HC Deb 25 June 1997 vol 296 cc781-801

11 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce a short debate on a subject that is of great importance. I should at the start declare an interest, in that earlier this week my wife received an application form for a certificate of eligibility, so I have a significant family interest in this area of policy.

In recent weeks, the Government have introduced important changes to pre-school education policy. As they were achieved through administrative action rather than through additional legislation, I was glad that Madam Speaker felt able to agree to my request to debate the subject on the Floor of the House.

There will be a fair measure of common ground across the Chamber on objectives, especially on the desirability of expanding provision for pre-school education. There will also be disagreement about the best means of attaining those objectives. I want to put on record my regret at the Government's decision to press ahead with the abolition of the voucher scheme. I believe that the system of vouchers placed power in the hands of parents in individual families. My fear is that the system proposed by the Government will take power away from those parents and put it in the hands of local education authorities, which may or may not be responsive to the demands of parents living in their areas or to the different opportunities for pre-school education provided by the voluntary and private sectors.

I welcome the Government's stated commitment to the expansion of nursery education, and their recognition of the need for partnership between the agencies of local and central Government and the private and voluntary providers. I also welcome the fact that the new Government have decided to adopt Conservative policies on the inspection of pre-school institutions and on the notion of desirable learning outcomes. My concerns are about both the long term and the immediate future of pre-school education. In the time available, I should like to explore the legal basis of local education authority responsibilities, funding, admissions policy and the relationship between local education authorities and voluntary and private sector providers.

I shall first deal with the Government's statement of principles for the longer-term development of pre-school education: the longer term refers to 1998–99 onwards, so it starts in a relatively short time. In the Government's recent letter to chief education officers, their stated objective is that, by April 1999, every LEA should be able to offer a good-quality pre-school place to all parents who want it, and for that place to be available free of charge.

The first problem on which I want to probe the Government is the legal basis on which local education authorities will make such provision. LEAs do not currently have a statutory duty to provide pre-school education. Is it the Government's intention to amend the law in the education Bill that they have promised for later this Session? If so, are they of the view that LEAs should have a duty to provide pre-school education, or do they prefer a formula, such as a duty to secure provision? It is more than merely a matter of semantics, because it takes us into the realm of the partnership between the different providers and the extent of the power given to LEAs to pick and choose between providers in the private and voluntary sectors.

As I understand it, under the Government's proposals, the only private or voluntary institutions that will secure funding from the state for pre-school education will be those that have been approved by a local education authority, and which have been included on the LEA's list and published as part of its plan. What guarantees does the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), think the Government will be able to extract from local education authorities that they will always act fairly?

The statement of principle is in the Government's circular to chief education officers, and the desire for partnership is expressed, but there is no mention of detailed criteria against which the judgment of LEAs could be reviewed, or of sanctions that might be available against a local education authority that had acted arbitrarily and unfairly. It is not just a matter of political speculation: there have been concrete examples in recent years of LEAs, for doctrinaire reasons, pursuing what can be described only as a vendetta against particular voluntary or private institutions.

A case that ended up in court has been brought to my attention. Liverpool city council sought to reduce the number of children able to be admitted to the Monkton nursery on the ground that the school was in breach not of the statutory but of the recommended space standards published by the Department of Health. That decision was taken despite the school's proven track record and in defiance of the Department's own guidelines, which state: Where a facility has been running for a number of years and offering an acceptable standard of care to the children with which parents are satisfied, a local authority should not consider closing it down or reducing the number of places just because it falls below the recommended space standard. That incident caused the school a great deal of hassle and upset and distress to staff and parents. The High Court case left the Labour council in Liverpool with a bill of about £120,000 in lawyers' fees, which probably would have been sufficient to build a brand new nursery in the city. It was a waste of public money to pursue narrow, dogmatic, political interests. I hope that when the Government consider in more detail their guidance to local education authorities and the wording of any legislation that they plan on this subject, they will examine carefully how to ensure that LEAs act fairly towards their partner institutions.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

This is an important matter. Does not my hon. Friend think it strange that, apart from the Minister, the Government Benches are deserted? Does not that send signals to the country about Labour's general attitude to this important matter?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech, not an intervention.

Mr. Lidington

My hon. Friend makes a sound point, although I note that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) is sitting on the Government Front Bench. He has long taken an interest in education, and has strong views on it—which, no doubt, is why he has been silenced by being sent to the Whips Office.

My second point about the relationship between local education authorities and the private and voluntary sector concerns the proposal in the Government's circular that LEAs should have discretion to spend less than £366 per child per term when it comes to reimbursing private or voluntary providers for the costs that they have incurred in educating children. I am not sure what the justification for that is—especially given that, when the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill was going through the House, the Labour party criticised the then Government heavily on the basis of a fear that we might be prepared to allow less than £1,100 a year to be paid to voluntary pre-school and other such organisations when their usual fees were less than the value of the vouchers. That seems rather a quick U-turn, even for the Labour party under its present leadership.

Have the Government thought about the criteria that LEAs would have to consider when judging whether a cut in the reimbursement to a private or voluntary provider was justified? Could an LEA make an arbitrary decision, or could it be placed under an obligation not merely to direct the money to other such providers—I think that that is in the circular—but to use it specifically to provide training for pre-school leaders and others to bring their talents up to the standard that the Government expect, or, indeed, to put it towards capital investment to provide additional places? I should like to hear more detail about that from the Minister.

Mr. Tredinnick

I am listening with interest to what my hon. Friend is saying, but I must criticise him on one ground. He has not specified what we did in the previous Parliament, when we were in government. It is important to put on record the benefits that the Conservative Government managed to achieve for people through the pre-school voucher scheme, and it would be remiss of my hon. Friend to ignore those achievements.

Mr. Lidington

My hon. Friend is right. The Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Act 1996 set in train a considerable expansion in nursery and pre-school provision, in a way that was responsive to the individual needs of parents rather than the administrative and financial convenience of local authorities. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend must accept the reality that the present Government have chosen a different course. It is incumbent on us as an Opposition not only to do as my hon. Friend suggests, and remind the House of what we achieved when we were in office, but to probe the details of the proposals that the Government are presenting to the House and the country.

My next point concerns admissions and planning for pre-school provision. Under the arrangements proposed by the Government, local education authorities would be responsible for the provision of pre-school places, but would not control admissions in every maintained school within their boundaries. An LEA would not, for example, be able to insist on the provision of a given number of nursery places at a Church voluntary-aided school, although one assumes that most primary schools would want to attract the funds and provide the places.

Do the Government plan to give local authorities greater powers in law to control admissions? Is there a risk that an LEA would have power to impose an artificial limit on admissions to a popular nursery school or class in order to maintain the number of children attending an unpopular one? I hoped that we had escaped from that when the Conservative Government introduced open enrolment in the 1980s, and I now hope that we shall not return to such a policy.

Mr. Tredinnick

Has not the Conservative policy of open enrolment proved extremely popular, and will not any move that threatens it be viewed with disdain by many parents? Choice has become an important element in education, and many parents expect it. I hope that my hon. Friend will develop that argument.

Mr. Lidington

I agree. No doubt my hon. Friend will try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that he can make his points in more detail.

There is a particular problem in regard to out-of-area provision. Perhaps it is most obvious in places such as inner London, which contains a large number of LEAs that are close to each other, but it also exists in counties such as mine. Buckinghamshire is long and thin, and its arterial routes tend to run east-west across the county rather than north-south between the major towns. Many parents choose to take their children to a pre-school institution just across the county or borough boundary.

Having studied the Government's circular, I am not sure how they propose to deal with the problem. The circular seems to suggest that an LEA should consider adding to its list providers in neighbouring local authority areas that have taught pupils from that LEA, but I wonder whether that recommendation is enough. There still seems to be a risk that an LEA might, for its own financial reasons, try to restrict parental choice, and insist on including on its list only the institutions that fall within its boundaries.

That would be regrettable. Many mothers, for instance, might want to use a nursery near their workplace—which might be across a local authority boundary—rather than a nursery close to home but remote from work. A number of women with pre-school children work at Stoke Mandeville hospital in my constituency. It clearly makes sense for them to take their children to a nursery on site, rather than taking them somewhere else, going to work and then collecting them later after another car journey.

In their circular, the Government say that qualified teachers should be involved in all settings providing early years education". I think that the Under-Secretary spoke about that when the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill was in Committee, and I hope that she will be able to explain what the Government mean by "involved" in this context. Are they suggesting that a qualified teacher should have to be present in every classroom where pre-school children are being taught? If that is the case, it would clearly present a problem for private and local authority day nurseries, for pre-school classes and for nursery classes in independent schools, which at present are not required to have a qualified teacher in the classroom all the time. I hope that the Government do not intend to try to squeeze those organisations out of existence.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point about quality. Is it more important to have qualified teachers teaching pre-school children than to have places made available? I should like the hon. Gentleman to address that quality issue.

Mr. Lidington

The key point is how we assess and monitor quality. Quality is not always ensured simply by having in the classroom someone who is seen as a qualified teacher. I do not wish to see places provided by means of a hypothetical conveyor belt, regardless of quality. The previous Government had it right, because we said that we would assess and inspect the quality of the education provided by the institutions and would base our judgment on that. Extra, inflexible rules about having a qualified teacher on the premises are unnecessary if that central principle, enforced through regular and professional inspections, is adhered to.

Many adults who may be doing a good job in pre-schools may want qualified teacher status but, because of family or other commitments, they cannot take the time to engage in a course. Perhaps some of them have followed other courses, which do not entitle them to qualified teacher status. However, they are doing a good job and it is for inspectors to decide whether the quality of an institution is up to scratch.

Mr. Willis

Would you say that it is essential for an A-level history student to have a qualified teacher, but that it is not necessary—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Under the procedure in the House, when an hon. Member uses the word "you", he is referring to the Chair.

Mr. Lidington

Qualified teacher status does not necessarily guarantee high-quality education. In independent schools in particular, many teachers who have not gone through teacher training courses teach well. I should prefer to leave such judgments to the heads and governors, subject always to regular and rigorous inspection to ensure quality.

My next point to the Minister relates to the Government's policy on child:staff ratios. In Committee on 13 February 1996 on the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, Labour Members, including the Minister, voted for an amendment moved by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), which would have provided a statutory maximum ratio of one member of staff to 13 children. Is that the Government's policy, or have they changed their views on ratios?

The single biggest concern that I have picked up from local authorities about the Government's longer-term ambitions relates to the funding of the scheme. We know neither the amount that the Government propose to spend nor the mechanism that they propose for the distribution of the money. When Labour was in opposition, it criticised the Conservative Administration for not spending enough and alleged that the £1,100 voucher would be insufficient to cover the costs of a pre-school place.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, who was then a shadow spokesman on education and who has now been banished to the post of assistant valet, said on 22 January 1996 at column 104 of the Official Report that £1,100 was not enough. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who was then the shadow spokesman on education, criticised the Conservative Government on their lack of provision for capital expenditure and on the lack of dedicated funds to train providers. That is recorded at column 44 of the Official Report on the same date. The Government's circular to chief education officers states that the cost of their proposals will be met "from existing funding".

We need to know more from the Government about whether they propose to divert money from elsewhere in the education budget to fund their proposed expansion, especially as they strongly argue that places should be provided free by April 1999 to every parent who wants such a place. I cannot see how that promise can be met, unless the Government are prepared to spend more on pre-school education, taking the money from other programmes, raising it by taxation or borrowing it as they think fit. Perhaps they are prepared to shoehorn pre-school children into extremely large classes, which would not provide the sort of education that we all want. As well as responding to that, I hope that the Minister will say whether the Government expect the money to be distributed to LEAs via the standard spending assessment or by some sort of specific grant.

I shall deal briefly with the Government's interim arrangements for 1997–98. I was somewhat amused to see that the certificates of eligibility are vouchers under another guise. It is hard to see how the Government's proposals will reduce administrative costs or bureaucracy, about which they criticised us so much. I have a couple of detailed points. I appreciate that LEAs do not have to have their plans ready until next week but, of course, they had to notify the Department by 16 June as to whether they intended to produce interim plans. How many LEAs have notified the Department that they intend to present an interim plan for 1997–98?

Secondly, there is the issue of the pupil-specific data, which the Government insist LEAs should provide. LEAs are being put under a duty to check individual parental claims for reimbursement, and the Department says that it will call for additional pupil-based data if it considers that necessary. That is considerably more cumbersome and bureaucratic than anything in the voucher scheme, which relied on checking providers. The Government's approach seems to expect LEAs to check individual families to make sure that they are not getting double subsidies, by having their children in a certificated or voucher-funded place one morning in a voluntary pre-school, and then putting them in LEA places in the second half of the week.

There is a particular problem in respect of cross-boundary places. I gather that the Data Protection Act 1988 stops the nursery administrative centre from giving a local education authority specific data about pupils being educated outside that LEA area. I wonder whether the Government have come up with a solution to that problem.

There is a shared commitment among hon. Members on both sides of the House to a further expansion of nursery education, building on the achievements of the previous Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), whom I am delighted to welcome to her new role on the Opposition Front Bench, will be forthright in seeking to develop Conservative party thinking on that issue, as on other matters of education policy. The commitment is to providing not just places, but places of high quality.

Many question marks remain against the Government's proposals. They owe the House and the country a much more detailed account of their intentions than they have provided so far. In particular, I am looking for considerable reassurance that the consequence of their changes will not be simply to transfer power away from families and back to town halls.

11.30 am
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for using this Adjournment debate to highlight the issue of the future of nursery education—or, as Liberal Democrats would prefer to call it, early-years education—and I apologise for wrongly addressing him before. 1 think that he would probably agree that it is one of the biggest issues facing the early part of this Parliament, and it is one on which the whole House could unite, provided that we get the right policies.

It is rewarding, if perhaps ironic, that, after 18 years of constant state education system reforms, the previous Government did not realise, until it was too late, the importance of early-years education. There was somehow a disbelief that, while examination performance was improving year by year, standards in numeracy and in literacy were falling and that a significant number of children were becoming alienated from the education system and indeed from society.

The previous Government did not seem to understand why that was so. The realisation that our education system needed not simply reform from the top downwards, but to be rebuilt from the bottom upwards, beginning with early-years education, sadly came too late. As a result, we have probably lost about 15 years of potential progress. Not only have many young people been disadvantaged, but the whole country is having to pay a price for that failure.

To be fair, 18 years ago, there was considerable scepticism about the value of early-years education or nursery education, but today there is almost universal acceptance of its value. The High/Scope research project by Schwinhart and Weikart in the United States of America demonstrated the significant cost benefits of early-years education. It meant less criminal damage and fewer court fees to pay, the payment of more taxes by better-educated citizens and the need for less remedial schooling, not to mention the enormous personal benefits in terms of the quality of life of the individuals concerned.

The dramatic conclusions of the evaluation of the 1992 key stage 1 national curriculum assessment project—the National Union of Teachers project—clearly demonstrate again the advantages, particularly to children from lower socio-economic groups, of having received good nursery or early-years education. Even the former Prime Minister was convinced that early-years education was important. At the Tory conference in 1994, he said: There are many views about nursery education. But my views are clear. I am in favour of it". To be fair, the nursery voucher scheme was probably this country's first attempt at a universal early-years education system. That needs to be recognised, yet, despite the research findings, the scheme that is in place has done virtually nothing to meet the needs of the nation's three-year-olds and little to improve the service to our four-year-olds.

The system was universally condemned when it was announced. The then shadow Secretary of State called it "absolute nonsense" and a "convoluted administrative nightmare". The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), called it "a total con trick" and even the then Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, the former hon. Member for Crosby, Sir Malcolm Thornton, cast doubts, calling on the then Secretary of State to abandon the whole idea if the pilot scheme did not work.

The pilot scheme was a qualified failure, but, conveniently, it was expanded in time for the general election, with vouchers appearing on the electorate's doorsteps. The fact that the hon. Member for Aylesbury needed reminding of his Government's policy on the nursery voucher scheme is evidence that even he was slightly embarrassed by the whole process.

The scheme guaranteed not a nursery place to every child, but only the provision of a voucher to part-fund a place, should a place be available. For children in areas where there was little or no provision or where top-up fees were not available from parents, and for children in large rural areas such as the one that I represent, where children are sparsely located and where there was little existing provision, the voucher scheme delivered little. It remains what the present Secretary of State called it at the time—a bureaucratic nightmare—and it has caused tremendous stress to primary and infant schools, which have had to compete for voucher money to help to offset the costs of enlarged reception classes. In particular, it has disadvantaged schools that simply do not have room to provide for additional four-year-olds and that, inevitably, have lost children to other schools, so forcing unnecessary budget cuts and staff reductions.

Given the failure of the present scheme, the Government's commitment to replace it with an improved model and the overwhelming evidence that early-years education is a "price worth paying" to improve the quality of our education system, the whole House was entitled to expect a more considered response from the Government than the Secretary of State's letter to local education authorities on 22 May. Despite all the rhetoric and all the criticisms of the previous voucher scheme, what we have, in effect, is a new scheme that offers places to the same group of children, for the same number and length of sessions, and with the same budget—the same budget is exactly what the Secretary of State promised in his press release.

So what has changed? First, the paper transaction of the voucher has disappeared, and thank goodness for that. Secondly, there is now an expectation that a place will be provided for all four-year-olds and that is an important difference in the Government's proposals; there is not merely an entitlement to a voucher that people may or may not be able to spend, depending on where they live. Thirdly, I welcome the fact that provision will be organised through local education authorities. It was interesting to hear hon. Members talk about unfair treatment by LEAs of private institutions, when we remember how grossly unfairly LEAs have been treated in the past 18 years.

I do not want to be entirely negative about the Government's proposals. There is merit in the proposal to seek comprehensive development plans from LEAs for early-years education. Such a move would establish the principle of early-years education within the overall framework of state education. That is to be warmly welcomed. The Liberal Democrats will also actively support the Government's drive to ensure that all places are of good quality. We shall continue to support an active partnership between the maintained, the private and the voluntary sectors. Indeed, I compliment the previous Government on achieving that with their nursery voucher scheme, and it is pleasing that the Minister is prepared to take on board that partnership, to work and to improve on it.

Despite severe budget restraints and its large rural nature, my local education authority, North Yorkshire—a hung council in which the Conservatives have minority control—has unanimously supported a bid to submit an interim early-years development plan. However, it has real concerns, some of which I shall outline.

The first criterion outlined by the Secretary of State in his letter to LEAs is that he expects them to make 100 per cent. provision by 1999. We support that vision, but in reality few LEAs will be able to meet that target. Two weeks ago, one of the Minister's colleagues said on television that he expected places to be available for all four-year-olds in 1998, but that is simply not possible.

Where would LEAs find the accommodation for four-year-olds in the spring term of 1998? The children could be accommodated in nursery or pre-school classes, but North Yorkshire currently has provision for only 35 per cent. of the cohort. The LEA cannot rely on the private or voluntary sector, because its provision is patchy, due to the county's rural nature, and it cannot take up the slack. Moreover, the £366 per child per term fails to recognise the true cost of quality provision, and certainly does not leave scope to fund any capital or premises expansion, and it is doubtful whether that would be available for 1998 or even 1999.

The second issue is quality. I have referred to the tightness of funding to support expanded provision, but what do the Government mean by "a quality place"? Does the Secretary of State believe, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury obviously does, that £1,100 a year is sufficient to provide a quality place? I reject the view that adults working with children in their early years do not have to be qualified, which is the suggestion that has just been made. The most highly qualified and highly professional staff are needed to provide that quality education which is so essential to such children.

How does the Secretary of State intend local education authorities to monitor the quality of provision in order to create the registers? In addition to LEA nursery provision in North Yorkshire, there are 24 private nursery providers and 252 playgroups, all of which are currently registered. With no additional funding, how will it be possible to achieve what the Secretary of State so rightly wants—quality provision with quality monitoring throughout?

The third issue is, inevitably, funding. Even if we accept that £1,100 is sufficient for an early-years education place—the Liberal Democrats do not accept that—two specific problems arise. Currently, the Government do not have to pay for four-year-olds who do not take advantage of the voucher, but in future LEAs will have to provide those extra places because of the 100 per cent. criterion, and they will have to guarantee that level of provision throughout the LEA. There will be a slight saving on the administration of vouchers but, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury pointed out, the new system will have an increased administrative burden anyhow, so whether there will be an overall saving is problematic.

Where will the extra money come from? In his press statement on 22 May, the Secretary of State made it clear that the £674 million available this year is all that will be available for next year. Yet, in a recent television interview, the Minister for Education and Employment said categorically that, by 1998, places would be available for all four-year-olds. Given the current position of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has said that there is to be no increase in spending and no virement from other budgets, from where will the money come? If the Government are expecting LEAs to find new resources despite their current funding difficulties, the first education provision battle will be entirely over the flagship of a new nursery or early-years education programme.

Will funding be universal, as with the current voucher system, and will the same principle of a per capita deduction in the under-fives standard spending assessment system apply? The Minister will know that under-fives SSAs vary considerably between LEAs. North Yorkshire has one of the lowest in the country. Unless there is a significant change to the principle and mechanism of the under-fives SSA, or a change to the universality of the value of each place, North Yorkshire will be significantly disadvantaged in its drive to create what the Secretary of State so rightly wants.

The Liberal Democrats accept the need for a quality system of early-years education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want their children to participate. We firmly believe that a quality early-years education programme needs to recognise the essential difference between early-years education and primary education, particularly the work done in reception classes. If we are to have only extended reception classes to take in all four-year-olds, the new system will be as flawed as the current system.

During the general election campaign, early-years education was the Liberal Democrats' first priority. Before anyone reminds me, yes, our proposals would cost some £200 million in the first year and, yes, we do believe that we must be open and honest and say that we would fund that through taxation.

The reality is that we cannot have a quality early-years education system on the cheap. If the Government propose simply to replicate the voucher system under a different name, the Secretary of State's comments to the House on 21 November 1995 may well be thrown back in his face.

11.46 am
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I welcome the debate on a most important area of education. I share the concerns of my hon. Friends that not a single Government Back Bencher is present. If the statistics are correct, the education professionals who have joined the Labour Benches far outnumber those on the Conservative Benches. Moreover, the Prime Minister, when asked about his policies during the election, summed them up by saying, "Education, education, education." Obviously, that did not include pre-school education.

I am committed to the concept of nursery education. Not only have I had three children who have gone through a nursery school, but so committed am I that, when my last child was there, I agreed to be a parent governor. For the past 16 years, I have been the chairman of governors of a state nursery school not half a mile from the House.

It is a school which, on successive inspections, inspectors have described as a centre of excellence. It is one which I am glad to say has benefited from a committed local authority, the Conservative-controlled City of Westminster, which was committed even before the previous Government's nursery education proposals to providing nursery education for all three and four-year-olds within the city of Westminster. Perhaps I should not say too much, but we receive funding from the city of Westminster which averages slightly more than £5,000 per full-time pupil equivalent.

However, I do not believe that there is a division between Conservative Members and those few on the Government Benches in the desired goals of the debate. When she was Secretary of State for Education and Science in the early 1970s, Baroness Thatcher was committed to nursery education for all. But the last Government did something about it. The framework was established by the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in a speech in October 1974. He said: Because any additional publicly-funded provision must be of high quality, it must promote diversity and parental choice. And it must be carefully targeted in a way that expands, and does not crowd out, the private and voluntary provision we have at present". The nursery voucher scheme broke new ground in education. It provided a unique system of parental choice and control and equal treatment and equal access to funds for the state, voluntary and private sectors. For the first time, it introduced Ofsted inspections to a sector that had previously been only partially inspected. That quality control laid down some desirable learning objectives—that all children should have personal and social skills taught to them, that they should all benefit from language and literary skills, that they should all acquire a basic mathematical knowledge and all acquire a knowledge and understanding of the world, including science and music.

I believe that the new Government share those goals. We can deduce from the Government's election manifesto that they are certainly committed to nursery education, but during the election they were also committed to the abolition of the voucher system. They have introduced no legislation to that effect, nor has the Secretary of State made a statement to the House. But the Government have not been idle. They issued a circular to chief education officers on 22 May, to which reference has already been made, and the Secretary of State kindly informed the press in a press notice, also on 22 May, of the Government's plans. I find it slightly disturbing that, in the eight weeks that I have been a Member of Parliament, the Government should introduce such important changes by circular and press release rather than in the House.

Let us examine the Government's proposal. The basic principle laid down by the Secretary of State in his press release calls for "a fresh start"—that is an interesting phrase—"in early years education." The Secretary of State continued: We are committed to providing high quality nursery places for all four-year-olds where parents want one. Of course, that is no different from the proposals and policies of the previous Government.

What concerns me more, however, is that the circular sent to local education authorities contained three different proposals. It required all local education authorities to tell the Secretary of State by noon last Monday whether they intended to introduce an interim early-years development plan. If that were the case, they had to produce the plan by 1 July—Tuesday of next week. The plan was to cover the period from September this year to April next year. The second proposal related to authorities with no plan in place for that period. Finally, on an as yet undefined basis, local education authorities, in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors, were to be responsible for the provision of nursery education in their areas from April 1998.

Will the Minister tell us how many local education authorities have said that they intend to submit an interim early-years plan for the period from September until next April? In areas where there will be no plan, has any estimate been made of either the saving or cost of cancelling the nursery voucher scheme, sending numerous letters and circulars to parents, sending application forms to all parents in non-scheme areas, issuing certificates to those parents—certificates which, as one of my hon. Friends has already said, bear a striking resemblance to vouchers—readjusting local education authorities' standard spending assessments and then repeating the whole process in respect of spring 1998?

The system proposed in the circular is confusing and bureaucratic. It states that in the week commencing 9 June, letters are to be sent to all parents, but there will be three variations on the letter:

  1. "(i) to parents of children currently using vouchers in local education authority or grant-maintained provision…
  2. (ii) to parents of children currently using vouchers in private/voluntary provision…
  3. (iii) to parents newly eligible for the Autumn term".
In the week commencing 23 June, pre-printed application forms are dispatched to appropriate parents in those LEAs not planning to submit an interim early-years development plan. In the week commencing 28 July: Eligibility certificates start to be issued to parents who have applied for them. During the week commencing 6 October, letters go to parents of children newly eligible for Spring term". In the week commencing 27 October, letters go to parents using certificates in the Autumn term who will also be eligible for the Spring term. Finally, in the week commencing 1 December, eligibility certificates for the spring term start to be issued and then letters will be sent to parents who applied for an eligibility certificate but whose child appeared on the same Autumn term class lists. That is the most confusing set of arrangements. One or two parents might have been confused by the introduction of the voucher scheme, but one or two thousand, if not tens of thousands, will be even more confused now.

By April 1999, the Government want all four-year-olds to have some form of pre-school education, as stated in their circular. As has already been pointed out, no extra funding is available. The date of April 1999 implies something of a slippage from what one deduced was the Government's original policy.

We all support the concept of nursery education for four-year-olds. We all support, when funding is available, the extension of that form of education to three-year-olds, but can we be assured that this will not be lost in the quagmire of bureaucratic control that has been introduced to replace what was a simple, easy-to-understand voucher system that is already in place and which could easily continue?

11.58 am
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for enabling this debate to take place. This is an enormously important subject to all hon. Members. Having said that, I greatly regret the fact that Conservative Members have outnumbered Labour Members by at least 2:1 and, on one occasion, by 4:1. It is difficult to reconcile that with the statements made by Labour candidates during the election when they parroted their leader's claim that Labour's priority was "education, education, education." Looking at the sea of empty green leather in front of us, one would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the landslide on 1 May was in our favour rather than Labour's. Sadly, that was not the case, but if Labour Members continue to ignore the needs of parents by spurning such debates, perhaps the position will be reversed before too long.

We have heard a great deal this morning about the importance of pre-school education. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for having dug out so assiduously the American research, which shows that pre-school education can play a vital role in the development of society as a whole. Those who have benefited from it appear to have a reduced inclination towards crime, as well as greater employment prospects and even increased chances of a happy, stable family life.

All-party agreement on the importance of wider pre-school education provision than ever before is vital. I believe that there is such agreement. The question is how that can be achieved. Lady Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education in 1973, committed the Heath Government to the provision of pre-school education. Given that there was only a year between her declaration and the fall of that Government in 1974, it is not surprising that no progress was made. Sadly, no progress was made during the more than five years of the last Labour Government. It is also a matter of some regret that, for the first 14 or 15 years of the last Conservative Government, no substantial progress was made.

However, in 1994, 15 years after the 1979 election, the then Prime Minister made a clear and categorical commitment—the first that had been made—to universal provision of nursery and pre-school education from the budget of the Department for Education and Employment. That commitment was delivered on time earlier this year. It is a matter of considerable regret that the nursery voucher scheme, which, despite its inevitable teething problems, is beginning to work well, seems to be falling victim to the Government's ideological obsession with stamping out parental choice.

There is a pattern in the Government's approach to education. Any policy that places power in the hands of parents and puts choice in the hands not of bureaucrats but of those who bring up children is to be eliminated. The assisted places scheme is to be exterminated. Grant-maintained schools are to be stamped out. City technology colleges are to dynamited. Grammar schools, no doubt, will be taken out and shot at dawn.

That is the future under the new Labour Government. Anyone who does not accept their local comprehensive school, provided by the local education authority, will have no other choice, unless they are on a salary similar to the Solicitor-General's, which we were debating last night. He can pay for private education for all his children on a salary provided by the taxpayer. Sadly, we are not all in that happy position.

We understand that the Labour party believes that power should be removed from parents, but why is the Minister seeking to put so much power and trust in the hands of local education authorities? Most observers of education in this country recognise that local education authorities have consistently failed those who depend on state education. Time and again we hear stories of failing schools, failing local education authorities, bureaucracy run rampant and money being grabbed and held at the town hall rather than being delivered to the chalk face, where it is needed.

Why does the Minister believe that the future of the critical expanding area of pre-school education should rest in the hands of local education authorities? What assurances will she demand to ensure that resources are not held by town hall bureaucrats and will be passed down to where they need to be spent—with the pupils and teachers?

We have also heard of the importance of diversity. When the Minister liaises with the local education authorities that respond to the Department's circular on an early-years development plan, will she be looking for evidence that they will seek to preserve diversity in provision in their area? Will she make it clear that she will not accept an early-years development plan that relies solely on local education authority provision and that she wants continued Church provision, voluntary group provision and private sector provision in every part of the country? Will she go beyond that and encourage the growth of such sectors in areas where parents currently have little alternative to local education authority provision?

What steps will the Minister take to stop what I think it is not too strong to call the blackmail indulged in by some local education authorities—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)


Mr. Collins

Yes indeed, that is the right word. They tell parents that, unless they sign up for reception classes at their local school, they have no prospect of their children being able to go to that local primary school of their choice at the age of five. In rural areas such as mine in Cumbria, that is a real threat over the heads of parents, because there may be only one primary school within some miles of their home. If they are told that, unless they sign up to the local reception class for their pre-school child they will not be guaranteed a place at that primary school when their child reaches school age, any element of choice is removed from them. I hope that the Minister will address that.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister should also encourage planning departments to be more sympathetic to applications for the conversion of redundant farm buildings in rural areas to provide pre-school nursery provision? There must be equal provision throughout the country, and rural areas must not be neglected.

Mr. Collins

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Like me, he represents a rural constituency. He is right to identify a problem in the planning system, which allows insufficient flexibility for the use of redundant farm buildings. I join him in commending to the Minister the idea that the Department should encourage local planning authorities up and down the land, particularly in rural areas, to look imaginatively at ways of providing additional facilities and buildings for the provision of pre-school education in as wide an area as possible to maximise parental choice, especially in rural areas, where many parents feel that they have no choice and sometimes look enviously at those in urban areas who, because of where they have chosen to live, have the advantage of more choice.

Technology has not been mentioned so far. Within a few years, all those in pre-school education will have been born in the 21st century. Anyone who sees advertisements for children's toys or visits a toy shop knows that one of the fastest-growing sectors in children's toys—certainly in educational toys—is equipment that enables even very small children to become familiar with keyboard skills and the layout of the personal computer, acquiring knowledge that they will need throughout their lives.

For those born in the 1990s and the early years of the next century, the ability to manipulate data and understand how computers operate, finding that a computer is a friend, will be as basic as the skills of reading and writing. I realise that the Minister may not be able to provide an instant solution, but will she consider encouraging all children in pre-school education to have some familiarity with computers? Of course they are not going to be producing programs—we shall not create the next Bill Gates at the age of five—but they could be familiarised with the size, shape and functions of a personal computer. That is an important part of the strategy for pre-school education.

Will the Minister also talk about discipline? The issue is important throughout the education system, but is particularly important among very young children. We are reluctant to think of children under five as capable of committing serious offences—I am sure that almost all of them are not. None the less, in preparing children for later life and for schooling, it is important that some element within the curriculum and the education with which they are provided should encourage the growth of self-discipline, a belief that they are accountable for their actions and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. When the Minister amplifies the strategy that she has provided for pre-school education, I hope that she will deal with that issue.

The final consideration that I wanted to raise has been helpfully previewed for me by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). Rural areas are in many respects different from urban areas, not least in the provision of education. The question of choice is inevitably different in rural areas. The provision of buildings requires flexibility in the planning system, as the hon. Gentleman said. There is also the issue of how one ensures that in providing pre-school education in rural areas one builds on the best of what is already there and does not stamp out excellent existing provision.

In my constituency the local authority makes high-quality provision for many parents, and I pay tribute to it for that. We also happen to be fortunate enough to have extensive activity among voluntary groups of all sorts. There is a traditional old-world approach that encourages involvement of community groups and voluntary provision. Such an approach has to some extent died out in other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that, when she conies to review policy on pre-school education in rural areas, the Minister will place importance on the valuable role that voluntary groups can play in assisting direct LEA provision or providing their own forms of pre-school education.

In conclusion, I agree with other hon. Members that there is clearly all-party agreement on the need for pre-school education and for appropriate resources to be found. There is a distinction between the Government and the Opposition on whether the Conservative Government's nursery voucher scheme should continue. The Government will come to regret their decision so swiftly to stamp it out for ideological reasons on entry into office. I hope that the Minister will give priority to the expansion of diversity, the transfer of power and information to parents and the provision of at least as diverse and excellent provision in rural areas as in urban areas.

12.11 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

"New Labour—because Britain deserves better." The first paragraph of the section on education in the Labour manifesto states: Education. It is Labour's number one priority.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Browning

The Whip is hear-hearing. He needs to hear-hear, because there is no one sitting behind him to hear-hear on behalf of the Labour party. If education were Labour's No. 1 priority, one would have expected the Government Benches to be packed today, but, as other hon. Members have pointed out, the speeches in this debate have come exclusively— [Interruption.] I can count. I must tell the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) that I had a grammar school education.

It is a disgrace that a party that purported to put education first has been the last—the last to speak and the last to contribute to the debate on a subject that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has rightly brought to our attention in the Chamber this morning. Together with my hon. Friends the Members for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), he has identified clearly what has happened in just eight weeks.

The Labour Government, in their intemperate move to overthrow one policy and replace it with another—evidently without any real preparation— have created great anxiety among parents of under-fives. The number of questions that have come from my hon. Friends for the Minister to answer shows only too clearly that there is no stability now and no security for parents of children under five. Many questions are unanswered. I shall give the Minister plenty of time to answer them, so I shall keep my remarks brief.

I want to build on some issues that hon. Members have raised this morning, especially the interim development plan. The letter to parents from the Department states that, in the absence of an interim development plan from the local education authority, the Department will issue certificates to parents. Is there any sense of permanence about that? Is it an interim policy? Can the Minister guarantee that, whether there is LEA provision or not, the Government will continue to issue certificates on a permanent basis to parents who, for whatever reason, cannot take the option of LEA provision in their area?

I should like also to build on the point about rural provision. Like many Conservative Members, I represent a truly rural constituency. Many of our primary schools do not have the physical capacity to build a nursery class on their sites. If the aim is universal provision by 1998 or 1999, how does the Minister envisage that capital funding will be provided for rural areas in which existing primary schools cannot extend their buildings?

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned the pressure put on parents by LEA schools to send their children to their own nursery unit in order to have access to a place for their rising five at the primary school. From a sedentary position, the Whip asked me to name names. In the absence of any support from his Back Benchers, he was compelled to make a contribution on behalf of his party, something to which we look forward.

I have already received correspondence from people in Cullompton in my constituency who are concerned about the pressure put on parents. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Devonport will answer the debate. From a sedentary position, he seems to have said more than almost anyone else in the Chamber this morning. Such pressure is of great concern. If LEAs put pressure on parents, they take choice away from them and make a mockery of what the Minister has said will happen—that the Government will continue to acknowledge a role for the private sector in nursery education.

Will the Minister also respond on the following points? I have noted with great interest the Labour document "Opening doors to a learning society", which was endorsed only last year in another policy document. It said: Each local education authority will have restored to it the role in the provision of nursery provision outlined by the 1944 Education Act. Will she confirm that the Education Act 1944 will be restored verbatim to the statute book? My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury asked about the role of an LEA and whether it would be placed on a fully statutory basis or would have an enabling role. It would helpful if the Minister would clarify that matter.

Another issue is the special educational needs of under-fives. The same Labour document stated: We believe therefore that each local education authority should identify special educational needs (SEN) co-ordinators for early years provision. Are steps in hand for that? What progress has been made and how will the Minister liaise with the other statutory bodies involved in SEN provision in health and social services? Nursery education for children with special educational needs will have a higher cost attached to it. If it is to become an education responsibility, will there be a transfer of funds from health or social services? At present, health and social services departments run some special units which provide some form of pre-school or nursery education for special educational needs children.

I return to the Labour document and the various points made by hon. Members about people who live in rural communities. It stated: Any extension of nursery education is of little use to children and their parents unless it is accompanied by practical solutions to problems, such as a lack of co-ordination of those with responsibility for under-fives care and lack of effective public transport. Are we to assume therefore that people in rural communities can now anticipate either provision for transport costs or funding for provision of transport costs, so that the Government's pledge to offer nursery education to every four-year-old can be delivered? We all appreciate that those who live in far-flung hamlets in rural communities face practical problems with regard to transport provision or costs. It would be helpful to know what the Government intend to do to help that group of parents to benefit from the pledge that they have made.

The Government have made particular promises about education provision for three-year-olds. We should like a progress report on how far the Minister has got with her analysis of how that provision could be offered. We should also like to know about the time scale and the costings so that we can judge how the Government will deliver that promise.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing this Adjournment debate. He has a good record of managing to secure such debates on education, and no doubt his contribution today will be the first of many. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on her appointment to the Opposition education team. I am sure that she will now be able to spend more time in this country than she could in her previous position. I hope that she will find her new job fulfilling and will enjoy talking about children rather than cattle; it is certainly a far more interesting subject to me.

This has been a good debate on an important subject. We all share the concern that has been expressed in the House over the past two years about early-years education—a worthy development here. The Labour party has no need to apologise for its record on nursery education. Although the previous Government did little about it for the vast majority of their 18 years in power, Labour local authorities have ensured that many children have had the opportunity to enjoy a top-rate start to their education. It was Labour local authorities, rather than Conservative or Liberal Democratic ones, that delivered the goods. We are happy to be judged on our record in local government and we will match it with a good record in national government. I am conscious of the time constraint, so I will try to say as quickly as possible what I intended to say and answer the points raised.

I confirm the importance that the Labour Government attach to early-years education and our commitment to something that was not mentioned—the need to integrate early-years education and child care and to give families with young children the support they need.

I am delighted to remind the House that the Government have implemented their pledge to abolish nursery vouchers. In a few weeks, at the end of the summer term, they will be no more. Few will mourn their passing, but many will rejoice at the fact that the money that was formerly wasted on bureaucracy can now be used to provide nursery education.

I did not recognise the nursery voucher scheme that was described by Conservative Members, and I doubt that it would be recognised by parents, providers or the former Select Committee on Education and Employment, which had a Tory majority in the previous Parliament.

Mrs. Browning

Can the Minister tell us the administrative costs of the scheme that she proposes? I am not talking about the inspection costs—the hon. Lady will appreciate that there is a distinction between inspection and administration.

Ms Morris

We have extra money, £100 million, which the Government have put into the early-years scheme in addition to that taken from local authorities through the standard spending assessment.

The hon. Lady will know that £20 million was set aside for inspection and the administration of the bureaucracy behind the nursery voucher scheme. We had a simple choice between spending the £20 million on the provision of places and their inspection and siphoning some of it off to spend on bureaucracy. The hon. Lady's Government decided to siphon some of it off to spend on bureaucracy, but we will make sure that the £20 million will be used to secure places for children. Between £5 million and £10 million will be available for extra places.

The voucher scheme had many faults—for instance, it did not provide any extra places for four-year-olds. In Norfolk, where one of the pilot schemes was conducted, almost a dozen pre-school groups were forced to close because of the competition of the market. It is no good complaining about primary schools that were forced to attract four-year-olds and changed their admission policies to ensure that they got those children, when it was the Conservative Government who advocated the market approach. That is what happens when one relies on competition. Schools will compete against each other and use any means in their power to ensure that they win.

For all the belly-aching that we have heard from Conservative Members, their Government took no action to ensure that four-year-olds did not join reception classes that were too large. They did nothing to stop schools saying that a child could get a place in a reception class only if he or she had been at their nursery.

The previous Government handed over pre-school education to the market—the market ruled, people competed, and the children lost. That is why the Labour Government are determined to offer early-years provision that relies on partnership and co-operation rather than the harmful competition that was fostered by the nursery voucher scheme.

There are many misconceptions about our early-years development programme and genuine questions about it that need to be answered. In the next few weeks, we will publish a White Paper for consultation. It will outline more than I am able to do today—partly because of time constraints and partly because it would not be proper to do so—our medium and long-term plans for early-years provision. Those plans will address many of the issues that have been raised today by Opposition Members, and I hope that they will excuse me for not giving them the detailed answers that they may want.

Our proposals were set out in our document "Early Excellence Centres", which was published in November 1996. They have the twin goals of developing the potential of every child and sustaining the family in a changing and challenging world. We have invited local authorities to submit to the Department their interim early-years development plan. Next week, we will announce the number of local authorities that have done so, but I can tell the House now that a good many have already shown enthusiasm about their potential role.

The role of local authorities is not to provide places within the maintained sector but to work with others in the private and voluntary sectors to secure sufficient places for the four-year-olds in their areas, and, later, for three-year-olds. Those authorities will have to provide the Department with an early-years development plan in accordance with that drawn up by the Early Years Development Forum. Although local authorities will have a lead role to play on that forum, it will include representatives of the private and voluntary sectors as well as health workers, parents and child minders. Those individuals have a natural interest in securing good-quality nursery education and care.

That is why we will not end up with a local authority-dominated programme. The very act of drawing up the early-years development plan will occur in consultation with all the providers. The co-operation and planning that was missing from the nursery vouchers scheme will be included.

Central Government will not approve any plan unless it reveals that a partnership will be established between the voluntary and private sectors. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has any intention of approving any plan that reveals neither consultation with those other sectors nor any effort to squeeze out from them all that they have to offer. That is our firm commitment.

We will withhold part of the funding unless such co-operation and consultation are apparent. We are deadly serious about that. That policy represents the way forward, for two reasons. Quite honestly, because of the low base from which we are starting in many parts of the country—in many cases, we are talking about Tory authorities that have not discharged their responsibilities correctly—we need what the voluntary and private sectors can offer. We cannot do it without their provision. Sometimes, their provision is more appropriate to parents' needs than is provision within the maintained sector.

We are determined to start meeting the needs of parents in the wider sense—not only with two and a half hours a morning while their child is educated, but with wraparound child care provision that can meet the needs of a family, often headed by a single mother who has to or who chooses to work. It is only when we bring the private, voluntary and maintained sectors together that we stand a chance, first, of securing provision and, secondly, of having the diversity of provision to meet those needs.

Early-years education is at the top of our agenda, and I am glad that it is at the top of other hon. Members' agendas. I look forward to an exciting and challenging time in which we can, at last, fulfil our wish to provide top-quality nursery education to the many children whose parents wish to avail themselves of it.

Mr. Lidington

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you initiate an urgent check into the annunciator system in the Palace and associated buildings? I ask that so that the House can be assured that the fact that 400 Labour Members of Parliament, including more than 100 teachers, were unable to provide one Back Bencher to support—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. That is not a point of order. There has been no indication this morning that anything is faulty in that respect.