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9.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): We have had a wide-ranging and useful debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. I shall try, if allowed, to respond to as many points as possible.

We have discussed many areas of education policy where the Government have brought about, and are bringing about, real choice and lasting improvements. That has been in the face, as we have heard throughout the debate, of doubt, protest and resistance from the shower opposite.

Let us take placing requests as one example; since their introduction in 1982, which they opposed, more than 280,000 placing requests have been made throughout Scotland, 90 per cent. of which have been a success story--a success which the opposition opposed at the time.

Mr. George Robertson: On a point of order,Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister of the Crown to use such language as "the shower opposite"? Can that possibly be within even an expanded definition of being in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): My observation is that the term is generic, but preferably, the Minister should not use it.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: My, Opposition Members are touchy about their educational record. They really are touchy about what they have proposed in the past. I am sure that we will have ample opportunity to examine all the points in detail in Committee.

To help Opposition Members with their factual understanding, if nothing more, notes on clauses are available in the Library. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to study them, as they clarify the purpose of the drafting, and I am confident that, for those who have the interests of Scottish education at heart, they will underline the value of the proposals.

The substance of our debate has been on vouchers and testing. We have, of course, already heard most of the Opposition's points on vouchers, both in the press and in the debate in another place. The Government answered them then. My right hon. Friend answered them at the beginning of the debate, but I am happy to answer them again now.

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The education of our young children is a matter of immense importance. It inspires strong views, but much of what we have heard today sheds more heat than light. We are still unclear about the policy of the Labour party, because we have heard three answers to the same question. When asked: "What will happen to the voucher scheme?" the right hon. Member for Sedgefield(Mr. Blair), who leads the party, says, "I am not abolishing it." The hon. Member for Hamilton(Mr. Robertson) says that the Labour party is abolishing it, and the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) says that it will all be left to a Scottish Parliament. Never during today's debate have we been told what the Labour party proposes. To one question there are three answers.

Opposition Members say that they want parents to have choice, but they want to organise education in such a way as to reduce--even eliminate--choice. They say that they want to see further investment in pre-school education, but are unable to say how much, or how they would finance it. They claim to be interested in quality, but have nothing to compare with our robust proposals for quality assurance. None of that will be lost on parents.

We intend to stimulate growth in pre-school education in a way that sustains quality, broadens choice and supports a mixed-economy provision, with the public, private and voluntary sectors all playing a part.

Mr. Dalyell: Before we leave the subject of finance, the Secretary of State said earlier that in the winding-up speech there would be an answer to the question about the cost of examining S1 and S2 from outside the school. I wonder whether the figures are available.

Mr. Robertson: My right hon. Friend said nothing of the sort. He said that we would go out to consult on it, and that he would be more than happy if the hon. Gentleman wished to participate in the consultation.

We are offering local authorities an opportunity to help to shape the pilot phase of the initiative, and we are consulting at every turn with the entire educational community. We intend that there should be choice for parents, because that is the best means of developing a responsive service. We will deliver quality education for children, because that is what they deserve.

Mr. Welsh: Has the Minister consulted education authorities and personnel on the introduction of testing? When will S1 and S2 tests be introduced? When will the curriculum changes and the accompanying textbooks and other things be introduced? The system cannot cope with the present changes, let alone this new one. What consultation has there been, and what additional resources will there be to allow the professionals to cope with what the Government are imposing on them?

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. We have said that we will fund it. We have said that we are taking the necessary powers in the Bill, while at the same time going out to consultation on the detail. The hon. Gentleman is asking us to pre-empt the entire consultation process. That is madness.

The voucher initiative does not require new powers. It can be implemented using existing powers under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Part II of the Bill

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introduces the more precisely tailored powers of grant, with associated provisions extending the statutory power of inspection and offering opportunities for administrative streamlining in due course.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries(Sir H. Monro) asked whether we could convert from kilometres to miles the walking distances for schools. They are two miles and three miles. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to work that out by dividing the kilometres by eight and then multiplying by five. He tells me that he could do so because he was tested at Arbroath high. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries also asked whether we would consider bringing in a rural affairs element in the five-to-14 curriculum. I know that his education authority is currently working on that, and we would be delighted to give it any help that it wants.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked whether the existence of vouchers for pre-school education would interfere with the ability of families on family credit to utilise the child care disregard. That issue was raised in the Select Committee's evidence gathering in Glasgow. We are still giving it some thought. We are confident that, because the voucher value can in no way be treated as parental income, the ability of families to utilise the child care disregard will not be affected. However, I shall write to the hon. Lady shortly setting out the position in full, if she feels that that would be of assistance.

The hon. Lady, together with the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), spoke passionately and genuinely about pupils with special educational needs, and asked whether they would be disadvantaged. Obviously, the answer is no. We are committed to proper and full provision for children with special educational needs. Local authorities are responsible for provision--

Mr. Connarty rose--

Mr. Robertson: I am responding to the hon. Gentleman's earlier point.

Local authorities are responsible for provision for recording children from the age of two, and there are adequate existing powers in relation to others. All those powers will be retained for children in the pre-school sector. On the whole, the local authorities involved in the pilot schemes saw no particular issues relating to SEN children. However, we shall examine the position during the pilot scheme and its evaluation. I must make it clear that local authorities will retain the funds they currently spend on special educational needs.

The hon. Member for Maryhill was right to say that pre-school education is vital in spotting special needs. She should be supporting the voucher initiative, because through it more children than ever before will receive pre-school education, so their needs will be identified and assessed, where otherwise they might not have been.

Several hon. Members raised the whole question of the evaluation of the pilot. As I explained earlier, my Department has appointed a highly respected team from Stirling university to carry out a further operational review of the pilot.

That review's remit is wide. It will look at the experience of parents and providers. It will examine the way in which the vouchers are used and their effects. It

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will look at the patterns of provision that emerge and the growth in places that is achieved. The review will link in with local arrangements for monitoring throughout the pilot year.

I shall also appoint a broadly based committee to advise the appointed researchers. It will include COSLA, the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association and all other relevant organisations, as well as distinguished independent academics. We are serious about learning from the pilot and about tackling any problems as we go along. We are demonstrating that in what we do.

The hon. Member for Maryhill also raised the issue of insisting on teaching qualifications in the providing centres. Again, during the pilot, we shall consider staff training, the possible need to develop new and additional forms of training, and the skills needed to deliver the curriculum for pre-fives.


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