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Voucher pilot not a sham, says minister

The Education Minister gave two assurances to critics of the Education (Scotland) Bill this week when he appeared before a Lords select committee taking evidence on the legislation in Glasgow.

Raymond Robertson stressed on several occasions, under close questioning from the nine-member committee, that pilot schemes for nursery vouchers would be "real, meaningful and worth while" and not a sham to get the measure through Parliament.

But while insisting that every aspect of the voucher scheme will be "thoroughly looked at" the minister turned his face against any suggestion that the pound;1,100 value of the vouchers would be insufficient.

Mr Robertson also replied to demands for guaranteed teacher and local authority representation on the new Scottish Qualifications Authority by pledging that "the board will reflect the broad range of interests in the SQA's functions".

Elizabeth Maginnis, education convener of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, demanded the chairmanship of the SQA for the councils, on the basis that they will be responsible for 70 per cent of the authority's income.

The Bill proposes that the board should have a minimum of 16 members and a maximum of 25 with at least 12 appointed by the Secretary of State. Cosla wants a third of members to come from the local authorities.

Unease over nursery vouchers dominated the proceedings, which were chaired by Lord Goold, former Tory chairman in Scotland. Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, called the scheme "bureaucratic, clumsy and inefficient". John Travers, director of education in North Ayrshire, the only Labour authority in the pilot phase, described it as "a bureaucratic nightmare".

Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said parents would have to go through 10 processes before receiving a voucher. Enrolling a pupil at the local school was much more "parent-friendly".

The Bill also streamlines school board elections and allows parents to be co-opted to fill vacancies. Mr Smith of the EIS characterised this as "a lifebelt to keep some boards afloat".

Proposals on placing requests came under fire, too, particularly a change that enables schools to reserve places for local pupils if there are no alternatives at schools within 3.2 kilometres for primaries and 4.8 kilometres for secondaries.

These distances are seen as a specific measure to ease the pressures on Balfron High in the Secretary of State's Stirling constituency, to which pupils travel from a wide area. Mrs Maginnis said local authorities should be given a general discretion to reserve places at overcrowded schools. Mr Smith commented: "If it's good enough for Balfron it should be good enough for all schools."

The Bill now goes into its formal committee stage in the Lords.

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