HC Deb 08 June 1981 vol 6 cc197-207

'In the Principal Act Part I, section 1, subsection (2), leave out "not" and from "but" to "classes".'—[Mr. Foulkes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.45 am
Mr. Foulkes

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I shall be brief, because many of my hon. Friends have much to say about nursery education. Among other reports in favour of the extension of nursery education I commend "Before 5", produced 10 years ago. Several academic studies have been conducted since then showing the great value of nursery education. It is now accepted that in the first few years of a child's development more progress is made than at any other period.

The progress of a child's cognitive attainment and development processes is related closely to the child's environment Over-anxious parents can cause problems. In ensuring a positive, stimulating environment one must ensure that it does not go too far. It is clear from all the studies that interaction with other children, even at an early stage, is important for a child's development.

Studies show that the advantages gained in the early years can be lost if there is no positive, stimulative environment later. We recognise the importance of primary and secondary education. Studies also show that children with only one parent require particular support early. Children in poor housing find the environment less stimulating and are in great need of pre-school provision, either in a nursery school or a play group.

Other social factors, such as being part of a large family, create disadvantages for young children. That is why, for a number of years, many politicians have advocated nursery schools. I recall that the present Prime Minister, in an earlier incarnation, was one of the advocates of nursery school development. Before she started milk-snatching she was building her reputation on the development of nursery education. The new clause makes nursery provision obligatory for local authorities. It makes nursery education available on demand.

When the Prime Minister did not have the constraints of office she made great play of nursery education and gained mileage from it. In providing opportunities for play, language development, communication, musical development and conceptual understanding, nursery schools play an important part. They are important for emotional and social development, as well as for educational development.

In spite of the great talk by the Prime Minister and others, Britain is lamentably behind other countries in the provision of nursery education. I wish to quote the figures that are most easily available for pupils enrolled in all pre-school education in 1976. About 15 per cent. of all children below the age of compulsory schooling were receiving nursery education. For other EEC countries the figures were: Belgium, with 56 per cent.—which was by far the best provision; France, with 54 per cent.; Germany, with 43 per cent.; Ireland and Italy, with 35 per cent.; Luxembourg, with 33 per cent.; and the Netherlands, with 42 per cent. In no way has Britain come anywhere near to achieving not only the targets set by successive Governments but the level of nursery education in other countries.

In spite of the constraints, and because of their recognition of the importance of nursery education, local authorities in Scotland have made some effort to make adequate provision. That happened under the old local authorities and was taken up by the new authorities following reorganisation. I shall give the rank order of provision in the regional and island authorities. It is interesting to note that top of the list for providing nursery education is an authority that is constantly vilified by Conservative Members for one reason or another, namely, the Lothian region. It provides nursery education for 37 per cent. of all 3 and 4 year olds.

We constantly hear Conservative Members, especially the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), say that the Lothian region is dreadful because of its profligate expenditure. Nursery schooling is one example of the positive education provision being made by that region, for which payment is necessary.

Mr. Allan Stewart

If it is a positive education provision, what about the children who do not receive nursery education? Surely the Lothian region is not taking proper care of them. Perhaps their parents are doing a better job than the parents of the children who receive nursery education.

Mr. Foulkes

The Lothian region would like to provide more nursery education, especially in country areas that have not had that facility in the past. Given the availability of buildings—which are not always immed-iately available, because of the reduction in the capital programme—and given also the availability of staff and the availability of money through the rate support grant, greater provision would be made by the Lothian region as well as by some other regions.

Mr. Stewart


Mr. Foulkes

This is becoming an interesting debate.

Mr. Stewart

Will the hon. Gentleman be more honest and bring forward a new clause to lower the school starting age?

Mr. Foulkes

My hon. Friends and I are trying to ensure that we provide automatically not only nursery education but nursery schools, coupled with pre-school provisions such as playgroups, which are recognised and approved by local authorities, and day nurseries that provide care for a longer period through the social work provision. Together they will provide a unified provision for the under-fives.

Subsequent to that report, a report was published by the SED on unified provision for the under-fives. Nursery education is the core provision, which should be made available to those who want it. Some may prefer a different pre-school provision, and I accept that. There is a close correlation between local authorities that provide nursery schools, day nurseries and other pre-school facilities.

Second in the order of provision is Fife, with 36 per cent. Third is Strathclyde, with 23 per cent. Fourth is Central, with 21 per cent. The four top authorities are the four Labour authorities in Scotland. That is an example of Labour concern and Labour provision. Labour authorities are prepared to make the provision—it may cost ratepayers more—where there is a necessity and a demand for it.

Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)

The hon. Gentleman appears to agree that there are acceptable alternatives to nursery schools. If so, any figures that he may have about league table percentages spent on nursery school education are spurious. The only way of regarding pre-school provision is to take into consideration that which is provided in the locality. I have in mind pre-school playgroups, for example. The hon. Gentleman is engaging in a futile exercise. He knows perfectly well that there are some areas where the playgroup movement is extremely well developed and working very successfully, but that will not appear in any figures of percentage expenditures by local authorities with education responsibilities.

Mr. Foulkes

I know the parts of the country in which the pre-school playgroup is the best developed, namely, places such as the Lothian region. There is a high correlation between traditional nursery school provision and day nursery and pre-school playgroup provision. I know that that is so from my own experience.

We are arguing that other regions which are not as enlightened as Lothian, Strathclyde, Fife and Central, should be given the stimulus to improve the provision of nursery education and to make more available. Local authorities such as Dumfries and Galloway are right at the bottom of the table, with only 7 per cent. provision. The Highland region has only 8 per cent. provision. These should be encouraged to make more nursery education provision so that all parents who want to send their children to nursery schools will be able to do so.

It is nursery education that forms the core. I am not critical of pre-school play groups; I believe that they have their role. However, most people agree—certainly the professionals involved—

Mr. John MacKay


Mr. Foulkes

—that the provision made for nursery schools in terms of competitive development, structured play, adult relationships and emotional development is of great importance. I do not know why the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) wishes to deride professionals. After all, he was one and his colleagues on his left and right are professionals of a sort. I am surprised that he derides professional expertise.

I have advanced arguments for supporting the new clause to ensure that nursery provision is treated not as an after thought, or a frill, or as something that local authorities may provide, but as an important and essential provision for young children at the most vital stage of their development.

7 am

Mr. Maxton

We now come to yet another important element of the Scottish education system. One of the things that those of us on the Opposition Benches who have been in the Chamber as opposed to elsewhere throughout the long night would say is that we have been debating the real issues concerning Scottish education—colleges of education, the post-school education system, teachers' salaries, corporal punishment and the provision of school reports, including the assessment system. We shall move on later to other issues.

I note that several Conservative Members have just walked out. I always manage to generate a mass walk-out somewhere during the day. That may say something more about the Minister than about me.

The important debates on the Bill have taken place during this long night, and not during Second Reading or in Committee, when we discussed issues that are essentially irrelevant to the mainstream of Scottish education.

Tonight we have been discussing the major issues. We now turn to another, which is the provision of nursery education. I am pleased to welcome back at long last the Secretary of State, who has responsibility for education in Scotland. If he had been here a little more often during the night he might have learnt something about the Scottish education system of which he is supposed to be in control.

I am sorry that the Conservative Members who walked out, having had a go at my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) on the issue of play schools, are not staying to listen to what other Opposition Members have to say about nursery education and the playschool movement.

For too long nursery education has been considered, probably by all Governments, as a frill that has been added to the education system. Local authorities can provide it if they want to, rather like adult education at the other end. When money is tight, as it has been over the past two years, it is one of the first things to be cut back, as it is not an obligation of local authorities to provide such education. They can look to that area if savings have to be made. I link with that the pre-school playgroup movement. Nursery education should not be a frill for many children.

A commonly accepted fact among educationalists, if there is such an animal, is that by the age of 5 children learn 50 per cent. of the total knowledge that they will accumulate in their whole life. By the age of 5 we learn some of the most important skills that we shall ever have. You are looking slightly sceptical at that statistic, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. O'Neill

Does it come from Reader's Digest?

Mr. Maxton

It does not come from Reader's Digest. It will be found in most educational psychology books. Reader's Digest is good at culling odd little facts out of more weighty and learned tomes, but that sort of fact is to be found in more learned tomes than Reader's Digest.

We learn to walk and talk, and we learn a large percentage of language—which is the most important base of everything that we do in our lives, particularly in the House—before the age of 5. We add the technicalities of our language, in terms of words, only after the age of 5.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

The hon. Member's audience is coming back. He can speed up now.

Mr. Maxton

I am glad that my audience is coming back.

The years up to the age of 5 are very important in the development of children. That fact is often ignored by those who have control of the purse strings in education, although it is not ignored by those concerned with the provision of education.

As anyone involved in education knows, if, up to the age of 5, a child falls behind his peer group, he will find it extremely difficult to catch up, and, in most cases, will fall further and further behind. Most subjects taught in school build fact on fact and skill on skill. Basic skills are required of a child when he first enters school. People not directly involved in education believe that a child goes to school like a blank piece of paper on which the school can draw whatever it wishes. It is not true. Children have to go to school with certain abilities if they are to cope readily with the situation. Reception class teachers expect a certain vocabulary and certain social skills. They expect certain developmental concepts. They expect a child to have some idea of number, however primitive, such as being able to count on his fingers up to 10.

Most children from our background have such skills, but, because of their environment, many other children do not have the skills required to start in primary school. Children from poorer homes require nursery education. I refer specifically to nursery and not pre-school education. Such children need a structured system, run by professionals, who can make judgments about each child's development and what he needs. They need to be taken from 3 until 5 to learn the skills that they cannot obtain in the home, so that they have a chance to succeed in school.

It is commonly accepted among educationists that if children do not have basic skills when they first go to school they will not succeed in the infant department and, consequently, further up the school. The gap between the child and his peers will widen. As he falls behind, he will find it more and more difficult to keep up. The class teacher has to deal with the majority, so the child will drop even further behind.

There is also the psychological problem of a sense of failure. Children see their peers moving ahead and begin to feel that they will never succeed, so they stop trying, attain even less, and drop yet further behind. Such children end up by leaving school at 16 without any skills, and sometimes even without literacy and numeracy. They find it extremely difficult to obtain employment. Society then has the problem of dealing with a person who does not have skills even for limited jobs, and at present would find it difficult to get a job at all.

Society must therefore deal with that problem at that end. Many people, when they find that a child is semi-literate and semi-numerate, believe that the school system has somehow failed. In my view, however, without proper nursery school provision it can be argued that the school never had a chance because the child did not have the basic skills required to tackle the school system when it entered the school at the age of 5.

Of course we should all like to see more remedial teachers in the primary and secondary schools to try to overcome those problems, but, with the present cuts in education, authorities are finding it extremely difficult to provide any remedial teachers in those schools. The schools therefore cannot cope with children who, at the age of 5, already have deep-seated learning difficulties.

Proper provision of nursery schools in areas where there is need, and where there is an obligation upon the local authorities to ensure that they are provided, would not eradicate the problem but it would go some way towards dealing with it. Unlike the Minister in charge of education—the Secretary of State, of course, has to bear responsibility for him as well as for education in Scotland—who seems to believe that unless we can have perfection we shall have nothing at all, Opposition Members would prefer to see a change that will make things better, even if it will not solve all the problems.

There is a duty upon local authorities—my hon. Friend pointed out how wide are the differences between local authorities in Scotland in terms of this provision—to provide nursery education for all who wish it. In some cases it will be for those who need it, because, as the Warnock provisions make clear, there is also a need for nursery education for children with special needs. As usual, however, the Government have produced the Warnock clauses without providing the money that is needed to ensure that they can be carried out in the schools and that there is proper nursery provision for children with learning difficulties. All this is required if we are to solve some of the problems of children who do not have the necessary skills when they come into the school at the age of 5.

I am delighted to welcome you, Mr. Speaker, at this bright and early hour of the morning.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I wish that I could share the hon. Gentleman's pleasure.

Mr. Maxton

I dare say that you had a good night's sleep, Mr. Speaker.

There are children who, in a sense, have already failed, even at that age. The famous book, "Born to Fail", spelt out clearly the problems of children from certain environments in being able to succeed when they get to school because they do not have the language skills and the other skills required to succeed in primary school. There are, of course, things that we should be doing in the primary schools as well, but that is clearly not a matter for this debate.

I conclude with a brief word about the pre-school playgroup movement, mainly because if I did not my wife would never forgive me. She was chairperson of such a group for some years and if I did not say what a great thing it was and what a marvellous job she and many others have done in that area I should not be able to go home on Thursday or Friday, or whenever I manage to get there.

The pre-school playgroup has a very important role. It is interesting that Conservative Members, who were here earlier but have now disappeared, mocked my hon. Friend's comment that the difference between the nursery school and the pre-school playgroup was that the former was manned by professionals and the latter was not. Increasingly, however, in my experience, pre-school playgroups wish and seek to employ people who have some professional expertise. The idea that a playgroup is always run by the willing parent is not correct.

Pre-school playgroups increasingly employ people with some experience, albeit on a part-time basis. At one time it was suggested that colleges of education in Scotland might train people who wished to be semi-professionals in the pre-school playgroup movement.

7.15 am
Mr. Gordon Wilson

The hon. Gentleman seems to be canvassing two distinct ideas—the nursery school concept and the pre-school playgroup—among all the other things that he wishes to use to buttress the failing education system. Will he state his priority—nursery schools or preschool playgroups—given the shortage of cash?

Mr. Maxton

I do not know whether I would use the argument about a shortage of cash. I believe that we ought to devote more money to education in general. However, we cannot say that we must choose between the two. For a start, much of the pre-school playgroup movement is financed and run by parents. Therefore, the cost that falls on the State is not all that great. I accept that the State puts in money, although many local authorities have cut back on their grants to the movement.

If the hon. Gentleman insists on my giving a priority, I would say that it should be to nursery schools, because they provide children from working-class backgrounds, particularly poorer working-class backgrounds, with the sort of structured environment that is required if they are to achieve success in later schooling. The pre-school playgroup does a good job in relation to the social aspects of a child's education, but not a great deal in respect of the learning aspects. The nursery school is needed for children who come from poorer environments, and that would therefore by my priority.

I confess, Mr. Speaker, that I am beginning to ramble. I shall not continue to do so. I give the new clause my full support and I shall be interested to hear what the Government say about it.

Mr. O'Neill

The new clause seeks to restore to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 the position that prevailed before the English legislation of last year changed the nursery education obligation of local authorities. It would be helpful if local authorities again had such an obligation.

If local authorities have an obligation placed on them, they know where they stand. They can realistically go to the Secretary of State when the rate support grant is being negotiated and include in their claims a clear and explicit request for financial provision for what they consider to be an important part of the education service.

It is not necessary for me to rehearse the arguments already advanced by my colleagues. They relate to education psychology and sociology and the value to young people of socialising through the opportunities available in nursery education.

There is always a division of emphasis about nursery classes provided through social work departments. For example, we must consider the release of the mother for employment. For a single-parent family that is a vital provision giving the single parent an opportunity to earn money to help provide for the family. It also provides in some respects a relief for the mother from the child, because a single-parent mother is tied to the family even more closely than a mother in a two-parent family.

It is appropriate that we should talk about this matter in this context, because many hon. Members are parts of single-parent families for at least three or four days of the week. We know only too well the significance for our domestic situations. I know that you are not married, Mr. Speaker, but you appreciate the problem of those of us who have young families. At the weekends our wives are not always desperate to see us, but they are desperate to have a break from looking after our families because we are about 400 miles from home.

I think that we can speak with some conviction about that aspect of the matter. Certainly our salaries should be sufficient to provide our families with the degree of care that would enable our wives, when acting as single parents for part of the week, to have a degree of independence. But such financial independence is not open to many less fortunate members of the community. Therefore, nursery classes are an important side of the provision.

Nursery schools are an educational matter. Local authorities should have a duty to make much more long-term provision. We should like to return to the position before the law was amended when local authorities could look ahead and plan effectively in the knowledge that, because there was a duty imposed upon them, there would be the financial means to will that end.

We recognise that the provision for the under-fives is important. At a time of increasing social stress and strain, it is important that mothers be assisted. It can be done in many ways through the availability of funds, which will have to come if there is that degree of obligation on local authorities which the new clause would impose.

For those reasons we are sympathetic to the new clause. I appreciate that without any financial backing such a measure would be difficult to get off the ground. I expect that my hon. Friends will seek leave to withdraw the new clause. However, we are grateful to them for raising this important educational issue and putting on record that the Opposition still believe that it ought to be an obligation on local authorities to make formal provision for the under-fives. We urge the Government to think again about this matter and as quickly as possible to restore what we had regarded as an improving state of affairs.

If the Secretary of State cannot do it now, after the next election it will one of the matters at which a future Labour Government will look closely. It is not for me now to give any order of priority to this matter, but we regard it as important. We would hope to restore what we felt in the late 1970s was becoming an increasingly better situation in which the scope for improvement provided grounds for hope.

In that light, therefore, we hope that the Minister will be forthcoming and encouraging to those of us who have introduced this matter in a constructive fashion.

Mr. Ernie Ross

All of my three children had the experience of receiving some form of nursery school training prior to attending school. I support everything that has been said by my hon. Friends in this short debate on a necessary element of the training of young children prior to attendance at school.

The benefits that children receive from attending nursery schools and pre-school playgroups are often referred to by teachers when they are talking about the advantage that that brings to schoolchildren who have had some form of training and association with other children in a school atmosphere. I am glad that my children had that experience.

For a number of years my wife has been a trained playgroup supervisor. She took a training course through the Scottish Pre-School Playgroups Association to ensure that when she took over a playgroup the children were not being looked after just by well-meaning mothers. The children were under her direction and receiving some form of training that would assist them when they went to school.

I agree that our first priority for spending on nursery education must be on those nursery schools controlled by the regional authorities. Clearly, we want an extension of that. My hon. Friends have alluded to the desertion of the provision of nursery education, and that will seriously affect working mothers. Some have had to give up their jobs in Dundee because nursery schools have closed and other schools have not been provided by the Tayside region. There is a tragic impact on a family when the mother has to give up working. In Dundee, most working-class families require both the wife and the husband to make some contribution to the family income. It is necessary for the mother to go to work knowing that her children will be looked after in a playgroup or nursery school group, but preferably in a nursery school so that the children can benefit.

I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). They recognise that the foundation of a child's development in education is laid in the pre-school years. Mastering the skills of language is crucial to a young child. Nursery education can help to develop these skills, as can playgroups and other organisations for the under-fives. We still come back to the need to extend the available nursery school provision to all children under 5. Any Government should try to ensure the well-being of their future citizens. They must give high priority in their education programme to the provision of nursery schools.

Unfortunately, in my area the regional council is responsible for education and it does not have that priority in its education policy. Tayside is usually at the bottom of everything, whether it is the provision of teachers or of school books. In the league table of nursery education it comes fifth, so one has to concede that in that respect it is not as bad as others.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire referred to the Scottish Education Department's book "Before Five". On the last page it says: In Dundee in 1920 the first nursery school was opened in a wing of the former poor house. Since the inception of Tayside region, the provision of nursery education for the people of Dundee has been going back to the days of the poorhouse. Tayside has been markedly lax in its approach to the provision of necessary nursery education.

7.30 am

Two purpose-built nursery schools lay empty for many years. Now the regional council intends to open one, but in opening the one in Menzieshill it plans to close two others—Ancrum Road and Mitchell Street. It seems intent on closing both, despite the pressure of the parents concerned, suggesting that the closures can be offset by opening Menzieshill. That school, built on the Menzieshill housing estate, was intended for the children in that area. The other two schools were supposed to take account of the needs of their areas.

I have expressed to the Minister a number of times the parents' opposition to the plans. Unfortunately, the response of the Minister and the region gives no one in Dundee any hope that the region will change its policy.

Other provisions in the Bill governing the way in which parents will be able to appeal to the Secretary of State against an authority's decision to close nursery schools cause even more concern. Under the Bill the Secretary of State's approval is no longer needed and the regions are obliged only to hold consultations with parents before reaching a decision. All those of us who have had experience of Tayside region know exactly what consultation means. The region uses the word exactly as it is used in industrial relations; "consultation" means all talk and no action. That is what parents of children attending Ancrum Road and Mitchell Street have found. There may be consultation, but there will be no action to try to reflect the views of parents.

The Opposition Front Bench have suggested that we should not push the clause to a vote. I believe that we should listen to the Minister carefully before we decide whether to force a Division.

In case hon. Members think that I am exaggerating the way in which the Tayside Tories treat the people of Dundee, I tell them what happened to the parents of children at Law nursery school, one of the best nursery schools in Dundee. Two of my children attended it, and at the age of 3½ and 4 they were speaking French. It was a very progressive school and the teachers took a great interest in the children. They went out of their way to encourage the children even at that early age to see how far they could progress in learning another language. The experiment was very successful. I should like the benefits of that type of nursery school to be provided for many more children in Dundee.

There are very needy children in Dundee for whom the region refuses to provide day nursery places. There is a great deal of pressure within Dundee district to get those needy children into nursery school, so the region has decided to put two sets of parents head-on against one another and see who comes out on top. The whole House should deprecate that. The region decided to end nursery school provision for a number of children on the basis that it intended to provide 20 places for needy children. All the parents who have approached me on the issue have made it clear that they want those children to be in nursery schools or day nurseries, but they also want their own children to be allowed to continue in Law nursery school. It is disgraceful that the region should be so callous as to try to offer the parents of the needy children the places of other children who are receiving the benefits of nursery school education.

Mr. Fairgrieve

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, at this early hour. Whether what you hear is exciting, scintillating or enlightening is another matter. I leave it to your good judgment.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) was, I think, muddled after withdrawing new clause 8 only to be back on his feet straightaway to propose new clause 9. Another interesting contribution came from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), who said that the debate had been useful because hon. Members had heard things during the night that never emerged in Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Opposition made such an awful mess of the Committee stage that this issue was not properly debated. Some appalling whipping in Committee by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) also accounts for the fact that hon. Members have had to sit through the night.

The object of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. O'Neill) is to restore the position prior to the enactment of the Education Act (Scotland) 1980. Although education authorities in Scotland have a duty to provide nursery education until the coming into operation of section 25 of the 1980 Act, successive Governments, including Labour Governments, have, in practice, placed restrictions on the extent to which they could fulfil that duty. Such restrictions are fully understandable. At times when public expenditure has to be constrained, the compulsory sector of school education must take priority. A Conservative Government removed the restrictions and a considerable expansion of the number of places in nursery classes and nursery schools resulted.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) supported pre-school playgroups. The hon. Gentleman conducted the House on a round tour of Dundee and told how his own children had benefited from the education they received in Tayside. I must, however, invite the House to reject the new clause, which would compel education authorities to provide education in nursery classes and nursery schools regardless of whether such provision, in their view, was justified. The new clause in present circumstances would be an unreasonable burden to place on authorities and would be an unjustified restriction on the discretion they enjoy now to arrange pre-school provision in the way they consider most appropriate to the needs of their areas.

Although 32,000 children were attending nursery schools and classes in Scotland in September 1979, the latest date for which we have figures, the Government do not believe that this is the only form in which educational provision can be made for children of pre-school age. Voluntary time playgroups run by parents offer a valuable pre-school experience for young children. There are about 42,000 children attending these groups. I was grateful for the information given by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) showing the value of the groups.

While the new clause would not prevent the continuation of pre-school playgroups, it would compel education authorities to provide new services to replace provision provided for a great number of children on the initiative, enterprise and self-help of parents.

I ask my hon. Friends to reject the new clause, hoping that Opposition Members will have the guts to vote for their proposal for once.

Question put and negatived.

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