Previous Section Home Page

Mrs. Ewing : I noticed the arrival of the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). No doubt he is practising for the Committee stage. Clause 63 refers to national testing. [Interruption.] My teacher's training comes in most effectively. Normally, if a teacher stops speaking, the class immediately becomes quiet. I am most grateful to Conservative Members for having effectively observed that principle.

I am worried about national testing, mainly because of my training in remedial education. I will not rehearse all the arguments. However, continuous assessment is the best way of identifying children's learning needs. The concept of a test which is suddenly brought in at the end of a certain stage in primary school seems to be a move from continuous assessment and the classroom teacher's right to define learning needs. If we really are concerned about standards and how most effectively to meet children's learning needs, we should look at more opportunities to enable our teachers to undertake additional in-service training to keep them constantly updated on new ideas that emerge rather than introduce national testing.

Many hon. Members have referred to clause 65. No one disputes the basic principles in the clause. None of us expects that every area will be able to provide schools for children with specialised needs and specific handicaps. We recognise that there must be a centralisation of resources. I should like to be assured that the Scottish Office will not use clause 65 as an excuse for not providing facilities for those children. All hon. Members recognise the need to centralise resources, but it must not be an excuse for not providing what is needed for handicapped children in Scotland. We recognise that families should be close at hand for such children, because they need the warmth and love of their family surroundings perhaps more than anybody else does.

The Bill is based on a centralising philosophy. A rough count demonstrates that 66 new powers are being ascribed to the Secretary of State for Scotland, and that is without including the various procedural powers in the schedules. Scottish Members do not like the philosophy on which the legislation is founded. We do not like its proposals. The Bill is alien to our idea of an education system in Scotland. On that basis, we will reject it. No doubt, many other hon. Members, whether or not they are signing their mail, will trot through the Aye Lobby at 10 o'clock and ensure that Scottish Members are outvoted.

There have been broad hints in the press that five or seven English Back- Bench Conservative Members will be put on the Committee to ensure that the Government have their majority. I have sat through the debate, as have many other hon. Members, and I have carefully watched to see which English Members would listen to the debate, and show their interest and involvement in the subject. I congratulate the hon. Members for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine). They have sat faithfully and loyally throughout the debate, and I am sure that they intend to speak. If English hon. Members are selected to serve on the Committee, we

Column 683

would have expected to see more of them attending today. I exempt the Government Front Bench ; I am talking about Back-Bench Members. Scottish National Members believe that the Bill should be dealt with by a Committee of Scottish Members. The facility exists for the Bill to be referred to the Scottish Grand Committee and dealt with by Scottish hon. Members who, after all, were elected by the Scottish people and are seen as the protectors of the Scottish education system. As hon. Members have admitted, Scottish education is distinctive and different. Therefore, we cannot expect people to understand it unless they are involved in it.

The Bill says that simple majorities are enough to start the ball rolling for a school to opt out. A simple majority of votes cast at the last election demands that the Bill be dealt with by Scottish Members. I trust that the Minister will at least comment on how he envisages the Committee stage will be dealt with. We cannot win the vote tonight, but we are determined to win in Committee.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Order. The winding-up speeches are expected to begin at about 10 past 9. Four hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. They have been present throughout the debate. I hope that they will divide the available time between them.

8.45 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who made an interesting speech. However, it was spoilt by the intervention of the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), who has a singularly inappropriate name for a Scottish Nationalist. It was also singularly inappropriate of him to refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), who had a most distinguished career in the Department of Education and Science. He was responsible for introducing some enlightened reforms in the education system in England and Wales. Nevertheless, I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks about my attendance during the debate. I do not think that I have missed one word.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth : I have been asked to be brief. The hon. Gentleman has intervened before. It was not an appropriate intervention, and I shall not allow him the opportunity of making another.

At a conference in Bournemouth, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who, needless to say, is not present, suggested that the Conservative party has run out of steam. This Bill demonstrates that that is far from true. We have certainly not run out of steam in Scotland, in particular.

This is the latest of several measures. We have seen the sale of National Bus Company subsidiaries, privatisation of the electricity industry in Scotland, and the school boards legislation which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and we now have this Bill to give a much bigger say to parents. [Interruption.] Opposition Members might like to know that I wrote my speech myself.

Column 684

The School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988 met opposition because it attacked vested interests by giving greater power to parents and reducing the power of local authorities. This Bill takes that process a stage further. The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) is reported in the Glasgow Herald of 15 December as saying that Scottish education is too valuable to be left to a politician who is as zealous and ideologically motivated as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. A great many things are too important to leave to politicians, which is precisely why this measure is being introduced and why we are seeking to reduce further the role of the state.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) referred to a visit that he wished to make to a school in his constituency. He required the permission of the local education authority before he could make the visit. Similarly, I visited a school in my constituency. When I turned up with a local reporter who wished to take a photograph of my attendance at the scene, he was told by the headmaster that there were to be no photographs ; it had not been cleared with the local authority.

The idea that at the moment schools operate in an atmosphre of political neutrality is a load of nonsense. Schools, both north and south of the border, are very much politicised because local education authorities are accountable to locally elected politicians. The Bill gives parents further powers, in addition to those they received under the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988. They are given power to order their own affairs and to decide what is in the best interests of their children.

However, the important point is that the opportunity to be self-governing will not be mandatory. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who both have Scottish constituencies, have declared their uneasiness about the Bill and about the pace of change.

Opposition Members have also made the point that this Bill, coming so soon after other changes to the Scottish education system, would impose too great a burden. It is vital to recognise that this measure permits and in no way imposes mandatory opting out on the school boards.

The Bill gives further choice to school boards and parents to say which alternative they wish to adopt. In so doing, it further enhances the choice available to parents. It shows that the principal purpose behind Government reforms is not to bolster the rich and defend the privileged but to give those at present trapped in the education system the opportunity to decide for themselves and to run their own show--a worthwhile step to take.

There have been complaints in the past that Parliament has imposed legislation on the Scottish people first and then introduced it in England and Wales. This case is different--an experiment has already started in England and Wales. We have experience of opting out, and since that opportunity was given to parents throughout England and Wales no fewer than 37 schools have voted. Twenty eight schools voted to opt out--13 of them were in six Conservative-controlled authorities, which demonstrates that the Bill is not simply a measure to allow parents opposed to Labour authorities to escape from them : it is designed to increase parental choice. That is why I welcome the fact that parents in Conservative- controlled authorities have decided to exercise their right and try something else. So far, two opt-out schools have received

Column 685

approval from the Secretary of State-- Skegness grammar school and Audenshaw boys' comprehensive school--despite massive campaigning by some local authorities to intimidate parents into resisting opting out.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that the Bill contains provisions to protect parents who are subject to undue influence from local authorities--anxious not to lose part of their fiefdom--so that they will be able to make a rational decision, free from intimidation.

I believe that parents are clear about the responsibilities that they are assuming and are prepared to shoulder them--as has already been made clear by some who are involved in the process.

The headmaster of Skegness grammar school said-- [Interruption.] These are important considerations because they give-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has not been in the Chamber as long as I have. I am--

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to be talking about an English education authority on a Scottish education Bill? I understand that, on Second Reading, a wide latitude is given to speakers, but the speech of the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) is well outwith the proper scope--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I understand the drift of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I have heard nothing out of order.

Mr. Howarth : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to continue.

It is pertinent to the debate to know what is happening in schools in which opting out is being considered. The headmaster of Skegness grammar school has said :

"We shall consider the insurance, payroll and finance services offered by the council. But, if the banks or someone else can provide them more cheaply and efficiently, we will choose them."

Parents will be well aware of the responsibilities which they will have to shoulder. I recognise that those responsibilities will, in some respects, be quite onerous, but I am quite sure that parents will take that into account when exercising their judgment on these matters.

In conclusion--I know that time is short and that other hon. Members wish to speak--I believe that Scottish Office Ministers have made a significant impact on the Scottish economy and on Scottish social policy. As has already been said, the fact that, even in advance of the Bill's publication, the Educational Institute of Scotland has pointed out the need to be sensitive to parental wishes shows that the Ministers are having an effect.

In contrast to the positive and innovative policies of Ministers, the Opposition--whether the Scottish National party or the Labour party--are in total disarray. As has been clearly pointed out, first the Opposition were opposed to school boards, now they encourage parents to join them so that they can resist opting out. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) even got the title of the document wrong. In fact, it is called "Opting Out and Labour's Alternative Agenda". Labour's alternative agenda took up only two and a half pages of that 21-page document which states that the policy is "a" way forward--not, note, "the" way forward but "a" way forward. It is such a major policy document that it carries

Column 686

a health warning stating that the ideas contained in it do not represent a blueprint. In other words, they are not worth the paper they are written on.

The Bill is a sensible measure, based on experience. It will do excellent work for Scottish education, and will be endorsed by the Scottish people.

8.57 pm

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The ignorance of the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) about Scottish education was matched only by his selfishness : he used up 13 minutes of the remaining 25 minutes which should have been shared between four hon. Members. I shall try to confine my remarks to five minutes, as he should have done.

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart)--long gone now, but not forgotten--said that Ministers had won the argument over the Bill. But it was obvious from the speeches made by his hon. Friends that they had not even won the argument among their Back Benchers or in their party ; neither have they won it in Scotland, where the Bill is deeply resented and where it will be bitterly opposed when it comes to be implemented.

It would be fatuous to search for any sort of democratic mandate that might justify the extreme proposals in the Bill. As always with specifically Scottish Bills, there is no such mandate. So much was made clear by the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who pointed out that the Bill's proposals did not even appear in the Conservative party's Scottish election manifesto in 1987--no more than the poll tax appeared in the previous election's manifesto. That did not prevent the last Tory Government from goose-stepping the poll tax through Parliament in opposition to the wishes of the Scottish people. So we should not be surprised.

Perhaps we have entirely missed the point. Perhaps the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), sees Scotland as a school writ large. On such an analogy, the Scottish Office becomes the school board, and Scottish Tory supporters represent--albeit just--more than 10 per cent. of those eligible to vote for the school board. In line with clause 13 the Government have successfully passed a resolution through the school board and received the support of at least 10 per cent. of those eligible to vote for it in support of the resolution. Now they should put the proposals to the test of the ballot box among those eligible to vote, but that is where the analogy breaks down.

The Minister and his lackies are, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister, frit to put the question to the test of the ballot box in Scotland because they know that the answer will be an overwhelming no. That is why they have distorted and restricted the democratic process surrounding the Bill by insisting on ballots at individual schools. They know that they will lose the vast majority of those ballots, but that does not concern them. In the few places in which Ministers' appeals to self- interest and selfishness strike a chord in the Tory heartland the Government may be able to get away with this and begin to build a directly maintained school sector which is separate, privileged, elitist and entirely cut off from the rest of the comprehensive sector and Scottish school education. The overall loser would be Scottish education.

Column 687

Scottish education has been almost wholly organised on the comprehensive principle, experience of which has been almost completely positive. I say almost, because the Under-Secretary was a product of comprehensive education in Scotland--the one black mark against it. Apart from that, it has been an outstanding success. More students than ever are sitting certificate examinations, in which more than ever are achieving higher grades. All the research shows that that is so.

So on strictly educational grounds there is no justification for the organisational turmoil into which the Bill will throw Scottish education. Not only opposition political parties, teachers, unions, and parents say that : the Minister's predecessor, Mr. John MacKay, said so. At a meeting with teachers' unions before the last general election he stressed that Scottish education needed a period of stability and time in which fully to introduce the new standard grade courses into Scottish schools--the stability and time in which to work out the primary curriculum and in which to ensure that the modular approach favoured by the 16-plus action plan could and would work. According to the previous Tory Scottish Education Minister, Scottish schools needed a period of relative calm in which to get on with the real job of improving the quality of education that is delivered at the chalk-face. It did not need and could not afford the time- consuming and resource-wasting organisational upheavals that make sense only in the fevered imaginations of ideologues like the Under-Secretary.

I want to say a great deal more, but I shall cut short my speech to allow other hon. Members to speak. I warn the Government that the Bill will be fought every inch of the way by Opposition Members in Committee.

9.3 pm

Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich) : Scotland has a proud and distinctive educational history and tradition. One of its particular merits is that over the years Scotland can justly claim to have allowed the less well off access to high-quality education. I am grateful for that, because my forebears benefited from it. It is important to consider the Bill in that light.

There is much to be proud of in Scottish educational tradition and history. We are deciding now whether the Bill is the best way of making a good educational system better. I submit most emphatically that it is. If there is an aspect of Scottish education that has justly been open to criticism in recent years it has been the lack of parental involvement. Steps have already been taken to correct that, but the Bill goes a good deal further. It brings parental choice into the heart of the Scottish education debate, and the parents of Scottish children will be grateful for that.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) gave the main reasons for the Opposition voting against the Bill. Their main reason--the first argument, as he put it--was that no one wanted it. Several times he described the Bill as objectionable and friendless and said that it had little support in Scotland. If that is so, why was the hon. Gentleman in such a state about it? Why are Opposition Members so overwrought and anxious about the Bill? It is because it gives a choice to the Scottish people, to Scottish parents of Scottish children, and if they

Column 688

do not want to exercise their right on the opt-out provisions there is no compulsion on them to do so. It will be for parents to decide. I suspect that much of the anxiety, passion and wrath in the Opposition stems from the fear that is deep in the heart of Opposition Members that the Bill will prove rather popular with Scottish parents. That is because the Bill's provisions pose a challenge to the monopoly of local authorities. The Opposition have powerful allies on Scotland's local authorities. I am sure that if a local authority is doing well by its schools and parents are satisfied with the standard of education that their children are receiving, they will not exercise the choice that the Bill gives to them. Rather, they will stay with that local authority.

If a local authority is letting parents down and a school is not being properly run, parents will at last have the right to say, "No, we may not be well enough off to send our children to an independent school but we have had enough of this. We shall opt out." That is a massive advance. Not only will the Bill improve the choice that is available to Scottish parents, but it will put Scottish local authorities on their toes. It will make them much better prepared to take note of the wishes of the parents. At the moment the only sanction available to parents is the right to complain. The Bill will give them an opportunity to opt out and that will put pressure on Scottish local authorities to deliver better-quality education. 9.7 pm

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : In bringing forward the Bill the Government had an opportunity to do something for further education in Scotland. In a few weeks time the Chancellor will have a great deal of money to dispose of and in that context the Government could have talked about more resources for further education. Various Governments have a history of not resourcing further education in the way that should be resourced. Further education has to cover abilities ranging from university preparation to basic literacy and numeracy. It takes in high flyers and those who have never left the ground. In view of that, it is appalling that it is left to do the best that it can with such poor resources.

I worked for nine years in a college in which the roof constantly leaked every winter, but the local authority, Strathclyde regional council, had enough money only to carry out minimum repairs and never enough to put on a new roof. A college of commerce that runs on paper had to cut its paper budget. I do not blame Strathclyde regional council for those things. I blame the Government who consistently over 10 years have refused adequately to fund Strathclyde council for the work that it has to do. The Government are short sighted because they are not only failing to cater for the needs of students but they are not properly addressing themselves to the needs of the country and the hopes for regenerating industry. They are treating students in further education in a miserable fashion.

Under the Bill, employers will fill 50 per cent. or more of the college council places. I have not yet heard an explanation from the Government as to why they think that this is appropriate. There is a history of poor attendance by employers on college councils, and I do not particularly blame them for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) pointed out, they have their businesses to run and profits to make,

Column 689

and attendance on a local college council cannot be high on the list of priorities for many of them. Nor is it part of our argument that all employers take an unhelpful or unprogressive attitude. I know of employers in Glasgow whose work on the area manpower board has been constructive, and who have taken a great interest in proper training and in health and safety.

However, employers have their own view and they have their business interests to protect and foster, as we know from the history of employers' reaction to education and training. We have no reason to suppose that they are any different today. It is in the employers' interest that most employees should be well-trained and obedient hewers of wood and drawers of water. Employers do not want an educated work force that is encouraged to develop independent thought so that people think for themselves and possibly question not only the employers' decisions but the decisions that affect them in society at large and in Parliament.

Despite all that, Scottish colleges will have imposed on them a system in which employers will have massive influence, not only because of their numbers on the college boards, but because they will contribute gifts of money, take part in fund raising or produce investments. Inevitably, those who bring in the money will have more influence than the individual with one vote. What impact will all this have on fees for those who want, for example, to take an evening course to educate themselves further or for the whole range of people who are trying to get a second chance, which is part of what further education is all about? What will happen when colleges have to make their own way and raise money wherever they can? If money is short, I suspect that the answer will be similar to that given by the Secretary of State when we were talking about schools running out of money. When asked what would happen when schools run short of money, he gave the offhand reply "Much the same as what happens now." At the moment, colleges and schools get a fair share of the resources available, but in future they will have to struggle for whatever cash they can lay their hands on, and resources will not be available. Some years ago, I worked at Falkirk college of technology. I congratulate it on its excellent work--as it celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Hon. Members on this side of the House will want to join me in congratulating it. When I worked there, the then college council at one time wanted to cut the provision of classes in the ordinary grades and highers. Many of my colleagues said that as the college council had decided on that course, there was nothing to be done about it. However, we fortunately had an active Educational Institute of Scotland branch, and with our friends in other education unions we appealed to Central regional council, to Michael Kelly, who was a long-standing chairman of the education committee. We explained to him why it was so important for the people of Falkirk to have that second chance opportunity to achieve ordinary grades and highers. To its credit, Central regional council overturned the decision of the college council, and gave the people of Falkirk those opportunities. When colleges reach their own decisions without any further reference to anybody else, people will be deprived of that second chance. Clause 61 deals with the abolition of the negotiating machinery. Both sides would agree that that machinery

Column 690

has not been satisfactory, but the Government's proposal for an alternative is extremely unsatisfactory. Under the clause, where "any group of teaching staff employed in or in connection with the provision of further education in Scotland and those employing them agree, whether expressly or impliedly, to an alteration of the remuneration payable to, or the terms and conditions of employment of, that group of teaching staff",

such a change can be implemented.

That is arrant nonsense. I hope that the Minister will respond to this issue when he replies. Are we to understand that if a group of Professional Association of Teachers members decide to accept a pay offer or a change in conditions, the offer or the change will be imposed on the rest of their colleagues? If in the course of negotiations on a new pay round a group of teachers at a college feel that they may as well give up the struggle because they are not getting anywhere and opt for accepting a low offer, that offer will take effect and will be imposed on the rest of their colleagues. The Bill does not make the position clear and I hope that the Minister will clarify the issue. I want to know what he anticipates the outcome will be. I suspect that we are on a road that will lead to staff being paid less well and to worse conditions of service. They will face a much more difficult negotiating position.

The non-teaching staff has not been mentioned. What will become of the office workers, cleaners and janitors who service the colleges? Will any change be made to their negotiating machinery? So much in the Bill will be the subject of future regulations. It would seem that other developments are in the pipeline. I want to know more about the Government's intentions.

I have waited in my place all afternoon and evening for a chance to participate in the debate. I thank the Opposition and Government Whips for allowing me a short time to make my contribution to the Bill's Second Reading. I say that with all respect to you, Mr. Speaker. I did not sit in my place thinking that if I were fortunate enough to catch your eye I would be able to change the minds and attitudes of Conservative Members. We all know what a foolish hope that would be. None of our amendments is ever accepted in Committee. That is certainly true of social security and employment legislation, and the same can be said of any other measure that is considered in Committee.

The Government have not accepted an Opposition amendment for as long as most of us can remember. My colleagues and I are not making speeches this evening because we think that we shall be able to change the opinions of Conservative Members. They will not listen to rational arguments. We want to be able to tell the people of Scotland that we are sticking up for them and doing the best job that we can. It is extremely important to get that message across to them. I hope that the people of Scotland understand that once again they are having imposed upon them ideas on education and on how to run schools and colleges that are anathema to them. At 10 o'clock, however, the bunch sitting on the Government Benches and their right hon. and hon. Friends will troop through the Lobby in support of the Government. Most of them will not have heard a word of the debate, they could not name a single college in Scotland, yet they are intent on voting for the Bill's Second Reading and its subsequent passage through the House.

Column 691

9.17 pm

Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central) : I am pleased to speak from the Opposition Dispatch Box for the first time. I am even more delighted to know that a document produced by the Labour party on education has been widely read by Conservative Members. It is rare that they want to pick up any document that the Labour party produces. I hope that the Under- Secretary of State will refer again to the excellent document that has been produced by my colleagues.

Few hon. Members will have been impressed by the unconvincing words, the empty assurances and the Government's politically convenient conversion to parental choice that have characterised the debate. As my hon. Friends have identified clearly in their contributions, the Bill remains politically dishonest and is educationally divisive. It poses a real threat to the ethos, structure and achievements of Scottish education. In a nutshell, the Bill is unnecessary, unwanted and unworkable.

The Scots feel strongly about education. It has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. It is a tragedy that a system that has been built up painstakingly over the past 30 years, and which has involved so many people, is about to be destroyed by a Government who do not care and who have only a casual regard for a distinctive and successful part of Scotland's heritage. It has a part which was even mentioned by the Secretary of State in a recent speech in Aberdeenshire. Speaking to a chamber of commerce on 15 April 1988, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said :

"What was important to Unionists and remains so is the preservation and enrichment of traditional Scottish institutions."

He went on :

"Thus as Unionists, we attach importance to our distinctive educational tradition".

It has not been evident this evening that the Secretary of State has remembered those words.

It is also important to point out that 119 years ago tomorrow the Bill that became the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 received its Second Reading. That Bill introduced compulsory schooling to Scotland. Despite two world wars, despite school boards, which were scrapped, and despite the current Scottish Office Minister responsible for education holding that post for the past 18 months, Scottish education remains in the forefront of everything that is positive and innovatory in education in Europe.

Even by the Government's appalling standards of hypocrisy, insensitivity and malice, this Bill plumbs new depths. The overwhelming majority of Scots consider the Bill to be educational vandalism of a high order. As we heard earlier from two distinguished and respected Conservative Back Benchers, the Bill is part of an alarming sell-out which has betrayed the trust of Conservative Members and the trust of the Scottish people. It is crucial that when the Minister replies he tells us why opting out plays such an important role in the Bill. Forty-seven of the 72 clauses involve opting out. I will give the Minister an opportunity to intervene now to tell us who wants opting out. Will the Minister tell us which groups and organisations in Scotland are clamouring to have opting out included in this menu for schools? Not surprisingly there is little activity on the Government Front Bench.

I can tell the House which important organisations are the inspiration for this divisive measure. These are not

Column 692

normal bodies within the democratic process. They include the Institute of Directors, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Grant-Maintained Schools Trust, the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. That is a host of bodies accountable to no one except the raving Right of the Conservative party who used to be involved in fringe politics at university, but who now occupy centre stage at the Scottish Office.

It is important for me to highlight why there is such bitter anger in Scotland about the Bill and about opting out in particular. The source of the anger can be traced back to a comment made by the Prime Minister on 9 April 1988 on BBC Radio Scotland. When asked whether she would confirm that opting out of local authority control would go ahead in Scotland, she said :

"No I cannot confirm that it will definitely go ahead. The first thing we had to do was to see that every school has a school board. Then we have to take further soundings to see if sufficient people would like to have opting out as an option. No one is compelling anyone to do anything."

That sounds to me like an assurance that school boards would be introduced and be up and running before opinion was tested in Scotland. That is the point of regret expressed by the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). They are dismayed and disgusted by the double dealing by Ministers in the Scottish Office. That is on record to prove to the Scottish Office and the Scottish people that this is a shabby piece of legislation.

I can understand why the Government are running away from consultation. Opting out was never in the Conservative party manifesto and it has never been the subject of consultation. After the school boards consultation fiasco in which 96 per cent. of Scots rejected ceiling powers, it is no wonder that Scottish Office Ministers have run away from consultation. Although Ministers and the Conservative party have some friends, that friendship has been shaken by the Government's double dealing on this issue. The Scottish Consumer Council supported school boards, but in a press release it now comments :

"Proposals to allow schools to opt out' of education authority control are ill-timed and do not offer parents a significant extension of choice."

Mr. Michael Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman cites the submission of the Scottish Consumer Council to support his argument that people in Scotland do not want ceiling powers. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the council's full submission. If he does so, he will find that the council asks the Government to introduce ceiling powers for school boards. What is the hon. Gentleman's position? He cannot cite one part of the council's evidence with which he agrees and ignore those parts with which he disagrees.

Mr. McLeish : I was making the point that an organisation that trusted the Government in respect of school boards now feels betrayed because it now feels used. School boards were never a vehicle for parental involvement but were a stepping stone to opting out, and that is what hurt the council. Even the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, which supported Ministers in the Scottish Office over school boards, stated in a press release dated 15 February :

Column 693

"We believe that the successful establishment of School Boards will be jeopardised by the undue haste with which the Government is pursuing these proposals."

What a difference there is between the slipshod and second-rate performances of Scottish Office Ministers and the performance of a real Tory statesman such as Rab Butler, who introduced the important Education Act 1944 into England and Wales. In a debate on that legislation on 19 January 1944, Mr. Butler said :

"I now commend the Bill to the House as one which is warmly welcomed by the many active partners in the education service. It is they, as a team, who have helped to fashion it during the last two years. We have now come to Parliament and the Government look for the help of Parliament and the wisdom of hon. Members."--[ Official Report, 19 January 1944 ; Vol. 396, c. 208.]

How different that is from the tawdry behaviour of the present ministerial team. Rab Butler spoke of two years spent on the Education Act 1944, but the Bill before the House was conceived in two months.

When Rab Butler spoke of a team, he did not mean the Adam Smith Institute or any of the other hangers-on that now subscribe to the development of Government policy. In 1944, Mr. Butler was able to say that the whole House welcomed the legislation. How different that is from tonight, when such a sensitive issue is being dealt with in a cavalier fashion and, quite rightly, receives no support from the Opposition Benches. Clearly, there is no accounting for the decline in political standards in some political parties over a long period. Under the guise of opting out, there will be a move towards centralised political control of education and not parental choice. We shall also see the introduction of selection, not improving standards. Under the guise of testing, national testing will be introduced. There will be nominative testing--setting child against child, teacher against teacher, class against class and school against school. Instead, there should be diagnostic testing, locally conceived and locally delivered, that centres on the child and relates his or her potential to his or her attainment. That is the proper way to progress. Instead, we know that testing is being introduced because it is an essential step towards selection. Unless one has a league table, one cannot select.

Under the guise of teacher appraisal and the scrapping of section 88, there will be further attacks made on teachers rather than proper staff development. Under the guise of technology academies, there will be pandering to some of the educational illiterates who advise the Government on industrial matters. Technology academies are merely a Trojan horse, used to increase selection and to ensure that the comprehensive system is further undermined.

Taken together, the measures in the Bill will tear the heart out of Scottish education--and regardless of the crocodile tears and of the faint expression of understanding and knowledge from English Conservatives this evening, the Bill's powerful set of political reforms is designed to do just that.

Striking at the heart of our schools is the creation of a three-tier structure of educational provision. First, independent schools cater for 32,000 out of Scotland's 800,000 children--a rich preserve for the privileged. Next we shall have grant-maintained schools and then LEA schools. The strategy is so uniquely objectionable that it is--if hon. Members will excuse the expression--in a class of its own. We are offering a school menu of declining

Column 694

educational standards, restricted parental choice and the introduction, through clauses 16 and 28, of selective education based on academic criteria. What is worse, it is underlined by a highly centralised form of political control from the Scottish Office. There is another interesting feature of the Government's concern for Scottish education. The Conservative manifesto of 1987 talked of "Raising Standards in our Schools".

It claimed :

"This Government has provided more resources for pupils than ever before."

It said that the ratio of teachers to pupils was at its best ever, and that Scottish schools were among the world leaders in the use of computers.

Why, then, have we had cuts in real terms of 14 per cent., or £300 million, in the proportion of funds provided by the Government for local education authorities in the last decade? Why is it that between 1982 and 1987 we have seen cuts in capital expenditure for buildings of 44 per cent., or £35 million? Why, after a decade in which school rolls have dropped dramatically, have we seen barely an improvement in the pupil- teacher ratios? In primary schools they have fallen only from 14.4 to 12.9 to one, despite there being 83,000 fewer children. In secondary schools they have fallen only from 20.3 to 20.2 to one, despite 120,000 children leaving school.

Why has the number of full-time equivalents in nursery places increased by only 3,100 in a decade--to 20,600--when another 120,000 Scots aged three and four have required places? Why, in view of that catalogue of cuts, is £7 million being spent in 1989 on assisted places schemes in Scotland? It is a financial and political disgrace that public money should be used to prop up private schools. Why does that miserable catalogue also include a loss of 8,750 teachers between 1979 and 1987? That is why pupil-teacher ratios have not improved. At a time of falling school rolls we should have been retaining teachers to improve the ratio, but the Government have shown that they want none of that.

Let us look at one of the tests that the Government always use to prove that they are doing well by Scottish education : textbooks and equipment. Over the past decade, provision in primary education has slumped--in real terms--from £5,300,000 to £5 million, and in secondary education it has fallen from £6.9 million to £5.9 million. That is only a portion of what I could have read out to illustrate 10 years of Tory neglect. The Under-Secretary may be laughing to the Secretary of State, but people in Scotland demand to know why standards have not improved. Opposition Members have no reason to apologise for the success of Scottish education, despite such a catalogue of deliberate neglect. Yes, there are weaknesses that need to be tackled and improvements and innovations that we all want to see. Parents and children have legitimate aspirations that must be satisfied. The plain truth is, however, that it is not the Scottish education system but the Government who have failed our children and their parents.

The Bill talks about opting out. The first point that it makes is about expanding choice. I want the Minister to tell us how choice can be expanded when one group of parents, at one time, on a single ballot and on a simple majority, with no regard to turnout, can take a school out of the state sector. What choice is that for the 800,000

Column 695

children in Scottish education? What is worse is that parents whose children are going from feeder primary schools to comprehensive schools will not have a vote but parents of children in their final two years at school will, although they will not be around when the school opts out. In any catchment area, parents of potential pupils will have no particular say in the matter. A once-and-for-all decision, a one-way ticket to ministerial mercy, is not real choice for the vast majority of Scottish parents or Scottish children. There is another important question. What will happen to Scottish children with special needs? Can the Minister give us a guarantee that when clauses 16 and 18 become operative children with special learning difficulties and children with other special needs will be able to go to the school of first choice in their catchment area? But, more important, can the Minister, unlike the Secretary of State earlier today, give an unequivocal guarantee that clause 28 will not be used to bring in selection? The nub of this Bill is selection. We challenge the Minister to reassure the House and Scottish parents that selection will not be used as a means of excluding those parents. This is not real choice. Real choice is about real options. This is a major restriction of choice. We should be investing in failure, not in the kind of hypocrisy that this Bill represents.

Let me make a final point about choice. There is choice in the system at present. The Minister will always talk about the 100,000 children taking advantage, over a period of seven years, of the parents' charter to seek a school elsewhere. He does not tell us, of course, that 6.5 million children will go to Scottish schools over that period. We find that 0.02 per cent. actually have been refused the place of their choice. That is a pretty formidable record by any standard.

The second main claim that has been used in putting the Bill before the House is that opting out will improve standards. Hon. Members have referred to the work being done by the Centre for Educational Sociology in Edinburgh, which shows that comprehensive education has not only worked, but has actually equalised attainment between social classes, and increased overall attainment. It is important also to consider outputs. The Government talk about processes. What about outputs? Has the Minister read the comments of the Scottish Examination Board on the results for 1987? The board says : "Candidates' performance in 1987 was, on the whole, maintained at the pleasing level achieved in the previous year."

It refers glowingly to accounting and mathematics. Has the Minister read his own figures from the Scottish Education Department? Between 1979 and 1987 there was a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of children leaving school without qualifications, and a 38 per cent. increase in the number of children leaving with more than five highers.

More important, the Bill will do nothing to improve the chronic under- resourcing of our education system ; it will do nothing to tackle the £300 million worth of outstanding repairs, modernisation and building ; it will do nothing to develop a coherent, imaginative and flexible system of real parental involvement ; it will do nothing to improve nursery education for the under-fives to bring us into line with our European partners ; it will do nothing to

Next Section

  Home Page