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Mr. Robertson: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the evaluation will be real, thorough and intensive. It will be completely independent and we are soon to announce the identity of all those involved in the committee that will carry out the evaluation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the English example, with a third of parents not applying for vouchers. In Scotland 75 per cent. of eligible parents have applied for vouchers, so why does he go on about England?

Mr. Welsh: In England the scheme has already been inflicted and we can see it in practice. Is scrapping the scheme an option? The Under-Secretary of State has ducked the question. If the independent evaluation finds that the scheme is not up to scratch, will the Minister undertake to scrap it?

Mr. Robertson: We shall conduct a full evaluation of every aspect of the scheme, but the early reports show that it will be a roaring success.

Mr. Welsh: The Minister has failed to answer the question yet again.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): This exchange about the evaluation of the scheme is interesting. Earlier in the debate the Secretary of State put much emphasis on the tests that would take place at S1 and S2. We all recognise that those tests are important, but the Secretary of State could not tell us the cost of the tests. I hope that everyone in the House recognises that the earlier a child with special needs is assessed, the better. I should like the Minister to tell us, in his closing speech, how much money will be spent on the administration of tests at

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S1 and S2 and how that will compare with the administrative costs of the nursery voucher scheme that he is now trying to implement.

Mr. Welsh: My hon. Friend poses important questions, which I hope will be answered. Testing at S1 and S2 is no small change but a fundamental alteration that will affect the system from top to bottom. There is already a massive gravitational pull towards standard grade and higher for all Scottish school children who reach that stage. If the Minister proposes to introduce national examinations at S1 and S2, the gravitational pull will be increased--and that will have repercussions throughout the system. I should like the Minister to explain the costings in detail and to answer my hon. Friend's questions. The Government refuse to listen. Instead, they impose their personal dogma on Scottish needs.

The timing of the pilot scheme also raises questions as to its genuineness. The independent evaluation is not due to report until August 1997; yet under the existing timetable local authorities will have to start issuing vouchers the previous May. If the pilot is to be genuine, the Government must await the evaluation--or is this further evidence to justify our suspicion that any negative evaluation will be ignored by a Government who are determined to press on and impose their dogmatic views, despite the wishes of parents and professionals in education? The consultation process clearly lacked all substance, as the scheme is going ahead despite its rejection by more than 80 per cent. of the respondents. Will the so-called independent evaluation also be devoid of substance, or will the Minister commit himself to adhering to the reality of its findings?

I am concerned about the continued erosion of democratic local authority control in state education provision, and about the role of a private company in the scheme's administration. To whom will that company be accountable? If it is to the Scottish Office, that rules out any accountability to the Scottish people. If the Government get their way on this important matter, it will be the start of a programme of back-door privatisation of Scotland's education system. The Secretary of State has clearly shown the way he wants to go. We can expect the voucher system to be extended to primary and secondary schools, because that is where the right hon. Gentleman's dogma leads him. Such a development would be against the wishes of the Scottish people and a disaster for Scotland's education system.

The Secretary of State pretended that there is no assessment of pupils' progress and that parents have no knowledge of their children's attainment. Clearly that is nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman intends to introduce compulsory tests at S1 and S2--not as diagnostic tests, but similar to standard grades and highers. The Secretary of State used that analogy. Standard grades lead to highers, and highers are required for higher education and university. Are we to assume that the Secretary of State's new examinations will be a prerequisite for entry into standard grades?

If the Government go ahead with that further fundamental change, we shall be entering a new rigid and regimented world. It is a pity that the Government did not consult parents as I am sure that they would have given a short, sharp answer. The overwhelming majority of

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responses to the consultation were against the introduction of a voucher scheme, mirroring the opposition to the Secretary of State's previous test ideas. All local authorities, including the four bribed into participating in the pilot, oppose the scheme. Scotland does not want Government-imposed schemes, but because of the union with England they are again being imposed on us.

One Minister, in his evidence to the Select Committee, had the audacity to say:


The Government do not want Scotland to manage its own affairs--and if that Minister has his way, Scottish education's opportunity to stay at the top will be diminished because of fragmentation and the failure of the schemes that the Secretary of State is trying to impose.

My hon. Friends and I--joined, I presume, by other Opposition Members--intend to keep Scottish education to the forefront. Those of us who care about Scottish education are forced to apply time and energy to resisting the Westminster Government's attempts to undermine Scotland's education system. We are forced on to the defensive by alien ideas. The imposition of the Government's insidious scheme is yet another example of why it is so vital that decisions affecting Scotland are made not just in Scotland but by the Scottish people.

7.54 pm

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): Conservative Members are in a quandary: while trying to praise their Government's achievements--if their record over the past 17 years can be called such--they keep producing criticisms. The country needs to be forcefully reminded that, for the past 17 years, Conservative Ministers have been responsible for running Scottish education. Most of the faults and problems that exist in the system, if not all, can be traced directly back to Tory Ministers. It is irrelevant to talk about a Labour Government of 17, 18 or 20 years ago, and it shows the paucity of Ministers' ideas and their need to cover up their own record.

Vouchers are part of the Government's agenda of dogma. There is consensus not only in Scotland but in the rest of the United Kingdom on the benefits of high-quality education nursery education and of supporting its expansion. Instead of building on that consensus and achieving unity of purpose, the Government seek to maintain their dogmatic programme and attitudes to education in general and to nursery education in particular.

The roots go back to a Conservative party conference at which a weak Prime Minister tried to sustain his party's support by making all sorts of off-the-cuff pledges--which he handed to Ministers to implement. Almost immediately after the Prime Minister's commitment at a Conservative party conference to provide "over time"--his usual qualification--pre-school places for all four-year-olds, the Secretary of State for Education clearly expressed her doubts about the practicality of a voucher system. She quickly had to come into line, to fulfil the Prime Minister's commitment to a political gathering--which shows the Conservatives' attitude to education and most other issues.

The Government's next step was to issue, in August 1995, a consultation document on a voucher scheme in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland announced

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that he would be inviting the new unitary authorities and existing island councils to apply to participate in a pilot voucher scheme in advance of national coverage, and that £3 million of new money would be available for that purpose. Compare the availability of that new money with the Government's priorities, particularly in Scotland. They could find £3 million for a nursery voucher initiative and for the assisted places scheme, yet when it comes to mainstream education provided by local authorities, it is always the same story--there is not enough money.

Like other hon. Members, I can give more than one example of that in my constituency. Thanks to a Labour Government and Labour-controlled council, the Trinity school in the Cambuslang area of my constituency opened 19 years ago. Unfortunately, that school, together with many others, has been caught by the time scale of a Conservative Government, and still does not have its own playing field. It has a roll of more than 1,200 pupils, but no facilities are available locally. Pupils have to be bussed all over the place to get to sports and playing field facilities. That is an indictment of Conservative Scotland and Conservative education policies in Scotland.

People may laugh, especially those who have absolutely no knowledge of Scotland, its problems and culture, but they would do well to remember that the Conservative party is the biggest danger to the Union, not the Scottish National party. They should pay attention to these debates.

In addition to the pilot scheme and the consultation document, the Government put forward various speeches and other documents in support of their policy initiative, and we awaited the results of the consultation process. Although they may not like it, the fact, according to the Scottish local government information unit and the Education Institute of Scotland, is that more than 80 per cent. of responses to the consultation were against the introduction of the scheme, the main criticism being that such a scheme would drain resources from local authority provision, would introduce the notion of the marketplace into education--that is the real hidden agenda--and be socially divisive, as only relatively affluent parents would be able to top up the cost of their provision.

In the Government's furtherance of their divisive path in Scotland, on 12 December 1995 local authorities were invited to submit proposals for a pilot voucher scheme, and the Scottish Office issued a paper. The Secretary of State announced on 4 March 1996 that the pilot scheme would go ahead in a small number of Scottish unitary authorities.

At one stage, the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State responsible for education clearly stated that the unitary authority of South Lanarkshire had expressed an interest in participating in the scheme. That was clearly untrue, so I raised the matter with the Ministers and received clarification. When South Lanarkshire council received the letter from the Scottish Office, it wrote back--quite properly--to ask for more details about the practicalities. If that council had totally dismissed the letter, it would be described as irresponsible and not fully representing its area, but because it asked for more information, it was accused of supporting Tory policies by wanting to participate in the scheme. I am glad to have this opportunity to clarify South Lanarkshire's record on that.

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The Government's determination completely to ignore their own consultation has not been properly explained. Not one Conservative Member has justified their ignoring the consultation, except in terms of, "We know better than everybody else." That sums up their attitude. That is the arrogance of a governor-general who thinks that he is in charge of a colony in the 1930s and 1940s, rather than dealing with the nation and country of Scotland.

The main issues regarding vouchers are hard, if not impossible, to tackle in seeking to amend the skimpy proposals in the Bill, but they are worth pursuing. The Government's determination to go ahead with the proposals despite the rejection by 80 per cent. of those who responded to the consultative document augurs badly for the way in which the scheme, if passed by the House, will start in Scotland and how it will continue. There are a number of holes in the Bill. It is a rag-bag Bill clearly born of dogma.

I have not heard from Ministers any proposals for a clear curricular framework and a guarantee of quality provision. There are no practical details concerning the operation of the scheme--for example, eligibility, identification of parents, flexibility of the voucher, standards of buildings, staff and training of the people involved in providing the service. We have heard nothing from Ministers about their ideas on that.

There are practically no details about the administration of the scheme. There are no details of the role and accountability of the private company to be involved. The introduction of a private company into an area where local authorities have played a major role in the provision of nursery education marks a substantial departure, with major implications for the provision of education.

I am not against change or major departures, but surely in Scotland, where there is a large measure of social cohesion, major change--not minor change--especially in the provision of education, should come about only as a result of consensus, which exists in Scotland, to move forward, because the social and, potentially, educational divisiveness of the scheme will allow better-off families to top up the voucher value, and that option is not open to most families. The Government can say what they like, but that option will not be open to the vast majority of parents in Scotland.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government's resources for the scheme--£3 million, plus the amount that they give to the assisted places scheme--clearly marks out their priorities for education in Scotland. In a key phrase, the Secretary of State, in a moment of honesty, said that the existence of the vouchers will spark off providers in the market. He said quite clearly that the market will deal with the fact that vouchers are available.

Opposition Members are accused of dogma, old-fashioned communism, being left-wing, extreme left-wing and the rest, but here we have the Government's dogmatic approach: the market will provide. There was not a word about the standards that the market will provide, about safety or the standards of the education of the most important people in Scotland.

First and foremost, what the Secretary of State did not say--this is behind the Government's dogma--is that the market will provide profits for private individuals and private companies. That is the real thrust of what the Government are doing. The Secretary of State for Scotland says that it is all about choice, but for whom?

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It is certainly not choice for the vast majority my constituents, or those of most other Scottish Members, or, I dare say, the Minister himself.

I mentioned the Government's hidden agenda. If they can get a wedge of vouchers for nursery education, the next step--as many hon. Members have said today--will be vouchers for primary and secondary education. It is a rush to the market. That is where the Government are going. The only consolation is that the Conservative Government have less than a year to run, and no matter what happens, there will be consensus on the Opposition Benches to ensure that these people are removed before they can do much more damage to Scotland.

The rush to the market does not take into account the impact on those who will be affected. Ministers made no mention, until questioned by Opposition Members, of special needs and vulnerable people. Only when Ministers were put on the spot did we start to get responses from them. It just demonstrates their attitude when they do not feel it important enough to make those points. They have to be questioned and scrutinised by Opposition Members before we can flush them out.

I shall say a few words about the Secretary of State's announcement on testing for S1 and S2. I do not want to pay him too many compliments. Indeed, I am thinking of some insults. It is indicative of his attitude and the way in which he treats the House and the elected representatives on the Opposition Benches that he made his statement without following the proper procedures, without giving the spokespersons from other Opposition parties a chance to examine it and to prepare a response. He hoped to avoid scrutiny. He had little chance of that, but the fact that he tried to treat the House and Opposition Members in that manner says more about him than it does about anyone else.

The proposals for testing show a distinct lack of preparedness in the Government's approach. The Secretary of State was caught off balance. He said that there would be no compulsion--that parents would not be forced to put their children through the S1 and S2 tests. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman had his fingers burnt last time--by the parents in Scotland, not the politicians. The parents rejected his previous proposals for testing when he was Minister of State. Now, he is saying that there will be no compulsion. If he is setting that precedent, there is a chance that the parents will organise mass withdrawals from the tests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton(Mr. Robertson) rightly said that the position is ludicrous--is it a voluntary compulsory scheme or a compulsory voluntary scheme? If it is not a statutory scheme, parents may decide en masse not to allow their children to take part in the tests. The whole scheme will then fall down; it will be a debacle. It is a haphazard approach to providing education in Scotland.

As many hon. Members have said, it is the thin end of the wedge. We are being tricked again. If the Government can achieve testing for S1, knowing this Government, the next step will be a requirement that children have to pass the S1 test before they can progress to S2, which they will then need to pass before they can progress to the standard grades. I do not like it, but I understand when

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Conservative Members who are not Ministers claim that they believe in testing as a principle and say that it is good and healthy. Frankly, I do not trust them.


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