HC Deb 02 April 1974 vol 871 cc1076-8
7. Mrs. Renee Short

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has for the expansion of nursery education.

20. Mr. Steel

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to be able to introduce a national scheme of nursery schools.

Mr. Prentice

The Government's aim is to make provision as soon as possible for nursery education for children of three and four years of age, mainly on a part-time basis. In pursuing this aim, we shall attach particular urgency to meeting the needs of disadvantaged children. The necessary building programme will begin with the 1974–75 building starts year.

Mrs. Short

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he recall that in the White Paper introduced by the previous administration the sum of £34 million was provided over the two-year building period for nursery education, but when the bids from the local authorities came into the Department it was found that much more money was needed to carry out the wishes of the local education authorities? Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that he will significantly improve on £34 million? We all understand the appalling mess in which the previous administration left us, but does my right hon. Friend not think that he should approach his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to see what further defence economies, in line with the election programme that we placed before the people on 28th February, can be made, so that we can expand the nursery education programme? That will have the wholesale support of the country.

Mr. Prentice

On the last part of my hon. Friend's question, what I have said already about education expenditure programmes for 1974–75 must stand. It is a decision of the Government, which includes plans to make the further cuts in defence that have been announced. The allocations for nursery education stand.

I make it absolutely clear that I expect authorities to stand by their commitments, and if for any reason some authorities cannot spend, or do not wish to spend, their allocations on nursery education, I expect to reallocate them. In other words, I am not in any sense raising the amount appropriated for nursery education in the current year. In subsequent years, I hope that we shall do a lot better. Meanwhile, I want to get down to making plans for expansion.

Mr. Steel

As the Secretary of State stressed the part-time nature of his pro- posals, what role does he envisage in them for the pre-school playgroup movement? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us believe that, because of the element of parental participation, it should have a valuable rôle to play?

Mr. Prentice

At this stage, the total provision for children below five years of age falls between my Department and the Department of Health and Social Security. I have been in touch with the latter Department about these matters, and will keep closely in touch. It is a long-standing Labour Party view that all these provisions should be brought within the DES. However, that would require legislation and is something that we must consider as soon as possible.

Mr. Fernyhough

If my right hon. Friend is not able to obtain from the Treasury a sum larger than the £34 million to which he referred, will he ensure that the lion's share of that sum is allocated to deprived areas?

Mr. Prentice

Within the education budget, particularly within the nursery education provision, we intend to ensure that priority is given to children suffering relative social or educational disadvantages. We shall have this factor very much in mind when allocating the resources.

Mr. Cormack

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that most parents having the welfare of their children at heart would totally repudiate the suggestion of defence cuts put forward by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) and would prefer that the Government implemented their modest cut but that the flagrant abuse of public money which they propose to devote to milk subsidies should be stopped and the money devoted to the right hon. Gentleman's Department?

Mr. Prentice

I think that the Government have the broad support of the public in trying to reduce defence expenditure, in trying to fight inflation by the selective use of food subsidies, and in doing the best they can for education in difficult circumstances. I hope that improvement will take place on a much larger scale in future than at present.