§ 1. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
What progress he has made in increasing the number of nursery places since May 1997. 
§ The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)
The Government have created 120,000 new, free nursery places as part of the commitment fulfilled in 1998 to provide a free nursery place for all four-year-olds. We are on track to provide a free nursery place for all three and four-year-olds by 2004.
§ Dr. Turner
I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on being the first Secretary of State to recognise the key role of early-years education as the foundation for educational success, but on delivering investment in it. Having been on Norfolk education committee and served as its chairman, I know that the Conservatives singularly failed to do that, either in government or in local government. Does he acknowledge that delivering and extending nursery provision to all three-year-olds by 2004 will be challenging, particularly in rural counties, and that there may be a need for capital investment as well as revenue investment? How will he rise to that challenge?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that that will be challenging, but it would be especially challenging were the Opposition to win the general election, because they are not committed to spending the money on expanding nursery education. Their so-called promise on spending applies only to statutory schooling, not to education as a whole, and would wipe out the doubling of the nursery education budget to £2 billion. He will be pleased to know that £2.25 million of that will go next year to Norfolk county council as part of the early years and child care partnership funding, so that it and its partners in the voluntary and private sectors can deliver.
That is where the challenge lies—getting the partnership to work between the private and voluntary sectors and the local authority to ensure that, in rural as well as in urban areas, we can deliver on the ground what 1218 parents require and give children what they need to have the firm foundation for standards and opportunity for the future which the Opposition would deny them.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
The Government are to be commended on the number of nursery places that have been created. I welcome that, having been a member of the North Eastern Education and Library Board and involved in the provision of nursery schools in Northern Ireland. I also welcome the recognition that children in rural areas must have opportunity to benefit equally. However, what steps are being taken to ensure that there are adequate teachers trained to deal with children in nursery schools and that the right balance is struck between education and play?
§ Mr. Blunkett
It is an excellent question, which links with a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on which I did not have the opportunity to reflect. We need capital investment in providing the infrastructure—the facility—and we need to ensure that we plan the teacher training. In 1997, I said that the biggest challenge to delivering nursery education for all three and four-year-olds was not the commitment to money, which we are making, but the practicalities of getting the trainees in, ensuring that they have the competence to do the job and then building in the back-up and support staff. Therefore, we will have not only well trained nursery teachers, but well trained nursery nurses and child care assistants to provide what the Under-Secretary of State responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), calls wraparound care. That will enable us to link nursery education with child care—[Interruption.] I think that a message is coming through from Conservative central office with an answer to the next question. Like everything else from the Opposition, it will consist of more noise than substance.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
My right hon. Friend will know that the Education Sub-Committee launched the early-years report this morning. Although I agree that good work on early-years education has been started over the past three and a half years, with a massive investment, does he agree that there must be quality as well as quantity and that the challenge in the coming years will be to ensure that early-years education is an area of high training, high skills and qualifications and good pay? The people who look after our children at a most vulnerable, delicate and challenging age must be of the best quality and have the greatest motivation.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree that quality is essential and that is assured in respect of trained nursery teachers. As for back-up and support staff, we have given the new Learning and Skills Council a target of 230,000 places to ensure that such workers reach at least level 2 and that there will be a level 3 worker in the child care support staff field in each setting, as well as someone available for work with special needs children—the special needs co-ordinators, or sencos, as they are known.
I found the Select Committee's observations extremely interesting. I am pleased that the Committee agreed with the consultation that was carried out in the autumn on 1219 Government pronouncements on ensuring that learning outcomes reflect the fact that children at that age learn through play and that education and play are integrated in a common-sense fashion.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
Is it not true that the system is in crisis in terms of diversity in early-years education? According to the Government's own figures, there are 30,000 less pre-school and playgroup places for children than there were in 1997. In the sector as a whole—registered child minders, pre-schools and playgroups—there are more than 30,000 less providers. Most shocking of all, nursery school class sizes are larger than they were under the previous Government. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nursery school class sizes are larger now than in 1997?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who did Latin at school and as a consequence understands English, which is why we will make it more readily available through the internet.
No, I will not confirm the point raised by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) about nursery class sizes. I will not confirm that there are fewer places. There are more places in both formal and informal care. We have made it clear before that there were fewer child minders. We have never hidden the fact that we need to work with them to develop diversity and flexibility of care. There are more places in full-time and part-time nursery education. There are 170,000 more places for child care, which represents the creation of more places in 18 months than the Tories created in 18 years. We will ensure that quality and responsiveness are built into those programmes.