HC Deb 13 March 1979 vol 964 cc256-8
10. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she is satisfied with the provision of nursery education in England and Wales.

Miss Margaret Jackson

My right hon. Friend will not be satisfied until nursery education is available for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want them to have it. At present about 18 per cent. of all three- and four-year-olds are in nursery schools and classes, and a further 19 per cent. of the age group are in reception classes in infant schools. Future projections for England and Wales provide for 50 per cent. of all three- and four-year-olds to be in education by 1983, of whom about 28 per cent. are expected to be in nursery schools and classes.

Mr. Watkinson

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Conservative-controlled Gloucestershire authority has an abysmal record of no expenditure on nursery education recently and no plans to engage in it in the future? If the Government are determined to see equality of nursery education provision, it will be necessary for them to find means of dealing with authorities such as Gloucestershire so that the children of that county can benefit.

Miss Jackson

I am aware of Gloucestershire's appalling record on this score. There is little doubt that many local authorities are not helping themselves if they wish to avoid any further change in central Government control over programmes of this kind. Last year about 60 per cent. of Tory-controlled education authorities made no bid for the nursery education programme.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Will the Minister approach this matter with a little caution? Is she aware that the projected expenditure in Hampshire on nursery education for the coming year will amount to £1,600 a year for each child? If half the children of qualifying age in Hampshire were to exercise the option, should it be available to them for such education, it would cost the county £92 million. On that basis, generalising for the whole country, one is talking of a figure of about half the public sector borrowing requirement.

Miss Jackson

I did not follow the hon. Member's arithmetic closely enough to be sure that it was accurate. We are aware that Hampshire has a good reputation in this matter. Perhaps it could send emissaries to Gloucestershire.

Mr. Fernyhough

As one who represents a local authority which has done a magnificent job in this respect, may I ask whether it would be possible for my right hon. Friend to publish in Hansard a list of the authorities that have done well, and a list of those that have done nothing? In such an event, those that have done nothing will be stirred into doing something.

Miss Jackson

We publish such lists from time to time. Sadly, they do not always have the effect that we would wish.

Mr. Forman

Since it is recognised on both sides of the House that the first five years of a child's development are vital, and since at least one in four of all preschool age children have no provision at all that might be suitable for their needs, will the Minister consider urgently the possibility of introducing specific grants for such purposes, particularly for those families which would otherwise not be motivated or could not afford such provision?

Miss Jackson

We have had discussions with the local authorities during the last couple of years about the general question of specific grants. It was precisely these discussions that I had in mind when I said that local authorities which resist root and branch the imposition of specific grants are not helping their case by not using money given to them for this purpose.

Mr. Ovenden

Is my hon. Friend aware of the educational disadvantages suffered by children born in the late spring and early summer, who normally enjoy only two years in infant schools? Apart from the expansion in nursery education, would it not be helpful to have a more liberal policy on the admission of rising-fives to school? When will my hon. Friend relax the guidelines issued on employing staff to make this possible?

Miss Jackson

There has already been a relaxation of guidelines on the admission of rising fives. As with many other things in this field, this is a matter for the local authority. However, falling numbers of births will soon solve that problem anyway.