HC Deb 06 May 1965 vol 711 cc1746-56

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

12.39 a.m.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchin)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the purpose and financing of nursery accommodation and pre-school playgroups. This is a subject which probably affects more people than does hill farming.

The Education Act, 1944, required local education authorities to give particulars of arrangements made for children under 5. It defined primary education as including nursery education for children between the ages of 3 and 5. In Section 53 of the Act local education authorities were permitted to establish, maintain or manage or assist the establishment, maintenance and management of, among other things, play centres, and subsection (2) asked local education authorities to pay special regard to voluntary societies or bodies whose objects included the provision of facilities or organisation of activities of a similar character. Due to lack of financial provision and lack of teachers, it was impossible for the provisions of the 1944 Act relating to nursery accommodation to be carried out in full.

In 1960, Circular 8/60 announced that no further nursery classes could be provided, although we now understand that in certain cases where there will be a net return of teachers to teaching it may be possible for nursery schools to start. In 1964, according to the statistics, there were under 24,000 children in local education authority directly financed nursery schools, less than 2 per cent. of the under-five age group.

The result has been that there has grown up all sorts of other provision for nursery education and accommodation, including private nurseries and also pre-school playgroups, the subject I am particularly raising now. The need has grown, although the supply has failed to grow at all. The need has grown partly because of the increase in the number of people living in towns, because of the even more substantial increase in the number living in flats, and particularly high flats, because of the earlier age of marriage, and because of the higher birth-rate. For all these reasons the pressure on nursery accommodation is greater than ever before.

We then had the precise figures. But the present provision of nursery accommodation, apart from the very small provision under the Ministry of Education, is an anomaly. It falls between the Ministry of Education's own provision and the provision of the Nurseries and Child Minders Regulation Act, 1948. Under that Act day nurseries and child minders had to register. What is not clear is whether that Act applies at all to the playgroups. The Act says that the local health authority must inspect where children are cared for a substantial part of the day. Nobody has ever defined what is meant by "a substantial part of the day". Understandably, practice varies to some extent from one local authority area to another. Some play-groups are registered and others are not. There are sometimes delays in getting registration and inspection, and there is no provision for the educational quality of the content of playgroups.

Over the last few years playgroups have become more popular. It is hard to say how many exist because, as I have said, some are registered and others are not. One estimate is at least 500 catering for at least 10,000 children; in other words, already half as many as are catered for by the local education authority nursery schools. Most playgroups are run by non-profit-making committees, and numbers in them vary from eight to 30. They meet from two mornings to five mornings a week. Many—the majority of those registered, I am told—have a trained person in charge, either a nursery nurse or a nursery school teacher. Some are people who run playgroups because the hours are much more convenient than they would be if they returned to full-time or even part-time teaching in the normal way.

Furthermore, playgroups involve parents to a very great extent in making equipment and sharing in the business of helping to finance them. A very small number of playgroups get help from local authorities. Hon. Members will appreciate that I would not wish to name them because that might prejudice the assistance which they give.

In my constituency, there are as many as a dozen thriving playgroups, and they play an extremely important part in one area of my constituency, which is a new town, with people of an average age considerably below the national average. In my constituency too, a rather unusual thing is happening. The new town development corporation is proposing to build—if it gets Ministry approval—a number of purpose-built play centre buildings which will be available for play groups and other purposes. As hon. Members will appreciate, this is rather unusual and very few playgroups get anything like that degree of help.

I want to end briefly, to permit other hon. Members to take part in the debate, by making four straightforward recommendations to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science. I hope that he will be able to mention at least one or two of these suggestions in his reply. The first is that we should like very much to see encouragement given to local education authorities who provide short-term courses for those concerned with the playgroups, in particular, those people known as "mother helpers" or assistants in these groups. My own view is that these courses—one or two already exist at Morley College and other further education colleges, including one in my constituency—could be adapted to the purpose of ancillary help for teachers in infant schools and would serve a very important dual function.

Secondly, I should like to see some sort of provision for inspection, for the playgroups catering for the 3 to 5 age group. I recognise the difficulties, but I feel that it would be possible to apply at least a code of standards about the kind of work and training which is undertaken by these groups. Nursery school staff might be used for this purpose. Thirdly, I should like to see an anomaly cleared up, and local education authorities empowered to make grants, instead of, as at the moment, being in a shadowy position, uncertain whether they can or cannot. It might that such a grant would be dependent on the provision of some free places.

Lastly, and this is something not entirely within the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science, I would trust that my hon, Friend could discuss with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government the possibility of the provision of play space for children living in high flats or on council estates. It seems extraordinary that, while local planning authorities must lay down adequate accommodation for cars, there is no such provision for children. This seems to be a case of getting our priorities right.

The playgroups present a very great social opportunity, not just to give children some sort of social surroundings before they enter school, which cushions the shock of entering full-time education, but also the opportunity to involve parents from the very beginning in the educational process, which, I believe, cannot be stressed enough. They provide for a perhaps unique upsurge of voluntary effort, which we should like to see helped by pump-priming activities by the Department which would enable people—especially parents—to make provision in an area where they understand that the State cannot provide for them.

12.48 a.m.

Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) for generously allowing some time for other hon. Members to contribute to this Adjournment debate. I gave notice on 11th March, after replies to some Questions which I had asked, that I should like to raise this subject on the Adjournment. I was unlucky in the Ballot and the hon. Lady was lucky, and I thank her for her gesture.

I agree with practically everything which she said. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give some clear answers to questions which he has been asked. I have a few questions which I should like to add to those asked by the hon. Lady. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not say that he is unable to give considered replies to the points which have been raised until he has had a full opportunity to study the Plowden Committee's Report into all aspects of primary education. These issues are quite clear, and I do not see any reason that clear answers should not be given to clear questions.

First, which Government Department accepts responsibility for the activities of pre-school playgroups? That is not clear. It seemed certain from the replies which I was given that there is some doubt about this.

Secondly, I agree with the hon. Lady that the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, does not seem to be adequate for the situation as it exists today. In the years since that Act was passed there have been a great many changes and I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will confirm that that is his view, too.

Thirdly, will he confirm that his right hon. Friend is aware of the size of the problem? The hon. Lady mentioned that there were about 10,000 children in the sort of groups to which she referred. I can confirm the accuracy of that estimate. A month ago I checked with the Preschool Playgroup Association, an admirable organisation, and was told that there were about 350 member groups catering for about 7,000 children. I understand that outside that Association are other groups which cater for 3,000 to 4,000 more children, bringing the total figure to 10,000 plus. I hope, therefore, that the Joint Under-Secretary will make it clear to his right hon. Friend that this is a sizeable and growing problem.

Fourthly, I hope that the Department recognises the good work that is being done by these groups. They are a boon to mothers and they provide a useful first step in the sudden change which comes between a child being at home at the age of 4 and suddenly spending the whole day at school at the age of 5.

Finally, what advice, encouragement and help can the Government offer, perhaps through the local authorities, to these groups? Sitting beside me is my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. G. Johnson Smith). I am one of his constituents and helped to vote him into this House when he won a great victory in the recent by-election. In both his and my constituencies there are a number of these groups, the organisers of which are waiting anxiously to learn the Minister's views on this subject.

It was a great disappointment to East Sussex—and our constituencies are in the East Sussex education authority's area—that after it had been decided last autumn to allow quite a small sum, about £1,000, in the form of financial aid to these pre-school playgroups in the county, a ruling was given by the Minister of Education that it was not permissible for that to be done. That ruling came as a great disappointment to many people who were giving up much time on a voluntary basis—a mutual aid basis, so to speak—to help run the pre-school playgroups.

It is a poor society that spares no thought and no resources for small enterprises which do not hit the headlines. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary and his right hon. Friend will spare some thought, and authorise some resources, for these playgroups if they are satisfied that they are doing a good job. If they are not, I hope that they will close them. Above all, let us not consider that the children in these playgroups are too small in number or too young in age to merit a little attention.

12.55 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Howe (Bebington)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) for giving me this opportunity to speak in the debate and to say how much we should value the importance of groups of the kind we are discussing.

The hon. Lady referred to them as a good example of voluntary activity. I take that a stage further and suggest that they are a good example of the way in which voluntary activity acts as the rolling frontier of the Welfare State, carrying forward boundaries and fostering new initiatives.

Very surprisingly, there is only one playgroup, and that is in the most rural part, whereas in the more urban parts, where the need is probably greater, none has so far been started. The one that exists typifies the difficulties about which the hon. Lady spoke. The problem is not only that of the parents of those children for whom groups are available, but of those many others for whom they are not available but who would like them if they were there.

I am told by those who run the existing group that of the calls and inquiries they get the most numerous are from parents who would like a place in the existing group but cannot get in. The other group—and this is the rather odd feature about it—from which calls and inquiries come consist of either parents or ex-teachers who want to start a group but who, when told, as my informants say … of the practical and financial difficulties we have had to cope with … feel that they cannot proceed further in case they should land themselves into debt or into legal difficulties. That is a great pity because, with a little official backing, these ex-teachers could put their talents to use in organising playgroups.

It is important that the obscurity surrounding these playgroups should be clarified. They are subject to inspection by the health authorities, where they are registered—the medical officer of health and the health visitors—and get on in the ordinary sense very well with them. We are grateful for the co-operation we get from them, but can the Under-Secretary say whether he regards this as the best long-term solution?

Surely, this is a matter in which his mind—and I do not, of course, speak personally—should not be completely wedded to the Plowden Report, but that more responsibility should be assigned to the local education committees so that they can play a more active part in getting these groups going.

The real thing they need is the advice of and acceptance of responsibility by the Department of Education and Science. They do not need a great financial contribution; merely, as the hon. Lady said, pump-priming. Again to quote what is said to me in my constituency: We think that we are providing an essential service which, with a little official help, recognition and backing could be expanded and improved upon considerably and so improve the educational service for all.

12.56 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Denis Howell)

This has been a very interesting debate, and we are grateful to those hon. Members who have taken part in it. If I speak rather rapidly, it is because I want to deal with as many points as possible.

We regard this whole matter of the care of children of pre-school age as of considerable importance, but we are considerably limited by the present state of the law. I say to the hon. Members opposite who represent East Sussex divisions that we certainly recognise the worth of most of these pre-school play groups, which have much in common with the nursery schools—which we naturally find to be the better sort of arrangement, where possible—and they try to share some of the aims and achievements of the nursery school system.

As will have been gathered from what has been said by each of the three hon. Members who have spoken, the rapid growth of playgroups, particularly in middle-class areas and among people who want to organise on a sort of co-operative or collective basis, does not fit very easily into any of the existing legislative patterns. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) probably knows extremely well the division of responsibility between the Ministry of Health and my own Department. The Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, gives local health authorities a very considerable measure of control over what is going on, not just the registration of these playgroups but their organisation and—a point to which my hon. Friend attaches great importance—the quality of the people doing the leadership which is vital in this connection.

My hon. Friend carefully quoted to us that part of the Act referring to a "sub- stantial part "of the day. It is true that various local authorities interpret that in different ways, and I hope that this debate will help to produce a new awareness of the fact that it should be quite narrowly interpreted so that the local inspectors can visit most of these pre-school playgroups.

On the pre-school playgroups, to which I will return after I have answered some other questions, I should say that because, unfortunately, there is no legislation available which brings them under the control of my right hon. Friend's Department we do not have the detailed information for which I was asked and any figures that I have I would not wish to quote to the House as being worthy of serious consideration.

As for nursery schools, I am sure that everybody would agree that if we could provide more nursery education it would be extremely desirable. It is perfectly true that since the war there has been a general slackening in provision of this character. We would like to have more nursery schools, and nobody more than I. Two of my boys enjoyed the benefit of a nursery school education and now that we have moved to another part of Birmingham my wife and I are apprehensive that our other children will not have the same benefit.

This, however, is a question of priority. I think that everyone would agree that at present, with the shortage of schools, with most school buildings in a dilapidated state and with the tremendous shortage of teachers, our first priority must be the children of compulsory school age. One of our greatest desires is to get more married women teachers back into the profession as soon as their family commitments allow, and we are considering whether an extra spur to the provision of nursery schools is likely to help this.

This week we have sent to every local education authority for details. If the information which we receive is such that we would be encouraged to think that even only a slight increase in the numbers in the teaching profession would result from a more generous allocation of resources to nursery schools, I am happy to tell the House that we are ready to take that step. It would be a worth-while provision to make. The Department has asked the local education authorities to give the information as a matter of urgency. This is not in any way a delaying tactic. We are anxious that every authority which can produce a case that it would bring even a few teachers back to the profession shall get on with the provision of nursery schools so that this net gain may be brought about.

I was asked about the general question of educating playgroup leaders and making grants. A considerable difficulty is that this activity is not covered by the Education Acts. Ministers are extremely anxious to do something about it. We have had the law looked into once or twice, but we have been advised that we have not the powers. I have to be honest with the House and say that in view of the pressure at the moment it would be optimistic to think that we can introduce legislation in the near future, especially since, as hon. Members have recognised tonight, the Central Advisory Council on Education is sitting.

I appreciate their concern that we should not be held up until the Plowden Report is made, as we expect, in 1966, but that body is taking a great interest in the welfare and care of children under five, the present compulsory school starting age. I am sure that everybody welcomes the fact that it is taking such an important step. That being the case, it would be most unrealistic to introduce a legislative change in matters to which we know that such an important body is giving the closest attention. I am sure that we shall all look with great interest at what its proposals on the matter will be. The hon. and learned Member for Bebington (Mr. Howe) acknowledged that it was a long-term solution to the problem that he was looking for, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin said much the same.

One development which is interesting us is that the pre-school playgroup folk have got together and now have a national association known as the Preschool Playgroup Association. This Association is doing excellent work in giving information about matters of organisation, the establishment of playgroups, and so on. We have had another look at it, and we have asked the lawyers to go into the legal position again. We think that, by taking a very liberal view of what is the purpose of education, we might possibly detect an educational pur- pose in what is being done, although, perhaps, under the terms of the Act, there is no educational content in a pre-school playgroup itself.

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that if we find, after our examination, that this is so, we shall be very happy to receive an application for grant from the Association so that it could be given that measure of recognition. There have been previous applications for grant, but they have always had to be turned down. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are most anxious to see whether we can get this national association within the four corners of the Act, given a liberal interpretation of the word "education", and, if it is possible, we shall be ready to give it some recognition.

Sir T. Beamish

When will the Minister be ready to make an announcement?

Mr. Howell

He will be ready to make an announcement when the lawyers have had another look into it and had another discussion with the Secretary of State.

Sir T. Beamish

A few weeks?

Mr. Howell

I do not expect it to be a long time. If the Pre-school Playgroup Association takes note of this debate or has the information conveyed to it by hon. Members, it will, no doubt, be getting in touch with us fairly soon. At present, having regard to the state of the Act and the difficulties, and the fact that Plowden is sitting, we feel that that is the best way to encourage this development.

I hope that the House will find that a reasonably satisfactory answer, having regard to the state of the law. I am sure that hon. Members will, in any case, feel that the inquiry which we are making in respect of extra nursery education, in order to bring back married teachers, which may well have the very agreeable by-product result of providing a considerable number of additional places for other children in nursery schools, is something upon which they can congratulate the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past One o'clock.