HC Deb 18 March 1999 vol 327 cc1256-7
16. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on the provision of (a) playgroups and (b) nursery classes for early-years education.[75591]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

Early-years services are planned in each local authority, so that the maintained, private and voluntary sectors all contribute to planning and providing early-education places for four-year-olds and, increasingly, for three-year-olds. As I announced yesterday, we are providing a further £500,000 in direct help for voluntary pre-school groups and playgroups with short-term financial difficulties. That will enable them to play a full part in the expansion of places.

Dr. Starkey

I welcome the additional funds. In my constituency, despite the council's excellent early-years planning, playgroups and nursery classes in schools have drawn my attention to problems that they are experiencing in filling places. That is directly due to the aftermath of the nursery vouchers free-for-all. Will my hon. Friend keep the situation under review, and ensure that playgroups and nursery classes that are experiencing short-term difficulties have the finance to tide them over?

Ms Hodge

Because we wanted to escape from the free-for-all, we introduced early-years development and child care partnerships, so that there could be proper planning for places in each local authority area. This year, for the first time, each partnership has undertaken an audit of both supply and demand in its area, so that there can be sensible provision.

I shall continue to keep an eye on what is happening in Milton Keynes. I am currently considering the plan that it has submitted. I hope that the local authority itself will consider raising the age of admission to reception classes, if it has the capacity so to do.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In the light of what she has said, will the Minister confirm that she agrees that the contribution of the pre-school playgroups—including the one that services the children of Marsworth, in my constituency, which I had the privilege of visiting last Friday—is just as valuable as the contribution of school reception classes? Given the primacy of personal choice for parents, does the Minister agree that, at no stage and in no way, should any parents feel that they are being pressurised or corralled into sending their children to school reception classes, as distinct from their preferred choice of pre-school playgroups?

Ms Hodge

Of course we agree—the entire thrust of our policy demonstrates our belief that diversity in provision for children in their early years is absolutely crucial. Over the next three years, we shall be investing £8 billion in providing high-quality and affordable pre-school education, and £8 billion in early education and child care. The important thing is choice for parents, families and children. The choice should be theirs, and not be determined by a producer-led interest. I hope that, in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman will be supporting parents and their children, in ensuring that they are able to choose the setting that best suits children's needs.