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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 1 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.
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
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
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 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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 be 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
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 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
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.
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