HL Deb 11 December 1995 vol 567 cc1114-46

3.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill contains provision in four main areas: the setting up of the Scottish qualifications authority; pre-school education; school boards and placing requests. It is a balanced package of measures ranging from important improvements in the existing policies on school boards and placing requests, through the restructuring of the qualification and assessment arrangements in Scotland, to measures facilitating the implementation of our policies on pre-school education.

Part I of the Bill provides for the establishment of the Scottish qualifications authority which will take over the existing functions and assets of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council.

It may help your Lordships if I relate some of the background to this proposal. The advantages of a single qualifications and assessment body for Scotland were examined as long ago as 1984. Responses to the consultation document School and Further Education in Scotland—A Single Examining Body? did not, however, provide a consensus in favour of this approach. The main argument against a combined body at that time was that other reforms should be allowed to bed-in before a merger was contemplated. SCOTVEC itself was then only in the process of forming.

The current major reforms of post-16 education in Scotland have provided a fresh impetus to examining this question. The "higher still" proposals envisage an enhanced and co-ordinated suite of qualifications for post-compulsory education in Scotland. They draw on the best practice of both existing organisations to provide a coherent, unified qualification system incorporating both academic and vocational strands of learning. This will improve the quality of education available to our young people. It will also promote parity of esteem between different branches of learning. It does, however, pose questions about the most appropriate structure to manage the system.

In March of this year we issued a consultation paper—Options for the Future Relationship between the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council. The consultation showed strong support for a new single body from a wide range of interested parties. My honourable friend the Minister for Education at the Scottish Office announced in August of this year that the Government intended to bring forward the necessary legislation to achieve this.

I shall now explain in more detail the provisions setting up the Scottish qualifications authority—SQA. Clause 1 provides for the establishment of SQA and for the appointment of its members. Schedule I contains further provisions about membership, the chairman and chief executive and provisions on proceedings, staff and other matters. Together those provide most of the detailed constitutional arrangements for the new body.

One area to which specific attention was drawn in consultation, however, was the constitution of the board of SQA. We wish to ensure arrangements that will enable a balance to be struck between the wide range of interests involved in education, training and employment. At the same time, arrangements must also reflect the need for an effective and flexible board.

Having considered what would be most effective, it is proposed that the new body shall have at least 16 but no more than 25 members. The Secretary of State would appoint between 12 and 15 members, including the chairman, while the SQA will be able to appoint between three and five members.

Clauses 2 to 8 provide the powers necessary for SQA to undertake the existing functions of SEB and SCOTVEC, in addition to administering the "higher still" assessment and awarding arrangements.

Clause 2 contains what might be described as the core functions of the SQA. Its central purpose is to devise qualifications, assess performance against standards and award qualifications. To allow the SQA to carry out those functions effectively, and in the best interests of Scottish education, a range of other functions must be conferred. The quality assurance provisions in Clauses 2 and 4, for instance, are vital to the maintenance and enhancement of standards in education.

We are well aware of the importance attached to such provisions, both by the existing bodies, and by all those involved in education and training, including students and employers. We are determined that the new organisation will be able to build on the success and high reputation of its predecessors.

One current function of SCOTVEC is to "accredit" qualifications. An example of these qualifications is Scottish vocational qualifications (SVQs) which are designed to take account of occupational standards drawn up by the industry lead bodies. SVQs, along with national vocational qualifications (NVQs), form part of a national framework of vocational qualifications. Special arrangements are made in the Bill for handling this work through the setting up of an "accreditation committee", of which a majority of the members will be neither members nor employees of the SQA. Arrangements of this type were envisaged in the consultation paper.

SCOTVEC and the Scottish Examination Board (SEB) draw their principal income from fees and charges for services provided. That will remain the case for the SQA. However, the Bill makes provision for the SQA to borrow money and for the Secretary of State to guarantee such loans. It also permits the Secretary of State to make grants and loans to the SQA. That will provide flexibility for the new body over the source of funding appropriate in particular cases.

In some areas, for instance, funding by grant will be appropriate, as in the five to 14 testing work currently undertaken by the SEB. The Bill also provides for the Secretary of State to determine the financial duties of the SQA. That was suggested in the consultation paper as a means of safeguarding the interests of the SQA's customers, particularly in relation to the level of fees.

The Bill also makes provision for the SQA to have regard to the interests of persons using its services. That clearly has much wider implications for the relationship between the SQA and its customers than the setting of fees, and encompasses a wider concept of the customer than simply one who pays for services. We see this important provision as setting a clear directive for the SQA to embrace the needs of its customers in all its activities.

I turn now to the provisions in Part II of the Bill, dealing with education for children in the year before they start primary school. The provisions would enable us to fulfil in Scotland the Government's commitment to provide, over time and by means of a voucher scheme, education on at least a part-time basis in the pre-school year for all children whose parents want it. That is a national commitment. As was pre-figured in the gracious Speech, a forthcoming Bill is expected to put forward for England and Wales provisions similar to those here proposed for Scotland. Indeed, the proposed launch of the pre-five initiative in Scotland in August next year is intended to be implemented in England as early as April.

The key aim of the initiative is to stimulate an expansion in pre-five education in a way that sustains quality, broadens parental choice and supports a mixed economy of provision with the public, private and voluntary sectors all playing a part. Choice and quality lie at the heart of the proposals.

It is not, I think, necessary to persuade the House of the merits of pre-school education. The benefits to children—in terms of their intellectual, emotional and social development—are widely recognised. The Government believe it essential to develop provision in a way that puts the interests of the child first. Pre-school education must be qualitatively different from pre-school care.

We also believe it important to provide the opportunity for all parents to seek pre-five education for their children. For that reason, vouchers will not be means-tested but will be available to all parents of eligible children. The Government are also firm in their belief that parents, and not the providers of education, should decide what kind of pre-school provision is best suited to their child and to their own circumstances. Parent choice must be the watchword of the new system.

In July 1995, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that the Government's commitment to expand pre-school education would be fulfilled in Scotland by means of a new initiative based on vouchers. A similar announcement was made for England. There followed extensive public consultations. The responses showed widespread support for the expansion of pre-five education.

However, at the same time, there was real concern about the possible impact of vouchers on local authorities' own provision, and on relations between local authorities and the private and voluntary sectors. There was also anxiety over the quality of the new provision stimulated by vouchers; and a concern that vouchers alone would not generate many new places.

I wish to acknowledge those concerns very openly. I also wish to comment at this stage on one of them and confirm the commitment of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to use the pilot year of the voucher scheme, starting in August 1996 in Scotland, to address and resolve those concerns.

Our critics say that we are promoting growth in pre-five places at the expense of quality. That is a serious misrepresentation of the Government's position. The voucher system will be supported by rigorous quality assurance arrangements, which I shall develop in detail in our later discussions on the clauses in the Bill. Suffice to say, at present, that providers, other than schools, wishing to enter the voucher arrangements will have to satisfy certain key criteria, including registration by the local authority under the Children Act 1989. They will also have to show that they understand, and have the capacity to deliver, educational outcomes.

It is the intention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to consult local authorities and other interested bodies on the documentation for entry to the voucher system. Once admitted to the voucher system, providers will have to show that they are capable of self-evaluation and self-improvement. All establishments eligible for grant in respect of pre-school education will be independently inspected. Quality will not be sacrificed to quantity in the expansion of pre-five education in Scotland.

I turn now to the clauses themselves. Clause 23 would enable the Secretary of State to pay grant to providers of education for children in the pre-school year. Categories of eligible children would be prescribed by order and thus open to parliamentary scrutiny. I note in passing that a much wider power to make regulations for paying grants to education providers already exists in Section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.

To give Parliament an opportunity to debate the principle of this important new initiative, Clause 23 specifies the field within which grant is to be paid to providers, thus linking it explicitly with the provision of pre-school education.

Clause 24 would enable the Secretary of State to attach requirements to grants, including requirements relating to the quality of provision. Clause 25 would enable him to delegate his grant functions to cover the possibility that, at some future date, the Secretary of State may wish to assign certain decisions to another party—for example, to the voucher management company.

Clause 26 is a technical provision to enable the company issuing vouchers to obtain from the child benefit centre the names and addresses of parents of eligible children, so as to send them application forms for vouchers. There are also two important provisions in Schedule 5. Paragraph 2, amending the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, would extend the inspection power of the Secretary of State so as to enable him to inspect any establishment which might receive a grant under Part II of the Bill. At present, the inspection power of the Secretary of State extends only to schools; the paragraph would bring within the scope of inspection any establishment entitled to redeem vouchers for pre-five education.

It is the intention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that HM Inspectors of Schools should play a leading role in conducting, supervising and advising upon such inspections.

Paragraph 3 of Schedule 5, amending the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989, would facilitate the creation of nursery classes in self-governing schools, by ensuring that such a development did not trigger the complex requirements for consultation on changes to the characteristics of such schools.

I turn now to Part III of the Bill. Clauses 28 to 31, together with Schedule 4, amend the School Boards (Scotland) Act 1988. Boards were introduced in 1989 following implementation of the 1988 Act. They consist of parents, teachers and co-optees, with parents in the majority. In only six years, boards have become an established part of our education system. We want to build on that success and incorporate the experience of education authorities and boards.

In April 1995, we issued a consultation paper on possible changes. Our proposals received broad support and are reflected in the Bill's provisions. In brief, they would simplify electoral procedures; they would make it easier for parents to join a school board; and they would amend and clarify a number of provisions either because they could work better or because they had been shown to be ambiguous.

As to electoral procedures, at present authorities have to hold elections throughout the year. That is inconvenient for boards, it can be unsettling for parents and adds to local authority costs. We propose to regularise matters so that from 1997, when the next round of biennial elections is due, elections will be held at the same time—between 1st September and 30th November every other year.

A number of further amendments to the 1988 Act are proposed to clarify and improve the existing arrangements. They include the introduction of provisions on declaration of interest; provision, as clarification, to the effect that a member of staff who is employed at more than one school may vote and stand for election provided that he teaches at the school concerned for more than 40 per cent. of his time; and, as an extra opportunity for a board to secure its full quota of parent members, provisions allowing boards in certain limited circumstances to co-opt at most two parent members to fill vacancies until the next appropriate round of elections.

Amendments to the 1988 Act also include the extension of local councillors' rights to attend and to speak at meetings of boards; and provision to make it explicit that boards should be able to use any moneys unspent from their expenses budget at the end of a financial year for the benefit of the school.

Part IV, Clause 32, amends the placing request provisions in Section 28A of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The placing request system enables parents as of right to choose which school they would like their children to attend. This Government believe firmly in maximum parental choice in schooling. Choice helps parents to fulfil their aspirations for their children and also acts as a driving force to improve standards.

Since the legislation on placing requests was introduced in 1981, the statistics show that the policy has been extremely successful. So far, over 270,000 requests have been made and over 90 per cent. have been agreed. We want this success to continue and will do nothing to detract from the underlying principle that parental choice should be maximised. Currently, places may not be reserved for children who are likely to move into the area served by a school after the usual cut-off date for decisions on admissions. Where a school is at capacity, pupils moving into the area during the school year, or before the start of a school year, may therefore find that they cannot get into their local school. This may not be a great problem where there is an alternative school within a reasonable distance, but it can lead to difficulties where the nearest alternative school is many miles away.

We therefore propose to enable education authorities to reserve a limited number of places for incomers. An authority would be able to retain only the number of places which would reasonably be required to accommodate pupils likely to move into the school's catchment area. We also propose that the Secretary of State should have the power to prescribe the maximum number of places which may be retained. In addition, it would be possible for places to be retained only where there was no other equivalent school within reasonable walking distance of the school for which the placing request had been made.

We also propose two other changes to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. The first is the repeal of the word "general" in Section 2 of the Act and in similar regulation-making powers. Section 2 refers to regulations prescribing, the standards and general requirements which every education authority shall conform in discharging their functions under section 1 of this Act".

The change would make it clear that regulations could impose detailed requirements where appropriate and not merely to prescribe general principles. The second change, which local authorities themselves have sought, is to repeal the requirement for local authorities to seek the approval of the Secretary of State before commencing educational building works for new premises where the building cost exceeds £1 million.

This Bill would undoubtedly improve quality and choice. These are the key themes in the Government's overall programme. The establishment of the SQA will improve links between schools, colleges and training for employment. The amendments to the legislation on school boards will simplify and improve the way in which boards work, and the provisions allowing the Secretary of State to pay grants to providers of pre-school education will provide the opportunity for all parents to seek pre-five education for their children. These improvements in quality and choice in Scottish education will lead to a significant enhancement of the recognised high reputation of the Scottish system. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Lindsay.)

4.14 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Bill. He will realise that the Bill requires a fair amount of elucidation, and more than is obvious from its published form. We shall take a great deal of time to examine what the Minister has said. I believe that the Minister accepted that the Scottish Examination Board is unlike every other quango in Scotland in that it has a representative structure laid down by Parliament under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Section 129(3) of the Act states, Regulations under this section shall make provision with respect to the membership of the Board and shall ensure that not less than four-fifths of the members of the Board are appointed by the Secretary of State from amongst persons nominated by, or by bodies appearing to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of, the universities of Scotland, education authorities, governing bodies of central institutions, governing bodies of colleges of education, directors of education and teachers employed in educational establishments.". Under this constitution representative bodies are able to make nominations for appointment to the SEB in the knowledge that a number of these nominees will be appointed. The same principle applies to the committees and subject panels of the SEB.

While there is much in favour in principle of the merger of the SEB and the Scottish Vocational Education Council the amalgamated body should have a representative structure along the lines of the SEB and should not just be another quango, increasing by two the number of quangos. At present the SEB board is not a strict quango in the sense that the Government use that term. However, regrettably, the Bill does not deliver this measure. Clause 1(4) provides for a body where something like three-quarters of the members are appointed directly by the Secretary of State, with no obligation on his part to consult with representative bodies and no concept of "constituencies" such as exists with the SEB. Scottish teachers are unlikely to be comfortable with a body constituted in this way or to feel any sense of ownership of it. During the later stages of the Bill we shall certainly seek to provide for some form of representative structure. What is vital is that the Government must give effective guarantees to ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained under the proposed Scottish qualifications authority. We shall discuss that subject in Committee. I believe that the Committee stage will be informative and, I am afraid, lengthy.

Part II of the Bill has caused the most general interest among the public; it concerns nursery vouchers. I do not know whether the Minister explained this matter fully or whether I did not catch it when he spoke. I believe he said that there was a reference to this matter in Clause 23. When the concept of vouchers was proposed, it was widely expected that the Bill would provide the mechanism for the delivery of government proposals on nursery vouchers in Scotland. This does not appear to be the case, unless I have read the Bill wrongly. It is understood the Government believe that their proposals can be delivered through existing powers rather than through detailed primary legislation. I am not clear whether further legislation will be required. The Minister may have explained that. I shall read his speech with care.

One of the matters in the Bill which gives cause for unease is the question of education for children under school age. This matter is covered in Clauses 23 to 27 of the Bill. These clauses relate to the provision of grants to persons providing education to children under school age, together with details regarding the Government's powers to provide social security information to pre-school education providers. There are important issues here relating to pre-school providers having access to possible commercially confidential information on local families. I believe that members of the national insurance ministry, or whatever it is called now, are all bound by the Official Secrets Act and they would not dare to disclose details of families' income to outside bodies unless those were statutory bodies. They would not disclose such details to a company which was merely deciding whether to allocate vouchers. This borders on an important civil liberties issue.

The main issues regarding vouchers are hard, if not impossible, to tackle through seeking to amend the skimpy proposal in the Bill but are worth pursuing. I shall deal with one or two of them, and I hope that the Minister will take the trouble to reply to them at some stage.

The Government's determination to go ahead with the proposals, despite 80 per cent. rejection of the consultation document, needs to be explained. To date only four local authorities have expressed any interest in taking part in the pilot scheme which is to start in 1996. They are Argyll and Bute, East Renfrew, Scottish Borders, and South Ayrshire and Western Isles. Clackmannanshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire are still considering the matter. Not one of the major conurbations has agreed to take part in the pilot scheme.

A further issue is the extent to which the pilot is a genuine pilot scheme. In England and Wales the pilot scheme is called "phase one". Will there be genuine monitoring of any pilot scheme, with the option of discontinuation if people's fears are confirmed?

The provision of education for under-fives lags behind that of our competitors. We believe—and it is clear to most of the people in Scotland and certainly to those in the education field—that, unfortunately, the proposals contained in the Bill owe more to doctrinal considerations than to a realistic appraisal of what should be done to improve the provision of nursery education. There is an absence in any of the proposals of a clear curricular framework and a guarantee of quality provision.

The value of £1,100 of the voucher is inadequate fully to meet education for a child for a year. For example, in Strathclyde the cost is estimated at £3,000 for a year.

Practical details concerning the operation of the scheme such as eligibility, identification of parents and flexibility of vouchers are required.

In respect of the administration of the voucher scheme, there is the question of the role and accountability of the private company. The introduction of a private company into an area where local authorities have had a major role through nursery education provision marks a substantial departure, with major implications for the education process.

The scheme is socially, and potentially educationally, divisive. I represented a constituency for many years where parents in one half of the constituency had little difficulty raising the money to send their children to nursery schools, whereas that was beyond those in the other half of the constituency and there had to be local authority provision. We are concerned that in better-off areas families will be in a position to top-up the voucher value, which is an option not open to many families.

The Government must therefore clarify how the proposals will operate in areas where there is currently no state nursery education and give assurances that the inspection and regulation procedures will be sufficient to produce high quality nursery education. I am thinking of areas where there is little or no nursery education at present with which to compare any new scheme which is introduced.

I want to raise a number of points on Part III of the Bill, but rather fewer than on Part II because the position set out by some organisations associated with education in response to the Scottish Office consultation document holds good. Those points should be considered in conjunction with some of the points that I shall make.

Clause 28 seeks to regulate the timing of elections to school boards across the country. In themselves the changes mean little, but they shift the political context of those elections away from an individual group of parents who are associated with their own school towards a national electoral event. That would bring politics into school boards with a great deal of press publicity. There could be a "them and us" situation among different groups. It would be much better if the date of elections was decided—obviously with the authority of the Secretary of State—in the local area and did not become a national event. Each board would have the power to decide the date of its own election rather than there being national elections with all the razzmatazz that that could involve, taking education into the political arena.

Clause 29 puts forward a mechanism to make terms of office, and hence electoral cycles, more systematic. That is not a bad concept if used wisely. However, there are a great many dangers.

Paragraph 9 of Schedule 4 seeks to clean up a number of anomalies surrounding the appointments and leeting procedure. We challenge the role of school boards in this procedure since it can create problems locally and relies on largely untrained and inexperienced people to make important career decisions affecting professional staff. We would prefer to see the local authority employer in the driving seat. If there are faults in this area—and I know enough about local authorities to know that there are faults—I believe that the procedure should be more open than a board making these appointments to a school.

However, these proposals at least clean up what are at present a number of anomalies, particularly in situations where staff who have been acting in senior positions in a school are involved. There will be staff who are very involved with the school board, helping in many ways. They would naturally have an advantage over any people from outside who might apply for a situation.

I turn now to the question of placement and reserved places. This measure appears to be designed to solve the problem in rural areas, such as Balfron in Stirlingshire, for example, but the difficulties also apply in large conurbations. Therefore a great deal of thought has to be given to this matter. This is one of the important issues on which I hope we shall hear local opinion before we reach the Committee stage. A reserved place allocation of between 2 and 3 per cent. has been suggested to deal with any shortcomings. That is such a small figure that I cannot believe that it is not possible to accommodate such numbers of pupils without introducing such drastic powers in the Bill.

I believe that we shall have a very interesting Committee stage. It may be a rather long Committee stage, so the Minister will need to clear his diary for the first few weeks after we come back in the new year, because he will be very much involved. Like many of us who deal with Bills such as this, he will become an authority on education. Sadly, you forget a lot of it by the time the next Bill comes along, but it is nice at the time. I look forward to a long and interesting Committee stage.

4.28 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, education in Scotland is often held up to the world as a form of excellence. I wonder whether that is still the case. There is no doubt in my mind that, historically, Scotland's system of education supplied the former British Empire with technocrats. These were people whose education had prepared them to grasp the emerging technologies of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, to master them and to implement them. They were knowledgeable across a broad spectrum and, importantly, they were confident: they expected to be able to master the next technical challenge. This education was available across society and we are left with the legacy of the proverbial lad o' pairts. The implication here is that talent was to be developed, irrespective of birth. The foundation of that opportunity was the historic foundation of a school in every parish from 1566.

Today Scotland has an increasing need for an educated workforce, capable of meeting the challenge of an ever changing and improving technical workplace. Unfortunately there is a view, especially in the rural areas of Scotland, that education leads to emigration. How can that be reversed? I would suggest that the much heralded but not yet implemented move from tartan provincialism to greater autonomy would enable Scotland to control its own economy and provide a sustainable base for the exercise of talent in Scotland itself rather than in other people's economies.

It is in that context that I turn to the Bill before us. The proposals to amalgamate the Scottish Examination Board and SCOTVEC are encountering little fundamental opposition. What opposition there is is centred on the composition of the new governing board. While SCOTVEC is described as a typical quango, with little systematic representation from the industry, the Scottish Examination Board is atypical, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, in that its board is made up from professional constituencies. I hope that the noble Earl will see the merit in reproducing that system when it comes to the detailed constitution of the new Scottish qualifications authority. Among others, I have two tasks for the new authority to tackle. The first is the process of establishing the status and equivalences of qualifications in Scotland so that those are universally understood. For example, how do you grade a three-year diploma in social work, a SCOTVEC certificate in building, a Scottish Higher National Certificate module in occupational psychology, a GCE A-level, eight GCE O-levels, and a SCOTVEC module in basic bricklaying? So task number one for the new Scottish qualifications authority will be to clarify the status of academic and vocational awards.

The second task will be to implement the new "advanced highers" and secure their place in the Scottish and wider British education system. I like the "advanced higher" concept for it extends the traditional Scottish higher system from one year's study to a more substantial two-year period. The "advanced higher" concept retains the broad base of five or six subjects and contrasts very favourably with the narrow base of two or three A-levels. This is likely to produce the kind of high-tech flexible workforce referred to earlier.

Part III of the Bill addresses problems which have occurred within school boards. The proposal to co-ordinate all their elections into an autumn period every second year may well draw greater attention to the school boards. The publicity certainly poses a risk of the politicisation of the school boards. That apart, there should be a better chance of school board members being given some training. There also seems to be a question about the powers of school boards to appoint head teachers. Do they hold too great a say in this, when the personalities on the school board are so transient, being dependent on their child remaining in school?

Part IV introduces what are called "placing requests". That is a suitably obscure title for the proposed process of allowing a rural headmaster to keep 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. of the school places vacant at the beginning of the school year in order to meet the demand for places from families which move into the area during the school year. As a buoyant economy has a mobile workforce as one of its symptoms, the provision seems sensible to me. There is also a clarification of grounds for refusing a placing request. They relate to bad behaviour in another school. I wonder whether those grounds go against a family which somewhat desperately moves house to enable the child to have a fresh start in a new school.

In Clause 34, the Secretary of State clarifies that he has powers in regard to the Bill with the same versatility as the Cinzano girl. The declaration about the use of statutory instruments probably covers the non-appearance of the words "voucher scheme" and "pilot project" on the face of the Bill.

It is in Part II that the most controversial issue in the Bill lies. The proposal is to expand nursery provision to all four year-olds, on the face of it giving them a universal entitlement. I have no difficulty with the concept of expanding nursery education as, on these Benches, we advocate nursery education for both three and four year-olds, and, bravely, are prepared to pay for that by increased taxation if necessary.

The Secretary of State proposes to take powers to make grants to anyone who satisfies the inspectors that they are appropriate people to provide nursery education. It is to be hoped that that means that they have suitable accommodation, adequate equipment and professional training. There is a big concern in Scotland about the quality threshold. I suspect that the minimum qualifying standards have not yet been published. The curriculum of those schools must be carefully devised so as not to disadvantage primary school entrants who have not been able to take up a place in such a nursery school. The curriculum should therefore be skills based rather than academic in any sense. I have in mind the ability of the child to recognise his name verbally and in writing, to fix shoelaces, to be independent of parents, to become familiar with the routine of the school day, and to go on visits with the class.

The idea of introducing the free market to educational provision concerns me. Is the start-up of many small businesses the way for the Scottish people to organise universal pre-school education? Anyone approaching a bank manager for a loan to set up such a business will he asked about the sustainability of the cash flow. Clearly the rumoured (or perhaps less definite) £1,100 voucher scheme will be viable for at least 18 months, but will it be sustainable in the long term? Is it fair to encourage the setting up of small businesses when there may be a possible change of approach in policy quite soon? I hope that the noble Earl will consult widely about that. I wonder whether it is really the way to fund Scottish education.

My final point relates to the possible operation of a voucher scheme, and here I hope to be of some help to the noble Earl. A consensual approach is part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention's plans, so let me try it out here. I believe that a single voucher will be too inflexible, especially in the rural areas. Perhaps I may give an example. My nephew Euan currently attends a playgroup in his home village of Kilmelford on two mornings a week, and on two other mornings a week my sister-in-law drives him to Oban to attend another playgroup. The distance between Kilmelford and Oban is a far from straight 20 miles. The two return trips are a barely sustainable 80 miles. How will Euan administer his nursery school voucher in those circumstances? Will he be able to use the playgroups' safety scissors to cut it in half, presenting a half voucher in Kilmelford and Oban respectively? I offer the noble Earl a solution: that a rural voucher scheme would work only if the voucher were a booklet of half-day individual payments. Those would be cashed in by the provider at the Scottish Office's private firm, probably in sackfuls.

I conclude with a plea that a Special Standing Committee be established to take evidence in Scotland. We shall be better able to proceed with the Bill in the light of Scottish opinion.

4.40 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I personally have been looking forward to this Bill because the changes which it was predicted would be included—and which, it turns out, are included—are key parts of very important changes indeed which are now under way in our education system in Scotland. The setting up of the new Scottish qualifications authority in all the detail which Part I of the Bill sets out may on the face of it appear dull fare for the festive season. In fact, the bringing together of the work of the present examination board and the body overseeing vocational qualifications is, as my noble friend on the Front Bench explained, part of a much greater coming together. It is the next step in establishing new arrangements for courses and their constituent parts, for certificates and qualifications which should be of benefit to every young Scot engaged in post-16 education in the future. That is not dull fare at all.

In order to cater individually for every student, and after several reports and rounds of discussion over a number of years in Scotland, a comprehensive set of proposals is now out for consultation—I believe responses are due this month—on the suggested framework of courses and certificates that will be available. It is important for noble Lords who have not seen the document to appreciate that those units will be able to be combined to suit, and to challenge, any student, from the academic high-flyer, who will be able to end up with an award of esteem matching the French baccalaureate-type qualification, to the person motivated mainly by job-related and practical learning, and all sorts of students in between. There will be parity of regard for high standards, at whatever level and in whatever area. That is the plan.

It is clear to anyone studying these proposals that the separate working of the examination board and the vocational education council is no longer the best way. Their functions need to come together now in the proposed new body, which will administer a unified system. It seems from earlier speeches that there is agreement on the Front Benches about that.

It is not long since the Bill was published, but Part I seems so far to have been widely welcomed. The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (CoSHEP) told me that it is happy with Part I. The initiative described is very important to the committee since in many ways it will set the standards for their Scottish entrants. The new body will, however, have no locus in degree courses. That is how the principals wish it. They wish the Bill to stay that way.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) told me—this was reflected in what has been said in our debate—that it is happy with the principle of the new authority. It has justifiable questions about how it will make its input. The new authority is to be self-financing, largely paid for by course and examination fees. I believe 70 per cent. of the authority's income will come that way. It will be paid through the local authorities. CoSLA's question is: how will the local authorities be able to have their say on the level of costs?

The argument that we have had during the passage of every Bill over the past 10 years as to why everybody should be represented on such bodies and should not be appointed is, I presume from what I have heard, to be reiterated here. That is not necessarily the best answer. We shall see how we get on on that matter. However, the question is a justifiable one, and in due time, in Committee, we shall need an answer from the Government on that.

Part II of the Bill legislates to assist the expansion of nursery education and, importantly, to do so in a way that gives much needed encouragement to nursery schools and centres to pay attention to parents, and to parents to pay attention to what happens in their child's nursery school, as well as making it more likely that provision will materialise in areas where at the moment it does not exist, notably in the remoter rural areas of Scotland.

In welcoming the concept of the voucher scheme foreshadowed in the Bill, I declare a non-financial interest. I have the honour to be an honorary fellow of the Scottish Community Education Council. I am a past chairman of that body. In Scotland, as noble Lords who are based there know well, we have much excellent pre-school education, a good deal of it taking place in local authority nursery schools and classes. Over half of all four year-olds in Scotland attend those nursery schools and classes. There are also other local authority children's centres. In addition, though, there are private nurseries and many excellent pre-school playgroups. A number of those playgroups are partly funded by local authorities by way of the voluntary organisation, the Scottish Pre-school Playgroups Association. Some 80,000 children receive their nursery education through pre-school playgroups in Scotland, of which 5,000 four year-olds are eligible under the plans in so far as we understand them under the Bill. Those playgroups specialise in involving parents. They are seen in Scotland as part of community education, whereby many parents learn about bringing up their children by helping with and being in contact with the playgroup. That is an approach that is not always favoured, it has to be said, by professional nursery school teachers.

The importance of parental involvement in a child's education does not begin in primary school. It is even more important pre-school, as research is increasingly establishing. It is therefore critical that in expanding pre-school education in Scotland we do not lose the variety of provision that we already have. It is critical that those who are skilled in training pre-school educators to involve and teach parents, as the Scottish Pre-school Playgroups Association does, should be enabled to expand their work, and that any professional teachers who at present pay scant regard to parents should find it necessary to do so.

Many parents, armed with vouchers, will find themselves in a stronger position with their nursery school than at present. However, they may also find that they have more responsibility. That will be no bad thing. I am very sorry that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Labour Party, and as it now seems even the Liberal Democrats, are apparently against the scheme. I believe that it is in the mainstream Scots tradition of community education, as well as giving a better chance to many Scots, particularly in remote rural areas, where there is no present provision at all, to have nursery education opportunities. I hope that when we discuss the question of a voucher scheme in Scotland, we shall have a very different sort of debate to that which will take place about England. The circumstances and the educational culture, and arrangements across Scotland, are quite different.

With regard to school boards, Part III of the Bill does not go so far as I had hoped but will certainly help. In Scotland our local authorities have, I believe unwisely, been very reluctant indeed generally to devolve power to schools. Being a school board member is, thus, not as interesting or worthwhile a job as it should be. Consequently, not enough able people are willing to stand. When too few people come forward or members resign for any reason, some authorities and the schools themselves make very little effort to find replacements. The Bill will make it necessary and easier to keep fully manned schools boards in place. That is good.

I believe that there is further to go before schools acquire the full benefit of a properly decentralised system. For some reason, people believe that something is wrong with that because it is English. There is something right about it for Scotland but we have not yet appreciated it. That is my view.

Unlike the other parts of the Bill, Clause 32 is an adjustment to changes already established, accepted and working well—the ability of parents to choose their child's school. All the same arguments were used when that legislation came before Parliament. Now, everybody accepts it and the parties opposite seem to have forgotten that they opposed it to the end. It works well and it is popular. I believe that that will happen to the voucher scheme; but be that as it may. Clause 32 should make it easier for popular schools which attract children from a wide area to ensure there is still room for new pupils who come to live locally. There may be details of the clause that we need to examine but in principle it seems sensible and desirable.

I have looked forward to the Bill and now, like the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, I look forward greatly to its Committee stage. I support the Second Reading.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, speaking from the Front Bench, made an interesting point. It is perhaps not a significant point—

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, obviously the noble Lord wishes to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill. May I suggest to him that it might be better if he were to speak during the gap after his noble friends have spoken?

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

I am sorry, my Lords, I have not seen the list of speakers.

4.52 p.m.

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 is inadequate. It is also clear that wherever parents are consulted, in Scotland or elsewhere, and whatever other complementary provision they seek for their children, only a tiny percentage say no to the choice of fully-funded nursery education in a nursery school or class.

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.

5.5 p.m.

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 that the changes that have occurred in practical education over the past 20 or 30 years have made it much more academic. The skills that children in our schools learnt 20 or 30 years ago—for example, woodwork or metalwork—are no longer effectively taught in schools. Craft apprenticeships that once existed in their thousands, now virtually do not exist at all. I feel that we need to ensure that vocational training and qualifications are recognised as important elements and do not become submerged by paper qualifications.

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 and give it to those local authority areas that have not seen fit to provide pre-school playgroups and nursery services.

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.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the gap and I shall speak briefly on the matters before the House.

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: We are concerned that the arrangements for quality assurance may not be prescriptive enough for students with special educational needs and the protection of these students' interests would be welcome".

Perhaps the Minister will comment on that, as it is an important area.

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 means of delivering that education. During the discussions at the Committee stage I hope that we will have another careful look at that and listen very carefully to the CoSLA representations.

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.

5.18 p.m.

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.

5.26 p.m.

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 came to the Front Bench he is one of the very few Ministers in Her Majesty's Government who, at least outwardly, gives the appearance of believing in what he is reading. He was most convincing today in his performance at the Dispatch Box.

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, we would be failing in our duty to the whole community and would merely aggravate the educational divide that has developed, particularly in Scotland, over the past few years. I leave the subject of the Scottish Qualifications Authority with those few critical observations.

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.

So, I leave the subjects of school boards and the Scottish Qualifications Authority and come to the central issue of the Bill. It is interesting that the Bill does not refer to vouchers. The Government must have received the very good advice to leave the word "vouchers" out of the Bill. They must have been told, "Vouchers are unpopular and if you use the word you will simply draw people's attention to what you are doing, so, for goodness sake, don't include the word 'voucher' in the legislation". However, as the Minister, to his credit, openly and honestly made clear in his introduction, the Bill is about the introduction of a voucher system. The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, said that we would oppose that. I must certainly express the strongest possible reservations about the introduction of such a system and I do so for a number of reasons. First, it is a fact that £1,100 will not purchase a nursery place. The average cost of a nursery place in a local authority-run nursery school in Scotland is £2,600, so £1,100 will not purchase even half a nursery place.

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 education. Of that £6 million, the Scottish Office gives a grant, under the expenditure grants system, of £1.5 million. Under option two for funding the voucher scheme contained in the Bill, Fife will have taken from it £5.2 million.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

How much?

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, £5.2 million; in other words, the Government are taking back the whole of the grant plus a fairly large percentage of the capital investment that Fife makes in nursery education. I do not know whether or not the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, is looking for inspiration, but I say to her that when the Bill goes to Committee she cannot possibly support that situation. It is unsupportable. That is why when I saw the troops trooping in to support the Minister I realised that I had better have a much closer look at the Bill, and for the benefit of the noble Baroness in particular, I thought that I would bring out these detailed points. I am just giving her time to think about what she is going to ask me before she gets to her feet. I thought I would make those points in order to give her time to think about it.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I was interested in what he said. I know that Fife has that great reputation. What would happen in Fife under option one, as a matter of interest? We do not know whether option one, option two or none of the options will be adopted.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, what will happen in Fife under option one is what will happen throughout Scotland under option one: the number of vouchers going to the private sector will be deducted from the government grant to the local authorities in the area where the vouchers are used in the private sector. It is as simple as that. Under option two it is much more severe.

On topping up vouchers, here again it is important that the Government understand the hole that they are digging for themselves—the situation that they are creating. It is expensive to provide nursery education in a rural area, and in the rural areas there is little or no provision at present. The scheme will divide the community in rural areas, because one parent will say, "I'll get my cheque book out. I can afford to top up the £1,100". I always remember Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State, saying that he made his educational choices through his cheque book.

So we will have some parents in the rural areas who will get out their cheque books. They will top up the £1,100. There will be other parents in rural areas who just cannot afford to top up the £1,100. We will create the situation where there are a dozen children at the same nursery school with one half of them receiving more nursery education than the other half. This myth—it is a myth—that the nursery voucher is a passport to nursery education is unsustainable. It is not a passport to nursery education. It is a voucher to buy £1,100-worth of nursery education, but in the estimation of those who know about these things that amounts to only eight hours a week. Those who can do so will buy their 20 or 30 hours a week while the rest of the community will have to make do with the eight hours.

The whole scheme should be withdrawn. It is not even worth a pilot scheme. If there are pilot trials, I hope that when the Minister replies he will give the House an assurance that if the pilot scheme is shown to be a failure—I do not see how it can succeed—the Government will not press ahead with the proposal. I hope that the Government will have not just the courage but the wisdom to withdraw the scheme.

Finally, will the Minister give an indication of how the Government propose to handle the Bill's future stages, because there is some doubt about how they will he handled.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Now answer that!

5.46 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, there are lots of answers. This has been a wide ranging and interesting debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. They have all contributed a certain level of experience to the debate and a certain level of speculation, but I shall come to the speculation in a second. Noble Lords on all sides of the House have contributed a level of knowledge. The scrutiny of the Bill will be all the better for that.

As was indicated at the beginning of the debate, the Bill, with provisions ranging from pre-five education to post-16 qualifications, will maintain and further enhance the high standard of education and training in Scotland. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, hinted that the traditional reputation for excellence that education in Scotland has enjoyed might not continue. That is not the case. I am not sure on what grounds he was seeking to undermine Scotland's current reputation in education.

Many of the changes proposed in the Bill are proposed after extensive consultation, despite assertions to the contrary. I welcome the suggestions and questions which have been lodged today. I welcome also the expressions of support the Bill has received, especially from my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour who has great experience in this field.

I shall pick up as many of the points as time will allow me. Because of the volume of points made, I doubt whether I shall be able to cover them all. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, was surprised that there were so many troops here in support of the Bill, but in Scotland we regard education as being a central subject, as the noble Lord knows. That is why I did not bring a man and a dog; we brought the whole team, because of the fundamental value of education within Scottish life.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, asked me a number of questions, some of which, but not all, I can answer now. The noble Lord, the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, and my noble friend Lady Carnegy asked about the representative nature of the existing SEB as regards the new membership of the SQA. We have consulted on the different options available for the composition of the SQA. It is vital that we have flexibility to represent the varying interests of education, training, employers and industry. The large boards which run the SEB and SCOTVEC are doing so very well. Combined, they would lead to a board of unmanageable proportions.

We are insistent on flexibility so that all those interests can be represented on the new SQA board and that the members of that board will be there as a result of individual merit rather than the mechanics of a nominee system. I stress that the Secretary of State, in making appointments, must take into account the interests of education authorities. More explicitly, the Bill provides for the SQA to have regard to the interests of those using its services, including the education authorities. Apart from the training and employer's interests, specific note will be taken of the education authorities involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, asked two questions about the vocational dimension of the new SQA. I can assure him that the SCOTVEC national certificate, which is available in schools and colleges, is geared to educational training and is widely accepted as such. This success will be part of the foundation on which Higher Still will be built. The vocational side of the SQA management and the application of its powers will not be lost in a welter of academia. I can also assure the noble Lord on the parity of esteem between the Scottish and English qualifications. Scottish vocational qualifications are recognised throughout the country. They are mutually recognised between England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. They are part of the national framework of vocational qualifications introduced by the Government. Similarly, the general SVQs and NVQs, which prepare young people and adult returners for employment, are broadly comparable and are accepted as regards equivalent employment opportunities.

My noble friend Lady Carnegy asked about the financial side of the SQA and the role of CoSLA in considering estimates. The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to determine the financial duties of the SQA as a means of safeguarding the interests of customers, in particular in relation to the level of fees. The SQA would have the power to fix fees for its services but those must conform to criteria set by the Secretary of State. The Bill also provides for the SQA to have regard to the interests of persons using its services. That is most important because we fully appreciate that local authorities will be the significant customers of the SQA and therefore its most significant funders.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, asked questions similar to those asked by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, about the SQA and equivalent qualifications. The noble Earl also asked specifically about the implementation of the new advanced higher qualification. The SQA will have an important role in the Higher Still initiative, which includes the advanced higher qualification. The Government attach a high priority to that initiative. Despite all the derogatory chat about the Government's funding commitment to education in Scotland, today's announcement on funding in Scotland includes a continuing and increasing commitment to the Higher Still initiative.

Perhaps Part II of the Bill exercised more of your Lordships' effort as regards what was and was not taking place. A stimulating proportion of myth and speculation came from various noble Lords. I must stress at the outset that we have always acknowledged that, although we fundamentally believe the voucher system to be right in principle, there will in practice be certain constraints, problems and unforeseen difficulties which must be overcome. We have consulted and considered the consultation to date already. The pilot scheme is about to take place and that will be evaluated extremely carefully. The pilot scheme will seek a representative range of the different types of community across Scotland. At the end of the day, the ability that the Bill provides to grant vouchers to pre-school providers is a power rather than a duty. In the light of our experience and knowledge of the subject, we can tailor the voucher system to best provide the benefits that we know it contains.

The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, made assertions that the scheme would be particularly difficult to run in rural areas. I wish to take issue with that assertion now and probably when we reach some of the finer detail of the Bill. At present there are few providers in rural areas. The combination of that and the sparse scattering of potential pupils can make for an expensive service. However, a voucher system introduced into a rural area can increase the demand and make the provision of a service much more economic. The £1,100 value of the voucher, which is being focused on by a number of noble Lords, is based on careful calculations. It is based on the results of studies and on our estimated average cost of part-time pre-school education across Scotland. It is an average cost and I as much as any other noble Lord can produce examples of where it might be higher. But there are examples of where the cost is lower. Local authorities which choose to spend more will have the chance to top up that funding, just as they can now. Parents sending their children to private providers will have a similar choice to top up. But there is nothing inadequate about the voucher value, as the noble Lord admitted when he acknowledged that in the private sector it would cover not just current costs but would also be able to cover interest on capital.

At the heart of some of the misconceptions was the assertion made by a number of noble Lords that the entire voucher system would be funded by the local authorities. That is not the case. The Government are putting in new money; when the voucher system is up and running the Government will have put in £30 million-worth of new money. Therefore, when local authority providers of pre-school education attract extra places they will be attracting extra funds to the provision of that service—

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I apologise for interrupting him. As I read the Bill, it is absolutely clear that there is no cost to public funds. It goes on to state: an assessment based on available information will he made at the time when this is established". That is hardly an indication of additional resources from the Government. Normally, legislation contains an indication of any additional resources and charges on public funds and staff. There is nothing about that in this Bill.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am pleased to enlighten the House. It is a matter to which we can return at later stages of the Bill. We expect that more than £30 million of new public money will go to nursery education through the voucher system. I believe that that will be universally welcomed. It will also enable more money to flow into local authorities which, through vouchers, manage to increase the provision of pre-school education.

The assertion that the whole of Scotland was up in arms against the voucher system was also misleading. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said that only four local authorities had expressed an interest. In fact, the number is eight. I shall not detail them tonight but I can in correspondence detail which they are. We are encouraging others to come forward—and there is considerable interest—to ascertain whether they wish to become part of the pilot scheme.

Noble Lords asked why we are introducing the clause in the first place, given that there is an existing power under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to cover the nursery voucher system. I said in my introductory speech that we are offering Parliament an opportunity to debate this new initiative. Although there has been little thanks for the opportunity which we have provided for noble Lords, it has flagged up some of the concerns which exist. Under the present legislation, there is a general power to give grants. We wished to bring this forward merely to encourage greater debate.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps we may return to the contribution which he says that the Government will make to pre-school provision. He mentioned a figure of £30 million. In the preamble to the Bill, a figure of £71 million is mentioned for payments under Clause 23 for 1998–99. Do we read from what the noble Earl said and from what is written in the preamble that the Government will be taking £40 million from the local authorities, putting in £30 million and then distributing that £70 million? Is that a correct reading of the situation?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I think that we are making progress; that is a correct reading of the situation. That is why new money is coming into the system. Through the voucher system, new money will go to all providers of education whether they are in the private, voluntary or local authority sector.

My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour asked about the powers of school boards and why we are not increasing them. The changes reflect responses to the consultation paper. School boards remain free to seek delegated functions from their education authorities where they wish. We are not changing that.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked about the absence of a curricular framework for the providers of pre-school education. The basis for a clear curricular framework was set out in our publication for pre-fives' education. That was prepared earlier this year by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and was summarised in the August consultation paper. Details will be worked out in the approach to the pilot scheme. That will involve much of the excellent work already done throughout Scotland but especially by some regional authorities—and I have mentioned Strathclyde in particular.

Quality is central to pre-school provision. I urge all noble Lords to concentrate on the emphasis which I placed on quality in my opening speech rather than merely going back over the same ground again. We are determined that quality should be assured and that parents and taxpayers can be confident about that.

The pilot scheme will be properly evaluated, which will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael. It is meant to be an illuminating exercise which should point to the solutions needed where problems arise. I should say also to the noble Lord that access to the child benefit register is necessary only for the names and addresses of those families with eligible children. No other information will be passed on to any agency from that register. Therefore, any details about the finances or economic status of those families will not be part of the information transferred. The information is needed only to identify those families which have eligible children.

The subject of special educational needs was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. That is an area of Scottish education which we take very seriously. No change is currently planned for the present arrangements. Children with special educational needs will remain with the same priority rating which they have today. However, if we can persuade a higher proportion of four year-olds into education, we should be able to spot earlier than would otherwise have been the case some of the children who fall into that category. That will be a continuing area of consultation. It is certainly an area in which we anticipate local authorities being able to provide us with a very useful response to the consultation.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, was concerned about his sister-in-law or another close relation on the west coast and the various options which she has for her child. We plan to make the voucher scheme sufficiently flexible to enable parents to buy a mix of places; for example, in both play groups and nursery classes, if that is their preference. Therefore, the scheme will cater for people in those circumstances. It underlines the fact that we want the scheme to meet the demands and needs of the parent rather than the whims of the providers.

The noble Lords, Lord Carmichael, Lord Taylor, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, asked why we are bringing together elections in all schools across Scotland. The 1988 Act was intended to lead to that happening but that has proved not to be the case in practice. Clause 28 seeks to rectify those matters and the proposal has been widely welcomed in consultation.

Therefore, noble Lords should not be unduly worried about that, given the welcome that the proposal received in Scotland.

The overall purpose of Part III is to save public expenditure and to enable education authorities to run elections more efficiently and therefore more cheaply. That will provide them with more money to spend on education rather than on bureaucracy and the mechanics of elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, was concerned about the powers that a school board would have to remove a member being increased by removing a member who is unfit rather than: by reason of his physical or mental illness or incapacity". That alteration is not intended to increase a board's powers to remove a member of the board. Rather, it is in recognition of the fact that this House has in the past in another context criticised references to incapacity by reason of physical or mental illness as being offensive to people with disabilities.

I should now turn to Part IV. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, that the suggested changes have been brought about as a result of pressures across Scotland and not merely from in and around one school or one constituency.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, suggested that we should reserve a minimum rather than a maximum number of places. That would merely restrict choice for parents who seek to place their children outside their own immediate area. A balance must be struck between the families of children moving into an area and those families with children living outside the area but who want their children to be educated within that area. The objective is that the Secretary of State will set maximum numbers and the local authorities, education authorities and providers will be able to make an assessment of what, in normal circumstances will be the number of places which need to be made available.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, fears that we may he discriminating against urban schools by specifying the distances which apply in relation to equivalent schools. That is just common sense. In an urban area there is often an alternative school within reasonable distance, whereas in a rural area that may not be the case. I should make a general point as regards placing requests: 270,000 requests were made and 90 per cent. of them have been met. That is a very successful proportion, which illustrates the importance of introducing choice into education.

For many authorities which have already made plans to expand their provision of education for under-fives, additional voucher values will represent grant aid towards the costs of expansion. Vouchers are not as hostile to public provision as has been suggested by various noble Lords. We are offering providers an approach based on partnership and collaboration which has been the basis for many of the Government's successful education reforms in Scotland. The challenge to providers, and especially to local authorities, is to work with government to secure lasting benefits for children in their areas. In that context, we expect to be inviting local authorities to submit proposals for pilot voucher schemes very shortly.

The Bill reaffirms our continuing commitment to Scotland's distinctive education and training system. The future prosperity of Scotland relies on a good education and training system. The Bill takes forward proposals to enable our present system, with its high and improving standards, to cater for the challenges which lie ahead. I hope that those challenges do not include what the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, anticipates in the form of some sort of devolution. In fact, we would have a worse economy and fewer jobs. The basis of the Bill is to produce a better workforce for a better economy. I am convinced that the provisions in the Bill will bring benefit across all areas of Scotland and to all families in Scotland.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael—and other speakers—said that he was looking forward to a long Committee stage. To begin with, I should point out that we shall very shortly be publishing Notes on Clauses. Therefore, I hope that that will shorten the length of the Committee stage to which the noble Lord said he was looking forward. I trust that the noble Lord will come to see the error of some of the assertions that he made about the Bill. As my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said, many measures have been fiercely opposed by the party opposite, only to be welcomed when they have become established and the benefits have become clear. They then become popular throughout the communities of Scotland. The voucher system is just one of those measures which will become popular once we have ironed out the problems.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.