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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, it is with even more trepidation that I now stand to speak on the Education (Scotland) Bill. Perhaps I should declare and explain my interest. I declare my interest as a member of a local education authority in England and chairman of the Association of County Councils for England and Wales. We work on many issues in co-operation and discussion with our Scottish colleagues who are members of CoSLA. I declare my interest as someone who chaired a local education authority in the United Kingdom for 10 years. I feel less hesitant about raising the universal applicability of nursery vouchers having heard the introduction to the Second Reading made by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay.
I feel that everyone is united in believing that there is a need to expand nursery education to all four and three year-old children whose parents wish them to have it. Any proposal which seeks to make that provision should have wholehearted support. I also, as a parent, make plain that my children benefited from the pre-school playgroup movement, toddlers clubs and a variety of provision, including early admission to school. Therefore, I have full and great respect for the complementary parts of provision for pre-school children.
However, I put before your Lordships the view that to lower the quality of nursery education, with its special complementary role, would be a retrograde step. The trained nursery teacher and the complementary and extremely important nature and role of the fully qualified nursery assistant/nursery nurse are integral parts of that pre-school provision which is unique, special and complementary to other forms of provision. Therefore, any proposal needs to be judged on whether it offers an extension of availability of that service to all children whose parents wish them to have it. There is no evidence. In fact, as I shall demonstrate, there is evidence that the Government's proposals will reduce the ability of those who make the current provision to continue to provide it in terms of quality, quantity and range of service.
The first question that I should like to ask on behalf of those in Scotland who are concerned is: which is the age group of children to which the Government refer? In Scotland, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, local education authorities make provision to enable children to attend school before the statutory school age and make resource provision in some cases to nursery level of resourcing. As my noble friend Lord Carmichael said, the figures from Strathclyde show that the Government's proposals will not allow parents to buy with the voucher value that provision which their child already receives.
My second question is: does the provision extend choice to a wider group of parents than at present? It is quite clearly the case that more people will have access to some funds. But not all people will have access to increased funds to the level that would enable them to purchase full and properly resourced nursery education. These proposals represent little more than a redistribution of the money that is currently spent.
We need to consider on whom the money is spent now. At the moment, in most areas there is a combination of factors which ensures that the incidence of nursery education provided through the local education authority is at a high level. Perhaps the most common factor is the recognition by local education authorities in areas of extreme social and educational disadvantage--areas in which non-statemented special needs pupils (those with moderate learning difficulties) are found in higher percentages than in the rest of the population. The needs of those children who require expansion of their literacy and numeracy skills and their ability to cope and develop should be met in that way, just as the needs of children who come from homes where the mother tongue is not English or Scottish are met in that way. The acid test is whether the Government's proposal protects those who are most vulnerable by ensuring that the parents will receive the resources necessary to continue to purchase and that the local education authorities concerned will retain enough resources to be able to continue to make that provision. So far the Government have failed on any public occasion to provide an answer.
A variety of provision exists within the area of nursery education in Scotland as it does elsewhere in the United Kingdom: within nursery schools, nursery classes, nursery education and children's centres and within reception classes, where additional resources are made available to meet the needs of children. This is a complex area. We are told that the Government are interested in piloting a scheme and monitoring the results. Can the noble Earl tell the House why it is necessary to introduce legislation before the first pilot scheme has even begun, bearing in mind, as my noble friend Lord Carmichael reminded us, that 80 per cent. of those consulted were opposed to it? Why is it necessary to introduce legislation at this stage?
Many questions will need to be asked during further stages of this Bill. It is surprising that for the people of Scotland the Government appear to be proposing to take money that is currently spent in areas of greatest need in order to provide a universal non-means-tested benefit. I say that as someone who recognised, along with our partners, the Church authorities, and my local authority in the north of England, the need to deal with the most advantaged areas first. That has been one of the main features of the development of nursery education in Scotland. As a principle, that will come under detailed scrutiny at later stages of the Bill. On the face of it, it would appear to be a strange philosophy for this Government to follow.
Nursery education is extremely important. It is clear that the Government's vouchers will not buy nursery education in full nursery education facilities for all children whose parents wish them to have it; the amount
If the Government want a pilot scheme, surely it is in the interests of the children of Scotland that they evaluate that scheme and look at what it does to the existing provision before taking it further. The experience of my colleagues in Scotland has been somewhat bitter in the past when the Government failed to listen to early warnings. They suffered first from the poll tax. The Government have made many expensive mistakes in the United Kingdom by making decisions in advance of detailed knowledge. I hope that they will agree to withdraw legislation intended to enact provisions, the dangers of which have not yet been assessed and which 80 per cent. of those consulted said that they did not trust or want.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask whether she realises that the pilot schemes are to begin in England first rather than in Scotland. I was disappointed about that. Scots are chary about something being tried in England before it is introduced in Scotland. Was the noble Baroness aware of that?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, yes. My point concerned the dangers of introducing legislation in advance of understanding the implications that arise during a pilot scheme, rather than the fact of it being introduced in any one region first. It is the danger inherent in the Government's policy of deciding on the back of an envelope what may appear to the uncharitable to be an exercise in electoral popularity rather than a genuine desire to see whether their policies work in the interests of all children.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, for the way in which he presented this Bill and explained its provisions to us. However, having concluded the niceties, I must register my anxiety about the pre-school provisions of the Bill.
Originally I decided to speak essentially on three topics. The first related to the context of the Bill and how it is to be handled. That resulted from the comments of the Leader of the House in the debate on the Queen's Speech, which suggested that Scottish legislation originating in this House may be dealt with differently. From the speech of the noble Earl it appears that this Bill will not be treated in a special way, though there may be arguments to do so. My second point related to the Scottish qualifications authority and the third to education for children under school age.
When I read through the Bill, one of the matters that concerned me about the setting up of the Scottish qualifications authority, was that the vocational training and qualifications may be submerged into what may be described as a "sea of academia". We must recognise
With regard to the Scottish qualifications agency, there is another element that we need to recognise; that is, the relationship between Scottish and English qualifications. In our modern society mobility has become necessary in one's employment career. It is necessary for the smooth working of society, for skilled and professional people in one field to be able to move around the country and work in different places. If there is not a comparability between qualifications obtained by young people in Scotland and those obtained in England, that mobility of labour, which should be present to enable our society to work more effectively and efficiently, will not exist. As far as I can gather no one has so far mentioned that important element and perhaps the Minister will comment on that point when he winds up.
I turn to my point relating to the education of children under school age--the nursery voucher scheme. As far as I can see, the scheme will initially be a bureaucratic nightmare. It is interesting to hear the Minister's explanation of some of the bureaucratic problems and systems that will need to be set up and uprated to make the scheme work. That is bad enough. But what I call the fundamental "evil", is that it is planned to take resources away from relatively poor people and transfer them to relatively well-off people. That is evil and it is something which the Government have perpetrated year in, year out.
The classic example was the poll tax where, again, Scotland suffered before England. The costs of relatively well-off people were reduced while the costs of poorer people were increased--a direct transfer of resources from the poor to the rich. The people of this country rose up and said, "We are not having it", and the Government, because of the pressure of circumstances, eventually had to change tack. They introduced something similar to the old rates system but in the process of doing so they have prevented the progressive element of the old rating system from operating effectively. Now the relatively well-off people in our local communities who pay council tax do not pay in proportion to their means, as they used to do under the old rating system; they pay less proportionately. One thinks of the local authority provision of pre-school playgroups and nursery places, paid for by increased rates, mainly in Labour local authorities, and built up over the years with capital investment, training for the staff and all the facilities that were required. What is horrendous is that the Government's proposal for a voucher scheme will take away hard earned money that has been invested by the community in such provision
I have some personal experience of how the system works in that when my wife and I were bringing up our family we originally lived in Stockport, which was a Conservative local authority area with no public provision for playgroups or nursery schools. We had to pay for pre-school playgroups out of our own pockets. The quid pro quo was that the rates were lower. We moved to Manchester where the rates were higher and there were free playschool services and free nursery services available for our children. I have seen the situation from both sides of the divide. It is totally pernicious that the Government should be aiming to take money from the less well-off areas that have invested in such provision and give it to those areas which, historically, have not.
The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, made an interesting comment on what is perhaps one of the less contentious parts of the Bill. I refer to the election of school boards. He made the point that to have a national election with a national election day would introduce a great political debate in Scotland and that it would be like having a local authority election, with all the elements of party conflict that are involved in local authority and national elections. He was in fact saying that we will be as helpful as possible in looking at the Bill and not introduce unnecessary political conflict. We will not look at it from a purely ideological point of view. However, that does not mean that we will not be critical of the Bill in certain aspects. We will endeavour in the course of the long Committee stage which has been promised by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, to improve the Bill and we will try to be helpful in the light of our experience.
Like other noble Lords, I received a brief from CoSLA, the local authorities' representative in Scotland. It is very close to this business as it has had the responsibility of administering education in Scotland. I hope that the representations made by CoSLA will receive very serious consideration from the Minister. On the first page of its representations CoSLA states:
The question of vouchers will be dealt with by my noble friend Lord Ewing and has already been dealt with very thoroughly in the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. CoSLA makes two points on this subject. It says that it is certainly in favour of the extension of the provision of pre-five education in Scotland--we all welcome that--but it has doubts about the operation of the voucher system as the appropriate
CoSLA makes the point that there will be a right to a voucher, but that is not a guarantee of a place. That point has to be answered. It would also like an assurance that if the pilot schemes are not successful the Government will guarantee that the vouchers approach will be abandoned. Those are serious representations. As I said, I address this Bill not in any party political spirit. We shall try to be as constructive as possible in the interests of maintaining the highest standards for Scottish education.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, first, I must apologise to the Minister for not being present at the very start of his speech. However, I think I heard the bulk of it. The reason for my absence was that the aeroplane was somewhat late, to put it mildly.
I wish to say very little about Parts I and III in that the controversy and the interest will be in the voucher scheme and the extension of nursery education. I say to my neighbour, the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, that the Liberal Party has approved of the use of vouchers in certain circumstances, so that we are not automatically against the Government's scheme. I was delighted to hear from the Minister that pre-school education can make a tremendous difference to people. I wonder what it would have done for me if I had had it. I was sent to a primary school at the age of four because of a tendency to try out on hens' eggs the effect of putting them through the turnip hasher, so obviously I would have benefited greatly from pre-school education.
The rest of the Bill is not nearly as interesting or controversial. The Government are following their old trend in Part I by wanting to appoint everyone and keeping the local authorities in their place as regards the new authority. I am also interested in Part III of the Bill and the business of the maximum and minimum number of places. It appears to me that the real stipulation should be the minimum number of places that have to be kept because, obviously, if people are willing to come a long distance to bring their children to a particular school because of its excellence, then those pupils will be very desirable for that particular school to take. Therefore it is essential to have a minimum number of places so that people who actually live in the area will not be squeezed out from their old school.
The Government's intention to provide pre-school places for all children is of course wholly admirable, but I do not know if the voucher system is the right answer. To put it mildly, it bristles with difficulties. In my own parish of Kirriemuir, a number of parents have run admirable pre-school facilities in a hall there. That has been of immense benefit to the children and certainly to their parents. I do not know whether they have a properly qualified nursery teacher, but I do know that that voluntary effort did a lot of good for the children concerned. It broadened their horizons and everything else.
If the Government are looking at the use of vouchers and hoping that a great many private companies will spring up and compete for people, I cannot believe that that can be the right way to go about it. The Minister was very particular when talking about inspection. If one is really to have a wide field, then how many children are needed to make a group which would be useful and which would give them the necessary stimulus? Will it be a dozen? How will it be licensed and how is one to train the nursery school teacher, which is a profession of its own?
There are a great many features which cannot be helped by the tendency to have a competitive system. It cannot be right for education. I would have thought that the privatisation of the prisons taught the Government a lesson. The motivation of profit is not the right way to run a prison or any nursery school.
Everyone can see that this scheme will benefit enormously the parents who desire to see their children having pre-school nursery education and who can afford to pay for it. It will be of great benefit to them, but it will not benefit the children of people who cannot or do not understand how good the scheme is, but whose children need the stimulus the most. All these things seem to be ignored by the Government in their thinking on these matters.
There was another point raised by the noble Baroness about local authorities, which are providing a great deal--not 100 per cent.--of first-class nursery education. They are spending not £1,100, or whatever notional figure it is, but something like £3,000. It may be possible for the scheme to be cheaper because local authorities are not very economical, but they will not be that far out. What are the Government going to do then? If the Treasury authorises the payment of vouchers, one can bet one's boots that it will be looking for blood from elsewhere. The Government will need to be quite clear on these excellently run and funded local authority bodies and their schools and that they do not suffer from the new voucher system.
The inspection and licensing of the schools or groups needs to be extremely well done. I do not mean that it should insist on every detail, but some competent person has to decide that the size of a group in a rural area, for example, is right. That has to be done not only by rules and regulations, but by a great deal of common sense. Obviously, the pilot scheme is enormously important in this matter. I hope that the experience from it will be of benefit to the Government. Fortunately, by the time this pilot scheme comes to fruition, the present Government may not be in power which, in my view, will be a blessing.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I shall come to the point on which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, finished--that is to say, the vouchers. But before doing so perhaps I may join with all noble Lords and Baronesses who have spoken in the debate in congratulating the noble Earl the Minister on the way in which he presented the Bill. I have noticed that since he
However, I have to say that he is well supported. When I saw the troops trooping in to support the Minister in the presentation of this Bill, my thoughts returned to the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. It is a salutary thought that it took only three support troops to land every fighting soldier on the beaches of Normandy, but there were more than double that number of support troops supporting the Minister today to launch this Bill from the Dispatch Box of your Lordships' House. So when I saw the support troops filing in, I realised then that there was much more to this Bill than I had originally anticipated and that I had better give it just a little more detailed thought. So during the course of the debate I took the trouble to have a second look at the Bill. I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe say that he is giving up his annual holiday in Antigua in early 1996 in order to join the Committee stage which is going to consider this Bill. My noble friend paved the way for me to have a critical look at the legislation which is before us.
The first critical point I make is that this Bill does not cost the Government a penny piece: there is not a single penny piece of government money in this Bill. It is being funded entirely by local authorities; and I shall come to that point particularly as regards the voucher scheme. There is no new investment, but money is taken from local authorities to fund these proposals.
The proposals in the Bill are divided into four parts. I shall deal with each part as briefly as I can. I turn first to the establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. As the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, said, there is widespread agreement across the Floor of the House and in educational circles--the two are not necessarily related--that it is a step in the right direction. As the noble Baroness said, it is linked to the project Higher Still.
However, I have one criticism that the Minister should take on board. I refer to the fact that 70 per cent. of the expenditure of the Scottish Qualifications Authority will be funded by local authorities. When we hear of the proposed composition of the board, we find that the Secretary of State is to appoint up to 15 members, with the board itself appointing up to five members, so there does not seem to be much room for the involvement of local authorities in the spending of what is, after all, their council tax money. The local authorities will have to have a say, particularly with regard to the capital investment programme which is to be embarked upon by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
I should like to put another point to the Minister in relation to the authority. It is right that we should aim for higher and higher standards--I support that--but we must never lose sight of the pupils in our education system who have special needs. If we were to allow children with special educational needs to be left behind so that we may achieve those desirable targets,
Perhaps I may turn now to the question of school boards, and in particular to the relaxation in Clause 32 in relation to placement requests. Despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, said, when the original legislation giving parental choice was put through both Houses, one of the warnings which was given to the Government, which the Government ignored, related to what happens when a school is full and when people moving into the area cannot send their child to the local school of their choice for the good and simple reason that it is full to capacity. That point was resisted. Indeed, our view was rejected, thrown out and treated with disdain.
However, time moves on and events have taken their course. The village of Balfron has played a notable part in our discussions today. It is what happened at the high school in Balfron which has led to the relaxation of the provisions in Clause 32. I am in favour of that relaxation, but it is better that we put the reason for it on the record. If the Secretary of State, in his capacity as constituency Member of Parliament for Stirling, had not received all those complaints about the inability of people moving into the area to enrol their children at Balfron High School, we would not have that relaxation. As I have said, I am grateful for it, but I think that it is important to have on the record the circumstances which have brought it about.
Another aspect of school boards which I should like to mention has been raised by my noble friend Lord Carmichael. I refer to single-day elections to school boards. I believe that we shall see a Scotland-wide campaign on the day of elections to school boards, which may comprise political parties or interest groups and, democrat though I am, I take the view that that would not be in the best interests of the governance of Scotland's schools.
One point which has not been mentioned during the debate is the change in the provisions relating to the way in which a member of a school board may be removed from the board. It is clear in the 1980 Act that a member can be removed from the board only if he or she is mentally unwell or is otherwise unwell and suffering from another illness. Under the changes proposed in the Bill, those provisions are deleted and merely the word "unfit" is to be substituted. That could mean anything; it could mean politically unfit; it could certainly mean medically unfit; it could mean a whole host of things. I believe that that widening of the definition will need to be explained. Until now, the definition of the circumstances under which a member of a school board may be removed has been adequate for the purpose. I think that we have a right to know why those provisions are being deleted and why the very wide power suggested by the word "unfit" is to be substituted.
However, we must also consider the questions of a top-up and of the way in which those local authorities which run nursery schools are to be discriminated against when compared to the providers of private nursery school places. Those points too will need to be explained.
Perhaps I may give noble Lords one or two examples. In a private nursery, parents who wish to top up the £1,100 voucher will be able to do so, but if a parent chooses to use a local authority nursery school, that parent will not be allowed to top up the £1,100 voucher. So we have discrimination right away. It is discrimination against local authorities. The net result is that local authorities which are already funding the voucher scheme--I shall give an example relating to Fife--will have to find more resources to ensure that the children who are enrolled in their nursery schools receive the level of nursery education which local authorities want to provide.
I refer again to private sector nursery education. I have nothing against private nursery education, but the Minister knows that a £1,100 voucher, which is based on a £2 per hour fee, will not purchase private nursery education in the area where we live. I have made inquiries about it. The voucher will not buy even half a place.
The other element of discrimination against local authorities is that in the private sector of nursery education the private providers are to be allowed to use the proceeds of the £1,100 voucher to pay the interest on loans borrowed to finance capital investment. That is not a facility that is to be made available to local authorities. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Here I come to the superb example of Fife Region. Fife Region is a good example because, when the new authority comes into being on 1st April 1996, it will still be an all-Fife authority. So we do not have the fragmented approach that is taking place in Strathclyde or Central Region. In Strathclyde's case, one authority is being replaced by 16 and in Central Region by three authorities.
In Fife, 97 per cent. of all four year-old children have nursery places. It is quoted in government reports as having the best record throughout the country. Fife spends £6 million a year (capital and current) on nursery
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