HC Deb 15 July 1966 vol 731 cc1995-2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. R. W. Brown.]

4.2 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

In May, 1965, my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) in an Adjournment debate raised the question of the whole functions of the play group movement and the provision of nursery schools. In the reply to the debate and in subsequent contributions that were made, some confusion was shown as to the registration and the responsibility of both nursery schools and play groups, the confusion being as to which Ministry was responsible for them, and what their actual function was.

During the course of the debate my hon. Friend made three points which I want to bring up again and develop a little further. The request was made that a grant should be given to the National Association of Pre-school Play Groups in order that they could further the development of facilities for the under-fives. I am happy to say that, since then, a substantial grant has been made by the Department of Education and Science to that organisation.

Furthermore, a request was made that education inspection of play groups by the Department of Education and Science should take place and also that local authorities should be encouraged, if not compelled, to set up training courses for unqualified people who are running these facilities for the under-fives. Up to the present, those last two requests have not been adhered to.

In 1960, a circular was issued, which most people in the play group movement are very much aware of, making it impossible for a local authority to open any more nursery schools or nursery classes. Since then, that has been amended to allow such a provision to be made so long as it results in the release of teachers into the teaching profession.

I have checked the number of nursery schools or classes that have been opened to meet that need. They are not considerable in number. The main point which I wish to make is that on the relaxing of those conditions, the provision of those nursery schools or classes is made not in the interests of the children but in the interests of getting more teachers back into the teaching profession.

As far as one can judge from literature and the considerable research which has been done into provision for the under-fives, it appears that about 2 per cent. of all children under the age of five at nursery schools attend schools which are under the control of a local authority. Far more than this number attend play groups or organisations registered under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, which very often are run by unqualfied people but are not under inspection by the Department of Education and Science. Thus we have what seems to me to be the ridiculous situation that establishments which are run and staffed by fully qualified people are subject to inspection by the Department and are subject to its code of standards, yet the considerably greater number of those which are not run by qualified people are not subject to inspection by the Department.

One of the odd features is that if people wish to run a play group or to register under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act to look after a considerable number of children, the registration is not of the person, but of the premises. The person and his or her qualifications are apparently of secondary consideration.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way critical—far from it—of those who have banded together to try to fill the gap in the provision of facilities for the under-fives. The country owes a great dial to the development of the play group movement, which has done a magnificent job, particularly when it has been run by committees and parents, in trying to fill the gap. There are, however, some contradictions which need to be examined.

We also have the situation under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, which was mentioned on the last occasion when this subject was raised. Premises are registered under that Act with the local authority. According to the amount of space and the extent of their sanitary facilities, it is decided how many children they may have in their care. That Act, however, covers a person who may have three or four children or who may have as many as 10, 15 or 20 children. I submit that a person who has in his or her care for a considerable part of the day a large number of children is doing much more than merely minding them. He is conducting an establishment which has a relationship with education. This also must be considered by the Department with a view to the setting up of a code of standards and standards of equipment, as well as, if not insisting upon qualifications for the people doing the work, at least providing the facility for them to be trained, at any rate by a short-term method, in ways in which to deal with very young children.

In my constituency, we have had many complaints. I recently spoke to a lady who had been running a play group for about 15 children in her home. Complaints were received from neighbours on the ground of interference with the amenities of the residential area; the children made a noise and the neighbours disapproved. One has sympathy with them. On the other hand, here was a person—in some instances it might be a group of people—who, because we prevent the local authority from doing so, does her best to make this facility available to very young children because nothing else is available to them.

With the shortage of halls and suitable play space for children, many individuals try to do this work in their own homes, where it is not a money-making venture but is usually non-profit-making, but they have had to close because of the lack of suitability of their premises.

People who do this work successfully, particularly those who operate through the National Association of Pre-School Groups, could all speak of the number of children who turn up week in and week out but who have to be turned away because the provision which they are able to make is inadequate to cope with the numbers.

I should like also to ask my hon. Friend to reflect on the way society i:, going in its whole attitude to the under-fives. The Education Act, 1944, included in its provisions for primary education the field of nursery schools. It said that nursery schools should be provided by the local authorities for all children between the ages of 3 and 5 who needed to go to them or whose parents wanted them to go to them. As we all know, this has never got off the ground, and now we have gone backwards and in fact arc prohibiting future development of this provision.

When one looks at the way in which society is moving in relation to all sorts of buildings we are putting up one sees we are putting up blocks of flats where it is only out of the goodness of the heart that a local authority may decide to provide some sort of play space. In general, play space, is lacking, and so, if we are to believe—and I do believe—the considerable amount of research which has been done on this question, we shall find young children are suffering from isolation from playmates, and we shall find mothers, too, being affected because they are cooped up with young children whose demands and needs they are not able to meet in very small flats.

Also we have reached the utterly ridiculous situation where now a local authority is obliged to provide a garage for a car, but not obliged to provide any sort of facilities for young children. In fact, in many blocks of flats which I know, where there was play space used by young children, it is now impossible for them to use it, because it is blocked by cars.

There is something else which I have not seen mentioned in much of the literature on this subject, and that is the way in which the whole development of our housing is going. We now put young children in blocks of flats—and they are not allowed to keep pets. So there again, the role which pets played and which playmates played in the development of a young child is gradually being taken away from the child, simply because we have not the space—or the imagination, or sufficient sensitivity to the needs of young children—to incorporate these facilities in our general building programme.

I should like the Minister to have some liaison or discussion with local authorities and with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in order to see that play provision in large blocks of flats is absolutely compulsory upon the local authorities when they decide to build them, and to see that they are manned by trained people. in order to supervise the play of small children. We have the situation, too, of houses in multi-occupation where, again, large numbers of young children are not allowed to use the gardens, cannot play in the streets, and are now cooped up in one or two rooms, and have no contact or any relationship with other children till they start school.

Bearing in mind, too, that large numbers of children are not starting school until after their fifth birthday, I should have thought there to be an even greater need in society today to recognise that an economy of this nature. at the bottom of the scale, is not in the long run going to be economic, but is probably going to face us with far greater problems, in the field of children's development, that we sensible enough and had enough foresight to see the dangers into which we were would have been faced with had we been running.

We all have our priorities, and a great deal of attention has been paid by the Department and by this House in the past to the needs of specialist groups, and I suppose it is very difficult to measure the needs of one group against those of another, but when this was last raised in the House I know the expression was used, "The Department agrees in principle with the needs which have been expressed for some sort of educational recognition for the play group movement and the other changes being suggested"; but much investigation has gone on into the needs, for example, of our elderly citizens to find the best ways in which we can adapt our building schemes to meet the needs of those who occupy them, and we all of us have given much support to those ideas.

As I say, to measure one priority against another priority is a very difficult thing, but one of the things I would ask the Minister to do, if it is within his power, is to hold an inquiry into the whole field of the needs of, and of the facilities available for, the under-fives. This has not been done officially, although it has been done by many individuals and groups. The play group movement has tried to bring to public attention the needs of the modern child and the absolutely deplorable state of the facilities which are at present provided. So much public attention is now being focused on this matter that something must be done, particularly since the problem will get worse, and not better, if action is not taken. If we do not soon begin to face up to the problem we will build up insurmountable difficulties which will be impossible to remedy.

Much is being done these days to encourage married women to return to work. Unless we do something to solve the problems about which I have been speaking, we will see a great many more unregistered child minders. Local authorities experience difficulties in tracing the unregistered child minder and little, if any, check can be kept on the children who are farmed out to these people. It is the responsibility of this House in general and the Department in particular to see that it is made possible for adequate facilities to be provided.

If we held a public inquiry into this subject and went into the matter in considerable detail, followed by a close examination of the problem and the making of recommendations, we would be going part of the way towards doing justice to our younger citizens who are at present severely deprived.

4.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Edward Redhead)

I am sure that the whole House will join with me in commending my hoi. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for bringing this matter to our attention once again. We appreciate that she speaks from personal experience of these problems and has a commendable degree of enthusiasm for a subject which, I assure her, we appreciate is a matter of the utmost importance.

My hon. Friend's remarks reflect the increasing pressure that is coming from many quarters for a substantial increase to be made in the provision of nursery schools classes, day nurseries and preschool play groups for children under five years of age. She rightly said that this pressure partly stems from the demands and needs of married women who wish to take up employment. It also stems—and this must be given paramount consideration—from the realisation that many children, particularly but not only those living in high flats or areas of social deprivation, need more by way of companionship and facilities for play than their home environment can provide.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that I am being tediously repetitive when I give her my sincere assurance that my Department is sympathetic to these needs and fully accepts that nursery education, at least for part of the day, is beneficial to the majority of children and can be of special value to particular groups, including some handicapped children and the children of immigrants.

This is a sphere in which, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, other Departments are concerned; the Ministry of Health, in connection with health and welfare of all children below school age, and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in connection with the provision of facilities for young children in high flats. It is perfectly true that under Section 8 of the Education Act, 1944, local authorities must …have regard to the need for securing that provision is made for pupils who have not attained the age of five years. It has to be acknowledged, regrettably that, in practice, the shortages of buildings and, more especially, of teachers, have made it impossible for my Department to authorise a general expansion of nursery provision.

Priority for scarce resources has had to be given—and, unfortunately, will for some time have to continue to be given—to children of compulsory school age and other developments in this sphere of education. The general policy, consolidated in Circular 8/60, has been to maintain nursery provision at the existing level but, as my hon. Friend fairly acknowledged, in 1964 Addendum No. 1 to that circular authorised a minor extension of nursery class provision where authorities could see that this would enable married women to return to the service.

Addendum No. 2, issued in December 1965 allowed local education authorities further to expand their nursery provision on condition, broadly, that at any given time the number of married women teachers thereby enabled to teach at maintained schools was at least twice the number of qualified teachers employed in nursery schools and classes.

I think that my hon. Friend is aware that by January 1966 a total of 53 new nursery classes had been established by 33 authorities. I frankly acknowledge that it is not a wholly satisfactory response and only touches on the fringe of the subject, but one is gratified to find some measure of response, and we hope that the effect of the further relaxation allowed by Addendum No. 2, which will not be known until the next annual review in 1967, will give further cause for gratification. Although these classes must give priority of admission to the children of married women teachers, there is a substantial margin of places for general use.

Alternative provision for young children may be made in day nurseries run by local health authorities, in hospitals, and in factories for the benefit of the employees. These are not provisions for which my Department is directly responsible, but they make some contribution to the needs of the situation. Because these arrangements have been directed to meeting the increasing demand both from women who want to go back to work and those who want their children to have nursery education for its own sake, there has been in the last few years a notable increase in private arrangements for looking after young children. These may take the form of private nurseries, child minding and pre-school play groups, and such arrangements come within the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health who is responsible for the administration of the Nurseries and Child Minders Regulation Act, 1948, which gives the local health authorities certain powers of inspection of such arrangements. I know that some public concern has shown itself recently about the standards of care of some child minders, and I hope that my hon. Friend will feel some measure of relief in knowing that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is currently giving consideration to this matter.

My hon. Friend referred to the preschool play groups, in particular, most of which are run by parents on a self-help basis, and a few in areas of social need by the Save-the-Children-Fund. These are not within the scope of the Education Acts, because they usually do not take any children of compulsory school age, and are therefore not covered by the definition of independent school. Many of them could not meet the minimum staffing and accommodation requirements for registration under Part III of the Education Act.

Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend that the best of them compare favourably in aims and achievements with a good nursery. and the National Association of Pre-School Play Groups, which was formed in 1962, has been pressing for them to become a recognised part of the education system. I must point out that this would require legislation. However, my Department has been in fairly frequent touch with the National Association, and has recently agreed, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, to make it a grant not exceeding £3,000 a year for three years, to enable it to strengthen and enlarge the service to its constituent groups. I acknowledge that this grant was not made on the basis that it should be subject to any inspection of the constituent groups. That, however, was not possible because the power did not exist to make any such arrangements. Nevertheless, one of Her Majesty's inspectors is available for discussion with the Association and has given it a good deal of help and advice.

—Pre-school play groups within the scope of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, are already open to inspection by local health authorities under that Act, but local education authorities have no powers in relation to pre-school play groups. A number of them have shown that they are prepared to allow their own inspectors to give practical help and some have used their further education powers to provide training courses for play group leaders. My Department is willing to help the Association as far as possible, but it has to be appreciated that any substantial change with reference to inspection would nevertheless require legislation.

My hon. Friend referred to the lack of facilities for children living in high flats. I acknowledge that there is justification for concern about the problems which arise from this modern development of multi-storey blocks of flats, particularly in regard to children and young children especially. As she will appreciate, this is mainly the concern of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, but I have taken note of the point she made and I will consider it further. Because of the divided degree of responsibility, there might be some discussion and consultation with local housing authorities and with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on this aspect.

Already where local education authorities are proposing to extend their nursery provision under the authority given by addendum No. 2 of Circular 8/60, they are given advice on matters of accommodation. We are ready at all times to assist local authorities in that regard. The question of the provision which ought to be made for children under 5 is being studied by the Central Advisory Council for Education which is also considering various aspects of primary education in general. It is likely that the Council's representations which are expected to be submitted later this year will contain recommendations on this point.

It will be necessary, of course, for the Secretary of State to study these recommendations both on their own merits and in relation to the other recommendations which the Council no doubt will be making and to consult other Government Departments concerned before reaching any conclusion on what changes of policy, if any, are desirable in the light of available resources.

It may well be that this would be the appropriate point in time at which further consideration could be given to my hon. Friend's suggestion that a specific inquiry over this field might be undertaken. To that I shall certainly pay attention and I shall bear it in mind. I express the gratification which I am sure the whole House feels to my hon. Friend for raising this matter and assure her that although I have not covered all the points to which she alluded she can acquit me of any intentional discourtesy or negligence and can accept the assurance of my personal sympathy in this matter.

In the meantime, I hope that local education authorities will make the maximum use of the concession given by addendum No. 2 of Circular 8/60 allowing them to establish new nursery schools. I join with my hon. Friend in hoping that resources may become more lavish to enable us to meet what both of us would earnestly desire in the expansion: of this field of activity.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I add my voice to the plea for an inquiry, because I do not think that much of this is entirely a matter of finding the money. Of course when the Minister says, "In the light of available resources" all of us understand very well the great pressures on primary education and other social services, but I wonder whether it is entirely a matter of resources.

For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) raised the question of how it is that motor cars are allowed to he parked in areas which were normally available for young children to play in. Here is a situation where the Government I think could intervene meaningfully without any additional cost. In these cases what instructions have been given to the police? It seems utterly wrong that places which formerly were available for young children to play in should, without any consultation, be turned over to car parks. I, therefore, ask that an inquiry should be made into all aspects of this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at halt-past Four o'clock.