HC Deb 15 May 1968 vol 764 cc1227-30

3.37 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote, assist and support the development of play-groups and other activities for preschool children. I seek leave to bring in this Bill on behalf of 5,000 citizens who have no vote, but, I am happy to say, a growing number of champions in the House. My Bill would be concerned with the growing number of under-5s, but particularly with that section of the under-5s, namely, the 3 to 5 group, who, despite the frequent promises made by successive Governments, have so far not been able to participate in what is theirs by an educational right, namely, nursery school education.

The facilities for the physical care of the under-5s generally have increased and improved yearly. In terms of clinics and health centres, we are probably the envy of many other countries. By contrast, the facilities and the responsibilities for catering for their educational and emotional needs are inadequate, chaotic and departmentally confused, at both local authority and central Government level. Whether a child gets nursery education free under the Department of Education and Science, whether he goes to a voluntary play group under the Ministry of Health, or whether his parents pay for him to attend a day nursery, depends largely on where the family lives. This shows that this is nothing to do with policy, but is largely determined by the area in which parents live and the facilities there available.

On many occasions we have raised the question of the lack of development of nursery schools, something which was promised in 1944. I am engaged in the campaign for the enlargement of nursery school provision. The frequent replies we have received from Ministers and others have made it increasingly obvious to me that we shall not get a wide provision of nursery schools for the present under-5s. Indeed, if we have to wait as long as we have waited since the 1944 Act was passed, the present under-5s will be campaigning for their under-5s to receive nursery education in 25 years' time. It is that situation which my Bill seeks, if possible, to avoid.

The Bill refers to what has become a very worth while but voluntary substitute for the nursery school, namely, the development of the play group movement, which now has 80,000 children affiliated to it. That is a lot of children, and there are probably as many children in play groups and other establishments required to be registered under the Nursery and Child Minders' Act, 1948, about which we do not know because they are not necessarily connected with the National Association.

By contrast, if we consider the figures of the late Dr. Simon Yudkin we see that there are about 35,000 children attending nursery schools under the Department of Education and Science. It seems an odd situation in which the play group movement is almost daily increasing in size and provision, catering for more and more children between 3 and 5 and concentrated under the Ministry of Health, when, but for luck and area, they would be receiving the full educational attention and benefits of the Department of Education and Science.

We have, therefore, reached the point when the majority of our under-5s are, in many areas, now receiving some sort of nursery school education, but provided by unqualified people who have no reference whatever to the Department of Education and Science. It is time that we recognised—I recognise it reluctantly because I strongly believe, as a nursery school teacher, in nursery school education—that, for the time being at any rate, play groups have become a substitute in many areas for nursery schools.

When answering Questions on this subject various Ministers have said that the reason we cannot make this provision nationally is because of the shortage of teachers and money, which makes it necessary not to extend the provision of education but to concentrate it on the present areas of education. In view of the growing play group movement, this is an area where those arguments do not apply and where, with a little imagination and a small amount of expenditure, we could bring the educational aspects of the play group movement under the Department of Education and Science, raise the standards of the movement and also take some worth-while action to see that, in those areas where these facilities have not been provided, local authorities, I believe with Government compulsion, should be expected to provide them.

The people running the play group movement have been managing on a shoestring for a long time. They have had, with good local authorities, some help, but, with bad local authorities, no help at all. Since there is no Government attitude, lead or sense of direction about the kind of assistance that local authorities should give to play groups, some groups have been helped enormously by education establishments and inspectors from the Department of Education and Science while others have been brushed aside.

The result is that the play group movement requires, more than anything else, its educational content to come under the auspices of the Department of Education and Science, particularly for groups with more than, say, 10 to 20 children. Considerations other than health arise. Generally in these cases the considerations apply to such things as toilets, room sizes and heating facilities. These become secondary to the emotional and educational needs of this group of children.

It is much more than a question of minding children, yet the person minding three or four children and running a play group is registered under the same Act—and the same sort of provisions and requirements are insisted upon—and it is time that we decided the point at which the movement should become the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science.

We want training courses which would not make these people into nursery school teachers, but equip them with a basic understanding of young children, their needs and the facilities they re- quire for their play. There is a wide sphere to be considered in terms of school-leavers, young girls who perhaps would not make infant or primary school teachers, but who, with a little training, could contribute enormously to the running of play groups.

I will not go into the whole question of the needs of the under-5s. They are so important that we all know them and enough has been written and said about them. Let us recognise that the more society develops—in housing, away from large families and with the pressures of an urban community—the more we will produce neurotic children unless we begin to recognise the needs of children at the age of 2 or 3 and take the necessary steps to cater for them.

Next Tuesday the Campaign for the Advancement of Nursery Education will be presenting petitions to the Department and the Prime Minister. A lobby by the under-5s will take place in Parliament—[Laughter.]—that is true—and I hope that many hon. Members will take heed of the needs of our younger citizens when those petitions are presented by the under-5s and their mothers. I have the suspicion that, with due encouragement from some of us, it will be an effective and vocal lobby and I trust that the House will not for much longer be able to ignore it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Lestor, Dr. David Kerr, Dr. David Owen, Dr. Shirley Summerskill, Dr. Miller, Dr. John Dunwoody, Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. Roy Roebuck, Mr. J. E. B. Hill, and Mr. Hugh D. Brown.