HC Deb 23 May 1995 vol 260 cc691-2
1. Mr. MacShane

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what percentage of three to five-year-olds have pre-school places in publicly funded schools or nursery schools in (a) Great Britain and (b) France. [23809]

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

In 1992 all three to five-year-olds in France attended some form of schooling, including private, compared with 68 per cent. in the United Kingdom. Of the other European Union member states, only Belgium, Italy and Spain have a higher percentage attendance than the United Kingdom.

Mr. MacShane

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. I hope that she will take this opportunity to deny the report in yesterday's Daily Mail that she plans to introduce a crazy right-wing voucher scheme which will create kiddies farms for middle-class parents. I know that she loves France as much as I do and my more serious point is, why three to five-year-olds in France get a better deal from their Government than my three to five-year-olds get from theirs. I speak as one with two children under that age.

Mrs. Shephard

I note that the hon. Gentleman prepared his indignation in advance. Nine out of 10 three and four-year-olds in this country have some form of pre-school education. Just over half attend nursery schools or nursery reception classes in primary schools; and 41 per cent. are registered with a play group. The hon. Gentleman spoke about assertions in the Daily Mail. I remind him that we have made it clear that in due course we shall announce our proposals for new places with new money for children under five. When we make that announcement the mechanisms by which those places will be provided will become clear.

Sir David Madel

As local education authorities steadily expand nursery school provision, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Pre-school Playgroups Organisation also plays a vital role in preparing children for compulsory years at school?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is right. Our announcement will make it clear that we are promoting good quality, and choice and diversity for parents. Our objective is most specifically not to put private or voluntary providers out of business.

Mr. Don Foster

Further to the Secretary of State's response to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) may I ask her to tell the House a bit more precisely when she is likely to make her announcement about the expansion of nursery education? Does she agree that a voucher system would not provide the necessary resources for places for children in terms of physical facilities, or the training for the high-quality teachers needed for high-quality nursery education?

Mrs. Shephard

I say again that we shall make the announcement when the policies are ready. The delivery mechanisms will be part of that announcement. I have already said this afternoon—and on many other occasions—that our plans will promote good quality and choice and diversity; obviously good quality includes the right qualifications and training.

Mr. Riddick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the provision of nursery places for all four-year-olds provides the Government with an excellent opportunity to do something popular—to provide vouchers to parents and thereby give them more choice? Will she take this opportunity to say that she does have sympathy with the article in the Daily Mail; and that she will not adopt the sort of hotchpotch compromise trailed in some newspapers, or the sort of scheme that the DFE has some expertise in creating?

Mrs. Shephard

I thank my hon. Friend. The delivery mechanisms, including vouchers, bidding systems and so on, are part of the policy considerations that we are currently looking at. Nothing has been ruled in and nothing ruled out.

Mr. Kilfoyle

Does the Secretary of State recall the Chief Secretary's speech on nursery vouchers to the Centre for Policy Studies on 15 March, when he described himself as a heavy handed Chief Secretary pre-empting the proper process of Government decision making"? In view of yesterday's Daily Mail article, will she tell the House who determines education policy for the Government—the Secretary of State or the Chief Secretary?

Mrs. Shephard

I am sure that the editor and proprietor of the Daily Mail will be enchanted to know that the paper's every word is so carefully perused by Opposition Members.

As for the Chief Secretary's words at the seminar, I am not sure that I recall them too clearly, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I and my team of Ministers are in charge of education policy.