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Mr. Forsyth: It is an important matter although no one has yet argued that case in the pilot schemes. However, I am prepared to consider the matter in the light of our experience with the pilots. There are arguments to be made for both sides, including that of stigmatising children with particular learning needs. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the matter, which I shall examine closely in the light of our experience with the pilot schemes.

It is not concern over quality that agitates Opposition Members, it is concern over choice. Choice is anathema to them. Labour writhes in discomfort every time anyone makes a personal choice in any sphere of life instead of abdicating decision-making to the State.

We are also putting effort into developing more fully the curriculum for children in their pre-school year. We will be consulting on that matter shortly.

Today I can also tell the House that I am committing £400,000 over two years to pre-five development officers. Their job will be to support the pre-five initiative and, in particular, to help providers in the voluntary and private sectors to achieve required quality standards. During the pilot year, and in the light of experience, I shall also be considering the need for further action on staff training and qualifications.

I turn now to part III of the Bill, clauses 28 to 31, with schedule 4, which amend the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988. School boards represent a successful partnership between parents, teachers and the wider community. They work well in the interests of their schools and of the pupils who attend them. In their short existence since 1989, school boards have become an established and successful part of our education system.

We want to build on that success. I am delighted to say that the legislation generally works well, but this Bill brings in a number of useful improvements in the light of practical experience and after wide consultation.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): I know that the Secretary of State sees a rosy picture when looking at how school boards are working. He talks about parental choice, but may I remind him that parents are voting with their feet and that school boards are not being formed--even at his former school, Arbroath high school? School boards do not exist in those schools because parents do not agree with his philosophy, and they did not want his policy in the first place.

Mr. Forsyth: My philosophy is that parents have choice. If they do not want to have a school board, they

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do not have a school board. But the vast majority of schools have a school board, and school boards have been very successful. It is extraordinary for a party that argues for self-determination to have a policy against self-determination in schools. Apparently there should be self-determination only at a country level.

The Bill simplifies electoral procedures, makes it easier for parents to join a school board and generally tidies up provisions.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; as he said, he has been generous. In his criticism of Opposition Members and of our position on school boards, he said that we are against the devolution of responsibility to school boards. Is not he risking having his integrity called into doubt by criticising Opposition Members for wanting to devolve power to the people of Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth: I do not criticise the people of Scotland for anything. If the people of Scotland want to vote for independence or for a tax-raising parliament that would destroy the Union, they are entitled to do so. It is my job to warn them of the dangers. I am glad that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has come into the Chamber, because I understand that some of those arguments are finding some force and are being embraced in certain sections and at senior levels of the Labour party. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has been placed in a very unfortunate position, and I hope that the hon. Member for Garscadden will come to his rescue on that matter.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): Are not the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) absolutely wrong? The devolved assembly to which he referred would suck up all the responsibilities that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is trying to pass down to local authorities and to parents, through school boards.

Mr. Forsyth: I am not sure that such a parliament would do anything but put up taxes and do a lot of talking. If we are not going to have the tartan tax--which the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) expressed concern about this morning on the radio; it is the first time that I have heard a politician complaining in an interview that it might not be possible to raise extra taxes, and that that was a matter of alarm for the Scottish people--that parliament will only be a glorified wind machine.

I turn now to part IV. Clause 32 amends the placing request provision in section 28A of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The placing request system enables parents as of right to choose their children's school. For our schools and our country to be successful, schools must be sensitive to the needs of children, they must be responsive to the wishes of parents and they must provide their pupils with the skills and knowledge that industry and commerce require.

Parental choice is a catalyst in schools achieving those goals and helps parents to fulfil their aspirations for their children. Since the legislation on placing requests was introduced in 1981, the policy has been extremely successful. We want that success to continue, and will do nothing to detract from the underlying principle that parental choice should be maximised.

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Currently, places may not be reserved for children who are likely to move into the area served by a school after the usual cut-off date for decisions on admissions. That has caused problems, as I know well from experience in my own constituency with the very successful Balfron high school.

Under clause 32, a local authority will in certain circumstances be able to refuse a placing request for a child living outwith the catchment area of a school if accepting the request would prevent it from retaining places for incomers to the catchment area.

An authority will be able to retain only places that would reasonably be required to accommodate incomers, and will be able to do so only where there is no other equivalent school under its management within reasonable walking distance of the school for which the placing request has been made. We shall also have the long-stop power of prescribing the maximum number of places that may be retained. The change to the current rules has been tightly drawn to ensure that the placing request system continues to maximise parental choice.

The Bill will undoubtedly improve quality and choice. Those are the key themes in the Government's overall programme, and we are determined to pursue all avenues to improve quality and choice. I therefore announce today that I intend to take the opportunity presented by the Bill to extend the existing power to regulate testing, which at present applies only to primary schools, to secondary schools, so that pupils in S1 and S2 and their parents can benefit from the advantages of national testing as quickly as possible.

National testing in Scotland is the regular and systematic appraisal of pupils' progress in the light of nationally agreed standards in reading, writing and mathematics. It is an integral part of the five-to-14 programme, and provides vital information for teachers and parents. The system is now well established in primary schools, to the benefit of teachers, parents and pupils alike.

Unfortunately, once a pupil moves to secondary school the system breaks down, because some authorities and schools do not consider that they need to carry out their responsibilities in that respect. As a result, parents can no longer count on receiving information on the progress of their children as they have come to expect, teachers no longer have the opportunity to confirm their assessment of the level attained by each child, and no one has the evidence to evaluate how successful teaching and learning has been in adding educational value to a pupil's experience in the important first two years of secondary school.

In the first six months of last year, no child in a secondary school in Tayside was tested in mathematics, reading or writing; only 1 per cent. were tested in reading in Lothian, and only 1 per cent. in maths in Grampian. Indeed, in the whole of Scotland only 6 per cent. of pupils were tested in mathematics and reading, and only 4 per cent. in writing. That is completely unacceptable.

The appalling lack of progress in introducing national testing in secondary schools has made it imperative that action be taken immediately. I therefore intend to introduce amendments in Committee to require external testing in mathematics, reading and writing. That will allow competence in those subjects at S1 and S2 to be established. I shall consult shortly on the details.

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It is time to put testing into perspective. For too long the hysterical opposition of doctrinaire egalitarians has created a bogey out of that most natural and essential educational procedure, the objective assessment of a child's abilities and progress. Even parents have been brainwashed into imagining that testing is sinister. To attempt to educate a pupil without testing is as absurd as running a business without keeping accounts.

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