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8.42 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I am, perhaps, old-fashioned--in terms of both major parties--in believing still that education in the modern world is not about drumming a series of rote-learning techniques into kids in what are called the basics of English language and mathematics, but increasingly, or it should be, about learning how to learn, about learning skills that will allow people to learn new things as they go through life. We seem to be turning our backs on that, and I must say that my party is only marginally better than the Conservative party in those matters.

We must now think in those terms, because no one now has a guaranteed job for the rest of their lives. In the past, if people had a certain qualification, they became a bank clerk, for example, and would remain a bank clerk,

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although they might move up in the bank. That is no longer true. People can now start working in a bank and be made redundant four or five years later because the skills learnt in those first four or five years have been taken over by a computer or a machine. What we need from our education system is adaptability, learning skills and the ability to change and to adapt as we go through life. I fear that we are turning our backs on that.

I apologise to the House, because I heard only the two Front-Bench speeches as I had to go to chair a Standing Committee. I am astonished that, in those speeches on education in Scotland in the modern world, when an information revolution is taking place that will transform not only our television sets and computers and what we do in business--it should also be transforming our education system--the word "computer" never crossed anyone's lips until my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) spoke.

Computers were not mentioned, yet computers, the skills that children will learn and the amount of information they will have at their fingertips will be part and parcel of education throughout the world. If it does not happen here and we do not put computers on our kids' desks, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has promised, we will be overtaken in the coming technological revolution by every country from east to west. That is already starting to happen.

I want to deal with the Secretary of State's comments, starting with the tests that he claims to be introducing in the first and second years of secondary education. I must say, first, that, in relation to the set of statistics that he used on percentages in tests, I have never heard anything so phoney in my life. He is essentially implying that no child in Tayside has been tested on their mathematics, language or writing skills. What nonsense. What he means is that they were not set a test, sat down and told, "Here is the test that you must do." Every teacher constantly carries out a series of tests to understand what are each child's abilities. If there is a problem, it is too often because class sizes are too large to permit teachers always to cope with every child, but they all assess their children all the time.

One of the problems with tests is that teachers become entirely reliant on them and say, "We are working to it, and we will finish with it. That will be my judgment, and the parents', the school's and the state's judgment of the child's ability at that point." That does not judge how the child will do.

A very bright child might pass the examination comfortably because that is the easiest thing in the world for him, but in fact he might be struggling at school, and for many different reasons. He may have a drug problem, an emotional problem or problems at home, and he might not have done as well in the test as he could. The test does not show that. The test shows only the fact that he managed to pass it and that he has the right number of marks to put him way up the scale. That result goes back to his parents, and they say, "He is doing quite well, isn't he?" But at the meeting with the parents, the teacher says, "Your child is very bright, but he is not doing as well as he ought to be."

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Conversely, the poorest child, who works very hard, struggles and does not get the top marks--perhaps he manages only just to get through the test--puts in much more effort to pass the test than does a brighter child.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: I am grateful to hear of the hon. Gentleman's experience from his days of teaching, and I accept everything that he has just said, but is he saying that national testing and parents' evenings and teachers adding to what they know about the child are mutually exclusive?

Mr. Maxton: I accept what the Minister said. They should not be mutually exclusive, but there is always a danger with tests that the teacher will work to the test. They work towards the test, train the child to the test, and the test ultimately becomes the only thing that matters. Because it is a national test, parents will pay much greater regard to the results of it than they do to the teacher's comments at a parents' meeting. Much time and effort will go into the tests; teachers might be less able to hold parents' meetings. That is a danger. In a good and well-organised school, that will not happen, but the danger exists.

I should like to deal with why the Secretary of State said he wanted tests and why we have these new national tests. The only real reason he gave was that it is a way of identifying children who are struggling and have difficulties. I tell him from experience that identifying the child who is struggling and having difficulties is no great problem, because it always happens. Often, it will happen before the child even gets to school. The parents will be aware that the child is not developing as fast as he ought to, or perhaps the problem will be picked up by a social worker or a psychologist. Certainly the problem will be picked up in primary 1 or primary 2. Somebody will know that the child is not doing as well as he or she ought.

Identification is not the problem. What matters is what we do about it, and whether we ensure that there are resources such as special needs teachers to give the child special care and attention outwith the rest of the class, although the child none the less remains part of the class. When dealing with such children, there is a double role. We must ensure not only that they keep up as well as they can, but that they remain part of their peer group. They must not be divorced from it.

Often, what is required is extra help within the classroom. Of course some children must be educated separately, and they are easy to identify. We are worried not about those children but about the children who remain in the mainstream of education but have difficulty there. They must be given special help.

It is absurd for the Government to announce tests to identify children with special needs while they are cutting local government resources so that enough extra teachers cannot be employed. Sometimes, the extra staff may not be teachers; they may be supervisors, or even parents. I do not care which they are. Parents go in to school to help with listening to reading, for example. When schools and education authorities have to cut resources, it is nonsense to say that we need tests to identify people with difficulties. It does not work.

I have seen what happens, and I know the problems that can arise from lack of resources, rather than from lack of identification. The Minister and the Secretary of State

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have got it wrong if they believe that identification is the problem. We need to spend more money, not less, on resources for such children.

The same is true at nursery school level, which is where the voucher system is wrong. The Government did their testing and trials in East Renfrewshire. As that is a new local authority area, I presume that the tests were done in the old district of Eastwood. Those of us who know that district know that it is a wealthy middle-class area where parents would be delighted to receive £1,100 to spend on sending their children to the nursery schools that will already exist there.

The money is a top-up. It does not pay all the costs, but the parents in Eastwood can afford to pay for nursery education. If they did not get the £1,100, they would probably pay the whole cost anyway. They would not care, because they have the money. It is absurd to say that a trial held in East Renfrewshire shows that the scheme works.

It is not the children of middle-class parents, such as all of us here, who demand and need nursery education. Yes, those children should have it. It should be available for them, and I want them to have it. I wanted my children to have nursery education and I want other children to have it too. But it is not they who absolutely need it, as children from poor and deprived areas need it.

As an educationist I was brought up with the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde has used frequently tonight--"Born to Fail". That was the title of a seminal work in education that showed that children from deprived backgrounds would always have more difficulty coping when they started primary school because they did not have basic language skills.

People may say that that is nonsense, but the standard book with which kids started in primary 1 in those days--I agree that things are not quite the same now--would be one of the "Janet and John" series. The language and concepts in that series of reading books were middle class, and they were often beyond the experience of some of the kids who tried to read them. The idea of going out into the countryside for a picnic with mummy and daddy in the car was difficult for many kids to understand.

As Peter Townsend pointed out in "Born to Fail", by the time many kids started in primary school, they were already well behind their peers who came from a different background. It is those kids who needed, and still need, the nursery school to give them the start they often do not get in their own homes and surroundings. Nursery education is good for all kids, but for kids from those areas it is essential, not only at four but from three to four, so that they can start primary school on level terms with other kids. If the Minister does not understand that, he is simply playing with the idea. The £1,100 will not cover the cost of nursery education for such kids, and it is unreal to imagine that it will.

The Secretary of State made great play of the standard of nursery education, and of what would be provided. The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) jumped up, as ever, to say that his constituents were delighted to have £1,100 to spend on nursery education but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) pointed out, in some areas there will not necessarily be any nursery schools for parents to choose.

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Once parents have been handed the vouchers and have the £1,100, they will demand nursery schools, so people will set them up. That is the market working, but the standard of accommodation, and the level of training and teaching, will not be those which, rightly, the Secretary of State and the Minister would like.

What will happen? Either no nursery schools will be set up in the poor areas, so people will have a useless piece of paper in their hands which is theoretically worth £1,100 but does not mean anything, or the standards in those areas will drop. A blind eye will be turned so long as there is at least something for kids in rural and other areas. Something may be there, but standards will have dropped.

The Minister may reply that that is what the two extra education inspectors are for. I do not know what the inspection cycle for primary and secondary schools is, but my kids went through the state system for a period which, between when the first started and the third finished, lasted close on 20 years. In those 20 years, the primary school that my kids went to has been inspected once, and so has the secondary school.

So far as I can see, the cycle of inspections of schools lasts about 10 years. Every 10 years or so--

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