HC Deb 06 March 1996 vol 273 cc259-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

9.34 am
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

I appreciate the opportunity to raise the issue of education in Scotland, but what I really want to refer to is the crisis in education in Scotland. I am happy to see that hon. Members from all parties are in the Chamber, and I hope that they will all have an opportunity to express their views on a matter that concerns everybody in Scotland. Education is deeply rooted in our traditions, and I hope that there will be enough time to allow everyone who wishes to speak an opportunity to do so.

For centuries, education has been a Scottish priority. It is embedded in our national culture. Embedded in that culture also is a reverence for learning and an endeavour to provide the highest quality for all.

The traditional philosophical strengths of the Scottish system are there for all to see—a national comprehensive unified system from elementary through to university level, allowing each person to develop their abilities to the fullest, irrespective of wealth, background or any other consideration; a system staffed by an all-graduate-trained professional work force; a Scottish generalist flexible approach that is nowadays ideally suited to our ever-changing modern world, allied to an egalitarian attitude that ensures that the. highest quality of education is available to all as of right.

In the Scottish tradition, high-quality education applies across the nation. The well-being, quality and accessibility of our education provision is of national and strategic importance to Scotland. In the past, we educated ourselves out of poverty. I want us now to educate ourselves into prosperity as we approach the future. Scotland's comprehensive education system is a model for success, but sustaining and building on it will require new resources.

The principle of equality of access to education is now under threat, and only an independent Scottish Parliament with real control over our resources will ensure that Scottish priorities once again hold sway. The Scottish education system is somewhat battered, but it is basically sound and strong. It is simply under-resourced, and the most serious threat faced by Scottish education in the long term is persistent underfunding. According to a survey carried out by the CBI in 1994, spending on secondary schools was only 88 per cent. of the OECD average, while the figure for primary schools was 78 per cent.

Everyone acknowledges the importance of early years education in Scotland, but we have a poor record of providing publicly funded pre-school education compared with other European countries. I want that record to be destroyed. I want Scotland to be at the forefront of Europe, instead of trailing behind other countries, as we are now.

There is a mood of crisis in Scottish education. There is frustration, as Scottish local authorities are made to carry the can for the Conservatives' botched reorganisation of Scottish local government. There is anger among Scottish teachers and parents at the fact that the children of Scotland will suffer as a result of the spending cuts forced on Scottish local authorities. That anger and frustration—if the Minister did not know about it—spilled out on to the streets of Edinburgh on Saturday 24 February, when 40,000 parents, teachers and pupils marched to protest against the cuts that threaten Scotland's education system.

It is clear that services will be put under severe strain. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland anticipates that total cuts in education funding will range from 2 per cent. to 7 per cent.—possibly even more.

The predicted total cuts are estimated to be around £95 million. This week's changes give some authorities £38 million to hand back to council tax payers, with £30 million concentrated on only 10 authorities, but that does nothing to protect vital services. Education is, by definition, the single largest local authority service, and the largest provider of employment in local authorities. As such, it has been the victim of underfunding, not just this year, but in previous years. Reorganisation has merely brought to a head and served to deepen a crisis that was already affecting the funding of our education system and the morale of our teaching profession.

The Scottish School Boards Association has estimated that a local authority with an average education budget of £60 million will be facing a typical 10 per cent. cut. That would result in the loss of between 90 and 180 teaching jobs and around 40 non-teaching posts. The quality of education for Scotland's young people cannot help but suffer as a consequence. I am informed that, for an average council, the cuts will mean £4 less per primary school pupil and £7 less per secondary school pupil to spend on books and equipment.

I had the honour of listening to the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Shimon Peres, in this very establishment describing his absolute policy of providing a computer for every Israeli child. In Scotland, we cannot even provide our children with books, never mind computers. That is a massive irony for one of Europe's major computer-producing countries. The percentage of books given to our pupils in Scotland is one of the lowest in Europe. It is about time that we caught up with the 21st century, instead of trailing. Scotland's once proud record can be restored only if we give our pupils the very best in modern technology and an advantage when they start out in their school career.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

It was probably a slip of the tongue on the hon. Gentleman's part, but as I understood it, Mr. Peres said at the meeting that he wanted to provide "access to" a computer for every child.

Mr. Welsh

I am happy to stand corrected—he did indeed. But I think that his long-term ambition would also be to match the two. I would be happy to see either in Scotland, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would share that ambition.

The cuts that the Government have forced on local authorities will mean between £100,000 and £200,000 taken from school maintenance budgets, larger classes, older equipment and reduced course choice. They will mean that services such as transport for school pupils will be cut to the statutory minimum and that special education needs provision will be cut, particularly on the residential side. During the debates on local government reorganisation, we were all worried about meeting the needs of children with specialist needs. The Minister must ensure that those needs are met, because those children are particularly vulnerable.

Language tuition will suffer, with the loss of foreign language assistants. They have always been a unique and special feature of the Scottish system. There will also be a reduction in exchanges—the opposite of Scotland in Europe. Scotland has always been internationalist-minded and had a connection with Europe, but we will find that language tuition will suffer because of the cuts.

As well as jobs being lost in teaching, there will be reductions in supply cover. At a time when greater and greater demands are being placed on the teaching profession, with the five-to-14 programme and "Higher Still", teachers face a reduction in the educational development service and service support. There will also be delays in the implementation of national guidelines—for example, for devolved school management. There will be a reduction in grants and subsidies to voluntary organisations and increases in charges for school meals, letting and music instruction. Schools operate not in a vacuum but within the wider community, and the cuts will affect the community and a school's relationship with it.

Charges for nursery education are being introduced, and thus, for the first time in Scotland, there is a retreat from the principle of free provision at the point of delivery. That is the situation to which the Government have brought us, and it is unacceptable.

A reduction in the community education service, including youth work and adult education provision, must follow from cuts. The closure of outdoor education and arts centres is threatened. For many people, community education is an access to the mainstream education system, and the access will simply be denied if that provision dries up or is limited.

There will be a reduction in support for key preventive education strategies—for example, in drugs, HIV and health education. That comes at a time when the Scottish Secretary is supposed to be spearheading a ministerial task force on drugs—his other policies are producing the opposite result. It is no wonder that 40,000 parents, teachers and pupils took to the streets of Edinburgh in protest. If that did not get through to the Minister, nothing will.

The general secretary of the biggest teaching trade union in Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland, Mr. Ronnie Smith, wrote to the Secretary of State on 29 November and 21 December 1995, seeking a meeting between the right hon. Gentleman and the EIS. It took nearly three months and the largest demonstration of its kind ever seen on the streets of Scotland's capital to evoke a response from the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), and even then, it was only for him to offer his junior Minister. That says everything we need to know about the importance that the Government attach to Scottish education.

In each of Scotland's major cities, we can see where the axe is poised to fall. Glasgow estimates job losses, increased class sizes and reduced subject content. Glasgow's education department states that there will be closure of schools on an unprecedented scale and within a time frame that is driven by budgetary constraint". In Aberdeen, a £24.5 million shortfall exists between the cost of providing services to the city and the capping limit determined by the Scottish Office, which will result in a 10 per cent. cut in its base budget. Aberdeen council states that education will have to bear a significant share of the cuts—a minimum of 6 per cent., or £6 million, taken out of the system. It goes on to say: redundancies and closures can be avoided in year one but given the reduction in compensation for the mismatch problem, additional burdens and the need to avoid a similar situation next year, significant rationalisation in 1997/98 is unavoidable. It also says: a number of council staff jobs have been lost equivalent to at least 10 FTE or £300,000 cost. The council also points to a significant impact on the private sector resulting from reductions in buildings and maintenance contracts. Education also affects other businesses within the community that it serves.

In Edinburgh, £2.3 million will be taken out of the education budget in net terms—1.5 per cent. of the total education budget will be lost. Community education will be reduced by 5 per cent., with the threatened closure of the theatre arts centre and the drama centre. By the end of the year, 100 fewer teachers will be employed in Edinburgh, although again there will be no compulsory redundancies, thankfully.

In Dundee, the education budget will be cut by 5 per cent., with the closure of two secondary schools, four primary schools and a £1 million reduction in expenditure on property maintenance. Happily, there will be no compulsory redundancies, but there will be an overall reduction of 30 teaching posts in 1996–97, and a further reduction of 20 teaching posts in the next two years.

In addition to the damage being done because of the Minister's budget, the Government are creating a blight on curricular development. The funding crisis, allied to resentment by teachers because of their excessive work load, are badly affecting the five-to-14 programme and "Higher Still". Research shows little progress with the environmental, expressive arts and religious and moral educational elements of the five-to-14 programme. In secondary schools, there may now actually be a regression away from that programme towards the traditional secondary 1/secondary 2 curricula, with some implementation in English and mathematics, but little in other subject areas.

The five-to-14 programme is a curricular revolution, rather than a development of existing principles, which is not easily compatible with the existing secondary school approaches to S1/S2, or with the pattern of subject-based teaching at secondary schools. There can be no meaningful implementation in secondary schools until the new curricula are in place in primary schools. If the reform had been adequately resourced, the morale of teachers was higher and there had been no funding crisis, the reform might have had a chance. In the absence of those conditions, I am told that the future of the five-to-14 programme looks bleak, and that "Higher Still" may well turn out to be an expensive paper reform that will never be implemented.

So far, the Government have made no commitment to the on-going and recurrent costs of implementing "Higher Still". I give them fair warning that, from my reading of the mood of teaching profession, unless new and adequate resources are forthcoming, teachers will refuse to implement "Higher Still", which is part of a long line of Government-imposed changes. I participated in some of them when I taught in a secondary school and when I worked in further education.

The system has had a series of changes, such as the raising of the school leaving age or the implementation of the modular system in further education. The changes were introduced and back-up resources were promised, but they took two, three, four or five years to arrive. In the meantime, education staff were left to cope. Cope they did, but they have reached the end of their tether. They are saying that it is not on for the same thing to happen with "Higher Still". I hope that the Minister is aware of the teachers' mood, and is going out among the schools, because that impression has been given to me strongly. Will he make it clear what extra resources the Government will make available for the changes? Unless there is an early change of direction, the new Scottish qualifications authority may end up presiding over two entirely different examination systems.

The Scottish education system has its own well understood fundamental principles that the Government are endangering with the imposition of alien ideas, unwanted by teachers or parents. There is a consensus across the whole of Scotland on common goals, ideas and educational philosophy, but the Government are not part of it. It is time they listened rather than dictating events to suit themselves.

The Government's proposed nursery voucher scheme will soon have to be debated. Concerns are being expressed in another place that that scheme is the thin end of the wedge.

How long will it be before the Government start to regard the market as a solution to the problem of educational provision instead of concentrating on the mainstream bulk of Scottish education? That is where improvements and changes should be made—to the national system that provides education for 98 per cent. of our children. Nursery and pre-school education should be a natural part of Scotland's national education system, with places available for all three or four-year-olds whose parents wish them to have pre-school education.

At the upper end of the scale, there is chronic underfunding of the Scotland's world-renowned higher education system. Scottish further and higher education has been suffering from a near 30 per cent. real terms reduction in unit funding over the past six years, culminating in 1995 with a 4.5 per cent. cut, in addition to a forecast overall cut in resources of some 10 per cent. That is all against the background of a 50 per cent. increase in student numbers since the late 1980s. The very success of further and higher education has been turned into a problem by the Government.

The higher education sector has reached a near 40 per cent. participation rate in Scotland—the Government's official target for the year 2000. Yet its reward has been projected further cuts of 10.2 per cent. in real terms by 1998–99, on top of the 28 per cent. cuts over the past six years. The Secretary of State is responsible for that situation. He may try to pass the buck over primary and secondary education to local authorities, but he cannot duck—there is no hiding place—his cuts on higher education.

Funding for individual institutions will be announced on 14 March, but the overall funding package is already known, and has caused widespread concern. Resources for 1996–97 have been cut. The Minister seems pained by that. He obviously does not know that resources have been cut by £7 million on top of the 3 per cent. efficiency savings, with reductions for future years of around 4 per cent. He might not know that, but the providers of education do, because they have to cope with it, as they have had to cope with the £6 million cut in last year's capital budget.

The effects of the Government's funding failures are already to be seen in deteriorating buildings, poor access to equipment, under-resourced libraries and overworked staff. One university reports that units of resource per student have declined by 30 per cent. in the past seven years. That is all happening in a service that is a major income earner for Scotland.

In 1993–94, Scottish universities attracted £536 million to Scotland from overseas students, through research income and in their role as employers and users of local services and businesses. Universities are major players in city economies. For every £100 they generate, they create an extra £79 of economic benefit elsewhere. For every 100 full-time equivalent jobs, they add 124 elsewhere. The Government's failure to invest in education is holding back Scotland's economy and creating unemployment, while their downright barbaric attitude to student grants is limiting access to universities for young Scots.

Scottish universities and colleges should be open to all with the ability to benefit from them, not rationed in the way that the Government have done. The Minister does not seem to know it, but an estimated capital investment of £700 million will be required over the next decade. I wonder whether he will say today whether that will be forthcoming. His policies so far have led us to the opposite conclusion.

Let us contrast the Government's failure and under-resourcing with the Scottish National party's detailed proposals, which allocate an additional £1.3 billion of resources to Scotland's local authorities in the first four years of an independent Scottish Parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

Where will it come from?

Mr. Welsh

The Minister need not ask where we will get it from. I will be happy to let him read our booklet. We are the only party that has detailed in pounds and pence where we will spend money. If he wants to find a party that runs away from spending commitments, he need only look across to the Labour Front Bench. The SNP has clearly shown where the money will come from.

The £8 billion deficit is a figment of the Minister's imagination. The real tartan tax is the subsidy from Scotland to England. The Minister may not know it, but I advise him to read the Government's own figures, which show that, in the worst scenario, Scotland, with 8.8 per cent. of the United Kingdom's population, provides 9.3 per cent. of all UK taxation. The real tartan tax is the subsidy of £10 per taxpayer per week from Scotland to the London Treasury.

In return, we get the Minister's pocket money. He cannot fund Scotland's education or local authorities, because he is getting a fixed, pocket money budget from the Treasury. His policies are Treasury-dominated. The £8.8 billion deficit exists only in his mind. All he can do is to play down his country and pretend that we are not one of the richest oil-producing countries in the world.

Why, with 7.5 billion tonnes of oil and gas reserves in Scottish territorial waters, is such a country talking about cuts, closures and unemployment? Instead of the problems of poverty that the Minister's pocket money budget imposes on us, Scotland should be dealing with the problems of prosperity. We have the resources, but we can exploit them only through independence. He offers us only the dependency culture—the begging bowl—approach of Unionism. That is the past; Scotland's future, as the people are deciding, is with independence and a Scottish Parliament, so that resources can be used for the things that we want in Scotland.

Our costed budget, in the first four years of a Scots Parliament, would provide more teachers, refurbish schools, and ensure nursery places in the national school system for every three or four-year-old whose parents wish it. With independence, Scotland's further and higher education institutions would meet the strategic needs of the nation and supply the highest-quality educational provision to the wider world.

The system is fundamentally strong, and based on deep-rooted Scottish values. Given the resourcing and priority it requires, Scotland's education system will once again be the envy of the world. That, and nothing less, should be our goal.

9.58 am
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this important debate. I was a little worried earlier that not many hon. Members would attend the debate, but it is better attended than the debate last Wednesday morning on education in England. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), whom many of us regard more as a housing than as an education spokesman, if he will forgive me for saying so.

I am pleased also to see a full complement of hon. Members from the Scottish National party. There are only four of them at present, and I suspect that there will be fewer still after the next general election. I wish my very good friend John Godfrey, the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Perth, the best of luck. Opposition Members will be pleased to know that, while I am more than capable of making a long speech about Scottish education, I shall not do so, as a number of hon. Members are present and they wish to make their own contributions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will seek to catch your eye also, Madam Deputy Speaker.

At a time when the interests of our economy are best served by reducing the public sector borrowing requirement and our overall level of public expenditure, the Government have set out their priorities in both education and health. Despite the fact that the PSBR fell from £35.9 billion to £29 billion this year, spending on education and health are priorities—particularly higher education—in Scotland, where spending will be £621 million in 1995–96, which is an increase of 4.2 per cent. on last year. In the December public expenditure survey statement, the Scottish Office education budget was maintained at a record level of £1,277 million.

However, Conservative Members are not convinced that only increased expenditure will radically improve standards in Scottish education. The education reforms that we have implemented throughout the United Kingdom are founded on our belief in devolving management of schools from Government to the schools, on parental involvement and on traditional teaching methods of instructing children in the subjects set out in the national curriculum. Teaching methods are particularly important, and the Office for Standards in Education has made it clear that their selection and application and the form of class organisation have a greater impact on learning than class sizes.

I welcome the fact that, from 1 April, bad teachers who are sacked by local education authorities will not have their dismissals referred to local education committees. We will abolish that long-winded, time-wasting procedure which makes it almost impossible to get rid of bad teachers.

Mr. Welsh

It is quite insulting to the Scottish education profession for the hon. Gentleman to talk about bad teachers in that manner. Does he not understand that one of our traditional strengths is a fully qualified, graduate teaching profession? If teachers have problems, they can be solved within the counselling system. They can receive the help they require in order to perform better, or they may decide to change careers. It is wrong merely to blame bad teachers or bad schools. Instead of moaning about teachers, the Government should fix the problems.

Mr. Banks

I am talking about a tiny minority of teachers. However, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the remarks of the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) which appeared in The Scotsman earlier this week—perhaps she will expand on them later in the debate. It appears that the Labour party is coming closer to the Government's policies: I welcome the fact that it seems to support some of the actions of Scottish Office Ministers.

The 1981 parents charter began the process of parental involvement, which has progressed through its 1991 and 1995 follow-ups. School boards were created in 1988, and they have given parents a role in running schools. They have now been established in more than 90 per cent. of Scottish secondary schools. The implications for local authorities of the Education Reform Act 1988 and the Education Act 1993 were to extend choice to parents, governors and head teachers, centralise control of the curriculum and pass control of school inspections to Ofsted.

I shall point out how those changes advantage Scotland. Devolved management has encouraged flexibility and responsiveness by allowing decisions to be taken closer to the Scottish people. Decisions are taken not just in the House and in London, but by local authorities. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I hope that those hon. Members who are engaging in repeated seated interventions do not hope to catch my eye to speak later in the debate.

Mr. Banks

That is true devolution: powers have been granted to parents without the need to establish alternative institutions and bureaucracy either here or in Edinburgh. Because there are no jobs, titles or sinecures for Opposition Members, it does not mean that their constituents will not benefit from the Government's policies. One has only to look at the success of Dornoch academy in Sutherland and its welcome expansion to six-year status to see the beneficial effects of schools governing themselves.

The Government's objectives—including the devolution to schools of at least 80 per cent. of local spending and schools having the controlling interest in staff selection—should be contrasted with the outdated paternalism of the Labour party. The introduction of nursery vouchers by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is widely welcomed.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

By whom?

Mr. Banks

It is welcomed by parents, but I shall come to that point in a moment—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will comment on it also.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

If I had plenty of time, I would love to give way to the hon. Lady. However, I promised the House that my remarks would be brief—it must be obvious to hon. Members that I am speaking more quickly than I would like. However, they should take care, because I could speak for much longer than they might wish.

I am pleased that the assisted places scheme will deliver further choice to parents. I emphasise that it has come about as a result of direct expenditure by the Scottish Office. I hope that the number of pupils taking advantage of the assisted places scheme will increase from 3,000 to 6,000. We want to give parents greater choice.

I commend the Scottish authorities that have taken part in the initial nursery voucher schemes. I wish those parents in North Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, Argyll and Bute, and Highland the best of luck. I hope that vouchers valued at £1,100 or more will be made available to parents throughout Scotland, rather than in only a few authorities. I warmly welcome that measure, which gives parents unprecedented choice.

Unfortunately, education has been caught up in the uproar surrounding the reorganisation of local government. The hon. Member for Angus, East touched on that point, although I did not agree with everything he said—in fact, I think that, in Kilmarnock, he ran foul of the problems to which he alluded.

It is interesting to note that an extra £186 million has been allocated to Scottish councils this year. Current expenditure levels are more than 30 per cent. higher in Scotland than in England, yet we hear claims about the denigration of Scottish local democracy by central Government. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's announcement on Monday of an extra £96 million for local authorities—including £58 million to safeguard front-line services, such as education—is motivated more by the need to help the oppressed council tax payer than by a desire to feed local authorities' addiction to more central funding.

The spendthrift behaviour of many of the outgoing regional and district authorities resembles that of a national lottery winner with only a few weeks to live. The new unitary authorities will suffer the consequences. Local reorganisation has been used by extremists—epitomised by one or two Opposition Members—simply as an excuse to make mischief. The Scottish National party's high-tax, high-spending agenda for Scotland is matched in its lunacy only by the foolishness of the Labour party, which sniggers in the background at the antics of the nationalists.

The hon. Member for Angus, East waved around a document containing many figures about where his party intends to spend money. However, he did not answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about where the money would come from. Conservative education policies make a rounded whole. The five-to-14 development programme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, includes the three interlinked elements of the curriculum, testing and reporting on progress to parents. The five main areas of study seem to have struck the right balance between learning the basics and learning new subjects relevant to the future, such as environmental studies.

The aim of our recent legislation has been to make schools more responsive and accountable to individual choice, and to involve employers and the wider community. It is well known that education in Scotland—as in the rest of the United Kingdom—has been too distant from the needs of industry. The technical and vocational education initiative—which I think was pioneered by the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang)—is a fine programme, as is the compacts initiative. I warmly welcome the initiatives, which give students who perform well in Scotland a greater chance of a job when they leave school.

The latest reports of educational standards are encouraging. In November 1995 there was an increase in the proportion of pupils achieving three or more standard grade awards in the fourth year, and the proportion of pupils gaining five or more awards at the top level increased by 4 per cent. Participation of young Scots in higher education was more than 38 per cent. last year, compared with 17 per cent. under Labour.

I hope that the new local authorities that come into force on 1 April will be able to consult parents who are concerned about the future rationalisation of school places following the Accounts Commission for Scotland's identification of some 300,000 surplus school places. While I accept that that figure must be qualified by geographical and other considerations, there is still room for substantial improvement.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable outcry from local authorities in Scotland that claim that they are under-funded. Is it not the case that in Scotland, particularly in the Strathclyde region and in Glasgow, Labour councillors have failed to come to grips with the problems of too many schools not being maintained well enough?

Mr. Banks

I am glad to see my hon. Friend in his place. He has raised an important point, and he will recognise that it is a matter for local councils and the geographical factors to which I have alluded.

I will devote as much attention to the policies of the Scottish National party as I think is due. I am conscious of the fact that, in 1989, it wasted time during the Budget to draw attention to the fact that more power was being devolved to parents north of the border. If ever there was an example of the Scottish National party being against choice, that was it. It has a long history of trying to scupper the Government's policies of devolving more power to parents and to schools.

I have no doubt that new Labour will continue to adopt many of the policies of the Conservative party, as it appears to be doing already—it is beginning to show the courage of our old convictions. However, it can never adopt our core beliefs, because choice and the minimisation of bureaucracy are not part of the socialist gospel or of the new Labour soundbite.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

This is good.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful to the hon. Member for saying that it is good, because I could spend the next half hour or so going into much more detail.

Samuel Johnson is quoted as follows in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson of 1775: All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not. Obviously, he could never have anticipated knowing Labour party education policy.

10.14 am
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) spoke for such a long time but said so little.

My constituency has an exceptional quality of education, and the following secondary schools are at the top of the list of achievement by any standards throughout Scotland: Turbull high, Bishopbriggs high, Tuos Muir high, Lenzie academy, St. Ninians, Kirkintilloch high, Boclair and Bearsden academy. It was expected that these top schools would opt out under the Government's education reforms in the last Parliament, but not one of the schools in my constituency has expressed an interest in doing so.

The staff and the parents are content with the services provided by Strathclyde regional council—a Labour council. They have continued in that compact between the schools, the parents and the society in which they live, which is the basis on which good-quality education is delivered.

We cannot separate schools from society—when we were at school, there was a compact between school and society, and that was the basis of good education. It was understood that, if one went to school, worked hard and obtained qualifications, one could move on to higher education and achieve a job. That process has broken down under the Government, and that compact has been split—and there is no doubt that there are falling standards and an increase in truancy as a result of the breakdown in society.

The schools in my constituency are full: there are no spare places and there are no spare schools. Under the local authority settlement, savings are supposed to be made within the education budget based on the assumption that there will be empty schools that can be closed. That cannot be done in my constituency: every school is completely full. However, we are asked to make the same cuts as other areas.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to consider that point. It is no good there being an average, because some areas will be above it and some areas will be below it—and it poses particular problems in my area. We do not have spare places, and we have placement requests because of the quality of the education in the area.

Mr. Gallie


Mr. Galbraith

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because other hon. Members wish to speak.

We have good-quality schooling for pupils with learning difficulties. However, pupils with special educational needs have to go outside the area—they are no longer part of the Strathclyde system—which is causing problems. The number of places available for pupils with specific learning disorders is inadequate, so they will be wrongly placed in other schools, to the detriment of their education.

I plead with the Minister to listen to local authorities and to look at the provision of facilities for children with specific learning needs. These children have a bad start to life as it is, so it is our duty to ensure that we do everything in our power to deliver a better service. There is much else that I wish to say, but if I have got through to the Minister the need for extra places for those with learning difficulties and other specific learning needs, I will have done some good in this debate.

10.18 am
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) on succeeding in obtaining this debate and on the way in which he presented his case. Although I do not agree with everything he said, particularly in the latter part of his speech, he presented a broad canvas of the serious problems and difficulties currently facing Scottish education.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) referred to children with special needs. The nursery voucher scheme makes no provision for them. It is arguable whether £1,100 would pay for a nursery place for a child without special needs. We have heard little to date to give us any reassurance about provision for children with special educational needs, although Ministers have had plenty of opportunities to debate the issue.

Although such councils as Highland, and Argyll and Bute, which offer precious little nursery provision, may well gain from the nursery vouchers scheme, nursery provision is inconsistent across Scotland. Western Isles provides no nursery education, while the cities and Grampian offer high provision of nursery education for three and four-year-olds.

Will the commitment to nursery education for four-year-olds affect education authorities that currently provide nursery education for three-year-olds? Will their nursery provision be compromised to ensure that sufficient resources are available for four-year-olds? What will happen to parents who are given vouchers but are unable to cash them in because of the lack of provision? I have heard nothing so far to satisfy my hon. Friends or myself that there will be sufficient resources in the system to train the exceptionally large number of teachers that will be required to deliver nursery education—

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Or capital.

Mr. Wallace


When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State in Stirling, his reply was frightening. He suggested that having properly trained teachers was perhaps aspiring to the ideal. It is far from ideal; I hope that it will be the reality: otherwise, the Government's proposals are for nursery education on the cheap.

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the debate in Stirling. He may remember that I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he had previously advocated vouchers not just for nursery education, but for primary, secondary and tertiary education, and received an evasive answer. Will he join me in asking the Minister for clarification as to whether that was previously the view of the Secretary of State for Scotland?

Mr. Wallace

I certainly remember the question and the vague answer. I do not know whether that was the case in the past. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help us with that. However, we would welcome some assurance that it is not the Government's policy.

In primary and secondary schools, there is a crisis in the provision of books and equipment. We have a backlog of repairs and maintenance to Scottish school buildings amounting to some £450 million. As the Scottish Office could not give me the figures, I wrote to every education authority in Scotland in spring 1994. When I wrote to them again last summer, the figure had risen to £500 million. It is still increasing, and nothing in the most recent local government settlement suggests that it will be tackled.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) mentioned the five-to-14 curriculum development. Although there has been progress in maths and English in our primary schools, there is some concern about curriculum development in environmental studies, expressive arts and religious and moral education. One cannot help thinking that the financial pressure on many new local authorities will put further constraints on much-needed progress in those matters.

In secondary 1 and secondary 2, implementation of the five-to-14 curriculum has not been as far reaching as everyone had hoped. Perhaps it would be useful if the Minister could let us know what research has been conducted and what assistance or encouragement is being given to developing the five-to-14 curriculum in the first two years of secondary education.

The hon. Member for Angus, East also mentioned the question marks over "Higher Still". The Government have made no commitment to the on-going and recurring costs of implementing "Higher Still". Will the Minister say whether the timetable is current and what further assistance will be given in regard to course preparation and the pressure on staff who have to deliver a new curriculum?

Higher education has suffered a 30 per cent. real terms reduction in unit funding over the past six years, with a further 4.5 per cent. cut promised for next year. Everyone welcomes the growth in student numbers, but no account has been taken of the consequences. Lecture theatres are overflowing, and science students do not have sufficient laboratory space. For students, timeshare means how long they are allowed to sit in the library and read, because books are in such demand.

The concern about funding that has been expressed by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals should not be overlooked by the committee of inquiry into higher education in the United Kingdom under Sir Ron Dearing. Professor Graham Davies, the principal of Glasgow university, highlighted the concern that up to 6,000 jobs could be lost—not only directly in higher education but among the spin-off jobs that relate to higher education—as a result of Government cuts, so there is clearly a problem.

There has been a deafening silence from the Government in response to the alarm bells that have been rung by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and the Association of University Teachers. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to those alarming concerns. Perhaps he will also say how Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry will cater for the Scottish dimension.

When I read the press reports, it was reassuring to note that the Secretary of State for Scotland recognised that there was a Scottish dimension to higher education, but his comments had all the hallmarks of the committee of inquiry being set up and then someone realising that Scotland had to be fitted in somewhere and the Secretary of State running around at the last minute to see what he could cobble together.

The problems are now overlaid by the financial crisis in local government. When 40,000 people took to the streets of Edinburgh, they were not protesting against Edinburgh district council or the new Edinburgh unitary authority, as the Minister sought to claim in a BBC interview.

The photograph on the back page of last week's edition of The Orcadian shows the Orkney EIS banner in Princes street. I do not believe that teachers from Orkney were protesting against the policies of Edinburgh city council. [Interruption.] The Minister may have some doubts about that, but it is quite clear that the people of Scotland were speaking out. It was similar to the protest in England and Wales last year, which left the Conservative party in third place in terms of the number of elected councillors. I am sure that the Government are relieved that there are no local authority elections in Scotland this year.

The Minister and the Secretary of State talk about the additional local authority expenditure per head in Scotland compared with England and Wales, but that does not take into account the fact that there are substantially more schoolchildren in the Scottish local authority sector. It also prompts the question whether Ministers want higher standards to be maintained.

Despite the crisis and the difficulties that we have discussed today, good-quality education continues to be delivered in Scottish schools. Of course there will be the odd bad teacher or even the odd bad school—although no one has named one—but there is no evidence that the poor teaching mentioned in reports on schools south of the border exists north of the border. League tables have their limitations, but they show that good-quality education is being delivered in Scotland. There is concern that standards might come under pressure through the funding cuts that are being forced on local authorities.

In conclusion, my party has made it clear that education must be our first priority. It is essential that we have a well-educated and well-trained young population to ensure our future competitiveness. We have stated that we would be prepared to spend the equivalent of 1p on income tax on education funding, and that if that had not been achieved in the United Kingdom, we would be prepared to support it in a Scottish Parliament.

The Minister points to a difference of view between the Labour party and ourselves, but we shall put our respective case to the Scottish people. The tax-raising powers of a Scottish Parliament are a matter of democracy. As the hon. Member for Angus, East said, the Scottish people have a firm and long-standing commitment to the education system. I am confident that, when we go to the Scottish people with our policies and our commitment to education, having been prepared to say how it will be funded, we will get a resounding vote from the people of Scotland.

10.29 am
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I shall be brief, because I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak. We will be interested to hear the response of the Minister with responsibility for education in Scotland. Hon. Members have made valuable points in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), as our parliamentary spokesperson on education, on having secured it.

I suspect that I am not the only hon. Member who has received a substantial amount of mail from constituents—I have also, in the past few weeks, met representatives in my surgery—about the prospects for our education system. I do not think that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) really understands the financial crisis that is affecting our local councils, which are responsible for delivering this vital service. All hon. Members should share the concern that has been expressed in the past few weeks as our councils have been going through the process of setting their budgets.

Moray council, like other councils, has been asked to make substantial cuts in its service. In our case, for a population of about 70,000 people, we have been asked to cut £7.8 million. Despite everything that the Secretary of State told the Scottish Grand Committee in Kilmarnock, there has not been one iota of change for many councils, because the transfer of some of the money to which the hon. Member for Southport referred had already been made by many councils, including mine. No additional money will therefore be given to those councils.

The education budget for Moray council was faxed to me yesterday, at my request, by the newly appointed director of education. In a small area such as Moray, the required staff reduction will, I hope, result from voluntary severance. The reality is that we will lose 19 teaching posts and three to four of our specialist music instructors, who are a vital part of the Moray community. Other issues that have been highlighted are the loss of specialist language teaching and the reduction in special educational needs, which are front-line services that are vital to our education system.

In that context, I should like to put these questions to the Minister about education budgeting. The Secretary of State has claimed to have protected education in his financial statements. In Moray, we have kept above the grant-aided expenditure level, by only 0.5 per cent., yet we are facing cuts like every other authority, including the loss of those vital teaching posts. Any further cuts in education next year will have a very severe impact on front-line services, which will entail going below GAE, and schools will certainly be forced to opt out.

Is that the political agenda that has been set by Scottish Office Ministers? Are they determined to force our schools to opt out of our state education system, of which we are justifiably proud?

In the light of the cuts' impact, will the Secretary of State explain how the agenda and the timetable for new national developments can be fulfilled unless the Government deliver additional resources to our authorities? I should like to have very straight answers to those questions, and no obfuscation.

I should briefly like to examine higher education. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has already told us what the Association of University Teachers said about university funding, and I will therefore not rehearse that argument but only endorse it. Let us talk about funding our students in the further and higher education sector.

All hon. Members must be well aware of the difficulties that people of all ages who wish to enter further or higher education face in ensuring that they have a decent standard of living while undertaking their course. They do not want to be millionaires; they merely want to keep body and soul together. That is particularly true of mature students, many of whom are women, who want to enter the education system after their families have been raised.

I have written to the Scottish Office, time after time, about individual cases. The response has been, "Tell the person to go and look through the register of trusts. Find a sponsor." There is no evidence that Scottish Office Ministers believe that people should be entitled to reasonable funding during their education. Last month, I took up the issue of student funding, Student Loans Company funding and the fact that new financial institutions will be involved, with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson). He said in his letter to me: The financial institutions will offer loans on terms which are at least as good as those currently offered by the SLC. Anyone one who has talked to a student knows that the loans offered by the SLC are inappropriate to students' needs. He went on to say: It is true that the private lenders will be able to choose their customers, but there is no reason to believe that they will indulge in 'cherry-picking'. I will say only that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I suspect that there will be a great deal of cherry-picking by those private organisations.

My final point is about the prospect of the development of a university of the highlands and islands. I understand that meetings have taken place with Sir Graham Hills and with the chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and that the director of the highlands and islands project has met representatives of colleges throughout the highlands and islands for preliminary discussions.

Will the Minister ensure that the results of those discussions are made public to all hon. Members who are very interested in the prospect of a university of the highlands and islands, which would create jobs, build on the expertise of our existing colleges and be a great boost to the area's economy?

10.36 am
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) on his success in the raffle for this debate, and on his speech. I cannot say the same for the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks). It is a measure of the Government's attitude to education that the one Conservative Member who could be persuaded to attend throughout this debate and to speak in it has not done his homework. I counted at least three errors of fact about Scottish education before he was many minutes into his speech.

I should like to concentrate my remarks on a few points about under-fives, because, a few weeks ago, when we had our debate on under-fives in Stirling, we were told that it would be quite appropriate to use village halls to accommodate under-fives. Why should young children be the only people in society who are so disregarded that they are expected to make do with accommodation in which everything is locked away at night, and which has no outdoor play space? That illustrates the Government's attitude to the education of ordinary people.

Once again, we have been told that local government schools are having great difficulties because of their incompetence and squandering of money. Only this morning, we heard about the Ministry of Defence losing or having had stolen millions of pounds' worth of pictures. I wonder if the hon. Member for Southport—who, I believe, went to Sandhurst—will join me in telling the MOD that it will get more money when it finds those pictures.

I was recently a member of the Committee that debated the Education (Student Loans) Bill, and the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), told us—believe it or not—that students are not poor, that the citizens advice bureaux' survey of students in Scotland was profoundly in error because students were not poor, and that they could not be poor because he had met them in student beer bars. That was the level of his interest in and knowledge of students in further and higher education.

I once again want to pursue the issue of proper funding for students in further and higher education. We must have a system that ensures that students are not deterred from entering further and higher education on financial grounds—they are clearly being deterred at present. They are, in fact, leaving further and higher education in numbers that the Minister would not admit. He simply refuses to recognise that any student would leave education on the grounds of not being able to carry on financially, yet all hon. Members know from constituency experience that that happens.

I have only a few minutes left, but I want to ask the Under-Secretary about the student loans scheme. It has been deferred for a year because the Government could not get the banks to co-operate on the time scale at first envisaged. Is it not the case that not one bank in Scotland was willing to join the scheme, because they all expected it to be highly unpopular with students, many of whom will enter highly paid jobs and possibly be useful customers? How many Scottish banks offered to join the scheme? If any did so, will the Minister give us their names?

10.39 am
Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) on securing this debate on an extremely topical subject. The Labour party recognises the very real concern about Scottish education, which led to 40,000 people taking to the streets in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago. Only one sneering voice was raised against that demonstration—that of the Minister responsible for education in Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson).

I shall take up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Angus, East and agree with almost everything that he said. There have now been five years of Government attacks on Scottish education. We have to contend not only with spending cuts but with the impact of local government reorganisation. We now see coming to fruition everything that my hon. Friends predicted during the Committee stage of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. The Government were warned by parents, teachers, the Churches and others of the chaos that would be brought to Scottish local government as a consequence of their untimely and ill-thought-out reorganisation.

It is significant that only one Conservative Member has spoken today—the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks). I pay tribute to a distinguished war pensioner for having the nerve to confront the anger felt by Scottish Members about what is happening to Scottish education. It is disgraceful that the crib notes provided by his party misled him so badly. He said, for example, that there was universal support for nursery vouchers. Clearly the Government Whips failed to inform him that 84 per cent. of the people consulted about the scheme opposed it.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about pre-five education, and it is apposite that we should discuss it this week. On Monday, under the cover of moving from crisis to chaos in local government, the Secretary of State for Scotland again told us that the views of the Scottish people were to be ignored on the subject of nursery vouchers. He said that the pilot schemes, which any sane and rational person would have regarded as an opportunity to see whether the project would work, were not to go ahead. We have been told that nursery vouchers will be introduced, no matter what. That figures, with a Government who have consistently failed to listen.

The Government have been told by representatives of parents and teachers that nursery vouchers were not wanted in Scotland and that £1,100 was too little to guarantee a nursery place. They were also told that playgroups were inadequately funded to fill the gap, and that they too were opposed to the scheme—but they did not listen. The Government, true to their ideology, are hellbent on attacking Scottish state-funded education.

Is it not ironic that, as we gathered in the House last Wednesday to discuss the local government settlement and cuts, the Minister responsible for education issued a statement saying that the assisted places scheme was to be increased? That scheme is a direct subsidy to private schools, but funding for children at state schools is being attacked. That is absolutely disgraceful.

Nursery vouchers have been in circulation for two weeks in England, and the system has already descended into chaos. One third of eligible parents have not received their vouchers, because they did not know that, even if they had a child in nursery education, they had to apply for the vouchers. One needs to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand the system.

First, the child benefit agency sends out a form which parents have to send to a private management consultancy—Capita Management Services—based in London. The company sends details to Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which sends a printed voucher to the school, which then sends the voucher to the local education authority, which in turn sends it back to Capita. Capita sends it to the relevant Government Department, which sends the money to Capita, which sends the money to the local authority, which then sends it to the school. All that costs £290.

Head teachers in Edinburgh told me last Friday that their schools face cuts of £150 for every pupil, yet the Government can waste £290 on administration by a private management company which will destroy the structure of education for the pre-fives in Scotland.

Even more important, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) referred to the Scottish Grand Committee in Stirling, as did the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). In that Committee, we stressed to the Secretary of State the need for professional pre-five education. We were told that there was to be a light-touch inspection approach. That is another sign of the downgrading of education. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the Secretary of State's relaxed attitude to providing teachers for nursery education.

I issue a challenge to the Minister responsible for education in Scotland, and hope that he will respond without his usual bluster. Schools in Scotland confront a serious problem because of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It is well known that a number of after-school schemes operate in Scotland to care for children after school hours and in the summer holidays. At the moment, a regulatory system is in operation to vet those people who look after the children. Because of a deregulation order on which there will be no vote, such vetting is to end.

Will the Minister guarantee that he will ensure that the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 will be amended by way of a statutory instrument, so that children who could be extremely vulnerable will be protected? Otherwise, there will be a paedophiles charter in Scotland, and people who look after our most vulnerable children will not be vetted in any way. The Government say that they are ending the system because it involves unnecessary bureaucracy for private sector providers. I ask the Minister, who is a sensible man, to tell us today that that deregulation will not be applied in this instance in Scotland.

In the remaining few minutes, I shall deal with the problems facing higher education. Within the next week, institutions of higher education in Scotland, which are centres of excellence, will learn how the funding measures will shake down and affect them. We in Scotland are conscious of the fact that our higher education system is respected throughout the world. Its funding had already been cut.

I suggest that the hon. Member for Southport should have checked his facts, because the capital cuts affecting higher education in England were already affecting Scotland last year. We have experienced cut after cut. We are no longer cutting into the fat of higher education, but into the muscle. I am delighted to see that the Minister responsible for industry in Scotland, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch), is here, because our higher education is an important element of our ability to attract industrial inward investment.

Strathclyde university carried out significant research, which shows the multiplier affecting every higher education institution. Let me cite one example. One university, which employs 6,000 people, estimates that, through its multiplier, it employs a further 5,000 people in the community. If we damage the ability of higher education to operate properly, we limit its impact on the wider economy. That will affect not only people currently involved in higher education but future generations.

Those of us who have high ambitions for all Scotland's children want them to have the best possible opportunities in higher education, but the Government have let them down. We are rightly proud of our education system, but there have been successive attempts to anglicise and destroy it.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buffin—[Laughter.] I mean the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan; I apologise profusely to his constituents. He said that he had asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether nursery vouchers were to be the thin end of the wedge, and were to be introduced for primary and secondary education.

In July 1986, a certain Michael Forsyth, who described himself at that time as a former Westminster city councillor, contributed to a pamphlet called "Save Our Schools" by the No Turning Back group of Members of Parliament. Almost every proposal in that document, from opting out to vouchers, has been carried through. What is next? Are we to have vouchers for secondary education? Are we to have vouchers for primary education?

The Secretary of State for Scotland said in that document, which was written by him when he was proud of the fact that he was an ex-Westminster city councillor, that he believes that state schools should provide only the minimum education, and that parents should pay for the rest. Is that what the Under-Secretary—who has gone round Scotland to try to get schools to opt out, and who is so proud of the assisted places scheme—wants for the children of Scotland?

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

I am happy to have the opportunity to respond to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) on securing it. I have listened with great interest to all the speeches, but I am disappointed that so many concentrated on resources in such a negative and misleading way.

Let me put the record straight. Resources allocated to school education have increased from less than £1 billion in 1979, when that crowd in the Labour party left office, to £2.5 billion now, a real terms increase of 15 per cent. So I will take no lectures from the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) and her party about funding of Scottish schools. Local authority spending per pupil is 50 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1979, and 25 per cent. higher in Scotland than in England. However, as the House knows, we have taken careful note of the real concerns that have been expressed by many councils, parents and those in the service about the impact on education.

We are glad to note that councils share the priority that we consider needs to be given to education. Councils should have the maximum flexibility to do that. Hon. Members heard earlier this week the positive response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to those concerns.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear to the Scottish Grand Committee in Kilmarnock that our wish is to give councils as much flexibility as possible in using their substantial resources to support front-line services, such as education.

The new arrangements that my right hon. Friend announced will give councils the scope to spend an extra £58 million on services, including education, and for the authority in the constituency of the hon. Member for Angus, East that will involve an increase of £1.25 million. My right hon. Friend announced a package worth £38 million to protect council tax payers. That package means that the overall increase in Government support for local government is £186 million, £64.5 million more than the formula consequences of the English settlement.

Mr. Welsh

Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Robertson

I have only eight minutes left, and the hon. Gentleman had half an hour at the beginning of the debate.

I am therefore proud to make it clear to hon. Members that, despite a tough public expenditure round, we have treated local government very fairly and have given especial priority to education. We look to local government to reflect that priority, and we are confident that it will. However, we remain firm in our view that efficiency savings can be found across the entirety of local government services. There is scope in education for that as well.

For example, the Accounts Commission reported that there are 300,000 surplus places in Scottish schools, and that rationalisation might yield annual savings of £25 million. The Accounts Commission helpfully set out suggestions on how rationalisation might be approached. It is a sensitive and difficult issue, but it is important that education authorities develop strategies to deal with falling and changing school rolls. Twenty-five million pounds is a prize worth grasping. It can and will make a difference.

But I do not want to go over that ground again. Let us look forward to what can be achieved. The Government have taken a positive lead to encourage the delivery of an effective and relevant education for everyone who wants to benefit. I ask hon. Members to look again at the improvement in exam results. There has been a clear increase in the proportion of standard grade presentations resulting in credit awards. More of our young people are qualifying for higher education than ever before. There is more choice and more opportunity.

Improving standards are welcome and impressive, but we should not be complacent. There is room for improvement, and I wish to draw the House's attention to two especial concerns. The first is testing.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham


Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)


Mr. Robertson

I am not giving way. I have five minutes to respond to a debate that lasted for an hour and a half. The hon. Member for Angus, East took up half an hour, and I am trying to respond to some of the points in the debate. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am tired of seated interventions, from wherever they come.

Mr. Robertson

National testing, as hon. Members have said, is an integral part of the five-to-14 development programme. Rates for testing in primary schools are encouraging, but the position in secondary schools is completely unacceptable.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Angus, East, in talking about education, did not look at his education authority, which, in the last six months of last year, tested only 1 per cent. in maths in S1 and S2, 0 per cent. in reading and 0 per cent. in writing. I am therefore currently considering options for giving further impetus to testing in secondary schools, and I will report to the House later. The generally poor performance of secondary schools on testing must be—and will be—addressed if the wider benefits of the curriculum reforms are to be secured.

The new authorities will have an important role. They can grasp the opportunity to make real progress towards full implementation of five-to-14 and national testing in secondary schools, and to secure the benefits for the children involved. I have made it clear that we have a background of positive achievement, and the time is now right to move forward and to build.

I am certain that the vast majority of our schools do an excellent job, and children and parents are well served by them. But some schools are not achieving their full potential. That is the second area of concern that I wish to share with the House.

I do not just mean inner-city schools. Schools in other areas may not be getting the best out of their pupils, and are therefore letting them down. We should not brand those schools as failing, as some Opposition Members do, or think that teachers should be dismissed, as some Opposition Members do. We owe it to those schools, teachers, children and parents associated with them to help to find ways of raising performance.

I am therefore announcing today that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will set up a task force to address the issue of under-achievement. Its chairman and members will be announced in due course. The task force will identify strategies to achieve better teacher and pupil morale and the more effective use of resources in the education sector. It will build on the solid groundwork of achievement and rising standards that we have already laid. The specific remit of the task force is To advise the Secretary of State on strategies to improve performance in primary and secondary schools which are under-achieving with a view to improving pupil achievement generally and also to securing greater value for money for the resources committed to school education. The task force is a direct product of the work that we have already done in identifying performance measures for schools.

I am sure that it is necessary to look at under-achievement in its widest form. I do not want hon. Members to go away with the simple notion that under-achievement is about failure, either of pupils or of schools. Under-achievement implies that we are not meeting our full potential, and that can take many forms and there can be many reasons for it. There may be examples at all levels in the school system.

Among the fundamental issues that the task force will identify is the need to create positive attitudes to success, and eliminate the demoralising fear of failure from our approach to so many tasks. I am sure that there will be a role for everyone associated with the education system to help to take forward the products of the task force.

Many of the Government's initiatives in education and elsewhere have been directed towards giving people control—giving them a say. In education, we have led the way in recognising the rights and interests of parents—their rights to choose, their rights to better information, and their rights to participate. But not everybody sees it that way, least of all Opposition Members. From the cradle to the grave, they believe that big brother—in the form of central Government, the local authority or the education committee—always knows better than parents what is best for their children.

Sometimes, the Opposition's knee-jerk opposition degenerates into farce. Labour-controlled local authorities, which have been screaming blue murder over their budgets, have cavalierly turned down the extra money that was available for nursery vouchers. The hon. Member for Monklands, East, with no apparent sense of irony or of the absurdity of her remarks, asked me last November: Have you no concern for the education and emotional development of the four-year-olds you intend using as political footballs? I have never yet heard of a four-year-old who has been traumatised for life because his parents were able to flourish a voucher for £1,100—buckshee—to be spent on his or her education. The hon. Lady published a document that stated, "Every child is special", and so it is—but not special enough to deserve an assisted place, to give him or her the same start in life that the Leader of the Opposition had; not special enough to have his or her academic ability tested with a view to improving attainment; not special enough to get free nursery education of his or her parents' choice; and not special enough to have mixed-ability teaching examined, to see if that is the right way forward.

The hon. Lady's meaningless document is another high-wire balancing act between the cosmetic modernisers in her party and the stone age old believers. It will impress no one—not even the Educational Institute of Scotland, which said that the document was empty-headed and showed a paucity of thought. Only this Government's policies for genuine devolution of power to schools and parents offer the agenda of choice and individuality that will equip our young people for life.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We must move on to the next debate.

Back to
Forward to