach: a lack of detail, and a continual attempt to hide behind the comprehensive spending review when it is challenged on the detail of how it will deliver on its election promises. The SNP even showed a careful determination to avoid parliamentary scrutiny when it rejected calls for baseline figures against which its performance can be judged.

The Parliament and, more important, the people of Scotland have the right to know how many of its promises the SNP intends to break in the first 150 days of its Administration. We know about the headline makers and about the Government's promises, but what about the promises that it will not keep? It is apparent that its promise to reduce class sizes by 2011 will not be kept. There is not even a fixed timescale for the reduction and the Government will not take responsibility for it.

Also, the Government does not know how much the promise will cost. Like other constituency members, I am happy to help it out. SNP-led Falkirk Council estimates that the annual teacher cost will be £2.5 million. North Lanarkshire Council says that the cost will be £5.5 million. The figure for Glasgow City Council is almost £15 million and for Aberdeen City Council it could be as much as £5 million. Even to someone like me, who is not the best at arithmetic, it is clear that those amounts add up to some £28 million each year, and that is for only four of the 32 councils. Is it any wonder that Opposition parties are asking the Government how it will pay for this?

Let us turn to the 300 additional teachers—which the cabinet secretary announced during the smarter Scotland debate—the funding for them, and the impact that they will have on reducing class sizes, which the SNP is so keen to promote. Moray Council estimates that it will need 45 extra teachers, Aberdeen City Council potentially as many as 127 and Angus Council 70. As Bill Butler mentioned, Glasgow City Council needs 397 teachers, while Falkirk Council needs 70. If my maths holds up again, that totals 709 teachers, and we are already 409 short, based on the 300 teachers already committed by the SNP. That covers only five councils of the 32—no wonder the SNP is offering a staged introduction of the proposal, with responsibility resting on beleaguered councils.

What impact will the policy have on school estates? The SNP either does not know or is not saying, but I might be able to help it out. I have just two examples this time. North Lanarkshire Council would need 83 additional classrooms, at a cost of £15 million, and Moray Council—one of Scotland's smaller councils—would need almost £3 million to build an additional 37 classrooms.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If we are trading figures, I can tell the member that North Lanarkshire Council received £3.468 million in the first 100 days of this Executive. Hugh O'Donnell says that it needs £15 million—I think that delivering a fifth of that in 100 days of Government is a fairly major achievement.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

I fully accept that. I recognise the money that has been contributed, and I am pleased that the cabinet secretary is using some of the budget overrun from the previous Administration to fund that aspect of the SNP programme. However, I would like to know the figures for the whole of Scotland, and so would every other member in the chamber.

Hiding behind the comprehensive spending review reveals, as I said at the outset, a manifesto promise that was uncosted and unrealistic. Is it any wonder that people are confused about what is happening? Is it any wonder that Opposition parties lodge motions and amendments to try to get some clarity on the SNP plans?

It was not desperately hard, even for a humble back bencher such as me, to get the figures: I simply wrote to the councils and asked them. Perhaps that is a lesson that this Administration could take to heart.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 11:17 am, 13th September 2007

What has been striking about the debate is that members from different political parties have lined up to expose the disarray at the heart of the SNP's education policy.

Accusations of hypocrisy were bandied about earlier. I do not like using such words, but let the facts speak for themselves. Yesterday, in a debate on the skills strategy, Fiona Hyslop said:

"It is irresponsible, however, to start spending a vast amount—hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money—without knowing the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and the results of the budget allocation from Westminster."—[Official Report, 12 September 2007; c 1587.]

I agree, but if that is her position the question for Fiona Hyslop is why she and her colleagues, four short months ago during the election campaign, ran around Scotland making huge spending commitments on education and everything else. If it is irresponsible today, why was it not irresponsible in May?

During the election campaign, the Centre for Public Policy for Regions analysed the manifestos of the different political parties. It said that there were 35 uncosted pledges in the SNP manifesto. What is responsible about that? SNP members are condemned from their own mouths. They are acting irresponsibly, and the criticisms in the Labour motion are entirely justified.

The SNP's flagship policy on education is to cut class sizes to 18 in primaries 1 to 3. We have heard a lot about that this morning. There is a debate about how important cutting class sizes is for educational attainment, which I recognise. Nevertheless, it was a clear commitment from the SNP, and it is apparent that there are huge holes in its delivery. As Elizabeth Smith said, there are examples from across Scotland of why the policy cannot be delivered without substantial extra investment in the school estate—in new buildings and additional classrooms. In the meantime, there will be a loss of art rooms, gym halls and dining halls, and there will be composite classes.

We never received an answer to the question several members, including Lewis Macdonald, asked about the impact that the policy will have on parental choice. Are we, because of a dogmatic approach from the SNP, going to start turning pupils away from popular schools where their parents want them to go? We have had no answer from the SNP to that question.

Above all, there is a huge bill attached to the policy—a bill that Fiona Hyslop yesterday told us it would be irresponsible to pledge.

In response to a question from Bill Butler, Adam Ingram said that the policy would be implemented across Scotland only with the consent of local authorities. I entirely accept that—it is not right for the Executive to dictate to local authorities what they should do at every turn—but does it mean that we have an unequivocal guarantee from the SNP that, by 2011, the policy will be delivered in SNP-controlled council areas such as Perth and Kinross and Aberdeen? Will there be no primary 1 to 3 classes larger than 18 in those areas? Do we have that guarantee today? The cabinet secretary needs to address that point.

As we have heard from several members, there is real concern about the future funding of higher education. On that vital issue, the SNP has nothing to say—not one word. It has not even mentioned it in its amendment this morning. Instead, it is proposing to scrap the graduate endowment, which would take money out of the system rather than put it in. We still have the ludicrous plan to wipe out student debt. As Hugh Henry said, many people voted SNP thinking that their student debts would be wiped out and their student loans paid off—at a cost of £1.8 billion. Where is the money? According to Fiona Hyslop, it would be irresponsible to pledge that money at this point. I could not agree more—it is a ludicrous, unaffordable policy that will do nothing to secure the future competitiveness of Scottish higher education.

If anything typifies the disarray at the heart of the SNP on education, it is the extraordinary behaviour of the SNP group on the City of Edinburgh Council, to whom David McLetchie and Gavin Brown referred. It backed the Liberal Democrats, but the minute it became clear that school closures was an unpopular policy—frankly, we did not need a crystal ball to work that one out—it had a collective attack of cowardice and backed away from the proposals. As David McLetchie said, the rumour was that that was ordered by the dark powers at McDonald Road. Whatever the reality, the fact is that the SNP did not have the guts to take a hard decision and stick to it in the face of public opposition when the going got tough. It does not augur well for this Administration if that is how its colleagues in local government behave.

The SNP has been exposed today—the honeymoon is well and truly over. It has made empty promises that it cannot possibly keep. It pledges huge sums of money, and in the next breath says that it is irresponsible to do so. At council level, the SNP has no backbone and walks away from difficult positions. On the strength of its performance to date, the SNP is simply not fit for government.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 11:24 am, 13th September 2007

Is it not typical that on a morning when Scotland is basking in the glow of achievement and possibilities following a fantastic football result last night, we have such a negative, carping motion from the Labour party? The motion reflects an old Scotland, which was all about anticipating defeat, rather than a new, modern Scotland that believes in what can be done. In the classroom or under the stars in Paris, the contrast between the old Scotland and the new Scotland is stark.

Let us consider the debate on early years education and why it is important. Parents and professionals agree that reduced class sizes can make a difference, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Tennessee student teacher achievement ratio—STAR—project provided evidence of the benefit of small class sizes. Ronnie Smith from the Educational Institute of Scotland has said:

"All current research evidence points to what teachers and pupils already know—that class sizes do make a difference."

Professor Lindsay Paterson from the University of Edinburgh has said:

"There is no doubt that the evidence shows reductions of one or two don't make any great difference. Classes of under 20 make a difference."

A report in the "Harvard Journal on Legislation" that used data from more than 800 districts, which contained more than 2.4 million students, concluded that

"student achievement fell as the student/teacher ratio increased for every student above an 18 to 1 ratio."

Giving more time and attention to children in their early years helps literacy and numeracy. Why has the Labour Party, in a week in which its soon-to-be leader says that class sizes do not matter, suddenly decided that class sizes do matter by lodging the motion?

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

Will the cabinet secretary give an absolute commitment that, by 2011, the SNP will deliver cuts to 18 in primary 1 to primary 3 classes? Will she please answer yes or no? Adam Ingram failed to give such a commitment.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We will deliver reductions in class sizes when we have discussed with local authorities the pace, scale and delivery of those reductions and the financial settlement in the CSR.

I believe in parliamentary accountability and the scrutiny of the Government's actions, but it is unreasonable of Labour to demand urgent and detailed assurances within a few months of a new Government coming into power and within weeks of a comprehensive spending review. Christina McKelvie made the salient point that the previous Government did not set out details before its Budget (Scotland) Bill. I remind members that the census that will tell us whether the previous Government met its pledges on class sizes from four years ago will take place only this month. Parliamentary colleagues from other parties who gave good grace for a full four years for Labour to deliver are being suckered into a double standard of accountability.

The First Minister has set out the Government's position in response to Wendy Alexander. She may think that class sizes do not matter, but we think that an early grounding in literacy does matter. The fact that she does not know how to use apostrophes and made a basic grammatical mistake in the first line of her first letter to the First Minister shows how much we have to do to tackle basic literacy. Labour's approach is to let children fall behind and then try to help them later with tutors who act as teachers on the cheap. Smaller class sizes will help to stop children falling behind in the first place.

The motion is not a proper parliamentary motion; rather, it is a derogatory comment and a series of written parliamentary questions. It is not the stuff of real, constructive opposition.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am happy to give constructive opposition. Will the cabinet secretary answer the question that I asked? If the SNP Executive is pledging to lower class sizes to 18 in primary 1 to primary 3 and there is an SNP-run council, will she guarantee that, by 2011, there will be no primary 1 to 3 classes of more than 18 children in that council area?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Murdo Fraser has made an important point. That is why the discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is critical to delivering our policy to reduce class sizes.

The Labour Party has asked a series of parliamentary written questions that are dressed up as a motion. I will answer the first question. The funding for higher and further education will be announced following the comprehensive spending review. The scale of what is required—which I acknowledge from what members have said—and a tight CSR make such an approach sensible.

On the second question, there are different ways in which to tackle student debt. We do not think that primary legislation is needed to tackle the broader debt issue, so we will consult on the options of what can be done. In the meantime, the details of the bill to abolish the graduate endowment debt will be published soon.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am answering the questions that Mr Henry included in his motion.

On the third question, we have always said that we will need to discuss the pace and scale of delivery with local government as our partners. We will have meaningful discussions with local government when we know how much funding councils will get from the comprehensive spending review. We will provide funding for the extra teachers and classes that are required.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I want to move on.

Bill Butler mentioned Glasgow City Council. Glasgow faces some of the biggest child poverty challenges, and it would be a serious matter if children in poverty were deprived of funding for smaller class sizes. Councils throughout Scotland want an end to ring fencing, but Glasgow City Council's arguments are setting things back. Councils throughout Scotland will be concerned about that.

The fourth question is how we will provide teachers for all nursery-age children. I will respond to the point that Jeremy Purvis made. We will recruit and fund teachers—that is how that is done. We have always said that we will focus first on deprived areas. This autumn, there will be some 250 training places and 300 new jobs.

On the fifth question, I have already spoken about indiscipline. Smaller classes can help. If Elizabeth Smith has any evidence of councils exerting undue pressure on head teachers, I ask her to supply it.

Finally, the motion calls for

"an early statement on how funding will be provided to improve the school estate in Scotland."

We could start to answer that question by telling members how the previous Government signed up to PPP deals without having the wherewithal within baseline budgets to fund them—to the tune of £65 million a year from 2010-11. Before we see the CSR allocations to Scotland and deliver our manifesto commitments, we must honour deals to the tune of £65 million a year that were approved on the never-never by Hugh Henry, Peter Peacock, Robert Brown and others. Labour Party members have asked for an early statement. They have got it, but they might not like it.

Probationary teachers, who are important, have been mentioned. I say to the Labour Party that giving late excuses for not properly planning for teachers' jobs when it was in power is lame and unbelievable. The Labour Party created probationary teacher problems, whereas we sought to solve them. If money was available, why was it not pledged in Labour's manifesto? Several former Labour members of the Scottish Parliament who lost their seats will be asking that question in disbelief.

In our first 100 days, we delivered £40 million for capital to support smaller class sizes and 300 new teachers. Anybody who knows anything about early years provision knows that the subject is complex and that there are particular challenges in certain parts of Scotland. We will transform early years provision in a way that responds to needs.

Unlike Labour, we are not so arrogant as to doubt the commitment of other parties to education, but we all have different policies. I ask members to be patient and to await the outcome of the COSLA discussions and the CSR. I am impatient for Scotland's children. Under the previous Government, one in five children consistently and persistently underperformed. Scotland's children deserve the opportunity to learn in smaller classes, and the Government is determined to deliver on that.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 11:32 am, 13th September 2007

Scottish Labour believes that education should be a top priority for the Government. The cabinet secretary may think that we have not lodged a proper motion, but it is unequivocal. It is unquestionable that we campaigned on the issue of education. We believe in it, which is why we chose to debate it.

We are disappointed that the SNP does not appear to share our view about what its top priority should be. We support some aspects of its education policy, and we will work with it on those aspects, but on the whole it is not bold enough. It is certainly not clear enough.

Adam Ingram reminded us that it can take years to deliver on policies. I wish that the SNP had accepted that when it was in opposition. It does take time to explain, but why should it take so long for the SNP to tell members how it will fulfil its commitments? In answering Bill Butler and Murdo Fraser, the SNP was still not clear enough about whether it will meet the pledge of reducing class sizes by 2011. It will not answer the question that Lewis Macdonald asked. How will parental choice be affected? The SNP should tell parents what it means.

The SNP is already setting up an alibi in implying that everything will be the fault of local authorities. I have never heard a minister talk about the SNP's pledge without mentioning the role of local authorities. Why did it not consult them in advance of making its pledge rather than talk about consulting them afterwards?

Christina McKelvie claimed that the SNP is determined. It is certainly determined not to tell us how its commitments will be fulfilled. Hugh O'Donnell was right to talk about the details on the number of teachers who will be needed in Scotland to meet the SNP's pledge.

David McLetchie, Liz Smith, Karen Whitefield and other members were right to say that class sizes are important, but class sizes are not a panacea for improving attainment. That point has been missed. The SNP's strategy is risky, because it is so prescriptive.

I have not spoken to anyone who believes that the SNP's pledge can be delivered without major disruption to the system. Even if it can be funded—and it has not been funded yet—there are not enough teachers or classrooms for it to be delivered.

The SNP must make it clear to parents what it means by the strategy and to children what kind of environment it hopes to provide for them. What kind of environment can children hope to be part of? Surely if the SNP attempts to achieve the pledge we will see Portakabins across Scotland. What will the SNP tell parents across Scotland when its pledge leads to reductions in catchment areas—which is inevitable when class sizes are reduced? How will it tell parents that their child cannot go to a particular school?

There is nothing convincing in the strategy that tells us that the SNP can achieve what it says it will achieve. I believe that it has no vision for education. As Robert Brown said, the strategy is not joined up in any way.

Adam Ingram rightly pointed out the challenges that children from the more difficult areas of Scotland present. We need to develop policies that will change their lives. So far, the Government has shown no ability to prioritise that work. Indeed, last week, the First Minister acknowledged the concentration of poverty in Glasgow, but the SNP Government has still not said how resources will be redirected to achieve its objectives.

We must debate the pledge to eradicate student debt in the context of the Government's education priorities. If anyone is in any doubt as to whether the pledge was made, I refer them to Liberate, the SNP student magazine:

"Alternatively you could vote for the SNP, who have pledged to reintroduce student grants and write off student debt and we mean it—not like the Lib Dems."

Nicola Sturgeon also said that the SNP would

"also abolish student loans and replace them with grants and ... allow for the write-off of the existing graduate debt from student loans".

Members should be in no doubt that the SNP made that pledge. Of all the policies that the Government could have adopted to change the life chances of people who do not go on to higher education, that was the signal it chose to give.

The Government has said absolutely nothing about how it will improve access to higher education; it has not even attempted to set out any ideas to deal with that. Adam Ingram clarified that the SNP's intention is to service the debt, but he did not sound too sure. Perhaps he might want to return to the point.

As Hugh Henry rightly pointed out, people voted for the SNP because they believed what it said on the pledge. The cabinet secretary's back benchers are clapping. They ought to ask questions of their front bench. Where are the answers? We think that it was irresponsible to pledge up to £1.7 billion.

If we wrote the script of what will happen next, it would probably run like this. First, the SNP says, "Oh, we would really love to do that, but the comprehensive spending review hasn't happened yet." Then, when the CSR comes through, the SNP says, "Oh, Westminster hasn't given us enough money to deliver on our pledge." That is what will happen.

Members of the SNP Government should not be saying that, when they were in opposition, they were not aware that this year would be a tighter year for the spending review than previous years. The cabinet secretary should have known that. Surely she knew it when she made the pledge.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member share my shock and disbelief that the previous Government signed the Parliament up to £65 million a year of uncosted PPP expenditure? That money could have serviced the debt.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I was going to address the subject of PPP—I am only too delighted to do so. The Administration appears to be softening its attitude to PPP. Every letter that I have seen in response to questions on the Scottish futures trust says, "Go ahead and build your school under PPP." When the SNP was in opposition, it was absolutely clear that it did not believe that that was the way in which to fund schools, but now it thinks differently. I am only too happy to debate the subject.

If there is to be a national conversation on anything, it should be on the future of education—on higher education, access to education, and how to connect higher education and industry. Given the existing structure that Governments have put in place, I am concerned about the cabinet secretary's decision to disconnect higher education and industry. That is a mistake, and it will come to be shown as just that.

The Administration has so far not set out a comprehensive vision of what it will do to join up all the important issues in the education system that need to be considered. It is not acceptable to slow down the school building programme. The Administration said that it would match, brick for brick, Labour's commitment, but we have heard nothing about how it will achieve that. A minority Administration should be able to achieve cross-party consensus on the subject, but until it has a strategy that is comprehensive and believable, I am afraid that it will not get that support.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Yesterday, the skills strategy that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning brought to the Parliament was voted down. By so doing, the Parliament established that it deemed the strategy inadequate. Is it in order, at least in terms of protocol, that the cabinet secretary or her ministerial colleagues have not indicated that they will return to the Parliament with a new strategy that contains additional measures to tackle this key issue? Will you use your offices to urge the cabinet secretary and ministers to return to the Parliament on the issue, particularly as the Minister for Children and Early Years ignored the view of Parliament by insisting in the debate this morning on the adequacy of the strategy?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I thank the member for giving me notice of the point of order. As he said, the Parliament did not agree a resolution yesterday. The matter of how to proceed remains entirely one for the Government.