HL Deb 02 December 1980 vol 415 cc354-60

4.32 p.m.

Lord Elton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 be agreed to. This order, which was laid before the House on 28th October 1980, during the last Session of this Parliament, amends the principal enactment governing education in Northern Ireland; namely, the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.

Two provisions which appeared in the published proposal for this order no longer feature. It was as a result of your Lordships' robust action that a parallel provision that charges should be made for school transport was deleted from the Education (No. 2) Bill. It was therefore decided not to proceed with those charges in Northern Ireland. That proposal has accordingly been deleted from this Instrument. The proposal also envisaged the removal of the requirement that by-laws made by education and library boards should be confirmed by the department. However my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is discussing with local authority associations the policy in relation to the confirmation of by-laws in England and Wales, and I should not wish to proceed in advance of the outcome of those discussions.

That brings me to the principal effect of this order. It replaces in Article 3 the duty of education and library boards to ensure that sufficient nursery schools and classes are available in their areas with a discretion to provide nursery education. The law at present in force in Northern Ireland has a similar effect to that in England, Wales and Scotland before it was amended by the Education Act 1980. Like Sections 24 and 25 of that Act, this article replaces the requirement on education and library boards to ensure that sufficient nursery schools and classes are available in their areas by a discretionary power to provide nursery education. In doing so it merely recognises what has always been the position in practice and understanding. Section 12 of the recent Act also provided that the discontinuance of nursery schools shall be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. It has not been necessary to take similar steps relating to Northern Ireland, because the establishment and discontinuance of grant-aided schools are already subject to the approval of the department under the provisions of Article 11A of the 1972 order.

I should make it clear once again that this legislation does not herald any intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to downgrade nursery education. Some people seem to think that it does, and I would draw to their attention the fact that the number of nursery places provided in the province has risen by 650 in the year to September 1980, and that that follows an increase of 625 in the previous year.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has taken a close interest in this matter, and he has written to me on the subject. His principal concern, beyond securing that nursery education should not be diminished by this order, has been to ensure that nothing shall be done that might hinder the continuance, or expansion, of the integrated nature of many nursery schools. His particular proposal was that where, for reasons of good financial husbandry and management, nursery provision was made by means or establishing nursery classes within an existing primary school, those classes should be managed as a distinct unit within the school by a separate management committee. The noble Lord is not here. I shall not spend much time on this point, but I would say that while I have great sympathy with his aims, we have looked at the means that he put forward to achieve them and have found them not to be practical. However, my department and I are well aware of the need to provide in nursery classes a place more sheltered than that in primary classes four to seven, and I do believe that the existing provision does meet this requirement.

I turn now to the removal of some of the department's supervisory powers over education and library boards. Noble Lords will appreciate that since boards are entirely dependent on the department for their finance, it is not possible for them to have the same freedom of action as local authorities in England and Wales. However, Articles 4 to 6 represent a modest relaxation of detailed control. Article 4 frees from departmental control the amount of fees which may be charged for board and lodging at primary, intermediate, and special schools. Article 5 removes the requirement that library fines and certain charges for library services be authorised by regulations. Borrowing of books will continue to be free of charge. Article 6 removes the department's detailed control over boards in respect of their organisation of, and participation in, conferences relating to their functions.

The rest of the order is largely of a technical or administrative nature. I do not think that I need to take up the time of the House in dealing with the detail of the articles individually. Very briefly, Articles 7 and 8 regularise administrative practices. Article 9 makes explicit provision for salaries and allowances to be calculated where necessary upon a basis determined by the department. That is a technical amendment which does not represent a change in either the policy or practice of the department. The other articles tidy up the statute book by removing unnecessary provisions. I shall do my best to deal with any points that noble Lords wish to raise, and I commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

4.37 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the way he introduced the order and explained it in considerable detail. I was pleased to hear the helpful remarks that he made about some of the Government's intentions concerning nursery education. The noble Lord has already indicated that he is aware of the widespread concern that has been expressed in Northern Ireland about the proposal in Article 3 of the order. I consider it difficult to reconcile what the Minister has said with what is contained in the order. I am not alone in that. The Minister will be aware that education and library boards have expressed great concern about it, and parent associations, the trade unions and, in particular, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation have all expressed opposition to the order, especially Article 3, relating to nursery schools.

If, as the Minister says, it is the Government's intention to promote and encourage nursery education, then I cannot understand why they should choose an occasion like this to remove the duty placed on educa- tion and library boards to provide nursery education and have instead an arrangement for a purely discretionary power. The Minister himself is an experienced teacher, an educationist, and a parent. Along with others, I was pleased to read what he said on 21st October 1980 when opening a nursery school at Bally-sally, Coleraine. He indicated support for, and encouragement of, this form of pre-school education, and said: This specialised nursery provision is something for which I am sure your community is grateful. I sometimes think that the Government and the department get less credit than is due for their treatment of this age group of children. There is already in the Province a strong tradition of sending children to school in the year before they reach compulsory school age". The Minister will also know of the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Department of Education's specially-commissioned working party on social priority schools, which submitted its report to him on 18th December 1979. Notwithstanding what the Minister says concerning the provision of nursery schools in Northern Ireland, this is what was said in the general findings of that report, at page 47: Within the structure of the education system the earliest stage of involvement is generally regarded as being nursery education, … The level of provision in Northern Ireland has lagged behind that of other parts of the United Kingdom, but we believe that the developments of the last few years have been encouraging. We have also been pleased to note the collaboration of the Department of Education with providing bodies to emphasise the needs of deprived areas and the attempt to ensure that these receive priority without curbing too drastically the expansion of pre-school facilities on a wider front". Then, in the recommendations, on page 60 of the report Recommendations 34 to 37 state: That the expansion of nursery school provision be continued, including the conversion of suitable accommodation as nursery units … That recognition be given to the development of good home/school relationships as one of the principal benefits of nursery education … That suitable in-service training be provided for nursery school staff and all involved with pre-school children …". My Lords, I think that what I have said about the concern, what the Minister has stated and what is contained in this order is also expressed to some degree by that excellent monthly publication of the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service called SCOPE—A Review, of Voluntary and Community Work in Northern Ireland. In their May 1980 issue they stated: Can anyone doubt that if the existing 'duty' is replaced by a discretionary power, that the Boards will increasingly view nursery education as less essential in terms of their obligations to provide education facilities generally. The value of nursery education both for the personal development of young children and as a foundation for later education is widely supported. In the 1978 Policy Document it was stated that 'The Government remains of the view expressed in the Discussion Paper, that the current level of provision for the under fives in Northern Ireland is so low that it is vital that all provision for the under fives is increased'.". I do not want to go on at any length with this particular subject because I think the Minister will be well aware of the opposition to this in Northern Ireland, but I would particularly quote from a memo, circulated by the Northern Ireland Pre-school Working Party. They state: Nursery education is a valuable and enjoyable experience for 3–5 year olds. It gives them stimulation, play opportunities and social contact. It is an important preparation for primary schools … In Northern Ireland we have suffered from a chronic shortage of nursery school places". Then, with reference to nursery school education and poverty, they state: Nursery education is particularly important for families on low incomes and in poor housing conditions. Our greater level of poverty thus necessitates a greater level of nursery provision. This is stressed in two recent reports on Northern Ireland; the Black Report on the law relating to children and the McIntyre Report on inner city areas". I should like to conclude by asking the Minister, notwithstanding his earlier, qualified statement, about what he proposes as regards the Government's policies for the future for nursery school education in Northern Ireland. Are there to be no more new nursery schools in Northern Ireland? That, I think, is a question which is occupying the minds of many people, particularly in the rural areas, where small schools of this kind are of great value to many local areas. Is there to be a closure of existing nursery schools and of nursery classes? Would the Minister explain in more detail, perhaps, what are the Government's proposals for the future of nursery school education in Northern Ireland? With those remarks, I withhold my support until I hear from the Minister in a little more detail what the Government's policies may be concerning this matter.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for explaining this order, too. I had anticipated that my noble friend Lord Beaumont would be speaking to it because of his experience on education and his interest in Northern Ireland, but, unfortunately, due to a tragedy in his family, he is not able to be here. I am glad, of course, that the charges for transport were dropped, as the Minister said; and that he feels that what is happening in relation to nursery schools does not mean that they are being downgraded. We have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, who obviously has a very different view of things. I can only express my own view, that nursery schools are extremely important, perhaps particularly important in Northern Ireland, and I trust the Government will do all they can not to downgrade them.

There are only two small queries that I should like to raise at this time. Article 8(2) refers to the requirement that: a board, in accordance with a scheme framed by the board and approved by the Department, … provide books and materials free of charge for all pupils", and it goes on with a reference to controlled grammar schools. This is a slightly vague statement, I feel, because I know that in my home county of Worcester, my home town, they may say that they have to provide the books free of charge but in fact they are in very short supply. What does it mean; and why is it being introduced (I am not quite clear) at this particular time of difficulty, anyway? The other query is a fairly lighthearted one, and it is: What is a peripatetic teacher?

4.47 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, may I deal with Lord Hampton first on this occasion, who, though we regret not seeing the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, we are very glad to see in his place. The answer to his question about the provision of books and materials in particular sorts of schools is really very similar to the one I am about to give to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, to the larger question about nursery schools. It is that we have all along been providing these books and materials free as if it was a statutory duty. In fact it is not a statutory duty. Therefore, we have been doing it, as it were, ex gratia. We are bringing the law into step with what everybody has hitherto supposed it to have been and behaved as if it was. So this does not evidence any change in policy.

My Lords, a peripatetic teacher is one, not so much who strides about the classroom talking with a piece of chalk as he goes from one end to the other, but one who dashes from one school to another where his skills, which are in short supply and usually rather specialist, are in demand. This is particularly common among teachers of music, where some of the more difficult instruments do not attract a great following in one particular school, such that the music staff there cannot cope—whether it is the shawm, the sackbut or the dulcimer, I do not know—and the teacher can teach the skill in this instrument at one school in the morning and then in the afternoon go on to another.

On the question of the nursery provision, I must again say that the situation we had hitherto was that there was a statutory requirement upon education authorities both here and in the Province to provide nursery education for all who required it, all that might benefit from it, anybody who was eligible, et cetera. It was entirely open-ended. It extended the responsibilities of departments, boards and local authorities virtually to the cradle. Nobody is disputing that it is a good thing to have more nursery education; and nobody is disputing that it is a particularly good thing to have it where the homes are disrupted or the social circumstances are such that the children are handicapped thereby. Nobody doubts that, on the contrary, where families are very small and sheltered it is a good thing to bring them into the socialising influence of a larger group.

What we are saying is that this cannot be provided straight through from cradle to A-level, as it were, at a blow. As I have already shown, we are increasing the level of provision in the Province. We did so last year; we have done so this year. There will also in fact be 100 places further (to answer the noble Lord specifically) later in this school year in the Province. This is not the harbinger of a great closure by Her Majesty's Government of a valued facility: it is a recognition that it is not realistic to try to provide an enormously increased level, which statute would demand if it was compulsory, but to sustain what we have and to progress at a respectable speed. The speed would be greater if we had more resources but I have already this afternoon had occasion to remind the noble Lord that resources are extremely short.

He will agree with me, I am sure, that the great thing at the moment is to get the parents in work and jobs ready for these children when they come out of their education. To extend education closer to the cradle is not a luxury; it is desirable but expensive; and something that we cannot undertake completely without regard to other financial considerations. That being so, it is proper to put the authorities, the boards, in a right relationship with the statute book and their jobs and say that they have the power, the discretion, to do this; but that they are not absolutely required to do that which they could not do without doing it at the expense of others of their functions for which resources are more urgently needed.

I hope that I have said enough to reconcile, in the words of the noble Lord, what I am saying with what the instrument does. I can scarcely say more. The noble Baroness shakes her head. There are more nursery places now than there were last year and there will be more nursery places later this year than there are now. We are continuing on the right road. I think the noble Baroness has little cause to shake her head. I hope the noble Lord will support me.

On Question, Motion agreed to.