Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.43 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) sat down without any real ending to his speech, so I was taken slightly by surprise. I do not intend to follow his arguments, except to say that I know his constituency and in my view it was relatively easy to introduce the nursery voucher scheme there. In other parts of Scotland, particularly rural areas, people will be wandering round with a voucher in hand, but no nursery to spend it in. That will not give four-year-olds the necessary nursery provision. Money must be spent in specific areas, to ensure that nursery schools are available.

I do not want to spend much time talking about what is happening in Glasgow, because I know that this will be an English-dominated debate, even though the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), is winding up and the hon. Member for Eastwood has just spoken. I was proud to be part of the recent 20,000-strong demonstration of teachers, parents, local government workers and Members of Parliament in Glasgow against the cuts in education that are happening not just in Glasgow but throughout Scotland. They are real cuts. I was talking to teachers on that demonstration who have already been given their notice of redundancy, which is a statutory right, by the local authority, because it has no choice but to reduce the number of teachers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): When the hon. Gentleman intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), he asked for credit to be given to Labour local authorities. Will he now give the same credit to those Labour local authorities? It is Labour local authorities that are making cuts in education. The Conservative Government have passed on more money for education for next year than last year. If the hon. Gentleman wants Labour authorities to get the credit, they must also take the stick when they make the cuts.

Mr. Maxton: As I tried to say this afternoon during Scottish questions, the local elected councillors are not alone in saying that there is a crisis in education in Scotland--they are joined by the director of education, his deputy and the head teachers. Everyone involved in running education in Glasgow is telling us that there is insufficient money. The Minister may be calling them all

5 Feb 1997 : Column 1089

liars, but I know whom the people of Glasgow will believe when the election comes. They know that there has been a real-terms cut in the money for education in Glasgow.

However, that is not the main point of my speech. I have put on record my feelings about what is happening to education in Glasgow. What depresses me--it depressed me when I chaired the Scottish Grand Committee on Monday in Selkirk; it depressed me when we considered education during the debate on the Loyal Address last November; and it depresses me tonight--is how little attention is paid to new technology in education.

I am the fifth Member to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mentioned the idea of a computer for every child. I thought, "Good, at last someone will talk about new technology in education." But that was it. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who has now disappeared, made passing reference to the inspector's report on information technology. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) did not mention the subject, and neither did the hon. Member for Eastwood.

In the rest of the world, a learning and information revolution is taking place, of which we in education seem unaware and which we are ignoring completely. No office--not even those of most Members of Parliament, who are not the most technologically minded people in the world--lacks a computer. Our researchers use them; the Table Office uses them; the Department of the Serjeant at Arms uses them; every solicitor's office uses them; and in the supermarket, every item that is bought is scanned, not just to show the price on the till, but to help with stock control by telling the supermarket that it has to order more produce.

The world is becoming computerised, but when I went into a school in my constituency recently to take a modern studies class, the classroom could have been the same one that I sat in when I was at school, or one that I went into in the 1970s, when I was in teacher training, or one that I taught in at a school--yes, a private school--in Glasgow. There was one 1980s BBC computer at the back. Of course, upstairs there was a computer room with up-to-date networked computers, but computing is considered a separate subject. It is still taught as if it were somehow different from everything else. Surely, in this day and age, it is time that we appreciated that the computer is not separate from the rest of education. It should be as much a tool for every child as books, pens or any other learning device.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I shall be interested in the hon. Gentleman's answer to my question, as he is an educationist. Earlier today, I was discussing a similar matter with an educationist, who drew my attention to a table showing that the United Kingdom was about three quarters of the way down the list in mathematics and science, yet we were virtually at the top in respect of computer provision per child. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more computers should be provided. Perhaps he can explain the reason for that imbalance.

Mr. Maxton: I also fail to understand that. A recent "Newsnight" programme covered education in Minnesota.

5 Feb 1997 : Column 1090

It was not about computers, but was about the organisation of schools in Minnesota. Every shot showed children sitting at computers. They were not learning about computers, but using them to learn. We need a major shift in education, from learning about computers to using them to learn. Unless we do that, we shall be way behind other countries.

There are several reasons why we need a simple education policy--a computer on every child's desk within the next five years. First, we need it as a country. The United Kingdom will fall behind economically if we do not have a computer-literate population that understands computers--in every walk of life.

Secondly, for the first time ever, we could switch our education system from one where the teacher teaches, to one where children learn. Children would be able to learn at their own speed, depending on their ability. As anyone who teaches knows, that does not happen in the classroom. When one teaches a class of 30 kids, one has to aim at the norm. Bright pupils fall behind and so do poorer ones, because none of them is getting what is needed. With a computer-led system, at last children could learn at their own pace. If they could not do something, they could try again. Brighter children could move ahead faster, learning more and developing at their own speed. Surely that is what is required.

Such a system would also help children with learning difficulties. My son is dyslexic and it would have made a great difference to him to have a voice-activated computer, so that he did not have to worry about spelling or writing. It would have been a great boon and he would have done so much better at school if he had not had to toil with what I would term the mechanics and the tools of learning rather than learning itself.

Equally, such an approach would be a great incentive to children and would solve some of, but not all, the problems of discipline and truancy in schools. The evidence in the States, particularly in Los Angeles, where universities have adopted sink schools and given every child a computer, is that truancy rates have fallen and the indiscipline problem has almost disappeared. Kids want to go to school.

There are three reasons why children learn in school. First, parents give them the incentive and motivation to learn. Secondly, in the 1950s and 1960s, we could all get jobs when we left school, so the motivation was to do well and get a better job. Thirdly, education can be made into something that children actually want. They want to go to school because they want to learn. Surely that is what education ought to be about. For the first time, we can achieve that by giving children computers.

What about the cost? I have done a quick sum in respect of Scotland. I appreciate that it refers only to Scotland. A new wave of computers is coming in the next few months. They will be linked to a network. It will not be necessary to buy big boxes costing £2,000 or £3,000; the computers will be in the computer stores for £250 each. There are 750,000 pupils in Scotland, so it would cost £187 million to provide each pupil with a computer. That is 8 per cent. of the total Scottish education budget. Of course, if we were buying 750,000 computers, the price would be considerably less. If we could do it at half price, it would cost 4 per cent. of the total education budget in Scotland. It would be a one-off purchase as the computers do not need upgrading; the upgrading is done at source.

5 Feb 1997 : Column 1091

I know that some of my colleagues think that I am obsessive about new technology. Sometimes it seems to me that I am the only person in the House who is prepared to stand up and talk about what really matters in education--children learning--and how we can best improve the way in which they learn. I feel that that can be achieved by ensuring that everyone has access to modern technology.

8.54 pm

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on the timing of today's debate, which enables us to draw attention to the report of the chief inspector of schools, which has shown that more lessons are good, there are fewer poor teachers and head teachers and there has been a significant improvement in standards in the past 12 months.

Listening to the speech of the hon. Member for Bath and the frequency with which he spent that famous penny, I could only surmise that he must be rather incontinent. Listening to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), I decided that the Brown straitjacket did not fit her either. She seemed to want to spend the £5 million saving from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme many times over.

Next Section

IndexHome Page