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5.47 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): I welcome the opportunity to speak. I shall be brief, not because I do not have much to say but because, as I am sure the House will understand, I have other duties. I am chairing a Committee upstairs.

I should like to address the question of testing, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Hamilton(Mr. Robertson) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe). They spoke about testing for qualifications, and treat that as something different from testing to see whether individuals need help and assistance. I speak as someone who understands what the education exam, the "quali", as it was called, really meant to people of my age group. I am unique in that I am probably the only hon. Member to have left school at 14. I did so because economic circumstances and other things at that time made it inevitable. I do not take the view that the system that then existed failed me. I take the view that circumstances, which my children and most hon. Members never had to suffer, required me to contribute to the family coffers. The House will understand that, in large industrial industries, pre-war, that was a fact of life, particularly if one's father was unemployed. We had to face the fact that circumstances often dictated what we did or did not do. The system that existed then had little to do with the fact that I left school at an age when I probably would have benefited from remaining.

Testing for qualifications is an essential part of knowing whether individuals are capable and ready to move on to other challenges. That is what it represents. Testing to find out whether someone is inadequate in some areas is absolutely vital in the first and second years of secondary education. I have never understood the view that that is not critical--they are the critical years in a child's development. It is equally true that the years before the age of five are important in the development of a child as an individual. That is why I believe that the nursery voucher system and the pilot schemes are vital.

I am astonished by the comments of Labour Members, especially the hon. Member for Hamilton(Mr. Robertson), about rural areas. The best schools in Scotland are in rural areas because the best teachers are in rural areas. People like living in rural communities because the quality of life is superior. That is why we are able to attract high-quality teachers to our small rural schools. I also believe that the things that attract teachers to rural areas will attract the private sector--which the Opposition seem to find so offensive--to provide pre-school education. The village and church halls in the rural areas are a hub of activity, so I do not envisage the problems that others do.

I accept that there may be problems in the big cities, but it is astonishing that the Opposition are basing their argument on some belief that the vouchers will be worthless to someone living in Glen Lyon or Glen Farg or some of the other lovely glens around Tayside. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) represents Glen Farg. I picked it deliberately because I know it well. When someone picks something outside his constituency, it is always wise to pick something that was previously in his constituency before the boundary changes.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Hamilton said, I believe that the rural communities will respond to this new opportunity and will grasp it because of the quality

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of people living in our rural areas and the quality of the teachers. Of course, not all teachers are able to work full time once they have had children, but they can certainly become involved--

Mr. Connarty: I am worried that the hon. Gentleman is painting a picture so unlike the reality of Scottish education. Does he not realise that the best schools, judged by the standards set by the Government, tend to be in cities or large towns, not rural areas? It is wrong to create a dichotomy between the schools. I believe that the best school in Scotland is in Dunblane--which, with 10,000 people, is not a rural community.

Mr. Walker: I wish that the hon. Gentleman would do his homework more thoroughly and carefully. Tayside is the area that I know in particular, and North Tayside in detail. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we do not have the best schools, he obviously does not know what is happening in Tayside. I am proud of my rural schools. I am proud of the standards that they achieve. I am proud of what appears on the statistical records--

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross) rose--

Mr. Walker: The hon. Lady has some fine schools in her constituency. My children went to them.

Ms Cunningham: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that under SNP administration Tayside has the best schools in Scotland.

Mr. Walker: I have already given the reason why rural schools are so good--it is because of the quality of the teachers. Often, that was despite the activities and effects--

Ms Cunningham: I see.

Mr. Walker: When the hon. Lady has been here a little longer, she will realise that I have fought my constituency's corner in every battle in this place. I have often had to draw attention to the inadequacies of Tayside region and I am still doing so--for example, the former social work department. However, that matter is being addressed by an inquiry.

Mr. Connarty rose--

Mr. Walker: I cannot give way as I must watch the time.

The Bill will make a valuable contribution towards choice, quality and diversity, about all of which I care deeply. One of the things that motivated me to become a Member of Parliament--as it probably motivated others--was my experience of life. I was motivated by the circumstances in which I grew up in Dundee. It made me determined that my children and grandchildren would have better quality, greater diversity and greater choice. I looked at the contributions made by statutory bodies and others and I arrived at my political convictions not out of some mischance of birth, but out of my experience. I do not apologise for that.

I believe that getting the balance right between the public and the private sectors is the best way to provide choice. The voucher system will achieve that in a way

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that nothing else could do. The administrators will not be able to dictate their dogma. One of the problems with Scottish education has been local government dogma. That is rather sad because once, a long time ago, Scotland had the best education in Europe and therefore in the western world. That is not true today. It is why I welcome the Bill, which will make a massive contribution out of all proportion to the money spent.

Over the long time that I have been in this House I have listened to the Opposition's arguments against the changes in education and other areas that the Government have introduced, so it is interesting to note that it is the Opposition who have changed--the Government have not.

5.57 pm

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) made some interesting points about education in rural areas, to which I shall return later in relation to nursery provision. I do not think that there is any dispute across the House about the importance and value of pre-school education. What is at issue is whether the Government's chosen means to deliver that is the most effective.

The debate is taking place in this Chamber rather than in the Scottish Grand Committee. Despite the much-vaunted claims by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that the revamped Scottish Grand Committee is as good as a Scottish Parliament, it has fallen at the second hurdle--or the third hurdle if we include the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill as well as the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

I read the exchanges in the Scottish Grand Committee on 20 May. The Secretary of State said that the Opposition had not requested that this debate be held in the Committee. That was one of the most disingenuous excuses that I have heard in a long time, especially as the Secretary of State is not usually a shrinking violet in need of persuasion. Apart from anything else, what he said was not true. On a number of occasions we have challenged the Government to take the motion to discuss the principles of this Bill in the Scottish Grand Committee, but that has not happened because the Government know that part II of the Bill does not command the support of the majority of Scottish Members of Parliament. If the Bill were debated in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Committee would be shown up for what it is--a talking shop with no effective powers of decision making. That is why the Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House.

There are some parts of the Bill on which there is common ground. The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made a cogent case, to supplement that of the Secretary of State, with regard to placing requests and the need to ensure that local children can attend local schools. Likewise, my right hon. and hon. Friends do not object--indeed they support--the merger between the Scottish Vocational Education Council and the Scottish Examination Board. That has had widespread approval, although the Committee will wish to examine in detail the way in which the body will be composed.

Perhaps one of the tasks that the new Scottish Qualifications Authority can undertake is to simplify for the benefit of employers the relative merit of many of the qualifications that seem to abound these days. I would not be surprised if many employers were confused by a

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plethora of modules and acronyms. Any simplification so that employers know the quality and standard of the passes that they are examining would be welcome. One employer to whom I have talked recently mentioned that the fees that were charged at every turn--tuition, examination and marking fees--were putting off employers from going down that road, and that some were using city and guilds. Clause 6(2) provides the power to charge, in accordance with criteria laid down by the Secretary of State. I hope that the criteria will reflect the burden on businesses, which have to meet costs in respect of their trainees.

On the question of finance too, will the Minister comment in his reply on a complaint made to me that,in some examinations--specifically, the Scottish Examination Board's examinations in English were referred to--pre-testing of questions, which is, I think, sometimes done south of border, and which ensures that exams achieve what they intend to achieve and that rogue questions can be discovered and expunged, has been withdrawn? That may be a small matter, but if the process will make exams and results reliable, we want an assurance that corners are not to be cut for the sake of meeting financial targets.

In his speech, the Secretary of State for Scotland launched on the House a reference to testing in secondary one and secondary two. He was somewhat thrown by a question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who asked whether children whose parents did not wish their children to be tested would still be required to be tested. The Secretary of State, true to his belief in parental choice, had to accept that the tests would not be compulsory if parents did not wish their children to sit them. He went on to say that it would not be in children's interests to do so, taking the view that he knows better than parents what is in children's interests.

The Secretary of State went on to make an even more curious point. He drew a parallel and said that there was a similarity between the tests in S1 and S2, which he is proposing, and standard grade and higher grade examinations. That was a worrying statement for the Secretary of State to have made. In one respect, it is not consistent with his comment in another part of his presentation that one of the purposes of the tests was to identify educational needs at an early stage. There is a world of difference between tests designed to identify educational needs and examinations designed to give pupils qualifications either to go out into the world of employment or to further and higher education. The Secretary of State, however, categorised the new tests with the standard and higher grade exams.

The House is entitled to be told by the Minister whether what is proposed is not simply tests to measure a level of achievement or to identify particular needs, but qualification tests as well. Would one have to pass the test in S1 to sit the test in S2? Would one have to sit the test in S2 to be allowed to go on to the course that will lead eventually to standard grade?

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