Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Maxton: I did not want to give that impression, and I apologise if I did. The fact is that the need for nursery education of children from poor backgrounds is that much greater if they are to cope with primary school.

Mr. Galbraith: I apologise to my hon. Friend, and I understand the point that he was trying to make. The need for nursery education among poorer children is greater. Although it is much less important for middle-class children to attend nursery school, they should do so as they benefit greatly from it--for example, they can develop their social integration. Nursery education is very important and my understanding--I have not read all the literature on the subject--is that children who go through nursery education and pre-school playgroups do extremely well in primary school. We must ensure that all children have access to nursery education.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 490

The problem with the Government's nursery vouchers method is that it is unnecessarily bureaucratic. There are many areas where nursery provision is first class, but the Government are providing a bureaucratic system that will be difficult to work, will not increase the provision and will give hand-outs to those who have already used the private sector. I do not see why people should have to pay, as we have a nursery education system at the moment. There is no need to make it any more complicated.

Finally, I shall refer to the Scottish Qualifications Authority and its representation. I have read the part of the Bill that deals with the matter and, although I understand the need for the complexity of the representation, we could have simplified the method. Is there an absolute necessity to balance the numbers? It is the first time that I have seen such an arrangement, and I wonder whether it is necessary.

More importantly, what will be the composition of the authority? The people whom we choose to serve on it will be selected according to what we decide education is for. That is a debate that we have yet to have. Occasionally it surfaces, but we have never quite reached a decision. Once we have decided what education is all about, we can decide who should serve on the authority.

The Government seem to think of education as a way of taking a child from his early years on into a screwdriver job in a factory--probably a factory brought in by Locate in Scotland. I fear that the new authority will be stuffed with "industrialists". Industrialists have an important role to play, but the idea that they have a special insight into education and its purpose is false. Indeed, I would say that they are not necessarily the best people to decide what education is all about. They have a very narrow view of what society requires. The education of some of the industrialists whom I have met leaves something to be desired.

I do not want the authority to be packed with local industrialists who want to produce automatons that will fit into their system, churning out people who will take up the screwdriver jobs to which I have referred. There is more to education than that.

Education is about developing people's potential and enabling them to use the skills that they have been taught, so that they can make use of their knowledge throughout their lives. Of course people need the basic building blocks; I am not a great one for claiming that they can find out everything for themselves. People need to be able to read and count, but once they have these building blocks they need also to know how to use them. Our education system fails to teach that, even though Plowden tried to square up to the problem.

Throwing facts and figures at people only gets them so far, in life and in education. There comes a time when people can no longer learn by rote: they have to understand. In science and mathematics there comes a time when learning by rote is of no value whatever--in dynamics, sliding planes and forces of velocity, for instance. Students need to understand the principles behind them so as to be able to progress.

In his day Plowden attempted to face these facts, but that achievement will be lost if the new body is to be made up, once again, of the sort of industrialists on whom this Government are so keen. All that they will want to do is to generate wealth.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 491

I hope for a debate on the nature and purpose of education, and I hope that a liberal view will emerge at the end of it. Education is about realising potential and using it. That is the only way to a full life. It is of course necessary to have some wealth to make these choices, but people need first to have the knowledge with which to make informed choices. That is what is lost when people are trained, not educated.

The Bill does nothing about any of those problems. It is essentially a mark of the Government's failure in education policy. It acknowledges the failures of school boards and placement requests; above all it acknowledges, after 17 years, the Government's failure to provide nursery education and to start youngsters off down the most important avenue of their lives. I am therefore delighted with the Opposition's reasoned amendment, and I urge the House to support it.

9.19 pm

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) in these debates. He has given a considerable amount of thought to the Bill and much of what he says is from the point of view of one who, perhaps more than any other hon. Member, has benefited from the Scottish education system. Through his children, he continues to respect and admire the Scottish education system.

Hon. Members may be surprised to realise that this evening we are discussing a major plank of the Scottish Office's legislative programme for this year. In the closing weeks of the Session we are discussing a major piece of legislation--it is being rushed through. Nothing is more important in forming Scotland's future than the nature of our education system. The Labour party accepts some provisions of the Bill and we shall debate them constructively in Committee. Other aspects of the Bill strike at the heart of the Scottish education system and at the principles that have underpinned it for centuries.

Tonight the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)--in perhaps the worst speech of his career--talked about his secret agenda. He discussed what should happen to Scottish education under his leadership at the Scottish Office. Without warning through the usual channels, we have learned that the Government will introduce new proposals for compulsory testing at S1 and S2. The fact that we are getting this information so late in the day is a measure of the Government's lack of respect for the House and the nature of the debate. These are major issues and we should have had the opportunity to discuss them. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South(Mr. Robertson), has said that this is the Second Reading. He seems to have forgotten that there has been full discussion in another place and a Special Standing Committee in another place. A controversial aspect has suddenly been added to the Bill. I shall refer to testing at a later point.

Much in the Bill could have achieved consensus. In fact, I have no hesitation in saying that we shall be constructive about many aspects of it. I refer to the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Arising from the work

4 Jun 1996 : Column 492

of Professor Howie and the structure of highers in Scotland, we need to review post-16 education and the nature of the qualifications. When the Secretary of State introduced the provisions of the Bill relating to the Scottish Qualifications Authority he did not refer to the "Higher Still" project that is going on at the same time. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss many of these critical issues relating to the "Higher Still" project in Committee.

We are anxious about some issues, including the representation on the Scottish Qualifications Authority--an issue that has been raised by a number of hon. Members today. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) talked about the prospect of another quango staffed from the bunker of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have a theory that the Secretary of State for Scotland runs the Government of Scotland from the executive departure lounge at Edinburgh airport as there is a surprising recurrence of the names of those who frequent that lounge among those who appear in quangos. However, that is not why I am concerned about the membership of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Broad-based expertise must be made available to the authority. We have seen through the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council how that expertise can be--[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland seems to think that I am going on about quangos. I am not--I am trying to make a substantive point about the nature of representation on the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Broad-based expertise must be made available to the authority. The Minister said by way of intervention that there will be extensive consultation. Every time Ministers refer to "consultation", I hold my breath. They consulted about the introduction of nursery vouchers and when they did not like what the consultation revealed--almost unanimous opposition to the nursery voucher scheme--they changed the rules of the consultation process. I worry when the Secretary of State says that he will do anything by consultation.

We wish to explore another anxiety more fully in Committee. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) referred to the status of vocational qualifications within the examination board. We must ensure that the vocational element of the Scottish Qualifications Authority is not downgraded. I was a little concerned by the remarks of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who suggested--unwittingly, I hope--that the vocational element was a lesser aspect of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

A number of hon. Members--not least my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)--laid great stress on the need to ensure that Scotland has a valid skills base for the future. We can ensure that by enhancing vocational qualifications. All party leaders in Scotland have signed a joint declaration in relation to enterprise education and manufacturing industry--aspects which are critical to Scotland's industrial future. In examining the nature of post-16 qualifications in our schools, it is important to take into account those vocational qualifications.

I take on board--as I hope that the House will--the significant point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the confusion that industrialists sometimes experience. A plethora of qualifications are

4 Jun 1996 : Column 493

available. It is a minefield. I have been a personnel director and I know how confusing it is to be confronted with qualifications alien to one's own, which may be rather dated. Several hon. Members have referred to that problem.

We wish to debate other aspects of the Bill more fully in Committee, not least the subject of school boards. Several hon. Members referred in detail to the workings of school boards in their constituencies. Everyone will accept that some school boards operate magnificently and some are an absolute disaster, comprising Philadelphia lawyers who see the opportunity to exercise a little power in another domain. We wish to build on the positive aspects of school boards. The Labour party proposes to extend the concept to school commissions. We will take into account the views not just of those who wish to serve on school boards but of those who currently make a marvellous contribution to school life through parent-teacher associations and those who operate in the wider community. A school is about more than the education of its pupils. I hope that we shall be able to discuss that issue in more detail in Committee.

When we came to the House this afternoon, we assumed that the meat of the Bill would be the nursery voucher proposal, but then we were suddenly confronted with the issue of compulsory testing. My hon. Friends may regard it as heretical, but I enjoy listening to the Secretary of State for Scotland as he employs a little showmanship in his delivery. However, he made a critical error in deciding to upstage the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, and to take over his brief by opening the debate. It was glaringly obvious that the Secretary of State had not thought through some of his proposals, such as compulsory--voluntary, perhaps statutory--testing, and we witnessed a unique spectacle this evening when the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South rose to rescue his boss from the deep hole that he had dug for himself. We are left asking some serious questions about exactly what the Government are up to.

It is obvious from tonight's debate that hon. Members are fast coming to the conclusion that we are going back to the days of the 11-plus when children could be destroyed by the results of tests of their unformed intellectual ability when they had just made the critical transition from primary school to secondary school. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) mentioned the fact that many of those who have spoken today were teachers. I am not a teacher: I am a much more dangerous beast than that--I am a parent, and parents know the trauma that children go through, especially at this time of year, when they have to make the critical change from primary school to secondary school. Every educationist can confirm that the transition from primary to secondary has a significant effect on the performance of young people. Instead of bludgeoning us with outdated diatribes and ideologies, the Government should make a contribution to analysing how best we can advance the performance of children inS1 and S2. The Government should not put another pressure on those children.

The Secretary of State talked about the right of parents to choose. He got himself into an almighty fankle about whether parents could choose whether their children were tested, but he gave the game away when he said that the test would be a qualification. All the Under-Secretary's dancing about will not draw attention away from the fact

4 Jun 1996 : Column 494

that the Secretary of State said that the test will be a qualification. We are left with the inevitable conclusion that children must pass the S1 test to move on to S2. Even if the Under-Secretary backs down on that, we have seen tonight that selection will return to Scottish schools over the heads of Her Majesty's inspectorate, parents and educationists.

We have seen a doctrinaire approach to education in Scotland today from a Secretary of State who should have learned his lesson the last time he was hounded out of Scotland for introducing tests that parents opposed. The Secretary of State talked about doctrinaire egalitarianism. I believe in egalitarianism. The Scottish education system, from John Knox onwards, has believed in egalitarianism. I believe in equality of opportunity for every child. [Interruption.] Yes, I may be part of the monstrous regiment. In the Scottish education system, we believe in equality of opportunity. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns. Regardless of the assisted places scheme and the attempts by the Government to anglicise the Scottish education system, to a man and woman in Scotland we are committed to equality of opportunity. We are committed to ensuring that the marketplace should not return to education.

I am not surprised by the doctrinaire approach of the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I am worried. In the document that he published in the 1980s, "Save Our Schools", he made it plain that he favours vouchers not only for nursery education, but for primary and secondary education. I am not the only hon. Member who noticed that when the Secretary of State was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton today to state categorically that there will be no introduction of vouchers for primary and secondary education, he ducked the issue with a smirk on his face. The Opposition will not tolerate the introduction of vouchers for primary and secondary education.

The danger of the voucher system for the provision of nursery education is that it will make children, at their most vulnerable point, a political football in the run-up to a general election. There is no way in which nursery vouchers can be implemented in Scotland before a general election if we keep to the timetable that the Government claim to have set up. In other words, they are running hell for leather so that they can say in their manifesto that they have done something about the provision of early-years education. We have already heard the Secretary of State say that Scottish parents have been brainwashed. He must also think that their heads button up the back. Parents recognise that a voucher for £1,100 does not ensure a place in a nursery school.

In Scotland, we have benefited from a co-operative approach that takes into account the public, private and voluntary sectors. In another part of the House this evening, those who represent the voluntary sector have told hon. Members about the extent to which they have been misled. They are anxious to ensure the best possible start for children in their early years, but the voluntary sector has been put in an awkward position because it cannot provide the quality of education opportunity on which the Government are trying to pass the buck. When we debated the matter in the Scottish Grand Committee in Stirling, the Secretary of State said that we could have nursery schools in church halls. There speaks a man who I doubt has ever been inside a nursery school or to a play group. One must take into account the key factor that little

4 Jun 1996 : Column 495

children need special safety facilities. They must be able to turn on a tap that will not scald them and be heated by radiators that will not damage them. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) drew attention to the need for outdoor play areas, which are an important part of a child's development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill also made an important point, which was taken up by other hon. Members, about special needs. Nothing is more important in the early years than identifying the need for special education. The Minister has consistently ducked the issue. He tried to get off the hook by saying that local authorities do not feel that they can handle special needs during the pilot period. Special needs is bigger than a doctrinaire pilot being administered by a Government in the closing days of their life.

There is considerable anxiety about nursery vouchers among members of the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association. The association is concerned about quality assurance and is establishing its own scheme to ensure the highest possible standards. Even if Ministers are not prepared to accept this, SINA knows that the scheme offers great scope for fraud and numerous opportunities for cowboy operators. How do the Government imagine that the 60,000 extra places will be filled, other than with people who are unskilled, untrained and not properly assessed to provide nursery education? I ask the Minister to heed the words of Mrs. Fotheringham of SINA:

The whole issue hinges on there not being enough places.

The Government have been extremely lax in not giving answers about the cost of administration and its nature. The House is asked to believe that the administration cost per nursery voucher will be £22, when 10 different stages will be involved. I think that somebody has run away with the abacus as the scheme will clearly cost considerably more. Where did Capita Management Services, which is to provide the services, come from? The structure already exists within local authorities to administer the scheme. The authorities who expressed to the Scottish Office their interest in the pilot but then withdrew did so because they discovered that the nuts and bolts of the legislation had not been thought through.

The Secretary of State failed to answer the point that I raised earlier, relating to the nursery run by Mrs. Valerie White in Shawlands--which reflects that the Government did not think through what will happen to nursery providers on the boundaries of pilot areas. How come a number of nursery vouchers were delivered to the wrong postcode area? If that is a measure of the efficiency that we can expect from Capita, my hopes are not particularly high.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made an interesting speech and spoke impressively about the need to encourage young people to respect the environment and to become knowledgable about it. Perhaps he should have a discussion with the Secretary of State as one area badly affected by the cuts forced on local authorities by the Government is the environmental part of the curriculum for five to 14-year-olds.

4 Jun 1996 : Column 496

Both the right hon. Member for Dumfries and the hon. Member for Ayr talked about schools being part of the community. The hon. Member for Ayr talked about schools being used outside school hours to benefit the community. In Edinburgh, Glasgow and my constituency, until the Government cut education funding, schools were used for that purpose. We are seeing from the Government a narrow, doctrinaire approach which fails to take into account the fact that we are talking about children. Those who are concerned about children are appalled at the missed opportunities in the Bill, which is a blatant attempt to paper over cracks. The problems that will be created by nursery vouchers will haunt the Government for the rest of their days and will certainly not be tolerated by an incoming Labour Government.

Next Section

IndexHome Page