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5.34 pm

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Scotland gave one of the longest speeches that he has ever made in introducing a Bill--and still we wait for him to address the special educational needs of children. The Conservatives have been in power for umpteen years, they have been in charge of the education of many young people all their school lives, yet teenagers are still leaving school without the achievements of which they are capable.

The Secretary of State, answering an intervention, said that he would think about special needs provision. Last summer, parents and organisations started telling me and

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other hon. Members of their concerns about children with special educational needs, so it is high time that the right hon. Gentleman gave that matter serious thought. We should have proposals before us today. It is not adequate to say that testing will be undertaken in the pilot, because nothing has been done to provide for special needs in the pilot.

The problem of funding has been widely raised. Children with special educational needs will obviously cost more per place. Another crucial aspect that the Secretary of State has failed to address is how a child with special educational needs will be identified by the rank amateurs who will be running wee nurseries simply because parents can produce vouchers.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: The hon. Lady has not quite grasped the point that my right hon. Friend was making. He said that when the authorities were invited to propose special adjustments to the pilot they said that they could cope with special educational needs within the pilot scheme. That assertion came from the authorities, not the Government.

Mrs. Fyfe: We have become used to that kind of complacency from the Government. We are meant to be representing the concerns of parents. Often it is only when a child reaches primary school that his or her special needs are identified. We want a system to ensure that such needs are recognised as early as possible, and to ensure that resources are in place to meet those needs. That could mean dealing with a mental impairment, or something as simple as providing spectacles. All sorts of problems can be identified in a child at three years of age.

The Bill states that nursery providers will have to meet the Secretary of State's requirements, but we have yet to be told the minimum requirements. We await details of the curriculum, which should have been before us for this debate. It is not difficult to get people working on an adequate minimum curriculum for children of the age range in question. Nothing has been said about staff qualifications, the ratio of qualified to unqualified staff or the ratio of staff to the number of children attending. That, too, remains up in the air. The Bill does not even make specific mention of basic requirements such as a nursery's ability to provide first aid for the sort of accidents that can befall young children. It does not mention equal opportunities for access to nurseries, nor does it refer to complaints procedures. We have been told, to our astonishment, that there will be two extra inspectors, but nothing was said about how frequently they will inspect or what will happen as a result of their inspections.

Mr. Gallie: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fyfe: Let me make some progress.

A crucial point arises about facilities. In the Scottish Grand Committee, I asked a question about outdoor play facilities, because the Minister had said that church halls would be available throughout Scotland and that they were appropriate for nursery provision. If there is no outdoor play space, they are grossly inadequate. We do not want to see young children cooped up indoors, regardless of the weather, unable to play outside and benefit from the educational play and sporting opportunities that could be made available to them. It is

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not good enough to say that church halls are available all over the place. We must ensure that the facilities are appropriate for the children. They should have furniture and toilet facilities sized to their needs instead of having to make do with inadequate facilities.

Why are the Government so negative about the needs of our youngest children? I have never understood that. We have had umpteen debates in the House about education--largely about higher education and children of school age. Yet when we finally have a debate about the needs of the pre-fives, the Government want to fob off our youngest children with an inadequate system and inadequate provision.

The Secretary of State has said that nursery education is extremely valuable. Of course it is. It can give a child a flying start at primary school. Crucially, it provides for that child's social education. At nursery school, children can learn not to be selfish, to share, to sort out quarrels peaceably and to come together for activities. Perhaps all this sounds too socialist for Conservative Members. Perhaps that is why they are against social education. A wealth of experience can be opened up to children through the books, toys, games and activities that can be made available in a properly run and managed nursery school run by people who know what they are doing. The same applies to well-run play groups, but the Bill does not guarantee that those standards will be applied, and it does not say what will happen when they are not. That should all be at the top of the education agenda and not dealt with at the minimum possible cost.

It has already been pointed out that the voucher scheme is full of problems. Those problems were identified by private sector providers, as well as by parents, teachers and others. I want the Minister to answer this point. It is unclear how the voucher system will affect the child care disregard for low-wage earners. If the Minister would listen to me, he might be able to answer the point, so I shall wait until he is listening.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: I am listening.

Mrs. Fyfe: I thank the Minister.

At present, low-wage earners cannot subtract a proportion of child care costs--currently £60--from net income when making or renewing family credit claims. That is crucial for low-wage earners, particularly lone parents, to enable them to take up employment opportunities. It is high time that such detail was spelt out, but in his 50-minute speech the Secretary of State did not mention that crucial aspect.

All the problems have been raised by people who know what they are doing, who already have experience of running pre-five provision. The private sector providers told me last summer that they were worried about fraud in a system that is open to abuse. They pointed out that there could easily be a market in vouchers, and that impoverished parents might well attempt to pass on their vouchers to other people. Cheap, minimal providers could drive out of business the responsible, sensible, good providers who set higher standards and pay higher wages for more capable staff. The private sector providers said that they were worried that cheap-jacks might drive them out where there might be more providers than children coming forward. The Secretary of State failed to address that problem. We talk about there being a market, but sometimes the market results in a worse standard. There is no protection in the Bill to guard against that possibility.

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I cannot understand why the Secretary of State did not listen to parents, whose clearly stated view was that they preferred local authority nurseries as their first choice. Yes, they had good words to say about play groups and about a large number of private sector providers, but in the Scottish Parent Teacher Association questionnaire, to which a large number of parents replied, they said that if the breadth of choice of different providers were available to them, their first choice would be the local authority providers. Yet the Secretary of State ignored the fact that empty classrooms are available, especially with the closure of schools that might have remained open if resources were made available to allow a nursery school to use such premises. This is not a new idea. There are excellent examples of nursery provision within a primary school building. Why do the Government not think of that as one way to expand education rather than just handing it to somebody and hoping that somehow a nursery school or class will be set up?

On testing, the Secretary of State is again trying to mislead parents. Every time a teacher sets homework or class work, the teacher can see whether the lesson has been grasped or what points of difficulty the pupil has. The teacher responds to that and the child can start to make progress. Sometimes teachers have to try two or three different ways before the child grasps the point and can move on. The Minister has experience of teaching. He knows that what I am saying is true. That is what teaching is supposed to be about.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson indicated dissent.

Mrs. Fyfe: The Minister shakes his head, but if the child does not make progress, we have a system to check on the activities of the teachers and the classes. That is why local authorities check on how schools carry out the education of children. If children do not make the progress that they should, that must be addressed. No one on the Opposition Benches is arguing that children should be ill educated or that they should be allowed to leave school without the qualifications that they are capable of achieving. Why do the Government not listen to parents, who said that they were against testing at secondary one and two? It is the parents who realised that it would be a return to the "quali".

Hon. Members who had the benefit of higher or further education will remember that there was always at least one person in the class--I remember it well when I was at Strathclyde--who went on to take high-quality degrees, getting upper seconds and firsts, having been told at 11 or 12 that they had better go and find a job at Woolworth's because they were not going to make it. We all know of people who came through nevertheless and did exceedingly well, but how many must have been discouraged for life? How many must have been made to feel, when the old "quali" existed, that they just could not hack it? How many were told, "You're one of nature's thickies--you can't do it." The child's hopes and ambitions would have been destroyed at a young age. That is why parents are against it. That is why we should listen to them.

I hope that when the Bill is considered in Committee the Government will finally listen to those of us who speak on behalf of Scottish parents.

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