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Lord Tope: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for explaining the set of amendments so fully. I am particularly grateful, because I returned from a 12-day official visit to China only late last night, and have spent my time since then trying to come to terms with all that has happened in relation to amendments to the Bill since I left. I am also grateful that he explained it so fully because I do not need to do so, and can be much briefer. I am very conscious that my body clock tells me that it is now coming up to half-past ten at night and I hope very much to be home before my body clock tells me it is time for breakfast.
The two essential points of all these amendments are, first, that a full evaluation must be carried out before we go ahead nationwide; and, secondly (and equally importantly), that Parliament must have an opportunity to debate, discuss and decide upon it before it goes ahead nationally. It seems to me (we spoke of this on Second Reading) that a full evaluation of the pilot projects is absolutely essential. I can see no point whatsoever in establishing pilot projects if we are not going to be given the opportunity to learn something from them. When the Next Steps document, to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred just now, says that a full evaluation is not possible before the full scheme has been allowed time to bed down, I worry about what the Government have in mind.
We accept of course that a full and in depth evaluation of the effects over time of an extension of early years' learning can be possible only after it has been in operation for some time. There is a whole range of other very important matters about which we are learning through the implementation of the pilot projects--indeed, that is why the pilot projects were established in the first place--and on which we need to have a report in order to be able to consider, discuss and debate them before the full scheme is inflicted on the country. There is a range of important issues about which we need to know before we apply the scheme to the country. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, has already mentioned most of that in more detail than I would wish to do.
We need to look at whether the whole bureaucratic process is necessary (and even if it is, whether it is working effectively), and what are the administrative costs going to be. It has been suggested by the Government that the administrative costs of applying the whole scheme in 108 local education authorities is only four times that of applying it in the four pilot project areas. As leader of a local education authority I find that somewhat hard to believe and would certainly wish to see more evidence of it.
There is much concern--we will return to this later today, I am sure--about the scheme's possible effects on special educational needs and their provision. We will return also to the effects on capital and training,
I believe that it has been properly established that as we are having pilot projects before we launch a nationwide scheme, we need properly to consider a full evaluation of those pilot projects. Otherwise, what is the purpose of having them in the first place? We might just as well have gone to the whole scheme.
The second point relates to parliamentary approval, by whatever means suggested. The amendments cover a number of different ways of achieving that. The main point at this stage is not necessarily how we do it, but that we do it at all. It is important that before we go nationwide Parliament should have an opportunity to debate and consider the evaluation, and then to debate and approve the arrangements and the enormous power being given to the Secretary of State to implement such a scheme.
On Second Reading in this Chamber some reference was made to whether we had learned nothing from the lessons of the poll tax. The poll tax was implemented despite dire warnings from virtually everyone involved with local government finance, be they professionals, politicians or indeed the public. The Government went ahead regardless. I have been thinking since then that a better comparison might be with the national curriculum, which is basically a desirable objective--a good idea--as most people in your Lordships' House believe that the extension of early years' learning is a desirable objective. The national curriculum was rushed and introduced with too little regard for the many concerns and criticisms that were expressed about it. We have spent years since then not merely suffering from the effects of that rush but undoing the damage that need not have been done had there been a more careful consideration in the first place. We should learn the lesson from that.
There is much concern expressed by professionals, by people working in the scheme and by politicians about the implementation of the suggested nursery voucher scheme. We need to listen to it. That is why we need the evaluation and why Parliament must have the opportunity to decide before the scheme goes nationwide. A refusal to allow such an evaluation to be considered and the scheme to be given approval by Parliament, which must seem a logical and sensible process, can only lead to one conclusion; namely, that this Government are more concerned to push vouchers through the voters' letterboxes before the general election than to provide an extension of good quality early-years learning.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I attend this debate at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I wrote him a note to say that I would listen to the merits of the argument and, if they appealed, I should support him. I am afraid that I cannot do so. I have listened with great care to what has been said. I am not concerned with the poll tax, nor with the national curriculum, nor with paving the way to an electoral victory for my party
As to those merits, I refer the Committee to Clauses 1 to 3. In Clause 1 the Secretary of State has very wide powers to make arrangements for making grants, which is in no way restricted by Clauses 2 and 3. There is inbuilt in that power almost unlimited flexibility, which is a far more sensible proposal than the limitations proposed in any of the series of grouped amendments that I have read.
This is not a wrecking amendment; it is accepted that it has a significant effect--the whole object of the provisions is to have a significant effect; and it is not at all in conflict with the purpose of the Bill. But all legislation is experimental. I cannot recall--perhaps some Member of the Committee will help me--any precedent for this type of double-take, especially where there is inbuilt flexibility in the master clause.
When I was in the education service as a teacher in the independent and maintained sectors and later as an education officer with Leicestershire and Oxfordshire LEAs, I used to note with professional interest how little in the way of solid evidence often underlay people's perceptions of educational issues, whether it was the issue of selective versus comprehensive schools or simply the reputation of one school compared with another. In the same way, the teaching profession would come into and go out of public favour on a tide which was often just a matter of fashion and political opinion.
We are witnessing a particularly violent swing of the pendulum at the moment. If I had been able to be present at Second Reading, which unfortunately I was not, I should have said a few words on this subject and entered a plea for a substratum of measurable facts to inform future debates on education. A great deal of nonsense is being talked in some quarters and it is doing much damage.
The relevance of the present amendments is precisely that they give us an opportunity to introduce some firm evidence into a controversial area. I do not believe that we can rely on the kind of flexibility to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has just referred. We need something a great deal more specific. In common with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, I believe that something has gone wrong with the original idea of a pilot scheme. It is very significant that it now appears under the name "phase one". How can Parliament properly agree to the main scheme before the evidence from the pilot--like the noble Lord, I shall call it that--is properly in? We need to know so many things. I shall not go through them because they have already been dealt with, except perhaps to mention the special needs situation and how pupils are faring there, which is of particular importance, and also whether new provision is effectively being created. I gather that evidence for the latter is not at the moment very encouraging.
In the matter of educational reforms over the past 16 years there has sometimes been a tendency to legislate first and do the thinking afterwards. Not surprisingly, that has had some fairly unhappy results. We have already heard the key one in the area of the national curriculum and testing, which the noble Lord highlighted, as well as others in the local management of schools, arrangements for schools opting out and so on. Why must we rush yet another reform? Let us for once have a proper evaluation before going ahead with a plan which will shake up the whole approach to nursery education.
I said that I used to be in the educational field. I now find myself dealing rather more with health care matters. In the medical world professionals try to advance on the basis of discovered fact. They do not always succeed but at least evidence based medicine is a laudable aim. I believe that it is time for some evidence based education. For that reason I commend the amendments to the Committee.
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