HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc358-9
2. Mr. Jim Murphy

If she will make a statement on nursery education in Northern Ireland. [26866]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington)

We are creating 2,200 new pre-school education places from September. That will be an increase of over 20 per cent. on existing provision. It will be the first phase of a planned expansion programme, targeted on the children in greatest need, which will be extended as resources allow to provide a full year of pre-school education for every child.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and welcome the announcement of new places for child care. I invite my hon. Friend to inform the House how those proposals link with the national child care strategy. Does my hon. Friend agree that every opportunity that is provided for the young people of Northern Ireland and their families is an opportunity denied to the paramilitaries?

Mr. Worthington

Well spoken. I agree that this is just the first phase of implementing our national child care strategy. We will be looking for contributions from the private sector for child care provision. We will be looking at the use of lottery funding for after-school provision and at using European provision for the extension of early excellence centres. We have to put more money into training for child care and, in all that, we have to bring together the health, education and voluntary sectors.

Mr. Beggs

I welcome the additional 2,000 places. However, does the Minister accept that there is less opportunity for access to nursery education in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in Great Britain, despite the fact that we have good quality nursery education? Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will seek to accelerate the rate at which nursery places are created in Northern Ireland so that there is parity of opportunity for our young children?

Mr. Worthington

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expression of pleasure at the expansion of over 20 per cent. in nursery education this year. I doubt whether he could find anywhere else that is seeking to expand by over 20 per cent. in a single year. Over the coming months we will be seeking, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, to provide a full service for families and young children in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Moss

Any increase in funding for education is to be warmly welcomed on both sides of the House. Does the Minister agree that it is the duty of his Department to maximise the funding receipts to individual schools? If that is the case, why is he proposing to switch funding for the voluntary grammar schools from his Department to the education and library boards? Does he not realise that that will result in less money going to the classroom and the imposition of a totally unnecessary layer of bureaucratic control and interference.

Mr. Worthington

The hon. Gentleman should get in touch. He left us with an absurd system of funding. He left us with seven different ways of funding schools for a population of 1.6 million people. That is unacceptable, and we are moving to a basis of totally fair funding. If children are in schools that have equal qualities and equal characteristics, they will be funded equally throughout Northern Ireland.