HC Deb 19 March 1996 vol 274 cc178-97

'No grant may be made to a person providing nursery education under this Act in respect of any premises in which the nursery education is provided unless—

  1. (a) the premises have been visited by an inspector registered in accordance with paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to this Act; and
  2. (b) the inspector is satisfied that the premises comply, or can be expected to comply, with such requirements as to suitability for the provision of nursery education in respect of which grants may be payable as may from time to time be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.'.—[Mr. Kilfoyle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.44 pm
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

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

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 14, in schedule 1, page 5, leave out lines 14 to 16.

Government amendment No. 33.

Mr. Kilfoyle

In Committee, there were protracted discussions on all the issues before us today. Unfortunately, despite the well-expressed and cogent arguments of Labour Members, the Government have not seen fit to incorporate our constructive amendments.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 14 deal with safeguards, and provide for a preliminary inspection of institutions wishing to provide nursery education under the scheme, before they start to do so. The document "Nursery Education Scheme: The Next Steps", published by the Department for Education and Employment in January, proposed an application procedure for potential providers of nursery education based on self-assessment of their ability to meet the standards expected of them by the Department. Self-assessment is wholly inadequate.

The next steps document reveals that the self-assessment schedule is a guide and prompter for in-house discussion with staff. It then states quite baldly that the schedule does not need to be completed or returned to the voucher agency. While the self-assessment schedule may be of use to applicant providers, especially those considering providing nursery education for the first time, self-assessment alone is clearly not a safe basis on which to entrust the vital responsibility of providing high-quality nursery education for young children.

The purpose of new clause 1 is simple—to plug the yawning gap in the inadequate arrangements proposed by the Secretary of State between the initial validation and the final validation of providers, which is quite properly dependent on providers being assessed and inspected. The next steps document says that inspection for final validation will normally take place in the first year of participation. The new clause would impose a preliminary visit by a properly qualified and registered inspector. That would improve the scheme, and would offer a necessary safeguard to assure parents that a provider had been able to satisfy a registered inspector that he met the required standards, or, in the professional judgment of the inspector, could be expected to meet them within a reasonable time.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree, based on his experience, that a scheme must be up and running before it can be thoroughly inspected? Has he had experience in his constituency, as I have in mine, of people who are anticipating becoming providers taking enormous trouble to ensure that they have the proper qualifications and premises? That is the stage at which they get the necessary advice.

Mr. Kilfoyle

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment, I will touch on the vital people in this process—the inspectors. He knows from his experience as a teacher, as I do from mine, the value that qualified, capable inspectors can bring to the whole educational process in our schools. He referred to schemes having to be up and running. Maintained and private nurseries are up and running, as are playgroups, and they will be incorporated in the scheme.

We are trying to achieve a comprehensive framework to govern all providers and ensure that they provide the necessary standards of nursery education that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree are desirable. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to specify in regulations the arrangements for such visits by a registered inspector.

Amendment No. 14 is about the registration visits themselves. Local education authority-maintained nursery schools and classes now have to be inspected under section 9 of the Education (Schools) Act 1992, which means that once every four years an inspection is carried out by a team of Ofsted-accredited inspectors led by a registered inspector, according to Ofsted's framework for inspection, as is required for all primary and secondary schools.

The amendment would delete the exemption of the maintained sector, thus requiring existing maintained nursery education facilities to be inspected under the arrangements being set up by the Bill. Technically, that would require double inspection-but in practice, as Ofsted is responsible for both systems, it would be foolish for it to do anything other than carry out a single process that met both sets of criteria. In effect, that would mean using the more rigorous framework currently in place for all mainstream schooling. It would therefore be necessary to adopt the same framework for private and voluntary provision too.

The Government are likely to argue that it would be pointless to require two inspections, and to try to suggest that the Opposition amendment is really about applying the less rigorous requirements to maintained schools. That is a seductive but false argument.

As for the inspection framework, there is no doubt that the requirements under the 1992 Act for the maintained sector are significantly more rigorous than those envisaged for the new voucher providers. The difference between the Ofsted framework and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's document on desirable outcomes for nursery education can be illustrated by two quotations.

The guidance on the inspection of nursery and primary schools published by Ofsted late last year says: The inspection of subjects and the provision for pupils under five should focus on pupils' attainment and progress; teaching and other aspects of provision which make a significant contribution to what is achieved; and pupils' response. On the other hand, the SCAA, in its publication, "Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning On Entering Compulsory Education", says something qualitatively different: Confirmation of validation will be based on a judgement, through inspection, about the extent to which the quality of provision is appropriate to the desirable outcomes in each area of learning rather than on the achievement of the outcomes themselves by individual children". If we are concerned to achieve the desirable and laudable objectives, we must consider inspectors' qualifications. There is concern among educators about the level of qualification of the inspectors who carry out the work. Currently, to be a member of an inspection team undertaking an Ofsted contract, inspectors must be qualified teachers with significant relevant experience. They are also expected to demonstrate the professional skills associated with education inspection and advice during a week's course run by Her Majesty's inspectorate.

The course is designed to accredit prior skills rather than to train beginners from scratch, and most Ofsted-accredited inspectors were already HMI or local authority inspectors and advisers before the introduction of the new system. That means, as we would expect, that they are widely experienced and capable people. To become a registered inspector—the person qualified to lead a team—it is necessary to take a further, more rigorous course.

There is already a shortage of qualified inspectors with nursery experience, and there have been problems in maintaining the timetable for inspecting such provision within Ofsted's current four-year timetable.

Early consultation by Ofsted revealed that suitable "initial selection criteria" for individuals wishing to become inspectors for private or voluntary sector providers of nursery education do not specify qualified teacher status, but include national vocational qualification level 2 in child care, the City and Guilds caring for children certificate, the Business and Technician Education Council nursing diploma, and Nursery Nurses Education Board qualifications. Those qualifications are not sufficient to secure a job as an ordinary teacher in a local education authority nursery school. To suggest that they might be adequate for inspectors is astonishing. That is turning the whole logic of inspection as understood in the maintained sector on its head.

The Association of Advisers for the Under-Eights and their Families wrote to Ofsted to register its "dismay, disappointment and frustration" at the "totally inappropriate" qualifications specified. Its letter concluded: It is essential that the professionals who will be inspecting provision for the voucher scheme are seen to be credible, knowledgeable, early years personnel, with appropriate training and expertise. The Opposition say amen to that.

Government amendment No. 33 improves the wording of paragraph 13 of schedule 1 and allows the chief inspector to set a time limit for the production of a report by the person conducting the inspection. It allows the limit to be extended by a maximum of three months. It provides for regulations to prescribe that copies are sent "without delay", whatever that may mean, to authorities and other persons—again, I wonder what that means.

That seems to meet a requirement that we attempted to introduce in Committee in amendment No. 87. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will bear me out, because he tabled amendments Nos. 21 and 90 to effect such a change. I hope that the Government are at last beginning to respond to the constructive arguments that were put in Committee and that will continue to be made in this debate.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I support new clause 1, which is important because, throughout the Bill's consideration, the Opposition have tried to table amendments that would raise the quality of the education offered to children in this so-called expansion of nursery education provision. Throughout our proceedings, Ministers have said that they support that intent, but every time we have put a practical proposal to the vote, Ministers have failed to support it. If they do not accept new clause 1 and other amendments, people will realise that the nursery voucher scheme has nothing to do with providing quality nursery education for our young children.

At present, a new establishment that wishes to be eligible to accept nursery vouchers, and therefore to educate our four-year-olds, has to go through a system of validation, to get which it has to fill in a form. It is sent to Capita management consultancy, which has been employed by the Government in the first phase of the scheme. Capita has, by the Minister's own admission, no staff with educational qualifications.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), wrote to me to say: During Committee on Thursday, you asked whether any members of staff of Capita Managed Services Ltd employed on the nursery voucher scheme are qualified teachers, former HMI or nursery specialists. I can now confirm that they are not". The organisation responsible for validating the new settings, which will miraculously emerge as the result of the demand-led voucher schemes, has no education specialists on its staff. If we are to raise the quality of what is on offer to our young children, it is simply not good enough to allow such settings to be validated without an inspection.

4 pm

I fear that Ministers will not accept the new clause, because they know that they probably could not implement it. It is important for the House to know the inspectorate's capacity for dealing with the so-called expansion of nursery provision. Ministers have never denied that there are only three qualified inspectors of nursery provision on the staff of Ofsted. A further 200 inspectors are contracted by Ofsted to carry out the inspection of nursery education settings in nursery schools and nursery classes in primary schools.

Everyone, including Ofsted, recognises that 4,000 inspectors will be needed to meet the new inspection requirements of this important early educational provision for our young children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, that will probably mean a lowering in the standard of those employed to carry out the crucial task of inspecting the quality on offer to our young children. Is it true that it is considered appropriate for people with NVQ2 qualifications to carry out the inspection? Perhaps, when the Minister replies to the debate, we shall be given the answer.

I am keen that we should welcome people with all sorts of qualifications and backgrounds to work with children under five, but it is inappropriate for people with NVQ2 qualifications to undertake crucial inspections to ensure that settings for under-fives are of the correct standard. The Government should come clean about how they intend to find 4,000 inspectors. There are also serious questions to be asked about how the policy is progressing.

We know very little about what training the Government intend for those they recruit as inspectors. As I understand it, Ofsted is considering four half-days' training for those who carry out inspections. The lack of staff with relevant qualifications employed by the Department means that training will be carried out by the people who should be conducting the inspections. That is simply not good enough, and is a matter of great concern to us.

We need to know whether that is why the Government will not ensure that a proper inspection of settings takes place before they are validated as appropriate for use for the nursery voucher scheme. I also want to know what action the Government intend to take to improve the situation.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Nursery schools and classes were formerly inspected by Her Majesty's inspectors of education. In Committee, it was my understanding that, while nursery schools and nursery classes are now inspected by Ofsted, under the Government's proposals—to which we are objecting in the form of new clause 1—it would be possible for the inspectors whom my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) describes to have lower qualifications than the nursery teachers they inspect. If that is so, should not the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), address that problem when he replies to the debate?

Ms Hodge

I agree entirely with the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), and I hope that the Minister addresses it during his reply to the debate. Inspection is crucial to quality, as was said last night in the debate on the space standards in our schools and the deregulation of those standards. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment stated that it was not the space standards that mattered but the quality of the teaching in ensuring that an appropriate offer was being made to our children.

The Labour party argues that both count, but we agree with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that quality of teaching counts, and that it is a crucial factor in how good an offer there is for young children. If the quality of teaching matters, someone has to inspect it. As the Labour party says in the new clause, it is appropriate and important that inspections be carried out before we allow these settings to teach a whole generation of four-year-olds.

I shall tell hon. Members why that is so important. Approximately 400,000 people are currently working with children aged under five—of those people, 10 per cent. have no qualifications at all; of those people working with children in the nursery class or nursery school setting, in the maintained setting, over half do not have qualifications to teach; and the remainder have a range of qualifications. In that context, where there has not been an enormous investment in the training of those who are working with children at this crucial age, it is absolutely imperative—it is totally vital—that there should be an inspection prior to the validation of a setting to ensure that those who are working with young children have appropriate skills and experience, if not qualifications, to carry out their tasks.

There is a lack of provision for training. In fact, Ministers in this Government were responsible for cutting the very little training that existed in the grant for education support and training budget for those working in the nursery education sector. Between 1990 and 1993, just under £10 million was available for training this group of staff, and that funding has been cut.

The Government's commitment to a quality offer for four-year-olds is very much up in the air: there is a group of people working with children who have a variety of qualifications, if any at all; the Government have cut the part of the training budget that could assist in raising quality; and in the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme, the Government have not set aside any money for training—which is something that the Labour party has asked for time and time again.

There is not much evidence in the Bill—which has been debated for many hours in Committee—that the Government are concerned about quality, although there are currently concerns in that respect. The best evidence we have—which we used extensively in the discussions in Committee—is a survey carried out by Her Majesty's inspectors entitled "A Survey of Provision for Under-Fives in the Play Group and Maintained Sectors in Wales: Inspected During Academic Year 1994–95".

The survey looked at playgroups—the new settings which will be eligible for vouchers—and at the maintained sector. I shall quote briefly from the document, because I believe that hon. Members should be aware of it. I refer to the playgroups sector. On page 19, the inspector, talking about the quality of what was on offer to our children in the playgroup sector, said: Standards in the development of children's pre-reading and early reading skills are satisfactory in about a fifth"— 20 per cent.— of the play groups … In around four-fifths of the groups, although reading materials are readily available for the children to handle and use, not enough is done to foster positive attitudes to books in a systematic way. Four fifths of those playgroups that were inspected in Wales by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools in Wales fell down on the key aspect of preparing children to read.

The report says: Few opportunities are created in any of the playgroups to develop children's early writing skills through play and practical experiences". On page 22, in its conclusions about the maintained sector, the report says: There is a continuing need to improve standards in some aspects of the work, especially the development of skills for later learning in technology (65% of the schools), the development of knowledge and skills in the scientific area of learning (30% of the schools), the development of children's feelings and ideas in the aesthetic and creative area of learning (30% of the schools), the development of early reading and writing skills (25% of the schools) and aspects of the work in the mathematical area of learning (10% of the schools). The need is greatest in reception classes and mixed-age infant classes in primary schools. In its conclusion about the playgroup sector, the report says: Standards need to be improved in most aspects of the work. Particular attention should be paid to improving standards in the development of early literacy, the use of mathematical language and the skills needed for later learning in history, geography, science and technology. That all shows that, in part of the United Kingdom where a proper inspection did take place, standards were sorely lacking. Despite that, Ministers are seriously suggesting that we should introduce a new range of settings—which may require the validation of as many as 12,000 new settings once the scheme is running nationwide—without having that early check on whether the quality of what is on offer is appropriate.

Sixty per cent. of what a child learns is learned in the first five years of life; 60 per cent. of his or her intellectual development takes place in those first five years. It is a crucial phase of life. We have got it wrong for far too long. Are we yet again to miss an opportunity of starting to put things right? I fear so, if the Government's proposals are implemented.

In Government amendment No. 33 on inspection, the Government suggest that the inspector should submit a report, but we all know that currently, when an inspection report on a private nursery is completed, it is submitted to those who own and run the nursery, and is not published generally. If our children are to attend private nurseries, and if public money is to be invested in children attending those private nurseries, do the Government intend inspection reports to be published? I hope they do, and I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on that.

Currently, non-educational institutions—playgroups or nurseries run by the voluntary sector, or private nurseries—must be inspected before they are registered and opened to the public. All we are asking in the new clause and amendment No. 14 is that the rigour that goes into ensuring that the care is of a certain quality should be applied to ensuring that the education is of a certain quality. That is the key to ensuring that children develop their potential. Government resistance to this important new clause would show the world that they do not really care about the quality of nursery education.

4.15 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I cannot think of the Bill without thinking of it in the context of the changes to the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1981 that were debated yesterday. The Bill and those changes seem to amount, among other things, to an attempt to push early years education towards the private sector, cheapness and, potentially, overcrowded and overstressed conditions. Those dangers should be monitored and checked by proper inspection procedures, as laid out in new clause 1.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was quite right to say that we cannot inspect something that is not already there; however, the new clause places stress on "the premises" subject to the inspection. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) was quite right to say that a very early check is needed. That is a sensible way in which to think of the new clause.

To my mind, it is quite improper, and possibly risky, for young children to be gathered in units that, for at least one year, are self-assessed by people who have a strong financial interest in ensuring that the self-assessment is positive. The assessment would then be sent to Capita, but numerous recent early-day motions have already cast considerable doubt on that organisation. Of course, the need for inspection applies not only to premises but to the quality of the activity and the personnel involved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said.

The voucher system will inevitably drive the centre of gravity in early years education away from comprehensive nursery schools and classes, which are financed and organised by local authorities, towards a provision that has been hurriedly scrambled together by individuals and companies. Some of the people involved in that provision will no doubt be excellent, but others will be out to grab and cash as many vouchers as possible before the inspector arrives and possibly closes their nurseries down.

The expansion of early years education, which all parties in the House seek, clearly should not be governed by a system that takes large amounts of public money and pumps it into the provision of what might be no more than child minding, in places that could not accommodate activities other than basic child minding—although the facilities might pass muster in the social services' inspection under the Children Act 1989.

The inspectorate must be mindful of the quality of learning experience for all the four-year-olds who will be placed in schools by vouchers. It must especially take into account all the recent research, which has demonstrated beyond peradventure the crucial educational and social benefits that accrue from high-quality early years education.

It is, of course, also important that the quality of the inspectorate is of the highest standard. My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Barking have already commented on inspectors' qualifications—NVQ2 is perhaps not what we would seek as an ideal qualification for an inspector.

The Bill also contains nothing about training, either for the new nursery teachers—no planned expansion is envisaged in that respect—or for the new inspectors. Parents who live in areas that have never offered early years education provision before will no doubt be relieved that it will be available, but they may plump for whatever is offered. The new clause offers them at least a basic assurance about standards, in a sphere of education with which, by definition, they cannot be familiar. As the unit—I can think of no better word; it may be a class—is already in place, they will trust that it is totally acceptable, and they may find out otherwise rather too late. That is why early inspection is tremendously important.

In contemplating new clause 1, the Government have to bear in mind how brief but vital nursery education is. It is all over in 12 months—or 18 months if the child is fortunate—and by then a child may already have formed educational patterns. A bad or insufficient nursery experience may produce individual or collective tragedy. Early inspection would attempt to avoid that, so I hope that the Government will look favourably on what I consider to be a sensible and moderate new clause.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

By way of introduction to my support for this essential new clause, let me draw the attention of the House to the principle on which the nursery voucher scheme is based. Under the nursery voucher scheme, public money will be used to subsidise private sector play schemes. It may even subsidise private sector child minding and other schemes that may or may not provide nursery education as there is nothing in the framework of the Bill to prevent that.

New clause 1 is straightforward and simple. It will demand an inspection of existing provision to ensure that it measures up to what we expect of nursery education before any public money is put into a service. That is a great strength of new clause 1.

I am concerned about the design of the voucher scheme and that it may harm the excellent provision of nursery education in the state sector. I am sure that the wording of the Bill and the way in which the voucher scheme will work—in the absence of an inspection before the private sector will be able to benefit from public money—will lead to a dilution or undermining of existing LEA provision. I am also confident that the way in which the scheme is currently set up means that it will undermine severely the provision of nursery education for three-year-olds. Therefore, new clause 1 commends itself to the House.

I am clear in my own mind that the voucher scheme is nothing more than a political gimmick. It offers no real prospect of providing high-quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. I say that confidently as someone who has read "Education: A Framework for Expansion", which was published in 1972 by the then Secretary of State for Education. It committed the Conservative Government of the day to providing high-quality nursery education. The fact that it was never delivered does not deter from the aims and objectives of "Education: A Framework for Expansion", which recognised the benefits that a good nursery education would bring to pupils' prospects and to levering up standards in the state system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) has already said, 60 per cent. of learning takes place in those early years. It is therefore essential that we get nursery education right and plan for it properly. What the Government appear to be doing is designed more to please the Conservative party conference than to improve the quality of our state education.

Had the Secretary of State for Education and Employment had her own way, I am certain that she would have not chosen such an approach. She knows full well that the voucher scheme is unwieldy and a bureaucratic nightmare. We are debating the Bill only because last October the Prime Minister promised the Conservative party conference that we would have a voucher scheme. I am sure that that is not the way to plan the best education for primary school children, who need first-class nursery education.

The Secretary of State was right to say on 19 October 1994 that, despite some people's opinions, voucher schemes were unwieldy. She also said in The Times Educational Supplement of 7 April 1995 that vouchers were not the favoured option. In fact, it was only because of the Prime Minister's commitment at the Tory party conference that she had to change her mind. He said: I have asked Gillian Shephard to work up proposals to provide places for all four-year-olds whose parents wish them to take it up … What I am doing is giving you a cast iron commitment that it will happen".

Mr. Spearing

The Prime Minister certainly did commit the party to a voucher scheme, but he also said that he would provide nursery education for all four-year-olds. The Government seem to intend to make it available to some, but it will not be nursery education as we know it today.

Madam Speaker

Order. That question invites the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor to go even wider, and he was already making what seemed like a Second Reading speech. I hope that he will not pursue the intervention.

Mr. Hall

You are of course right, Madam Speaker. I was coming to the point that we need inspections of nursery education before handing over taxpayers' money to private sector institutions. Certainly, high-quality nursery education should be available to all four-year-olds, as the Prime Minister said it would be. But it was clear from the debates in Standing Committee that it is not going to happen.

This is a very poor Bill; we make no bones about the fact that we do not like its contents. New clause 1 in no way substitutes for poor legislation: it just tries to make the best of a bad job. One way of ensuring that the money voted by Parliament is spent for the intended purpose is to carry out inspections of private sector premises to ensure that they truly provide what we would expect to be done in the name of nursery education.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked that no provider will be brought into the nursery voucher scheme unless the DFEE and the Welsh Office are satisfied that they meet the educational standards which can be gleaned from reports carried out by Ofsted, the Audit Commission and the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales".—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 13 February 1996; c. 193.] My hon. Friend wanted to be quite sure that all premises were right for nursery education, and that the resources provided would go towards quality education. These establishments and institutions must be committed to curriculum and planning control.

The teachers in these nursery schools must be up to the task of providing high-quality nursery education. New clause 1 seeks reassurances about assessment and record keeping, and about the literacy and numeracy that teachers would hope to instil in the children in their care. We hope that the Government will commit themselves to ensuring that taxpayers' money delivers the goods. New clause 1 calls on Ofsted to go into the private sector institutions providing nursery education and to give us the information that we require.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State said: Over time, Ofsted inspection reports will help to fill in the picture of the developing pattern of provision. They may also shed light on the most effective way to deliver good quality nursery education. I do not want to look back in a year's time and find out that the Government may have been able to do that. I want some reassurances now that taxpayers' money will be spent on providing good-quality nursery education. That is the difference between the Opposition and the Government on the issue. The Government are prepared to allow the private sector to be involved in nursery provision, to allow public money to be spent on that provision and to inspect the outcome some time in the future. That is not an appropriate approach, and new clause 1 would change it.

4.30 pm

The Under-Secretary also said in Committee: In case it is not obvious from my remarks, I must flag up for the Committee the fact that many of those matters, by their very nature, will emerge one or two years down the line. I hope that hon. Members agree that it would be unreasonable to wait for definitive outcomes before proceeding with the expansion of nursery education."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 1 February 1996; c. 54.] I do not think that we need to wait for those definitive outcomes to expand nursery education. We could do that through the state sector and local education authorities. It is unreasonable for the Under-Secretary to ask us to wait for two or three years before we find out whether taxpayers' honest money has been spent efficiently and effectively. That is my difference with the Under-Secretary on that issue.

Whereas in new clause 1 we call for inspections to take place before public money is used, the Government are quite prepared to wait. The Government are not even prepared to set down a target for the number of private sector institutions that will be inspected in the first 12 months. It is clear that many inspections will be needed and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said, an extra 4,000 inspectors would probably be needed to complete the job in those 12 months. The Government are not even prepared to fix a target for the number of inspections in the first 12 months, and the reason given—it is totally unacceptable—is that those inspections cannot start until the Bill has received Royal Assent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Rod Richards)

indicated assent.

Mr. Hall

The Under-Secretary agrees, but there would be nothing wrong with delaying the implementation of the Bill until those inspections had taken place. If the Bill receives Royal Assent in its current form, the inclusion of new clause 1 would give us some reassurance that the Government were committed to inspection to provide high-quality nursery education. The pamphlet "Information for Parents: The Nursery Education Scheme" states: The Government wants all parents to be able to choose good-quality nursery education for their four-year-old children if they want. If parents are to make choices about good-quality nursery education, on what will they base their decisions? What will inform their decisions about good-quality nursery education? A step in the right direction would be an Ofsted report that stated that a nursery has the accommodation to provide good-quality education; has designed its curriculum to match the needs of four-year-olds; has well-qualified staff; and has proper assessment plans. That would be the type of qualitative report that new clause 1 would require.

We have seen that the Government have committed themselves to a voucher scheme to provide nursery education. If we are to believe what the Government have said, the voucher, to the value of £1,100, will do a great deal. It will provide two and a half sessions a week of nursery education. It will provide for capital investment in the private sector to supply the 150,000 places that are missing at the moment. That has been recognised in the Government literature on the subject of nursery vouchers. The voucher will also pay for the inspection of the private sector schools. Those £1,100 vouchers will have to go a long way. I am not confident that they will provide nursery places for every four-year-old in the country. I am certain that they will undermine existing provision—and I am confident that, if the Government have the interests of education at heart, they will accept new clause 1. It is a step in the right direction, and would improve what I consider to be a very poor piece of legislation.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall), who made some excellent comments in support of new clause 1. I shall not repeat what he said, but try to complement it.

We now have some cross-party accord on at least one feature of the Bill: the parties now agree that nursery education is valuable to children. Less than two years ago, Ministers were telling us that there was no proven connection between nursery education and the quality of a child's learning. Have we not heard the same words in connection with class sizes? Of course, that applies only to local education authority schools, not to the schools to which many Conservative Members send their children.

I also remember a Minister saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was "obsessed" with nursery education. I am happy to say that Ministers are now equally obsessed with it—as are Opposition Members, who are following my hon. Friend's excellent lead. We welcome Conservative Members' conversion to nursery education; but that is where my agreement with the Government ends. We have the right policy, but, alas, the wrong solution.

Let me say a little about the quality and value of inspection. The Government have rightly stressed the need for inspection of all schools. Opposition Members agree: we want to be absolutely sure that nursery school inspectors are meeting the standards that we want for our children, and also meeting the demands of taxpayers whose money is being spent to the tune of nearly three quarters of a billion pounds.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I do not expect the nursery voucher scheme to create many local education authority places. I think that the vouchers will be used in the private sector. If a huge amount of capital and revenue is to go into that sector, we must ensure that the conditions are right before children begin their education. Nursery education is, after all, education, not child minding. If the conditions are wrong, children will suffer. The conditions must be tried and tested.

Mr. Jamieson

My hon. Friend's comments are, as usual, well placed. The Bill could penalise authorities that are currently offering a high level of nursery education, and have done so for many years. A point that I hope will arise later in the debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I was tolerant in regard to the intervention, but can we now return to the new clause?

Mr. Jamieson

I shall, of course, be guided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Later, however, we may hear from the Minister how some of the revenue provided by the vouchers could be used for buildings rather than providing nursery education places.

It is vital that people of quality carry out the inspections. We need experienced inspectors with a proper understanding of young children and the way in which they learn; I do not think that the Minister will disagree with that. The inspectors must know what to look for.

Before inspectors carry out inspections, as mentioned in new clause 1, we need people to train them. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that, when looking for people to train nursery school inspectors, only the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the Montessori organisation were asked to provide the names of people who could train inspectors. Has the Pre-School Learning Alliance—excellent though it may be—people with sufficient experience to train? Many teachers in the Montessori organisation obtained their qualification through correspondence courses and have done very little follow-up to that qualification, which is not recognised in state schools. They cannot teach in state schools. Yet they have been asked to train the people who will inspect nursery schools.

I believe that a letter was sent out a short while ago to those two organisations and that the trainers have been offered a whole two days' training to train the inspectors. If they pass the training in April and May, they will be offered a further session in July just to ensure that they are competent to do the job. I understand that the people who will train the inspectors have only the equivalent of national vocational qualification level 2 in child care, which is just above GCSE grade 4. Yet they will train inspectors to inspect nursery schools to see whether they are appropriate. I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point, because I notice that, last week, The Guardian and The Times Educational Supplement—an excellent choice by the Department for Education and Employment and Ofsted—advertised for inspectors. Before the inspectors are in place, we need to know whether the people training them have the competence and quality to do so.

New clause 1 has been cobbled together in a hurry and it has many deficiencies, not least those that I have just pointed out.

Mr. Richards

It will come as no surprise to Conservative Members that what we have heard so far has been nothing more than a rerun of what we heard in Standing Committee—

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

And a boring rerun, at that.

Mr. Richards

As my hon. Friend says, it has been a boring rerun, with Opposition Members seeking to find ways and means of tripping up the private and voluntary sector.

We are introducing a number of important safeguards to ensure the quality of provision at participating institutions before inspection, which means that there is no need for the provision sought in new clause 1. First, we are accepting applications only from certain categories, or types, of institutions that we are confident will be able to provide good-quality education. These include maintained schools, finally registered independent schools, local authority day nurseries and institutions registered under the Children Act 1989.

Providers registered under the Children Act have their premises inspected annually by social services departments, and maintained schools are covered by the school premises regulations.

Mr. Hall

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Richards

In a moment. Let me finish this point.

New regulations were laid before Parliament on 22 February, to come into force on 1 September 1996. Hon. Members will be aware, from the lengthy discussions that have taken place on this subject in Committee, that we intend to deregulate minimum teaching and recreation areas in maintained schools, but they will know equally well that we are retaining the standards that bear on health and safety to safeguard the welfare of children.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Richards

I give way to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

The Minister just told the House that he will accept applications only from certain categories of organisation and institution to participate in the scheme. Will he tell the House which part of the Bill gives effect to the proposal that he has just announced?

4.45 pm
Mr. Richards

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the arrangements that we are making under clause 1 will ensure that that is indeed the case.

Secondly, all participating institutions will have to work towards the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority desirable learning outcomes, and those on which we await advice from the ACAC organisation in Wales. The quality and standards of education that they provide will be subject to rigorous inspection. To provide good-quality education and work towards the outcomes, providers will need to ensure that their premises are suitable. We intend to inspect all private and voluntary providers within the first year. As explained in Committee, the inspections cannot begin until the Bill has been enacted and it has come into force. Given the large number of providers involved, it would be impracticable to inspect them all at once. To insist on inspection before registration, as the amendment attempts to do, would delay the expansion of nursery education and would stifle parental demand.

Mr. Spearing

I take the Minister back a few sentences to the inspection of premises. He referred to the fact that school inspections would be carried out under school premises regulations, but we know that schools have no space. Yesterday evening, the Secretary of State told me that, of course, they would be also be inspected under the Children Act. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Act contains minimum space requirements and, if so, what they are for the establishments that will be inspected under the Bill?

Mr. Richards

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's opening comments. On the criteria by which inspections are made under the Children Act, I do not know off the top of my head whether space is a criterion, but I shall certainly let the hon. Gentleman know in due course.

Ms Hodge

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hall

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend allow me?

Mr. Richards

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Dr. Hampson

Frankly, is not this a farce? Why do not we simply say to those people opposite that space, size, quality of classroom—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that that is a parliamentary phrase. All Members are honourable Members, not people.

Dr. Hampson

I am delighted—if my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will allow me to continue the point and respond to the Chair—because I thought that, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were criticising the word "farce". It is a farce because Opposition Members seem to ignore the central point—education. The quality of the way in which we educate young people has nothing to do with a physical place. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but one can go to the most clapped out medieval buildings that are some of the best schools in the country—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Dr. Hampson

Mark Twain said that it was the quality of the mind at the other end of the log. It is well known. Research in the past decade shows that there is no positive relationship at all between premises and the quality of education.

Mr. Richards

My hon. Friend makes a valid point when he speaks of Labour Members, who are far more concerned with providing occupation for their friends in local education authorities than with providing good-quality nursery education for the children of this country.

Mr. Hall

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Richards

The hon. Gentleman should contain himself. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) asked about inspections under the Children Act 1989. Guidance under that Act states that it is desirable that 2.3 sq m should be available per child. I stress that that is guidance under the Act.

Mr. Hall


Mr. Richards

I should like to make a little progress. Opposition Members are getting a little excited. They should calm themselves.

The self-assessment schedule will be an important and additional safeguard of quality. It will let providers know what is expected of them before they join the scheme. Providers are unlikely to apply to join the scheme unless they are confident that they can meet the requirements that are expected of them. It would be a poor advertisement for an institution to enter the scheme only to be ejected from it a few months later. As a final safeguard of quality, providers will also have to publish information for parents which includes the details of their premises. I ask the House to reject new clause 1.

Amendment No. 14 seeks to provide for periodical inspection by registered nursery education inspectors of maintained primary schools that have nursery classes and of maintained nursery schools that are already subject to periodical inspection under section 9 of the Education (Schools) Act 1992 by inspectors registered under that Act. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) forecast, such a duplication of effort would be unhelpful. The introduction of two separate cycles of inspection by separate inspectors would cause unnecessary disruption in schools and it could hardly be considered an efficient use of taxpayers' money.

In undertaking periodical inspections of schools under the 1992 Act, inspectors registered under that Act are required to report on the quality and standards of education that are provided in the same way as registered nursery education inspectors are required to report. In doing that, they will have regard to specific guidance provided by Ofsted and by the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales on the inspection of early years education. From 1 April 1996 inspectors who are registered under the 1992 Act will apply the general guidance for inspection of primary schools, which also covers early years issues. Therefore, the quality of nursery education that is provided by schools that are subject to inspection under the 1992 Act is already being monitored by Ofsted and by OHMCI in Wales. I can see no reason to introduce an additional, separate inspection cycle for such schools.

I shall now deal with some matters that were raised by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Walton suffers from a misunderstanding about the inspection of nursery provision in the maintained sector. Inspections in that sector and of private and voluntary sector schools will be undertaken in accordance with the guidance that has been issued by Ofsted and OHMCI. The guidance will apply to nursery provision across all sectors, which means that there is no question of private sector or voluntary sector inspections being any less thorough than those that are carried out in the maintained sector.

The hon. Members for Walton and for Barking (Ms Hodge) and some other hon. Members asked about the qualifications of inspectors. The chief inspector will have to be satisfied that inspectors are capable of performing the task, and he will require them to undergo training that is appropriate for each one. The hon. Member for Barking suggested that Capita Managed Services would validate the quality of education to be provided on the basis of the self-assessment questionnaire. Plainly, she did not read the letter that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), sent to her on that very matter. For ease of reference, perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to read part of my hon. Friend's letter. In paragraphs 2 and 3 the letter states: Capita have no need for educational specialists. Their responsibility is only for administering the issue and redemption of vouchers, not for any of the educational aspects of the scheme. In particular, Capita is not involved with making judgments about educational quality. The Department has set out in its contract with Capita a tight framework within which Capita administers its part of the scheme. I have addressed the matters of issue and qualifications. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) asked who had been contacted about the possibility of training. Ofsted contacted not only the Pre-School Learning Alliance and Montessori: it contacted other organisations including the Independent Schools Joint Council, the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools and the National Private Day Nurseries Association. It will be for Ofsted to decide the training and qualifications that will be needed.

Mr. Jamieson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Richards

I should prefer to make some progress on Government amendment No. 33.

I ask the House to reject amendment No. 14. In Committee, Opposition Members tabled several amendments about the production and distribution of inspection reports. The amendments were not selected for discussion, but they raised important issues which we think merit inclusion in the Bill. We have always contended that inspection reports should be produced and distributed within a reasonably short time.

For the sake of clarity, we are persuaded that it would be helpful to make legislative provision for the time scale within which inspectors should produce reports. We think that it would be sensible to follow the model contained in section 208(2) of the Education Act 1993 so that the report is made within a period prescribed by regulations, subject to any extension that the chief inspector considers necessary. Such extensions would be limited to the prescribed period plus three months. The power to make extensions will cover unexpected events, such as an inspector's illness, which could lead to delays.

It also seems sensible that on receiving the report the chief inspector should distribute copies of it without delay, and that is achieved by amendment No. 33. As introduced, the Bill provided for a copy to go only to the inspected provider of the nursery education. On reflection, we think that it will often be appropriate for others to be sent a copy of the inspection report and the amendment provides for such further distribution to be covered by regulations. Of course, the regulations will prescribe that copies of the inspection report should be distributed to the provider.

Mr. Hall

I apologise for interrupting the Minister in his reading of what is quite clearly a prepared brief. Who will pay for the inspections? Will it be the school—the private sector institution—and, if it is, will the cost come out of the £1,110?

Mr. Richards

In England it will come out of the Ofsted budget and in Wales the OHMCI budget will cover inspections.

There will need to be provision for copies of the reports to go to the LEAs in respect of their schools; to the Department of Social Security in respect of providers registered under the Children Act, and to the Department for Education and Employment and the Welsh Office in respect of independent schools. I ask the House to accept amendment No. 33.

Mr. Don Foster

It was right of the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) to draw our attention to the kernel of the debate. As others have said, hon. Members on both sides of the House now recognise the importance and value of early years education, but the critical point raised by the hon. Member for Warrington, South is that we do not want any sort of nursery education or early years education. To achieve the successes and benefits that we want, the provision must be of high quality. The concern expressed by many Opposition Members in Committee was that there was no evidence that the provision that we would gain would be of high quality. That is relevant to new clause 1.

5 pm

In Committee, we made the point, which is worth reiterating, that, in revenue terms, a £1,100 voucher, if that is to be its value, is insufficient to provide high-quality provision. It will certainly be insufficient to provide additional resources for capital work on any new premises that are to be built or for the training of additional teachers and ancillary assistants who will be needed. As a result, there is a fear that the additional provision that may be created, and that the Government suggest the Bill will create, is likely to be of low quality. That is why it is so critical that, before state money—taxpayers' money—is handed over for such provision, there is at least some initial quick health check to ensure that we can be satisfied that new providers are likely to provide the sort of quality provision that we want.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire)

I intervene only to underline that there is a health check, literally, in relation to all Children Act 1989 registration—an annual inspection. It is one of the three main alternative requirements that every provider must have.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Minister. I shall return to that point because it is important.

When the Minister responded from the Dispatch Box to those concerns, he assured us that a problem did not exist because the Government would accept applications only from certain categories of provider or organisation. I then intervened on the Minister and asked what assurances had been given and where they appeared in the legislation. The response was that it would be covered by the arrangements that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment had the power to make. As we know only too well from our study of the Bill, few of those arrangements will return to the House for examination by hon. Members. We should all, therefore, be concerned.

Mr. Richards

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

I happily give way because I hope that the Minister will now give us clause, chapter and verse.

Mr. Richards

To save the hon. Gentleman and the House some time, if he is a little more patient, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment will return to that subject a little later.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Minister. With that assurance, I shall happily wait. The House wants far clearer assurances than it has received so far.

I was pleased that the Minister tabled amendment No. 33. He has at least recognised, in a small way, some of the many concerns expressed by Opposition Members in Committee. The Minister has agreed to make copies of the report available to a variety of organisations other than the provider. I hope that, when the opportunity arises later, the Minister or one of his Front-Bench colleagues will go into a little more detail about whom they intend to make copies available to. The Minister mentioned the local education authority. I am delighted about that because I proposed it in Committee. We need far more information than we have received so far about that and about who will be responsible for some of the cost.

The Minister will recall that he told the Committee: There is already provision in paragraph 13 of schedule 1 for a copy of the inspection report to be sent to the provider. Providers will be required to make copies of the report available alongside other information for parents as a requirement of grant."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 20 February 1996; c. 357.] We and certainly the providers will need to be clear whether they will be responsible for bearing the cost of making many more copies of the report available, or whether some other source of funding will be made available. If the providers are to supply that funding, it will diminish still further resources to provide high-quality provision.

I hope that, when the opportunity arises later, the Minister or one of his colleagues will say why they were not willing to accept the points that were made in Committee about the importance, before inspection, of consultation with the local education authority on non-local education authority provision. A strong case was made for that. The Minister said that he would consider that point. Many hon. Members will be disappointed that he has considered it, but taken no action.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on one thing: much of what we have heard tonight is a reran of what happened in Standing Committee. That is evidenced by the lack of Back-Bench support for the Government, constructive suggestions from Opposition Members and an especially boring and ill-informed speech from the Under-Secretary.

The reason why we are so concerned is that, on 1 February in Committee, in column 58 of Hansard, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment could not give us any guarantee on inspections of premises. We are naturally concerned, especially when we consider that, potentially, there are 40,000 providers. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales was concerned about that figure. He told us that the figure was only 28,000 and that the Audit Commission had the figures wrong, but included in the total are 2,900 providers from Wales, of which he had not even been cognisant.

Claims have been made about the categories of institutions that will be catered for under the arrangements, but there is nothing in the Bill. We have heard much about premises being inspected annually. Reference has been made both to the Children Act 1989 and to the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1996. We know what happened with those regulations last night. I repeat to the Minister: I hope that he learns the difference between prescriptive regulation and optional guidelines, which the Government do not take on board.

The whole point is that we also want inspection of educational quality, which must be at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Mr. Hall

The point about inspection under the Children Act is that it does not do anything about quality; it involves only the registration of premises. It will have nothing to say about the quality of nursery education.

Mr. Kilfoyle

That is the point that I am making. We are concerned with the quality of education as well the environment in which it takes place.

I remind the Under-Secretary of State for Wales that I was not suggesting that we have two cycles of inspection—quite the reverse. I was saying that there could be potential for that, but that we would expect any sensible, well-organised body such as Ofsted to ensure that it did not happen. He made the point that the chief inspector is to be satisfied. That is certainly the case but, given many of the education policies pushed by the Government in recent years, the Under-Secretary is an easily satisfied man.

Having said that, we do not intend to press the matter to a vote. We hope that the Government will see the sense of our arguments, go away and reflect on the valid points made by Labour Members. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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