Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.20 pm

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): First, I wish to say "welcome back" to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State after his outstanding visit to the far east. All of us in Scotland, even Opposition Members, will welcome his achievement because it will bring more jobs to Scotland. That is a first class achievement and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) did not mention it in his opening remarks, if only on behalf of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown).

It is a long time since I was a Minister for education in 1971-74. Then, the battle was entirely different. It was about roofs over heads; there was no school accommodation and we were short of teachers. All those problems have been mostly overcome, although I know that some of the school buildings erected in the 1950s and 1960s are now tired. That is an added problem for education authorities trying to keep their schools up to the standard that we would all like.

I felt thoroughly depressed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Hamilton, who spoke for the Labour party today. He seems to be against everything.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): The right hon. Gentleman had that written down before he even heard his speech.

Sir Hector Monro: I did not. The hon. Gentleman is wrong--not for the first time--but I do not wish to quarrel with him.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 434

It was disappointing that we heard such a negative speech from the hon. Member for Hamilton and that he was supported by only six or seven Back Benchers. I should have thought that for such an important debate on education in Scotland--

Mr. George Robertson: Where are the Tories?

Sir Hector Monro: Every Conservative who can speak in the debate is present. On the Labour side, only a small percentage of those eligible to speak are here. The hon. Gentleman should be disappointed that this major debate on education--perhaps the most important debate for Scotland in the House this Session--is so poorly supported by Labour Members. Perhaps they are at odds with him, like the rest of the country. It was also depressing to witness the semantic wriggling of the hon. Member as he attempted to escape the hooks on which he is caught by his policies. He is like an inverted Micawber, looking for something to turn down rather than something to turn up. That is not good news for Scottish education.

The Bill is about choice and standards. Both sides of the House sometimes underestimate the standard of much of our education. Many of the schools in Scotland, especially rural schools, are of a high standard. That is backed up by the inspectors' reports, which I am sure we all read when we receive them from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. Those reports highlight how well many of the schools are doing. If we have been reading such reports for long enough, we can read between the lines and tell when an inspector is not pleased with a school, but the majority of the reports are complimentary. That progress will be backed up, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said today, by the appropriate tests.

As this country approaches the millennium, we must take every opportunity to reach higher standards of training if we are to produce youngsters, both boys and girls, who can work in the future. I agree with the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Hamilton that we must not overlook those who have special needs. I frequently feel a little disappointed at the amount of progress on issues such as dyslexia, because those who suffer from it need specialist support.

The many new plans in the Bill will enable important steps to be taken to raise standards and enhance qualifications, especially through the new Scottish Qualifications Authority. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House that Government expenditure on education has gone up by15 per cent. in real terms since 1979, from £1 billion under Labour to £2.5 billion today. He also reminded us that we spend 25 per cent. more on education in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Today, we are right to support pre-school playgroups, nursery education and more formal education for the under-fives, because that is what many parents in Scotland want. The vouchers will be a new resource to help to provide that education for our youngsters. I say that with a wry smile because in December 1973, as a Minister responsible for education, I produced a White Paper which proposed nursery education for all. Here we are,20 years later, about to put a first foot on the ladder towards providing that. Of course, any education authority could have provided full nursery education under current

4 Jun 1996 : Column 435

legislation, but they have all been reluctant to do so, usually with the good excuse that they never had any money.

Mr. Gallie: I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend's remarks about what was on the cards in 1973. Surely the downfall for nursery education was the election of a Labour Government in 1974.

Sir Hector Monro: Yes. A number of good policies that I proposed in 1973 and 1974 got scrapped, but the Labour party shows no sign of conscience about what it failed to do for so long.

Whatever Opposition Members say, there is no doubt that parental choice has been a success. In areas where school boards have been introduced, they have been extremely valuable and shown how parents want to assist with the provision of their children's education in a host of ways, in a community sense rather than a strictly educational sense. One or two problems have been caused by parental choice and they are addressed in clause 32. Some good rural schools, which are about five or 10 miles from an urban area, have been inundated with youngsters from that area because the schools have a good reputation. That has caused immense problems with the catchment areas of rural schools. We must be flexible and consider carefully how to deal with that problem in the Bill.

Frequently, I have seen good country schools, with one, two or three teachers and fewer than 100 pupils, whose success has acted like a honeypot and they have drawn in pupils from urban areas. The schools have started to burst at the seams and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his speech, we have reached an illogical position in which local children--who perhaps live within sight of the school, a quarter or half a mile or even 100 yards away--are unable to get into their local rural school because it has too many pupils, many of whom have come from outwith the catchment area. That is not acceptable and I am glad that the Bill will deal with that problem.

The problem will not be easily resolved, and I shall study carefully the distances given in the Bill. I do not know why in a United Kingdom Parliament we have to deal with kilometres in respect of school catchment areas. Why can we not deal with miles? Then the average parent could get in his or her motor car and work out from the mileometer the distance from home to school, which cannot be done in kilometres. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food talks about metres, kilometres and hectares. Why can we not use British measurements, particularly in the Bill? I shall certainly work out how many miles are involved when we get to the Committee stage--not that I am volunteering to serve on the Committee, although it is likely that that will happen.

We must get everything right because there is a lot of friction in the countryside. The legislation must help education authorities that are providing good schools to overcome the issue of parental choice, which I have been dealing with recently in my constituency.

I have been concerned long enough, particularly in respect of primary and secondary schools, about how little the average child knows about the environment and the countryside, as highlighted by the bovine spongiform

4 Jun 1996 : Column 436

encephalopathy crisis and the advice to schools about the food that children should eat. Even a cramped curriculum should provide some opportunity to teach children about the land in which they live, how farms operate, how food is produced and the way in which the food chain works. No doubt in common with many other hon. Members, I should also like more to be done in schools in respect of sport and recreation, but that is for another debate.

I should like to think that more could be built on farm visits, with first and second year secondary pupils visiting a farm once a year to see how it works and learn how the countryside develops, so that when they grow up they will tend to husband the environment that will be so important to them in the future. Perhaps education authorities and the National Farmers Union could work together to bring more practical knowledge to the average pupil. The cost need not be high--perhaps £5,000, £10,000 or £15,000 a year for the average authority. Time is more problematical, whether one is talking about sport, religious education or the many other subjects in which we would like to educate children.

As to school transport and statutory walking distances, particularly in respect of catchment areas, we are at risk of being a little out of date. Years ago, walking five miles to school was no problem but today it is. More worrying, in terms of personal security, is the prospect of children walking home in the dark. Wherever possible, local authorities try to avoid that happening by providing school buses or taxis, even for short distances. We must consider carefully the distance that a child is required to walk to and from school in the 1990s.

We must also re-examine in the near future the subject of school security, which is currently a sensitive issue--I had a problem in my own constituency at the weekend. The Government and all education authorities are considering school security. It is difficult to balance the community feeling that we want in schools with a prison-like security system--bearing in mind the fact that nearly every school has umpteen points of access and it is difficult to monitor every one. However, we can consider using closed-circuit television and janitors in prominent locations.

The Committee stage will provide the opportunity to debate much of value to school children, which is the Government's whole objective in presenting the Bill. It is particularly disappointing that the Labour party is being so negative. I hope that we shall hear something more constructive from the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists. So far, one is profoundly disappointed at the attitude of the official Opposition towards the education of our children, which must be a top priority in Scotland.

Next Section

IndexHome Page