HC Deb 14 January 1977 vol 923 cc1909-22

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

4.0 p.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

Now that the House has spent about five hours considering the needs of the old and decaying, I should like to turn its attention to the needs of the young and growing.

I am grateful for this opportunity of raising the issue of the education provision for the under-fives—an issue on which the House has had no proper debate in the three years that I have been a Member and which has been touched on only twice on the Adjournment. This is an issue which the Prime Minister did not mention in his well-publicised speech on education at Ruskin, and which has not so far featured in the "Great Debate" on education.

I raise this matter now for several important reasons. I believe that the proportion of the education budget allocated to the under-fives is wholly inadequate. I believe that such funds that are made available are spent in an uncoordinated manner as between various methods of provision. I believe that the regional disparities in what is available are totally indefensible and that what is available is not provided on the basis of children's needs. More worrying, I believe that the prospects of getting a more rational and co-ordinated approach to this problem are consideraby dimmed by the ignorance of the Department of Education and Science as to the needs of the chidren who are under 5 and the families in which they are brought up, by its resistance to the fresh breeze of outside thinking, and by its inflexible professionalism.

Finally, I believe that with the exception of the pre-school playgroup movement, the contribution that the parent can make to the pre-school child's development and progress is inadequately recognised, and that as a result parents are becoming progressively demoralised and frightened as the professionals take over. We are not, therefore, using properly one of this country's finest resources, namely, the talents and affection of the parents.

Perhaps I may develop, in the brief time that is available to me, some of the points, dealing first with our priorities. I illustrate this by addressing myself in particular to the question of children between the ages of 2 and 5. As a percentage of the total population between the ages of 2 and 15 inclusive, the 2-year-olds to 5-year-olds constitute over 20 per cent. Yet the percentage of the budget of the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State spent on them in the current year is only 4.4 per cent. Study after study has shown that investment in this age group yields a higher return, in social terms, than investment in the older age groups. Further, our investment in primary and secondary education is partly wasted because the 5-year-olds have not had the advantage of some form of pre-school education.

Looking solely at the right hon. Lady's budget, the small percentage allocated to the 2-year-olds to 5-year-olds bears no relation to the percentage which that group should receive, looking objectively at the needs of children between the ages of 2 and 15, and setting, momentarily, on one side the somewhat artificial barrier that is presented by the compulsory school attendance age of 5. The benefits to children, and to society, which a redistribution of expenditure would bring incalculable.

Of course, the Department of Education and Science is not the only Department that makes provision for the under-fives, which leads me on to my second point, which is that expenditure by Government Departments and by local authorities is unco-ordinated. This point is perhaps best made by referring to the two Adjournment debates that we have had on the under-fives. One, initiated by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), was replied to by a Minister from the Department of Education and Science. The other, initiated by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), was replied to by a Minister of the Department of Health and Social Security. The two speeches made by both hon. Members about the needs of children between the ages of 2 and 5 were almost identical, yet the responses as to how those needs might be met were totally different.

Nursery schools and nursery classes are the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science. Day nurseries, child minders and pre-school playgroups are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Security. One therefore has two Departments which are responsible, one concerned with "educating", and the other concerned with "caring". We have somehow managed to institutionalise a totally illogical split in our approach to the under-fives.

As a result, it is now a complete lottery as to how the needs of the under-fives, which do not vary that much, are met. If they have the good fortune to go to a nursery school or nursery class, the attention that they receive is totally different from that which they would get at a day nursery, with a child minder, or at a pre-school playgroup.

I know that the hon. Lady is going to tell me that a joint committee was set up in March last year to overcome the problems that arise from dual responsibility, but I wonder whether we shall ever get a co-ordinated approach to meet the needs of 2-to 5-;year-olds if Departments with totally different interests are involved. For example, day nurseries—with their disturbingly high turnover—and child minders do not meet the needs of the child; they serve the convenience of parents who wish to go out to work. Indeed, in terms of meeting the needs of the child, I quote what the Finer Report said on this subject. In paragraph 8.109, it stated that: Despite the high demand for places in day nurseries, it is by no means obvious that this form of care best meets the child's needs; their emotional and intellectual needs have not always been understood or provided for. Nursery classes and nursery schools, on the other hand, do not meet the convenience of parents; they meet the needs of the child. Nursery classes and nursery schools are integrated with the education system, and prepare a child for primary school. Day nurseries and child minders have no such links with the educational system and look, if anything, towards the social services department of the local authority. Day nurseries and child minders, of course, make charges, whilst nursery classes and nursery schools are free. The staff of the different types of institutions have unequal salaries, training and career structures, although they are dealing with children whose needs may be identical. These rigid departmental lines are hardened by the attitude of some trade unions, which refuse to allow the flexibility that I wish to see. Some members of the National Union of Teachers are currently refusing to let the classrooms in primary schools be used by playgroups, although they cannot be filled by primary schoolchildren. We have similar problems in other sectors. I deplore this totally negative attitude, putting the sectional interests of workers before the broader interests of our children. I believe that teachers in particular should welcome the employment that is available to them in pre-school play-groups and in day nurseries, now that this is being denied to them in the education sector as a result of the hon. Lady's cuts.

I have outlined some of the rigid lines that separate the forms of provision one from another, and I very much doubt whether this basic difference in approach can be resolved by a joint committee, particularly as it has not as yet produced any positive results. My information is that enlightened and imaginative suggestions put forward by outside bodies are being consistently vetoed by the Department of Education and Science, which seems determined to pursue its narrow approach.

A further unfortunate consequence of the split responsibilities is that central Government policies may force a local authority to develop an expensive capital project for a few children who will then attend nursery schools, when what the local authority may really want to do is to have revenue funding available for developing playgroups and child minding services for the many. As we saw yesterday, the inflexibility is such that the Buckinghamshire Education Committee is unable to use subsidies for school meals towards paying for teachers' salaries. The fact that it is so difficult for a local authority to switch resources from one area to another is a major handicap in arriving at a rational distribution of the limited resources that are available.

I believe that the happy compromise between the needs of the child and the needs of the parents are perhaps best recognised by the pre-school playgroup movement, which tries to meet the needs of both. But if one looks at the resources available to this lively and enterprising movement and compares them with the resources available to those that are the direct responsibilities of Government and local authorities, we see that they are not so much the poor relations: they are the beggars in the street. A survey that was mentioned at the recent Sunningdale Conference on the under-fives showed that the pre-school play-groups were one of the most popular forms of provision, and they are also one of the cheapest. The weekly cost of a child attending a playgroup for five sessions per week is £133 per annum, while the cost for a child at a maintained nursery school is £300, at a nursery class £197 and at day nurseries £700. So we have one of the most popular forms of provision being also the cheapest, yet because it is the direct responsibility of neither Government Department but is looked after by a voluntary movement, the resources made available to it are minute, and we have no decision-making machinery for the rational allocation of total resources available, and then no governmental machinery to carry into effect the results of these decisions.

I now turn to the question which children under 5 attend which forms of provision. If it were the case that, for example, the fortunate few at nursery schools and classes were those 3- to 5year-olds who could most benefit from them, the present situation might conceivably be defended. Likewise, if those children who attended the even more expensive day nurseries were those children who could actually benefit from this form of care, one might be less concerned. But of course this is not the case, as the hon. Lady well knows. Those who attend nursery schools and classes are not the most disadvantaged children in our society. They are the children of those parents who have sufficient care and interest in their children to put their names down for these places at the right time, to show the concern to visit the school, and who stay in the same area so that they do not miss their place in the queue. I say that as the parent of a child at nursery school and the husband of a woman who is a governor of one of the nursery schools in my area.

I amplify this by referring to The Times Educational Supplement which said on 9th July 1976: The proportion of privileged children using the pre-school services is twice that of the disadvantaged; perhaps children should be chosen, since we are talking of a service which is rationed, on the basis of need rather than on the basis of demand. I find it wholly paradoxical that while the hon. Lady attacks privilege in primary and secondary schools and tries to eliminate it by outlawing the direct grant schools and eliminating selection within the maintained sector, her Department is in fact creating a much more privileged class of children, namely, those fortunate enough to attend the nursery classes. These are the new elite, created not by the private sector but by the hon. Lady's own Department, and the situation has of course been aggravated by the cuts in the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to increase the availability of nursery provision to the children of all parents who wished it. Those who could most benefit from day nurseries and nursery classes are those who are at the moment at day nurseries and in the care of childminders, often in dingy and overcrowded rooms. underfed and inadequately supervised.

It is easy to attack the Government for ignoring the needs of the under-fives, and I enjoy doing so. However, it is not just the Government who have their priorities wrong. I believe that society and many parents have their own priorities wrong, too. For a child under 2 there is no substitute for the attention, affection and company of his mother. A stable and happy relationship with his mother is the foundation of other relationships with other people. It is the basis of the confidence he will need to sustain him through life. Deprivation and disadvantage in these early days are a handicap which it is almost impossible to criminate subsequently.

A society that places a higher value on the work that a mother might do if she sought employment, instead of staying at home to build up this relationship with her child in his most vulnerable years, is a society that has its values sadly wrong. Looking after children, from society's point of view as well as the child's is a far more important job than going to work.

What, then, are the solutions that I would like to see adopted? The present economic recession gives us an unparalleled opportunity to rethink our approach to this problem and to make sure that we get value for money. On the one hand, we have the needs of children, mainly between the ages of 3 and 5. On the other hand, we have the resources that are available. These are basically premises, professional skills, money, and a resource that is often excluded, namely, parents. What we need to do is to harness the resources that are available to meet the needs which we know to exist.

The first and most urgent measure is to break down the totally artificial administrative barriers which currently exist between the various methods of provision. The second is to spread best practice. All forms of provision have advantages which could readily be adopted by others; the skills of qualified teachers should be more readily avail- able to day nurseries; the parental involvement which is the main achievement of the pre-school playgroup movement needs to be extended to the nursery classes and to the day nurseries; the premises that cannot be used by the maintained sector of education need to be made available to children from other groups, particularly the pre-school playgroups.

As the number of children attending our primary schools decreases so the spare infant accommodation can be made available for other purposes. I know that the hon. Lady's predecessor, the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) suggested this when she opened Harmondsworth Primary School in Hillingdon last year, but I wonder how much progress has been achieved towards this end. We need to draw up a national policy for the under-fives, and at the forefront in our minds must be the needs of the children and the needs of the families in which they are brought up. The needs of teachers, the needs of parents who wish to go to work, the needs of other workers in the educational sector, are all secondary to the needs of our children on whom the future of this country depends. Breaking down the barriers that I have described, spreading horizontally the advantages which each form of provision currently has, are the top priorities.

We have already seen the advantages of this approach at some local levels. At the forefront in the movement to coordinate the needs of the under-fives are the efforts of Cheshire County Council, which has been able to switch resources from one sector to another to meet local needs, overcoming some of the difficulties of the current administrative framework.

The other thing that we need to do—I end on this note—is to involve the parent. In the Press earlier this week I read of the increase in truancy at many schools, described in a survey done in Sheffield. It transpired that much of the truancy was connived at by parents. Parents were not supporting the schools. The reason for this is that the schools have not been supporting the parents. Schools have excluded the parent from the educational system, and they are now paying the penalty. The education of a child is a continuous process, taking place both at home and at school.

The State sector must follow the example of the voluntary organisations and forge closer links between school and home. Until these links are strengthened, and until the interests of parents are aroused and harnessed, we shall never get the best use of the limited resources available in meeting the needs of the under-fives.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on raising this matter. I have one or two comments to make on the subject. The Minister must recognise that outside provision for the under-fives is second best. Every encouragement has to be given to the mother to stay at home. I wonder what steps the hon. Lady and her Department are thinking of taking. Are they planning to encourage mothers to stay at home by giving increased tax relief to the father, so that the mother can afford to remain at home? Are they thinking about mothers who want to work and are they trying to encourage neighbourhood work? Arc the hon. Lady and her Department thinking about reducing the amount of State provision and, therefore, gaining perhaps 20 times as much voluntary provision in an area?

My experience in my constituency is that there is a wide range of provisions for young children, all competing with one another. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the education services are free while social services must be paid for, although there is a means test on one of them. The voluntary projects have to be paid for. All these are competing for a limited number of children. Education services are tremendously expensive. Day nurseries cover the full day, and the cost of a playgroup is about £1 per child per week. Is the Minister planning to develop the voluntary movement in play schemes? She may say that she wants a mix. There is however, a limited amount of money and some of these voluntary schemes will have difficulty in surviving because of the demise of the urban aid programme. Although Ministers deny it, there seems to be no likelihood of a new phase being announced.

My anxiety is that, while it is clear that an incentive should be given to the mother not to go out to work if she does not want to, the Government have been silent on this. They seem to favour the most expensive sort of provision when there is clear evidence that it is not the best. In the voluntary movement, including neighbourhood groups, community groups and the mothers themselves, a little money can do a lot. Are the Government concerned about people helping themselves, or are they more concerned about the State running all?

4.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I welcome the opportunity provided by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) of discussing this important subject. I assure the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) that I have no dogmatic views on this question.

My view is that we should pursue whatever is best able to meet the needs of the child—and these needs differ with each child. I do not particularly direct all my efforts to one form of provision rather than another. We should try to provide a wide range of facilities so that every child or family in difficulty may find some means of assuaging that difficulty. The solutions will differ from one case to another, even where they fall into what at first sight seem to be simple categories. I do not think that only the State may be able to provide the right solution or that, for example, the Pre-School Playgroup Association alone can provide the right answer. I think that a variety of solutions is needed.

I welcome the opportunity of telling the House what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier this week to a deputation from the British Association for Early Childhood Education. My right hon. Friend said that the Government remain convinced of the value of nursery education and an education component in whatever care is provided for all children of this age group, especially for those who come from a background of disadvantage and for whom early educational experience outside the home can be most valuable. We remain committed to the expansion of nursery education and the provision of some elements of nursery education in whatever care is provided, but the pace of expansion, particularly in difficult times like the present, must depend first on the level of resources that can be made available by the Government and secondly, and equally important, on the willingness of local authorities to take up the resources that we can authorise.

When we have been forced to expand more slowly than we should like, it is all too easy to be over-gloomy about what is being provided. Whilst acknowledging that all of us would like to do more, I think it useful to look at what has been done so far. Since the special nursery education building programme began in 1974, over £40 million has been spent by local education authorities on new nursery schools and classes. Last Friday my right hon. Friend was able to allocate £2½ million for nursery education building projects in 1977–78, less than we had hoped but still enough to provide nearly 4,000 new places. At a time when, regrettably, it has been necessary to withdraw resources allocated this year and next year for the replacement and improvement of primary and secondary schools, this is the best evidence of our continuing commitment to nursery schools.

We can do no more centrally than to make resources available for projects of this kind. The rate of progress depends crucially on local authorities' willingness to take up allocations and to plan and carry out their own expansion programmes locally. In recent years many authorities have not felt able, perhaps because of financial difficulties, to give nursery education a high priority. I regret this, but I regret still more the action of authorities, such as Buckinghamshire yesterday, which have chosen to close what little provision they have on grounds of economy.

I am also sorry that only half the English local education authorities made any bid for the 1977–78 programme for nursery education. But it is encouraging to find that by and large the authorities, especially the metropolitan districts and ILEA, which have concentrations of disadvantaged pupils are those which are making most progress in this field. Like Opposition Members, we regret the fact that provision, such as it is, is not more widespread and even, but if it cannot be better provided in all areas at least it is something that is best provided in those areas where there is the greatest need.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Lady says that £4 million is being spent on buildings. What I am suggesting is that she should switch her resources from buildings to people. The Government could take that conscious decision. They could use all the church halls, community centres and so on. They do not need to go on building. Have not the Government learned that lesson?

Miss Jackson

Yes, indeed, but it is only fairly recently that there has been any question of additional building becoming available. We are encouraging local authorities to look very closely at whatever extra space becomes available in their areas. But, sadly, all too often it is not suitable for use, particularly by children of the age group with which we are now concerned, without a considerable amount being spent on conversion. We have done our utmost to see what can be provided at the lowest cost. We are willing to examine these matters in as flexible a way as possible, but it is not a simple matter of saying "There is a church hall. It must be possible to use it constructively for children of this age." We do our utmost, as local education authorities in many parts of the country do, to make the most of whatever provision is available. Therefore we take that point.

Over 34 per cent. of all three- and four-year-olds in England and Wales are now in some form of education compared with a figure of 22 per cent. in 1972. In 1971, 98,000 were in nursery education per se, whereas by 1976 the figure had risen to 180,000. At the same time, the number of under-fives in reception classes at infant schools rose from 238,000 in 1972 to 308,000 in 1976. As the impact of the special building programme is felt, more and more of these children will be in purpose-built or adapted nursery schools or classes—and as the size of the three-and four-year age group falls, as inevitably it will, to reflect lower birth rates, an increasing proportion of children will be able to have the benefit of some educational experience of this kind before compulsory school age.

We are aware of the opportunity presented to adapt primary school accommodation for nursery school use. This costs less than building new nursery schools and we very much hope that more authorities will take advantage of the opportunity.

We are not satisfied with the reduced rate of progress, and look forward to the time when we can move ahead more rapidly. In the meantime, we are particularly concerned with the need to maximise the value of the provision which can be made, particularly to children suffering from various aspects of deprivation and social and environmental handicap. It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that we must seek to co-ordinate the areas of day care and nursery education.

The hon Member for Ealing, Acton referred to the circular that had been issued and to the need for local authorities to work together. I hesitate to respond to a debate of this kind without referring to the value of increased co-ordination, and we hope that it will persist. But we recognise the need to match that coordination at local level by co-ordination at national level. We also recognise that in some areas it is no use providing day care without also providing some educational element. In other areas it is of no help to provide nursery education where day care does not exist in matching amounts. We are well aware of these matters at both national and local level. We are seeking to do what we can to resolve these difficult problems.

We appreciate the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in trying to meet the needs of the child as well as those of the parent by means of interdepartmental as well as of local authority co-operation. We should be able to provide more help through the voluntary groups that exist, such as the Pre-school Playgroups Association. I would not seek to do other than praise the work of the playgroups and to give whatever assistance we can to them. Nevertheless, although the work they carry out is valuable and should be encouraged, we must recognise—as indeed does the hon. Gentleman—that what they provide is a small proportion of the help that can be given to children in this bracket, particularly to those in greatest need.

Although we must do everything we can to encourage and help those groups, we must remember that they are only part of the whole. Nursery education and day care alone cannot solve the whole problem. There is a great need for Government Departments, local authorities and voluntary groups to work together to meet the needs of child and parent rather than simply fulfill departmental or extra-departmental aims.

Mr. Steen

The Voluntary Service Unit gives grants to national voluntary organisations. That body has a great many millions unspent this year. Will the Minister examine the situation and see whether money can be sent direct to the grass roots to promote more voluntary work for children?

Miss Jackson

If the hon. Gentleman knows of any organisation which has many millions unspent, I shall he delighted to hear from him.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.