HC Deb 11 February 1999 vol 325 cc446-8
2. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

If he will make a statement on (a) his timetable for and (b) the means he will employ to achieve the doubling of the number of children in nursery education. [68873]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Over the next three years, we will double the number of free nursery education places for three-year-olds. We shall spend an additional £390 million. In the coming year, 50 of the most deprived authorities will receive specific grant, and in the following two years all authorities will receive the grant in addition to the standard spending assessment allocations that have been made to them.

Judy Mallaber

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the three-year-olds in the 50 education authorities selected for next year, who will be able to obtain a pre-school place, will be more ready and able to learn when they attend school? Does he recognise that, although those 50 authorities represent severely deprived areas, there are many smaller areas of deprivation in constituencies such as mine that do not satisfy the criteria used for funding next year because those criteria are based on postcodes? Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that those areas will receive that provision for three-year-olds in the following years?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is right that there are pockets of severe deprivation, which are at the moment being taken care of by a substantial increase through the standard spending assessment for early-years provision. Derbyshire will receive a 5.2 per cent. increase in the coming year. In the second and third year of the additional spending of £390 million—which, I emphasise, will be specific grant applied purely to developing places for three-year-olds and therefore not absorbed in the SSA—Derbyshire will receive the money it needs to provide the services that my hon. Friend rightly seeks.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that pre-schools—formerly playgroups—are often a preferable experience for children. They have better adult:children ratios, are more connected to the local community and, above all, give great encouragement and support to parents. What more can the right hon. Gentleman do to answer their concern that primary schools are putting undue pressure on parents to accept the maintained nursery place rather than the pre-school place, so as to deliver on the right hon. Gentleman's targets?

Mr. Blunkett

Provision for three-year-olds, as for four-year-olds, must be decided through the early-years development partnership, which deals with both nursery education and child care and in which the voluntary, private and statutory sectors are properly represented. Early-years development plans will not be approved by my hon. Friends unless they involve a proper recognition and development of services by the voluntary sector. We have been very clear about that.

In the last year, we have put extra resources into the voluntary sector in order to save, in particular, pre-school learning alliance provision, which has not existed before. That has helped, but there is still a problem. To overcome that problem, I have set out in the code of guidance on admissions, which has been laid before the House, a specific requirement for infant and first schools not to discriminate in terms of the placement of a child in early-years education. That will ensure that the entitlement is retained wherever a child goes, whether the place is a pre-school learning alliance or a nursery education place.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

Children's early years are crucial, in terms of both brain development and development generally. Given that, and given this radical and important initiative in regard to nursery education—and given also what the family policy consultation document said about the enhanced role of health visitors—can we find ways, through nursery education, of building more effective partnerships between parents and teachers and between families and schools, so that the sometimes unused resource of the family can embark on a better partnership with teachers for the benefit of our children?

Mr. Blunkett

We certainly can. Part of the role of the early-years development partnership will be developing the role that families can play, and emphasising the importance of involving families. It will also be possible to learn from the early excellence centres: we have already set up some centres, and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), will announce the establishment of a number of new ones shortly. We need to, as it were, cascade out the best practice and the lessons that have been learnt through the family literacy initiative, the involvement of parents and the experiments that have been launched throughout the country—experiments of which my hon. Friend is aware. We need to extend all that to other areas and other providers. Our policy needs both to be family friendly and to recognise the critical role of the family in the education service.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

The expansion of early-years education under the present Government is very welcome, but when does the Secretary of State intend to set targets for the universal provision of early-years education for three-year-olds—whose parents want that for their children—as promised in the Labour party manifesto? Does the Secretary of State agree that, while expansion is important, so is quality? Would it not therefore be sensible to establish a key stage for early-years provision, which is what we have done in respect of other aspects of school education?

Mr. Blunkett

I am pleased to be able to help the hon. Gentleman and the House. We have set targets that would give all four-year-olds access to early-years places, and we have achieved those targets. We are now setting a target that would give two thirds of three-year-olds free nursery places, and we will achieve that target by the next general election.