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9.24 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I have an excellent 20-minute speech, and a less good six-minute speech. However, beggars cannot be choosers, and not even a penny on income tax will buy me the extra time that I need to make all my points.

I speak as a former councillor, and chairman of a governing body. I know the excellent work of our teachers and governors, who give up their time to help youngsters and ensure that they get good-quality education. I am grateful for the extra money that the Government have provided, especially in Lancashire. I plead with Labour-controlled Lancashire county council to ensure that all the money gets through to the schools, and that none is retained at the centre for bureaucracy, which does not benefit youngsters.

I represent a rural area with some good small rural schools. One such school, Brennans endowed school in Slaidburn, is under great pressure. It has two full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. It risks losing the part-time teacher this year, because it is already using its reserves. All the reserves will have gone. We must pay more heed to ensuring that our small rural schools get the resources they need to provide the necessary teaching staff. In such schools, classes must be larger, and they contain more than one age group, so they need extra attention. I hope that we can pay more attention to them.

Ribble Valley is particularly blessed with excellent schools, whether in the state sector or outside it. I want to discuss the assisted places scheme, so I shall mention one or two schools in the private sector.

One such school is Queen Elizabeth's grammar school, a quarter of whose youngsters benefit from the scheme. At Stonyhurst college, 35 youngsters are on it. If the scheme was abolished, youngsters from the poorest backgrounds, and others from not so well-off backgrounds, would miss the life chance of going to such schools. We know from the educational standards they attain that they do better than some children from wealthier backgrounds. We must not deny them that life chance.

My constituency includes Clitheroe royal grammar school, a grant-maintained school with 1,100 youngsters. It was three times over-subscribed this year, because parents want their youngsters to go there, and the youngsters want to go, too. The school would dearly like

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to expand, but the Opposition parties have denied it that opportunity. I hope that we will address the problem of popular schools that should be allowed to expand. Less popular schools should be punished.

Parental choice is important, and not only in my constituency. For some reason, Wirral, South has been mentioned during the debate. I shall mention it, too. It has two grammar schools, the Wirral grammar school for girls, a county local education authority school, and the Wirral grammar school for boys, a grant-maintained school.

Of course, had it been up to the Opposition parties, those schools would have lost their grammar school status years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said, it was the intervention of Margaret Thatcher that allowed them to keep their status, by ensuring that parents were consulted. They said, time and again, that they wished to retain that status.

The future of both schools is now in jeopardy. Already, the chairman of the council's education committee has stated:

The writing is on the wall for those schools. I hope that the parents and the electorate of Wirral, South make their voice heard when the by-election is held. It is not just there are good grammar schools in Wirral, South; there are good comprehensive and secondary modern schools there that are to be commended. We should remember the old adage: if something is not broken, why fix it?

There are many issues that I should like to have spoken about this evening if I had had the time. Such issues include new technology in schools, in which I have a great belief. British Aerospace in my constituency is assisting some schools in a partnership to ensure that youngsters have an opportunity to use the state-of-the art technology they desperately need. As has been said, computers can be used not just in computer classes, but throughout the curriculum and in all lessons.

I cannot overstate the importance of ensuring that our youngsters are taught about the dangers of all sorts of drugs, particularly so-called designer drugs such as Ecstasy. They should be taught at an early age, not just about the dangers, and the fact that one pill can kill, but of the long-term damage that such drugs can cause.

I am proud of our contribution and commitment to education in this country. Expenditure is an investment in education, not merely a means of spending money. The Liberal Democrats have not learnt the lesson. One penny can buy many things; it can even buy thoughts. But we need a massive investment in maths education in our schools, because there are Liberal Democrats in this country who believe that 1p can buy £4.4 billion-worth of expenditure in our schools. It simply cannot.

9.30 pm

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I do not know whether it can be described as common ground, but, at some time or another in recent months, all the parties have suggested that education is their priority. This has been a useful debate to measure the degree of commitment of the respective parties, with the obvious exception of the Scottish National party, none of whose members has been present for any of the debate.

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The motion contains an element of common ground. All parties would subscribe to the principle of the importance of quality early-years education. It is interesting to consider what commitments the various parties have made in terms of implementing that principle. Most educationists talk of the value of early-years education. We are all familiar with studies from the United States that show that $1 spent on pre-school education saves $7 in later life.

Mr. Maxton: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such provision is more important in the poorest and most deprived areas, where the need is greatest? Some of us were brought up on the great book of Peter Townsend, "Born to Fail", which was so true. Such provision is necessary for children from deprived areas, rather than those from the leafy suburbs of the constituency of the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart).

Mr. Wallace: All pupils can benefit. I would hate to say that some children should be deprived of nursery education, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point--such provision is particularly important in areas of deprivation.

Early-years education also provides an important opportunity to pick up at an early stage learning difficulties and other special needs. If those problems are tackled early, the pupil involved often has much greater chances later in life.

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) referred to commitments made by the Labour party at the Scottish Grand Committee on Monday, when the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) said:

The hon. Member for Eastwood said that that did not seem to be much of a commitment. Perhaps I can give him an explanation.

On my calculation--which will depend on the quality of the education system in the 1960s when I was learning arithmetic--in Scotland it would cost an additional £90 million above the sum invested before the voucher scheme to implement nursery education for every three and four-year-old. When challenged in the Scottish Grand Committee, the hon. Member for Monklands, East was able to find only £30 million, the money used for funding the nursery voucher scheme, so the Labour party is still a long way short in terms of that funding commitment.

I take issue with the Government over nursery vouchers. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will wax lyrical about that subject when he replies to the debate, as he did on Monday. The scheme has many deficiencies. The commitment is only to four-year-olds. In some areas, three-year-olds may lose out as four-year-olds take their places.

There is no provision for capital build in the local authority sector. If new capital units are to be built, they must be paid for through private sources. The budget set by the Scottish Office does not allow for the training of nursery teachers. When the Secretary of State was challenged about that a year ago, he said that he did not think that high-quality trained teachers were necessarily required to implement the nursery voucher scheme.

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The value of the vouchers will be inadequate, and the scheme will be bureaucratic. In Scotland, we are about to have an expensive advertising campaign. The Secretary of State justified the higher cost pro rata than in England by saying that perhaps the Scottish media charged a bit more, but he was not very convincing. More significantly, I challenged the Secretary of State at Scottish Question Time today to explain to parents who see the adverts that tell them that they will receive a £1,100 voucher why there is nowhere to cash them in. It is important to make the point that the voucher will have a value only if a nursery place is available for which it can be cashed in.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: Rather than asking my right hon. Friend that question, has the hon. Gentleman asked his hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) how the parents in her constituency, which is one of the pilot areas, are coping, because 97 per cent. of them are using vouchers?

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