HC Deb 15 March 1977 vol 928 cc191-4
2. Mr. Terry Walker

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she has any plans to give guidance to local education authorities with a view to reaching recognised standards of education for the rising-fives.

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

It is for local education authorities to decide how to use their statutory powers to provide education for children below compulsory school age, subject of course to central Government guidance on the use of resources.

Mr. Walker

Is it not time we had a policy on the rising-fives? My own county of Avon has just decided that the rising-fives should not have education, which means that some children, because of the accident of their birthday, have a shorter time at infant school. This has a devastating effect on the whole of their school life.

Miss Jackson

The admission of rising-fives has been a problem for some time. Unfortunately, we have had to advise authorities that they should not admit rising-fives to schools unless the call on resources is minimal. Although there is a great deal of pressure to admit younger children to infant schools, there is also a suggestion by various authorities—by which I mean individuals and not local education authorities—that not every child is ready for admission to an infant class before the age of five.

Mr. Forman

Does the hon. Lady think that any contribution to the strengthening of pre-school provisions could be made by encouraging local education authorities to take over overall responsibility not only for nursery education but for child minders, playgroups and other aspects that now fall under the Department of Health and Social Security umbrella? Has the Department turned its mind to that?

Miss Jackson

Indeed it has. It issued a joint circular with the DHSS some time ago on the matter. We are continuing discussions with that Department to see what further co-operation we may be able to have.

Miss Joan Lestor

Has my hon. Friend any concern about the fact that local authorities have been advised not to admit rising-fives except under certain circumstances and that pre-school facilities are being savaged throughout the country, particularly by Tory authorities? Is she concerned about the effect that this will have on pre-school children, who, if they are not yet ready for full school, as my hon. Friend said, are certainly ready for some form of pre-school education and opportunity?

Miss Jackson

Indeed I am concerned, as I think no one can fail to be, but I must remind my hon. Friend that over 50 per cent. of five-year-olds are receiving some kind of education in nursery classes, nursery schools or infant classes. I regret that this is one of the areas in which we cannot do more at present.

13. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has received about the provision of education for those under 5 years.

Miss Margaret Jackson

My right hon. Friend has recently discussed this question with the British Association for Early Childhood Education and the Council for Educational Advance and officials of my Department will be meeting the Voluntary Organisation's Liaison Committee for Under Fives this week. My right hon. Friend has also received letters from hon. Members and others making various points about educational provision for the under-fives.

Mr. Watkinson

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that there is considerable variation in the amount of nursery education that is provided from local authority to local authority? Is she aware that the provision of nursery education in Gloucestershire is one of the poorest in the whole country? If education at this age is important, as I believe my hon. Friend accepts, is it possible for her to do something to introduce some standard of equality throughout the country to ensure the proper provision of nursery education?

Miss Jackson

As my hon. Friend is all too well aware, Gloucestershire has the unhappy distinction of being the only county without a nursery school, having closed the only one that it previously had. That was something that we all bitterly regretted. It is true that there is uneven provision throughout the country. That is partly because of the provision that has been made for areas of special social need. There is no doubt that we should all like to see far wider provision of a far better standard.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are in difficulty in this matter in that although we may seek to make provision available we have no power to control what local authorities do in their areas. This is a problem that is exercising us.

Mr. Hardy

Does my hon. Friend agree that in some areas there could be very much better and closer contact between local education authorities and the voluntary organisations and individuals involved in the care and education of the under-fives? Will she consider issuing firm advice to promote such contact and ensure not only that limited resources are effectively used but that personal enthusiasm is encouraged?

Miss Jackson

We are extremely aware of the need for co-operation between local authorities. As my hon. Friend knows, there has already been one circular on the matter. We are considering urgently what further steps we might take to promote such local co-operation.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I fully accept the tremendous importance of education at an early age, and at under 5 in particular, but will the hon. Lady indicate whether the Government would be prepared to encourage parents, where provision could be made, to make a contribution towards the cost of those who undergo education before five years?

Miss Jackson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the existence of pre-school play groups, which work partly on the basis of parental contribution. However, we believe that provision made by local authorities in the form of nursery education should be free, especially in areas where there is particular social need.

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