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Mr. Tony Banks accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision in respect of quarantine: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 12 July 1996 and to be printed.[Bill 141].

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Orders of the Day

Education (Scotland) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government are firmly committed to the promotion of quality, diversity and choice across the whole of society, and our achievements in the field of education demonstrate the reality of that commitment. Raising standards, reporting to parents, placing requests, assisted places, school boards, the option of self-governing status and many more initiatives show that our record in that field stands squarely behind those aims.

Many, if not most, of the now valued changes to Scottish education introduced by the Government were greeted initially with scepticism, if not hostility. I know that well. I think particularly of the five to 14 programme, national testing and of the Howie report. Many of the ideas that I promoted were said by Opposition Members to be totally unworkable, but those ideas are now accepted as uncontroversial and even embraced as part of the Opposition's programme. The Education (Scotland) Bill will further those ideas even more.

The Bill has benefited from the special procedures introduced by the Government for handling Scottish legislation. As a result of the evidence presented at the Select Committee in Glasgow in March, a number of useful amendments were made to the Bill in Committee in another place.

The Bill is a balanced package of measures, ranging from important improvements to our existing successful policies on school boards and placing requests to the restructuring of the qualifications and assessment arrangements in Scotland and measures that will facilitate the implementation of our policies on pre-school education.

Our commitment to standards underlies our plans for improving qualifications for the over-16 age group. "Higher Still" will deliver a unified curriculum and assessment for that age group from 1998. It will create a coherent, unified qualifications system that incorporates both the academic and vocational strands of learning. It will improve the quality of education available to all students whether they are in school or further education. It will also promote parity of esteem between different branches of learning, enabling Scotland to bridge the academic and vocational divide. That is an objective we share with almost all other western industrial nations, but in Scotland we can soon convert that to reality.

"Higher Still" strengthened the case for creating a unified organisation for assessment and certification. Consultation last year showed strong and widespread support for a new single body to incorporate existing functions and to manage "Higher Still". Part I of the Bill will set up such a body. The Scottish Qualifications Authority, or SQA, will take over the existing functions

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and assets of the Scottish Examination Board, or SEB, and the Scottish Vocational Education Council--SCOTVEC. It will also administer the "Higher Still" qualifications.

The SQA will build on the high reputations of the existing bodies to improve the quality of Scottish qualifications and enhance their status abroad. It will be responsive to all those who use its services. We are determined to improve the quality and standards in Scottish education. That area is vital to all those involved in education and training, including teachers, students and employers.

I turn now to the provisions in part II. I am delighted to have this opportunity to explain the Government's policy on the expansion of pre-school education in Scotland. Our approach to this initiative is driven by careful forward planning, widespread consultation, and commitment to parent choice, educational quality, diversity of provision and value for money.

The Government's policy of expanding pre-school education has been welcomed throughout Scotland, and the case in principle for more pre-school education is already clear. The benefits to children, first and foremost, as well as to their parents are well recognised and not in dispute.

There were more than 170 responses to the consultation we carried out last autumn. All endorsed the principle of more pre-school provision.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton): Of the 170 representations made to the Secretary of State, how many endorsed vouchers as a method of expanding nursery education?

Mr. Michael Forsyth: The hon. Gentleman might be patient. He is correct to say that serious reservations were expressed by some of the old Labour interests in Scotland about the principle of giving parents choice. Some people, such as the hon. Gentleman himself, would much prefer a system that dictates to parents rather than allows them to decide for themselves what is appropriate.

Our preparations for full implementation of the voucher initiative will be greatly assisted by a thorough and comprehensive consideration of the operational details. I can announce to the House today that a team from Stirling university has been appointed to carry out the evaluation.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Answer the question.

Mr. Forsyth: I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have appreciated the fact that his alma mater will undertake the task, but I am not sure that he is a great advertisement for its achievements.

Mr. Connarty: As I am a member of the university's governing body, it seems happy to have me--and to report to me every year, as one of the local Members of Parliament. The Secretary of State's disparaging remark was unnecessary. However, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so munificent, in placing the evaluation with a university that will be in the Ochil constituency after the next general election, not that of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Forsyth: That is true, but despite the Labour party's gerrymandering, I intend to represent Stirling for

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the foreseeable future. I hope that it will not be long before Stirling university is back where it should be--in the Stirling constituency.

Part II will, for the first time, give all parents freedom of choice in pre-school education--a chance for all to gain access to good-quality pre-school education and unparalleled diversity of provision. It will add up to£30 million of new public money each year to perhaps the most vital area of education--that of our youngest children.

In a process beginning this August, parents in North Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire, and in parts of Highland and of Argyll and Bute, will be able to choose where their pre-school children will be educated, confident of their entitlement to vouchers of the value of £1,100. One year later, parents across Scotland will have that choice.

Vouchers are a straightforward and effective way of seeing that services are client led and responsive to individual needs and preferences.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): What advice has the Secretary of State been given by his officials about the voucher system's administrative costs? Is it correct that £200 or £300 out of every £1,100 will be swallowed up by administration costs?

Mr. Forsyth: It would be correct to say that the cost is about 2 per cent.--which is low.

Mr. Worthington indicated dissent.

Mr. Forsyth: The hon. Gentleman might like to consider how much is spent by local authority headquarters before money actually reaches the classroom.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): On the subject of one's alma mater, my clear recollection is that the Secretary of State once argued for a voucher system for not just nursery education but primary, secondary and tertiary education. Is that still the right hon. Gentleman's position? If not, when did he stop believing in that policy?

Mr. Forsyth: I have long argued for an extension of parental choice. This may not have happened with the hon. Gentleman but as most of us grow older, we take a more realistic view of the world and combine our idealism with practicality. The sort of idealism for which I spoke in St. Andrews in those days is now embraced throughout the world--we have seen the success of privatisation. The hon. Gentleman and his party find themselves isolated with their rather left-wing views. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the success of a Labour council in Fife in introducing vouchers for people involved in training, which is a form of tertiary education. The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that he has lost the argument on extending parental choice. He no longer has the courage, as he had at St. Andrews, to argue against the vouchers that have been so successful for training in Fife and elsewhere.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As I grow older, I not only take a more realistic view of the world but of how wool can be pulled over the eyes of hon. Members. May we be given, in the wind-up, some actual figures of how

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much the voucher system will cost? The Department must have notional figures of the cost per voucher. If such a figure is not available, that is a disgrace to the Scottish Education Department.

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