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6.48 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am always grateful to the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) for allowing me some time to speak after he has replied to the debate. I always have the feeling that that is what he is doing as he covers every other speech that has been made. As the hon. Gentleman was speaking, I was sure that the Minister was scoring through points that he had intended to make.

It was worth waiting to speak, however. Hon. Members will have to make up their own minds as to whether my speech was worth waiting for. If the Minister manages to stay awake, I am sure that he will take note of the points that I intend to raise and respond to them in his reply.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who unfortunately is not in his place, reminisced about being the Minister responsible for education in Scotland in 1971-74. He spoke about the problems that still occur in schools that were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

This year, my constituency is celebrating the centenary of Maddiston primary school. As the Minister knows because he was good enough to visit Bo'ness school, that building dates from the 1950s or the 1960s. It was made of the wrong kind of concrete and--slowly but surely--it is crumbling and falling apart. My constituents in the Braes--the former East Stirlingshire area--send their children to two schools that are not in my constituency. One third of my constituency does not have a secondary school. Children attend either Woodlands--the former Falkirk high school, which is more than 100 years old, and which moved to different premises some 30 or 40 years ago leaving behind a school that is still in use.

The Minister has also been invited to inspect Graeme high school, the main school for the Braes, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). It used to be the old technical

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school. I understand that he has accepted that invitation, although we are still awaiting a date. The music department used to be the old foundry and the practice rooms are reached by a wooden staircase that should not conform to modern health and safety standards, but the school has to manage with that until the Government provide more resources.

Some of the Bill's provisions are the Government's way of trying to fulfil the aspirations of the right hon. Member for Dumfries in 1971-74 to provide nursery education for every child in Scotland. That did not happen because the Governments of the day--Labour and Conservative--did not put enough money into the project. We are now being offered the voucher system, which is a cheap and shoddy imitation of proper nursery education.

There have been some attacks on the Labour party and I am not unhappy to defend Labour's record in the 1960s as Labour came to power after a long period of Conservative Government. The economy had been destroyed, as had people's hopes and dreams. The 1950s and the 1960s before Labour regained power saw the flight of capital from Britain, and we ended up having to rescue Britain from an incredible balance of payments problem that should have led to immediate devaluation. As the Government and the public were either unaware of the need for that or unwilling to make the political choice, we suffered the consequences in the 1960s and 1970s. The Minister can trot out the figures, but the country was facing economic problems that were created by Conservative profligacy and reliance on a completely free market.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) is not in his place because, as he explained, he has left to chair a Committee. However, he treated us to some Tayside xenophobia. He said that only rural schools in Tayside were worthy of praise.

I was a teacher for 15 years. I taught mainly in special education by choice. My wife is a trained primary teacher and a graduate and now a senior educational officer, and I have spent much time in debate, discussion and observation of the Scottish education at the primary stage and into adulthood.

There are wonderful teachers in wonderful schools throughout Scotland. However, in some schools there are substantial social pressures, both economically and because of the fabric of the schools and the straitened circumstances of people living in the outskirts of Scottish cities and in some Scottish town centres. None of those difficulties will be alleviated by the Bill. People will not be rushing to claim their £1,100 because what they want, and what some local authorities--Labour Conservative and SNP--are providing is proper nursery education.

Everyone is wondering who will suffer when the £1,100 voucher system becomes universal in Scotland. What will happen? The necessary funds to provide proper nursery places--which can cost as much as £3,500--will be shattered into segments of £1,100 and spread around. That will not supplement existing provision, as the hon. Member for Ayr tried to impress on the House, but undermine, destroy and wear away the provision that is

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already being made by many Scottish local authorities, sometimes under seriously straitened financial circumstances.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: As the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber during my right hon. Friend's opening speech, his comments seem rather strange. Did he not hear that in East Renfrewshire, every holder of a voucher has been guaranteed a nursery place under the scheme and that to date almost three quarters of eligible parents have taken the opportunity of getting a voucher? That does not sit with what he has just said--that parents will not be rushing to get their vouchers. They are doing just that.

Mr. Connarty: The Secretary of State did not answer my question as he did not accept my intervention on that point. I wished to ask him to give me one instance--unlike his surgery tale of a woman who did not get nursery places for her children--of someone saying, "My child has a proper nursery place, but I want to give up that place and take a voucher."

We are talking about an area where there may have been a partnership, as has been explained. I am not saying that there should be no variety, but parents whose children have a nursery place want to hang on to it. When people see the benefits of a proper nursery place, they aspire to that for their children. There is nothing wrong with wanting a halfway house when there is no other provision, but that is not the aspiration of the Opposition. We do not want to cheapen and devalue, but to increase the nursery provision for three and four-year-olds.

Mr. Welsh: There is a flaw in the Government's logic when they assume that a voucher worth £1,100 has the same value in the Gorbals as it has in Eastwood. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be far better if we invested properly in the existing national system. The local authorities are the best providers, giving a high-quality service, but as usual with the present Government, they are under-resourced.

Mr. Connarty: I concur with that succinct and accurate analysis. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Dumfries has returned to the Chamber. I mentioned him when he was not in his place, not in any way to criticise his aspirations, but to point out that since his period in office, the Government have not funded nursery education to the level required to provide what we need--a proper headstart.

I use the word headstart as when I studied for my diploma at university and college, there was a large American project called Headstart. People thought that it was not working because it did not achieve immediate results. As middle-class children with good social backgrounds were doing just as well as if not better than those involved in the project at primary 1 and primary 2, which is elementary 1, elementary 2 and elementary 3 in the United States, funding was discontinued and the programme was run down. However, some 10 years later, the young people who had been involved in Headstart were going to college. They were not just taking a high school diploma, but they were matching their middle-class counterparts and going on to further and higher education in America. Headstart is now being revived in the United States and money is being put into pre-school nursery

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education because it extends the learning process and encourages young people to aspire to further and higher education.

Sadly, the Secretary of State made a rather snide and disparaging remark about myself in relation to Stirling university, which he announced would be conducting research into nursery education. As a graduate of Stirling university, I should like to put a few points on record so that he can read them and reconsider his disparaging remarks about whether my work at Stirling university and since leaving gives me some credentials to speak about higher and further education.

I was an undergraduate at Stirling from 1967 to 1972. In 1970-71 I was elected student president of the university, and in 1983-84 I was elected honorary president or rector. I am currently a member of the university conference, as is the Secretary of State for Scotland as a local Member of Parliament.

The Secretary of State may have been making the same mistake as his Conservative colleagues in Falkirk, who tried to insinuate that I was at the university at the time of the debacle of the Queen's visit in 1972. At a funeral in Stirling last week, I was told by an elderly lady that I had been blamed for that. But I had been living in Canterbury from June of that year, and I had not been back to Stirling. [Interruption.] The Minister with responsibility for education, housing and fisheries should listen, as his colleagues are making these remarks. The members of Falkirk council have a poster--

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