HC Deb 16 December 1975 vol 902 cc1149-53
10. Mrs. Knight

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his policy with regard to the starting age for primary schoolchildren.

Miss Joan Lestor

Local education authorities have a statutory obligation to provide full-time primary education for children from the beginning of the term following their fifth birthday, and discretion to admit the children at an earlier age. This discretion is governed for the time being by the need to restrain expenditure. Authorities can only admit children of three and four years of age up to the limit of the capacity of their nursery schools or classes. Children of this age should not be admitted to ordinary classes in infants schools except that rising-fives may be admitted to otherwise vacant places if any additional call thereby made on resources is only marginal.

Mrs. Knight

Does the hon. Lady accept that there is a vital need to have a clear policy and to stop the present shilly-shallying? Does she not agree that it is unfair that a child should have been firmly offered a school place in the fourth year only to have that offer withdrawn? That has often happened. Does she appreciate that frequently school uniforms have been bought and other arrangements have been made? Very often children have been initiated into assemblies and school plays on the understanding that they will start school. The situation now is that apparently they will be unable to start because of the hon. Lady's policy. Will she not think about the children and consider how the parents are to tell them that they are not being allowed to start school?

Miss Lestor

I thought that I had made the position perfectly clear to the hon. Lady when I worked out my detailed answer. The hon. Lady may have some particular problem in her constituency. I know that she is bringing a deputation to see me after the Christmas Recess to discuss the whole subject of the rising-fives and school-starting dates. I shall be happy to discuss any particular problems with her.

Mr. Crawshaw

May I assure my hon. Friend that many parents are distressed by recent decisions by some local education authorities which mean that some children expecting to go to school at a certain time will now not be able to do so? People such as myself who felt that it was a retrograde step to increase the school-leaving age rather than reduce the school entry age feel that it is a further retrograde step that children are being deprived of several months at school at an age when their minds are most receptive.

Miss Lestor

The argument about whether we should raise the school-leaving age or concentrate resources on the pre-school child was debated by the House. We know what the decision was. Many hon. Members have very different views on the matter. Perhaps we shall be able to discuss it at some future date.

Whatever the change in policy may have been, the only statutory obligation upon local authorities is to provide full-time education for children for the term following their fifth birthday. There is no doubt that in some areas the earlier admission of children, for which there is no statutory obligation, will have to be curtailed.

Mr. Hurd

Will the hon. Lady take steps to inform Labour candidates and trades councils of her policy so that they will not continue to attack county councils whose only offence is to carry out her Department's policy on the rising fives?

Miss Lestor

If the hon. Gentleman will give me details as to where he thinks people are ill-informed about Government policy, I shall do my best to clarify the situation. If people read the answers given today, they will not be in any doubt.

13. Mr. Terry Walker

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will bring forward legislation to make sure that all children receive full-time education from their fifth birthday.

Miss Joan Lestor

No, Sir.

Mr. Walker

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that that reply is disappointing? Is she aware that many of my constituents are extremely worried about the situation because their children do not get to infant school at the proper time, and, if they do, they spend only a short time there? Is it not time that the Government introduced amending legislation to ensure that the onus is not left to local authorities? Should we not ensure that all children receive full-time education from their fifth birthday?

Miss Lestor

I am tempted to say that my reply disappoints me, too, to some extent, but it is very difficult to insist that schools should take in children haphazardly through the year. This would mean that some children, depending on their birth dates, would have advantages over others. But the law at present requires that children should receive full-time education from the start of the term following their fifth birthdays. Local authorities make their own arrangements if children wish to start earlier than that. This is an important point, but I would add that there are many children who would not benefit from starting school before their fifth birthdays. One wants to see a different type of provision for such children in nursery schools.

Dr. Boyson

Is the Minister aware that there is considerable feeling in all parties and among the public about the level of infant school teaching? Children who have only four or five terms at infant school are deprived right through junior and secondary school. I believe that there should be a movement towards a full two-year infant school period irrespective of when the birthday falls in the fifth year. What people resent about public expenditure cuts is their effect on the rising fives, since this will increase the level of deprivation for children throughout the country.

Miss Lestor

There is now a change in many areas towards a middle-school system, and problems relating to the relationships of children in the years between infant school and junior school are being dealt with. Although it is true that a child's birthday largely dictates how long a child stays in infant school—and I accept that many children benefit from being there for longer—it is true that, even with the present restrictions, many children are gaining admission to nursery school, play groups and other pre-school facilities. When everyone—including the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson—faces restraint in public expenditure, it is helpful if hon. Members instance the areas which they do not want touched rather than make blanket assertions.

Mr. Heffer

Is the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) aware that many of us are concerned about what happens when children get to school? Is the Minister aware that many of us are concerned about the idea, now being floated, that children should not have to learn the three Rs? Many of us believe that the three Rs are the most important part of education. Indeed, without learning them we should not be able to be so articulate in the House. Will my hon. Friend take note of the fact that it is not a reactionary concept that working-class children should be taught the three Rs?

Miss Lestor

I know of no school of thought of any renown which advocates that children should not be taught the three Rs. One finds many comments in the Bullock Report—a report I have read with great interest—about the methods of teaching the three Rs rather than about the complete absence of teaching them. Of course it is important that children should learn to read and write. Many educationists have been trying to establish the pace at which children should learn to read and write, and whether it is possible to decide upon an age when all children should be able to read and write.