HC Deb 21 March 1995 vol 257 cc128-9
2. Mr. Robert Ainsworth

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proposals she has to increase the provision of early years learning. [13243]

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

We shall be providing new places with new money by the end of this Parliament.

Mr. Ainsworth

Will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what she will be providing and when? Are we not entitled to such clarification, and to a little honesty? We have the Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying that we should introduce vouchers, we have the Prime Minister advocating increases in the number of nursery places and a place for everyone and we have the Secretary of State for Education herself writing to her colleagues saying that LEAs could cut nursery places to fund the underfunded teachers' salary increase. What is the situation?

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that my letter to colleagues about local government spending simply pointed out that, in a tough spending round, it is appropriate to question all areas of spending, especially non-statutory areas, when councils are complaining that they cannot meet their statutory obligations. One of the delights of education, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, is that it arouses very strong passions. Pre-school education is no exception. The Chief Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and I have all made it clear that no option for the delivery mechanism of nursery education has been ruled out and no option has been ruled in. Whatever mechanism is finally chosen, it will place parental choice and quality at its centre and an announcement will be made when we are ready.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the number of primary schools in my constituency that have encouraged nursery provision on the school premises? Indeed, last Friday I attended the opening of the Black Firs playgroup in Congleton. Is she aware of how helpful such arrangements are both to the schools and to the relationship between the playgroups and the reception classes? Do they not represent one way of assisting early learning among very young children?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, the whole sector is characterised by great diversity, with excellent classes in nursery schools, excellent reception classes in primary schools, and very good provision by playgroups and in the independent sector. It is getting all those threads to work together for the advantage of parental choice that is complex, and that takes the time.

Mr. Steinberg

Despite the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), will she tell the House whether she is in favour of a voucher system for nursery education? Is she aware that today there is a lobby of Parliament by parents, teachers, governors and support staff, who want a fully funded education service on an equal basis that is fair to all children in every school, including nursery provision that is not based on right-wing claptrap?

Mrs. Shephard

I expect that the hon. Gentleman has been playing an important part in the rally organised by the National Union of Teachers this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, I have followed with interest the press reports about Cabinet splits, Ministers under pressure and so on. Like all good fiction, they make a good read, and I look forward keenly to the next instalment. Vouchers are an option as a delivery mechanism; they have their attractions but also their disadvantages.

Mr. Riddick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to what the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) said, the most effective way to ensure choice and diversity in the provision of pre-school education would indeed be a voucher system, and that such a system would have much support among Conservative Members?

Mrs. Shephard

Vouchers that put cash purchasing power into parents' hands would certainly ensure choice. As I have said, vouchers are an option, and they have both attractions and disadvantages.

Mr. Beith

Has the Secretary of State not confirmed, only a few moments ago, the pessimistic interpretation that everyone in education places upon her letter to her colleagues—that she believes that, in what even she admits is a bad year for education funding, it would be right to abandon the development of nursery education and to cut the programmes that local authorities have put in place for it? What kind of advice is that to give to education authorities?

Mrs. Shephard

I realise that financial realism is not a characteristic of councils run by Liberal Democrats, but, as I have said, it is appropriate to question all areas of spending, especially non-statutory areas, when councils are complaining that they cannot meet their statutory obligations.