HC Deb 27 November 2002 vol 395 cc429-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

10.21 pm
Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise an issue of growing concern in my constituency, and I expect in the constituencies of many other hon. Members.

I was slightly surprised to be told that the Minister responding to the debate on behalf of the Government would be the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I mean no disrespect to her, as I know that she is diligent and effective—and I am looking forward to hearing her response. However, I am raising the problem of the huge bureaucratic burdens faced by pre-schools, many of which are imposed by the Department for Education and Skills. How can a Minister who does not sit in that Department really help to put that right?

I am talking about children under five, and some of them are as young as two. Even in this Prime Minister's Britain, none of them works and certainly none of them has a pension. There are five Education Ministers in the House of Commons. One of them, the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), is meant to have a brain the size of a football pitch. Surely he could dedicate just one part of it to pre-schools. However, although I look forward to the answer, I suspect that it will be that this is "partnership working between Departments" or even, heaven help us, "joined-up Government". If it is, I am not sure yet that I am in favour of it.

Pre-schools and nurseries in my west Oxfordshire constituency provide a magnificent service for children, parents and the wider community. The Government often talk about the need for diversity and choice. This is the one area in education where we already have it. There are, as it were, a thousand points of light—some provided by the state, some are private and some voluntary, and many are collaborations between parents and supervisors.

As Sue Harrison, of the fabulously named Blackditch Bunnies pre-school in Stanton Harcourt, explained: The culture of pre-schools is rooted in parental involvement and community spirit, not central control. I have been hugely impressed by what I have seen in Witney, North Leigh and elsewhere in my constituency—dedicated staff, contented parents and children getting a first-class foundation to their education.

So why the need for this short debate? I want to raise two important concerns. First, it is quite clear that the pre-school sector is suffering from over-regulation. Some of the best providers are in danger of being strangled by the red tape. Angela Buckingham of North Leigh nursery told me that she comes close to spending more time with the paper than with the children. Linda Trigg of Cherubs in the Wychwoods says that she is too often taken away from childcare because I am filling in the forms". Sue Moore, from the Farm House nursery in Witney, told me that eight and half years ago, when she set up her nursery, she spent two hours a week on paperwork. Now it is every day, and sometimes all day. As she put it: They want you to justify every time you sneeze. There are a number of specific areas that are causing this problem. Ofsted inspections have replaced social service inspections. They are much more paper based and they take place, in most cases, every year. Primary schools, by contrast, are not inspected so frequently. The response can take months. One pre-school inspected this January has still not received a written response.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

I wonder whether it will surprise my hon. Friend to learn what happened to my constituent Anne Beckwith, proprietor of the Discovery nursery in Diss, when she was trying to set up the nursery. Several months after she had completed all the paperwork that Ofsted had asked her to complete, several months after she had answered all the questions and, indeed, several months after being told by Ofsted that she had fulfilled all its requirements, she still could not get the go-ahead. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging the Government to look seriously at Ofsted's procedures, which are clearly too bureaucratic?

Mr. Cameron

I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend say that, because it accords with the thrust of what I am saying. It is all taking too long, the burden is too heavy, and as a result we are in danger of losing some very good pre-school facilities.

Pre-schools have to draw up dozens of policies and procedures. Although some may have only 20 or so children, they are required to have—at the last count—20 policies and four procedures, including policies on record keeping, equal opportunities, behaviour management and much else.

Another subject that arises time and again in conversation with supervisors and staff at pre-schools is child profiles. I know that they are necessary, but they currently run to 16 pages per child, and some pre-schools do not find them particularly useful. The preschool in Stanton Harcourt that I mentioned runs its own system alongside the official one. Every supervisor to whom I have spoken agrees that all the profiles could be slimmed down without child safety or protection being affected. Of course pre-schools must be equal opportunities employers, and of course they must have regard to such things as safety, but would not a single brief statement outlining the position be sufficient, rather than a myriad? I ask the Minister to tell the Department to consider its own role in creating much of all that paper.

There is also a degree of doubling up. Much of the form filling is so that pre-schools can become accredited. Many of the smaller pre-schools want that status because they do not want to be seen as second class; but they ask whether, if they are inspected by Ofsted, that is not enough. I would be grateful if the Minister could look at that specifically.

Sue Harrison wrote a very good letter to The Independent. I do not always read The Independent, so I do not know whether it was published, but this is what she said: The new accreditation process has just been one huge paper chase to prove ourselves in print. And we have to endure annual inspections when schools only have one every five years. My committee, all of whom are unpaid and are busy working mums, can't cope with it all. The staff are the only people trained to deal with it but I am paid £3,500 a year to work 12 hours a week, not the 24 which I am working at the moment to keep all those forms filled in … Just how has this paper mountain improved the children's learning and well being? I can't think of one instance. Our Ofsted health and safety check was a pale shadow of the disbanded Social Services one. The inspector seemed only interested in the contents of our bulging documents cupboard. The supervisors to whom I spoke singled out Ofsted for its habit of using four pages when just one would do. Adrienne Willsdon, the supervisor of Kiddiwinks nursery in Charlbury, said that the registration forms from Ofsted were like booklets, when in fact the name, address, contact details and basic information about the child were all that was really required. The paperwork is not just a burden on staff; it has a knock-on effect on funding and on governing bodies or parents' committees.

Many pre-schools have no funds for a computer, but how can they be expected to draw up policies, operational plans and the like without one? What happens is that that is done by the supervisor or the committee secretary on his or her own computer at home. If, by some unhappy chance, they leave, much of the information may be lost for good. All that is deterring parents from taking part. One supervisor told me: The nature of meetings has totally changed. It used to be discussing the rota for the cake stall and whether the hall needed painting, now it is composing policies and forms for which the committee don't see the need. The types of paperwork, the forms and the bureaucracy keep changing. The principal teacher of St Hugh of Lincoln nursery school in Curbridge told me: We fill in the forms, get it all organised … and then we have to start all over again. The second issue I want to raise is the concern that has been expressed about a proposal that all four-year-olds should go to primary school at a single point of entry. Although the proposal comes from the Oxfordshire local education authority, I understand that it is in line with Government thinking on the foundation stage. The LEA, which has, as ever, been helpful in answering my questions, listed a number of advantages, including the belief that the approach would give greater parity of entitlement to all children in the reception year. Having listened to the views of many pre-schools, I fear that it could have harmful effects, particularly for provision in my very rural constituency.

Many of the pre-schools in west Oxfordshire are small. Without the four-year-olds, the pre-schools in some villages may not survive. If that happens, valuable provision for children of two and a half and three would be lost altogether. One pre-school representative was quite frank, saying that if four-year-olds were absorbed into the school, the loss of funding would kill the pre-school without any doubt. Another pointed out that had the policy been in place last year, 20 out of the 30 children would have left in one go, threatening the viability of the pre-school. The Farm House nursery in Witney said that it might lose half of its 28 children. It said that there simply are not enough children of two and a half and three to go round. Pre-schools and nurseries could close. That could have knock-on effects on other provision in our villages.

A letter from the Finstock village hall committee makes the point about the Woodpecker pre-school, which shares its facilities: Insufficient consideration has been given to the viability of pre-school groups and the income of village halls, once children are admitted to the school from the age of four. I accept that pre-schools are not unanimous about this. Some that I have spoken to, particularly in one or two of the larger villages, believe that they will be able to cope with the change. There is also the question of whether the smaller village primary schools will be able to manage with the change once it has taken place.

As a briefing note sent to me by David Smith, the private sector representative on Oxfordshire's early years development and child care partnership puts it, these schools are unlikely to be able to make specific provision for younger four year olds either due to the limitations of their premises or because the number of children would not justify it. If younger four year olds are admitted to such schools they are likely to be taught in a mixed age reception class totally unsuited to their needs. He concludes that children in rural areas will be further disadvantaged and admission to quality provision will become a lottery. The LEA is clear that a change in admissions policy would create greater choice for parents, and create capacity for children to have their full entitlement in communities where there is currently insufficient provision. I fear that in rural areas the exact opposite might happen and that there will be less choice and less capacity. The LEA says that such a change will end the long standing problem of Oxfordshire's primary admission arrangements being out of line with its geographical neighbours". Arguments in favour of tidiness are never the strongest.

I know that it will be argued that parents have a choice. Yes, they do—no child has to go to school before the age of five. However, in the case of popular village schools, parents will always be nervous that if they do not take what is on offer when their child is four, they will miss the boat altogether. That point was made by one of the governors of the ACE centre at Chipping Norton during the public consultation.

I urge caution in this area and look forward to what the Minister has to say about the Government's view on the difficult issue of the age at which it is right for children to go to school. The proposal for the single point of entry for four-year-olds opens up the debate on what sort of provision is right for children. I tread carefully here—I am no expert. I have just the one child, and he is only seven months old. However, the points that have been made to me about whether the quality of provision in primary schools will be as good as what is on offer in dedicated pre-schools are worth making.

Sue Gibson from the Daffodil nursery in Long Hanborough, among others, expressed some concerns. The first is over staffing levels. In pre-schools, the supervisor-to-child ratio tends to be 8:1; in primary schools it is more like 13:1, with classes of 26 run by a teacher with a learning support assistant.

The second concern is over content. Pre-schools are experts in learning through play. Of course, primary schools that do not have early years provision will be able to develop it. However, there is a danger of reinventing the wheel or—to mix my metaphors and find a more appropriate one—throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The third concern is whether primary schools can cope with all the needs of four-year-olds. As many supervisors have told me, some four-year-olds are ready for school, while others still need nurturing more than teaching. Maggie McClay, from St. Peter's nursery in Filkins in my constituency, made this point with real concern. In small schools, will they have to share classes with older children? How will that work? Will children be moved too quickly into years one, two and three?

Another need that most pre-schools and nurseries can provide, but not all primary schools do, is access to outside space. A meeting was held in Witney on 8 October by the LEA to consult about this. I have a copy of the minutes. One pre-school supervisor who was there told me that, interestingly, none of the primary school representatives from west Oxfordshire who attended the meeting welcomed the change, and the minutes seem to bear that out. I know that this is a difficult issue and the LEA is still thinking about it. From what I have heard—and I have spoken to as many pre-schools and nurseries as possible in the past two days—the case for change is still to be made.

I would like to end with one further plea. Although pre-schools and nurseries do a wonderful job, as I hope I have demonstrated, they are often short of money for buildings. The LEA has told me that Oxfordshire received £220,000, this year and next, to increase capacity for the whole county. That is only likely to be enough for one project in each area. Clearly, if we are to embark on the huge change of providing a single point of access for all four-year-olds, there will be an enormous need for new facilities. That is why I say that it may be better not to change.

Many pre-schools still have to move heaven and earth to raise funds. One project with which I have been helping, the Little Oak pre-school in Witney, has a temporary classroom that is rotting away. We have had no help from anybody, but we have managed to find a construction company, Persimmon, which has given us another second-hand building. I thank it for its generosity; it is great that a company is doing something for a community like that.

The building is just the start, however. It must be transported, made ready and kitted out. The parents and teachers working on this project have shown incredible dedication. Their reward, and the reward of all who work in this vital sector, should be congratulation and support from both central Government and the LEA. I fear that, at present, those involved in pre-schools are instead suffering from over-regulation and change that may not only be unnecessary but damaging.

I want to end by quoting again from Sue Harrison's letter about her experience in the Blackditch Bunnies pre-school in Stanton Harcourt: Many fellow supervisors have left the profession to work at something better paid (like shelf stacking) and less hard work … and who in their right mind would volunteer to be on a committee now? Soon rural pre-schools will implode and leave millions of young children and their mums with nowhere to play and no one to talk to. I beg the Minister to recognise that when we have a sector that demonstrates such diversity, such inventiveness and such a high standard of care, we should do what we can to nurture it rather than damage it.

10.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing this debate on the important issue, as his speech demonstrated, of how we provide best for our young children before they have to attend school.

The hon. Gentleman started his remarks with a gentle suggestion that I might not be the appropriate Minister to deal with these issues. I want to start by assuring him that he is not being short-changed by having me answering his debate. I am not doing any of my colleagues from the Department for Education and Skills a favour of any kind. I am the Minister in the House of Commons who deals with sure start, early years and child care. That recent change was announced at the time of the spending review, along with many other announcements, so I do not criticise him for not spotting it.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the review across Government into this subject, which took a year, the results of which were published on 6 November. He may have seen those results, but, if not, I commend them to him. One of the findings of the review in terms of machinery of government was that it would be more sensible to join up—that hideous phrase—some of the work that is done across Departments in respect of the early years, early development and health of young children. As a consequence, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton was asked to lead an inter-departmental unit dealing with all of those issues. She is the lead Minister—she is a Minister in both the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions—but, as she is in another place, she cannot answer debates in this place. Consequently, somebody else must answer in this place, and I am that person.

The hon. Gentleman made two major points, and he illustrated, partly through their wonderful names, the diversity of the nurseries and pre-schools in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman's first point was about what he described as over-regulation in the pre-school sector. He quoted some of his constituents who work in that sector and who have complained about spending more time with paper than with children. We obviously take that concern seriously. It is not the aim of Government to bury teachers or pre-school staff in paperwork. That is not the main job that they seek to do or the main job that we want them to do. They have a legitimate concern that paperwork will take them away from their primary function of caring for and looking after the development and needs of young children, but it is not in the Government's interest to increase the amount of paperwork and restrict the teaching and child care that take place.

We are sympathetic to such concerns. Although we cannot control every piece of paper that the staff might be expected to fill in, we have responsibility for some of it. However, the hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that the regulatory processes of registration and inspection operated by Ofsted require some form filling. The Government do their best to ensure that that is simplified and that the forms deal with what is necessary. We do not want their number to expand just for the sake of it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to child profiles that were 16 pages long and that had to be filled in for every child. There is certainly no requirement for profiles to be of a particular length, but pre-schools must keep records on their children's progress. I hope that he does not think that such a requirement is unnecessarily bureaucratic. The profiles can be simple and straightforward, and 16 pages seem to be excessive. However, there is no requirement for the profiles to be of that length, so I hope that the example that he cited did not arise out of a central Government diktat that meant that the profiles had to be of a particular length and overly burdensome.

The regulatory processes are there to ensure quality and safety, so there must be a proper balance between the amount of the paperwork required and its purposes. If we get the balance right, I hope that no one will complain about having to do some paperwork. It is not the Government's intention that excessive paperwork should drive people out of the business of looking after children or providing pre-school care.

Mr. Bacon

No one would dispute the need for balance. However, does the Minister accept that, when proprietors have filled in all the paperwork, have been told that they have met all the requirements but still cannot get the go-ahead for their plans, there is something about the bureaucratic processes of Ofsted that must be seriously examined?

Maria Eagle

I shall say something about Ofsted. It has a role in regulation and in ensuring that children are safe and well looked after and that the premises are safe and suitable. It provides the quality checks that parents require before they decide to leave their children in particular places or under the care of particular organisations. Parents must be sure that the places where they leave their children are safe and have proper standards. Taxpayers' money is used to fund elements of early-years provision so it is right for the House to expect the money to be properly used and accounted for so that we obtain value for money and proper quality and care. That is why the regulations exist.

As I have said, there must be a proper balance. Ofsted took over responsibility for child care registration and inspection from local authorities only last September. That has some advantages in the sense that pre-schools now have to work to only one set of standards. Before that, there were 150 sets of standards that varied from local authority to local authority and their interpretation of the requirements differed. We are bringing together the requirements into a national standard that should make it clearer and easier to meet them. The system is settling down but I say to the hon. Member for Witney and to those who take an interest in the subject that we want to ensure that it settles down properly. We certainly do not intend to impose more regulatory burdens, red tape and form filling than is absolutely necessary to meet the legitimate concerns of Government, parents and taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was a requirement that all four-year-olds should go to primary schools at a single point of entry. He also made it clear that some of the changes considered in Oxfordshire have been proposed by the LEA. That is therefore a matter for the LEA, not the Government. If we told each LEA what to do, he would no doubt raise that in a debate on how Whitehall is trying to micro-manage bits of his constituency.

I am aware of the fact that the hon. Gentleman's LEA proposes to change admission arrangements for primary schools. He gave some of its reasons for that and he is rightly attending constituency meetings about it. The LEA proposes to move from a three-point entry of admission to a reception class to a single point of entry. It wants to do that for various reasons, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Government do not have a preferred best way of doing that. We laid the schools admission code of practice before the House on, I think, 15 November. The hon. Gentleman will find it useful for discussions with his LEA because it sets out the Government's suggestions.

It is for the admissions authority in the first instance to produce policies and it must consult. The consultation process in Oxfordshire has been going on for, I think, a couple of years. No one could argue that the authority is jumping to conclusions. There has been an extensive consultation, which is how it should be, and I understand that it will reach some conclusions in the new year.

The Government are fully committed to parental choice in early-years education. We are not telling authorities like the LEA in the hon. Gentleman's area that it should have a single point of admission. That is a matter for the local area to decide on after consultation. If a single point of admission is accepted, I do not deny that some parents will feel under pressure to transfer their children from pre-schools to schools, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The schools admission code of practice encourages admission authorities to allow parents to secure a place at a school of their choice and to defer entry. That should deal with some of the problems raised. Some authorities already do that. I am sure that Oxfordshire will consider all the issues before it comes to its conclusions. The policy suggested in the code of practice should alleviate some of the pressures on parents to get their children into a particular nursery at a particular time rather than leaving them in the pre-school.

Our aim is to ensure that provision enables local parents to choose what is best for their child. What is good for one child might not be good for the child next door, and we are trying to ensure that local authorities provide diversity.

Mr. Cameron

I am listening carefully. Does the hon. Lady accept the link between over-regulation, which is driving some of the small voluntary pre-schools to the wall, and the move to send more four-year-olds to primary schools, which are better able to cope with the regulatory burden? Perhaps she would like to visit one of those voluntary pre-schools with me to see the paperwork. My plea is that the Government do not crush those wonderful little gems because we will very much regret losing them.

Maria Eagle

The Government are certainly not interested in crushing gems. We are trying to promote and nurture diversity and choice for parents. I do not accept that the regulatory burden is driving schools to close. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government have an obligation to ensure safety and quality. These are, after all, places where parents leave their very young children; they need assurance about these issues and it is the Government's responsibility to make sure that they get it. Of course we are always willing to try to reduce the volume of paper. As I said, I think that there are misconceptions about what is required because the Ofsted regime is relatively new, and is bedding in, and we all need to learn lessons about that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to struggling preschools. I shall not deny that some pre-schools have struggled to exist, and some have closed, for a variety of reasons. We have, as the hon. Gentleman said, seen a steady shift in the balance of child care provision, away from playgroups and pre-schools towards the full day-care that parents want when they work full-time. We are encouraging pre-schools and playgroups to expand their services wherever possible and to provide child care over extended hours.

We have allocated £6 million of capital funding to help with such conversion—£3 million this year and £3 million next year. The additional funding from the spending review doubled provision for child care and early-years education. Overall then, funding in this field is increasing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that although that does not always trickle down into every little school in every little village, we are doing our best to ensure that there is diversity and choice.

We have no interest in trying to squeeze all pre-school and early-years provision into one nationally recognised and Government-preferred option, and we are not doing so. We are trying to encourage diversity and choice because that is what parents want and, in the end, that is what is best for our children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.