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Mr. Forsyth: To describe the record of the last Labour Government as guff is astonishing--even for the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside(Mr. Blunkett) wants to give teachers a sabbatical year out of the classroom. The cost of that would be£4.96 billion. He recently commended traditional methods in education. I agree. Let me remind the House what those methods are: discipline, setting and, above all, testing. It really is time for Opposition Members to give the soundbites a rest and engage in some hard thinking.

One of the greatest Conservative Prime Ministers memorably said that the youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity. That is still the belief of Conservatives in Government. We know that there is no more important responsibility than moulding the values and skills of the new generations. But we do not assume that we should arrogate to ourselves that vital task--it is primarily the responsibility of parents and, secondarily, of teachers. The Government have a duty to provide the environment and the resources, but the important decisions belong in the family. Our role is empowerment, and that is the enlightened path that education globally will take in the new millennium.

For the generation of Scots who will inherit that millennium, the Bill is a further enabling measure. It is about quality, diversity and choice--themes at the heart of everything we do in education. The establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority will improve quality and promote parity of esteem in the later stages of school and beyond. My announcement today about tests inS1 and S2 will improve standards in the earlier age group. Choice and diversity are at the heart of the pre-school vouchers initiative. The amendments to the legislation on school boards will simplify and improve the way in which boards work. The amendments on placing requests will ensure that children can secure a place at a local school.

I commend the Bill to the House.

4.40 pm

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The Secretary of State's extremely long-winded speech--lasting more than 50 minutes--showed that the Bill is about nursery vouchers. It does not really say that, of course, but pretends to deal with largely uncontroversial and consensual Scottish issues, including

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the introduction of the new Scottish Qualifications Authority--another quango, with three quarters of its places in the sole gift of the Secretary of State.

The Bill tinkers with the school boards system, making changes that are almost as irrelevant as the boards themselves. It introduces a change in the law on placing requests, in a vain attempt to help the Secretary of State get re-elected in Stirling. The fact is, however, that, although vouchers are referred to in only 16 words in the long title of the Bill and five clauses within it, the Bill is about the introduction of yet another failed, discredited and doomed ideological experiment into Scottish education.

We came to the House today to listen to the Second Reading of the Education (Scotland) Bill, but we have been told that a major feature of the legislation is to be introduced without notice and without the House being told in advance anything about the Government's intentions. We are seeing the return of the failed policies of the former Minister of State, Scottish Office, including compulsory testing--except, thanks to his apparent confusion, it is to be compulsory, semi-voluntary testing.

That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman said the last time he attempted to introduce such measures into the Scottish education system. This time, however, his approach is incoherent, irrelevant, spur-of-the-moment, ill-thought-out and uncosted--on top of all the other problems he experienced last time.

Mr. Michael Forsyth: Why does Labour think that testing in schools in England is right, but testing in schools in Scotland is not?

Mr. Robertson: As the Secretary of State keeps telling me, the system in England is different from the system in Scotland. After his failed attempt to impose testing last time, an agreement was reached that was satisfactory to the Scottish Office, teachers and parents. Let me remind the Secretary of State where he went wrong last time, and where he fell foul of public and Conservative party opinion in Scotland.

What brought about the right hon. Gentleman's downfall then was not a campaign by the teaching unions or by the intelligentsia in Scotland against testing, but a boycott by parents--the very parents he now says should have the choice. They brought him down and almost terminally affected his political career. [Interruption.] He has been resurrected, and that is why he is back with the same old rubbish. He thinks that he will get away with it as he is now in the Cabinet, but he will not.

Mr. Forsyth: I asked the hon. Gentleman a question that was not difficult, and he ought to answer it. If it is Labour's policy that there should be testing in England to ensure that parents get reports on the standards of achievement in schools, why should parents in Scotland not have that choice? Is it not true that the hon. Gentleman is terrified of the Educational Institute of Scotland, and that the teaching unions are deciding Labour's policy?

Mr. Robertson: I remind the Secretary of State again that a parental boycott killed compulsory testing last time. Scottish education now has a reasonable way in which

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assessment of performance can be made without the rigidities of the system that he wanted to bring in at that time. In the English system--which, after all, is entirely different from the Scottish system--it may be appropriate to go down the road of national testing in the form that my colleagues have suggested. But nobody in Scotland wants it, and nobody wanted it last time.

However, the Secretary of State will now--by law--impose it on the very parents he claims are supposed to have the ultimate choice in education. The Secretary of State will get another bloody nose. He is coming back with the same old ideas, and he will get the same message from the Scottish people--they do not want this failed experiment, despite his belief that he has all the levers of power in his hands.

Another remarkable feature of today's debate is that the Secretary of State was not supposed to make the opening speech. Until this morning, the Minister for Education, Housing and Fisheries was set to launch the flagship of the Conservative party's education policy in the House. Why was the junior Minister replaced at the last minute? Why did the Secretary of State not want to introduce the Bill? I have a theory--I believe that the Secretary of State is ashamed of the vouchers policy, because he knows that nobody in Scotland wants it. That is why he did not want to be here for the Second Reading of what he considers to be one of the most important Bills that the Government have introduced.

The Government received 170 responses to their consultation, according to the Secretary of State. When asked how many of those responses endorsed the idea of vouchers, he dodged the question. Only one conclusion can be drawn from that--the number of people who endorsed the principle of vouchers was so derisory that he felt it impossible to admit it to the House of Commons. Hardly a soul in Scotland supports the proposal. Local councils, Children in Scotland, the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, trade unions and individuals across Scotland are opposed to the supermarketing of early years education.

The Secretary of State may be ashamed of something else. At the Grand Committee in Stirling on 29 January, he said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell):

But the Bill does not state that at all, and simply adds a little to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The Secretary of State continued:

    "The Bill will ensure the standards that she is misleading the country about."--[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee,29 January 1996; c. 14.]

The Bill says nothing about the standards that will be laid down.

I wish to draw the House's attention to a matter of some interest. At the end of the debate in Stirling--when he had run out of time because of the abuse he was hurling at the Opposition--the Minister for Education, Housing and Fisheries chose to announce that he was to issue a document on quality assurance. That document is not on the Table of the House today. The Secretary of State said that the Bill includes certain provisions, but it does not. They are included in another document on quality

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assurance. That document is not here today, as it should be as we consider a Bill that relates to the provisions for nursery vouchers in Scotland. I wonder why that can be.

Perhaps the Secretary of State thought that, in all honour, he would have to apologise for what he said in Stirling, because the provisions on protection and standards are not in the Bill. Perhaps it would be easier for him to stay well below the parapet rather than make such an apology. So be it. If he does not apologise, people will read the record and make up their own mind.

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