HL Deb 19 January 1994 vol 551 cc653-89

6.7 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland rose to call attention to the case for an increase in the provision of playschool and nursery education and help with the costs of child care throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in deprived urban areas; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on nursery school education and other provisions which include playgroups, with particular emphasis on the provision in deprived areas. I am no expert and I am gratified to see that a number of experts will be contributing to our debate, as will a number of noble Lords who are deeply interested in the subject. I count myself in the latter category. I am very much looking forward to welcoming the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Bath. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich has indicated that if it is at all possible he would like to say a few words in the "gap" before the Front-Bench responses. I am very much looking forward to hearing him.

The context for this debate is that, in my view, children in this country start their formal school life probably at too low a level. Others may disagree with me on that point. The level varies from country to country. The categories of provision which precede formal schooling fall into two main classes: nursery school and playgroup; but there are also three others: primary school reception classes, local education authority day care and private child care. Levels of publicly funded provision over that whole range are low.

I do not think that we should be too timid or too shy to compare ourselves with other countries now that we are more firmly in Europe. Compared with France and Belgium, for example, which are extreme examples, we do not do at all well. Both those countries have funded provision of the nursery education type for 95 per cent. of children aged three and four, and there is 20 per cent. provision for the under-threes. In this country, education authority-funded nursery provision is available to only 25 per cent. of three and four year-olds. What is important is that most of that is part time only, and continuity of cash funding for that provision is not assured. The majority of children in that age group use playgroups. They are run voluntarily. Whereas nearly 60 per cent. of children in that age group attend playgroups, there is provision for only about 35 per cent., which of course implies that places are shared. Children can expect to have about two sessions a week, if they are lucky. There is not a great deal of choice for parents. They take roughly what they can get. Demand far outstrips supply.

The reasons for most parents agreeing that such provision is necessary vary between the two groups—the better off and the not so well off. Better-off parents tend to want to send their children to whatever may be available so that their children can make contact with others socially and be better equipped to go on to school. For poorer parents, particularly those in deprived areas, the reason is often merely to provide care for their children when they work or study or even, in some cases, and far too many cases, when the parent is too exhausted and under too much stress to carry on and wants somewhere to leave the child.

The different types of pre-school provision have different aims and purposes. They are open for different hours; they make different charges to parents; they are staffed by workers with different training and conditions of service, and so on. Of course they are used by children from different backgrounds with different needs. Local authority day nurseries are primarily for children in need. Private nurseries and childminders are for the children of working parents. Part-time nursery education in some areas and play groups are for children of parents for whom part-time provision is convenient or who cannot find full-time places.

I do not believe that there is any great argument about the need for the provision. There is general consensus in the country on that. The difficulty arises over what kind of provision there should be and how it should be funded. The arguments are strong and have been expressed in many powerful quarters. In the past 10 years the number of women in this country with children under five who work has increased enormously. It has increased from about 25 per cent. to nearly 50 per cent., and some 12 per cent. of children under five live with one parent only. Of course in some areas that concentration of single parents is much higher. The number of children who live below the perceived poverty line—one which we all accept—has increased from 10 per cent. to nearer 25 per cent. All those factors make it clear that there is a need for day care and early pre-education.

The Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts of the other place reported on this subject in 1989. It made some interesting comments, but I shall not go into them in detail. It emphasised the great pressure that there is on parents, and the increase in the numbers of families where both parents work. That means that the family has less time to focus on the development of children. I believe that that is true and that no one would argue with it. The stimulus for children under five, whether it is provided in a play group or nursery, is important. Few people would disagree with that. In fact when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Secretary of State for Education some 22 years ago she drew attention to that fact. Other reports, especially the Rumbold Report, confirm what I have said and emphasise that the behaviour patterns which are established in the first years of a child's life are essential for providing a firm basis upon which a proper education structure can be built.

I do not believe that we need to go into the arguments for such provision, although other noble Lords may stress and expand upon what I have said. The Warnock Report pointed out that one in five children between the ages of three and five need some kind of specialist help. Those special needs are identified at nursery age. Children who do not have access to such provision could be damaged enormously later in life as a result of the enormous stresses which follow in the family.

One of the most conclusive studies, although in our country we are always wary about experiments in the United States, was one where 126 children from a poor, black neighbourhood took part in a high quality nursery programme. That is generally known among experts now as the High/Scope Programme. They became disenchanted because when the children reached the age of 11 there was no clearly identifiable link between their behaviour then and the nursery school education they had had, but at 19 there were some remarkable results. Compared with other children, they had done much better in school and were much more likely to have gone on to higher and further education and to have jobs. People conducting the experiment made the point that those children were less likely to get into trouble with the police and the girls were less likely to have unwanted pregnancies. As is typical of an American report of that kind, they gave the financial benefits which were estimated to be a 7 dollar return for every dollar invested. That is a long-term experiment which has produced some interesting information.

Nursery school education is favoured above most other forms of pre-school provision; sometimes, I believe, rather too rigidly, but others may disagree with me. The report of the Select Committee of the other place to which I have referred, rightly said that the case for education for the under fives should not be put merely in terms of the longer term benefits, but that such provision caters for the child's needs at the time and can be justified in those terms alone.

I believe that nursery schools and playgroups are complementary. I may be at variance over this with some of my colleagues on these Benches and with some noble Lords on the Labour Benches. I do not see that it is necessary to stick rigidly to a demand for universal nursery education. It depends upon how playgroups and nursery school education inter-react on the basis of particular needs in particular areas. For example, a Labour-controlled local authority has been extremely successful and progressive. It provides nearly all the nursery school education in its area, but, curiously, in the deprived areas, and there are some very deprived areas within that local authority, the parents have not responded well to the provision of nursery education. There is some hostility to the professional teaching which is supplied. It is the old fear of the superiority of middle class expertise felt by the deprived. In those areas playgroup provision has proved to be successful. An experiment carried out in Bootle was particularly telling. In that poor area 80 per cent. of the mothers were single; but, as a result of inspired voluntary help, they became involved and the effect on them and their children was truly dramatic.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has a great deal of experience of playgroup education. She knows of a promising playgroup which existed in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Although it was proving to be of great benefit, the funding was taken away, rather like the Bootle experiment. The local authority considered that there were other priorities for the funding; probably nursery education.

I am no expert on the subject. I have five children and so I suppose that gives me some right to speak on this matter. My youngest child is coming up to nursery school age. I have been fathering children over the past three decades and have seen many changes. There have been a lot of changes in the language and I find it difficult to understand much of my brief. What we said in the 1960s is now described in a different way. We no longer talk about working-class people but about people living in deprived areas.

I am optimistic; there is a lot in modern life that is extremely good. We are excellent at talking ourselves down and saying how bad everything is but there is a great spirit in this country as regards young children. There is a universal energy there that wants to put things right. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will tell us the Government's views and intentions on this matter. I am sure that they will be comforting to us.

Time is short and therefore I shall not deal with the other types of care. They are minor compared with these two main types. The quality of provision is constantly improving, in particular that of playgroups, and more training is available. However, as always there is a great deal of confusion about the Government's policy. That may be due to the fact that the Prime Minister, for whom I have great regard in many ways, appears to get his messages confused, whether it is about back to basics or whatever. If he had said he was going back to basics on education, "full stop", I would have supported him all the way. But he allowed himself to be misinterpreted and allowed some dangerous new ideas to be introduced.

Will the Minister tell us whether the argument between the Prime Minister and Secretary of State exists or whether it is a figment of the imagination of the national press? The noble Baroness nodded, and I expected her to do that. However, her right honourable friend has somewhat distorted the figures for nursery education because he has added to the figures for provision other items which are not nursery education, and that is misleading. He has produced a figure of about 55 per cent., which is incorrect. The figure is about 25 per cent., and therefore the Minister has introduced some items which are not nursery education. I know that the noble Baroness will respond to that.

It is well known that my party was prepared to extract an additional penny in the pound from taxpayers which was to be spent on education. My party takes the view that nursery education and other provisions should be provided properly and imaginatively and that money should be spent on doing that. I shall cut my speech drastically short and look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords who are more expert than I am.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.25 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing the debate. He always makes speaking well sound so easy and he is always well informed. We are all grateful to him for his speech, despite the fact that he had cut it short. On behalf of other noble Lords, I welcome the noble Marquess, Lord Bath. He has considerable interests in various fields and we look forward to hearing him speak on the subject for debate tonight and on other subjects in the future.

My noble friend the Prime Minister is on record as saying that nursery schools and schools for young people under the age of five are desirable when affordable. That was reported in the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps tonight we can send out the message that they need to be affordable now—as soon as possible and sooner rather than later.

The Chamber is full of academics who are brilliantly clever. They have shown the world how clever they are by becoming heads of various universities, colleges and other centres of higher education. But it is rare that we have the opportunity to discuss the future of small children. It is rarer still to have the great pleasure of being able to hear the Minister reply to such a debate. She has taken the trouble to come here tonight to do so.

In my view children between the ages of three and five are the most important people in our country today. We are educating, or are failing to educate, in various ways the children who will grow up to lead the country when they have completed their education. In my view, those are the most formative years.

I speak with a certain amount of knowledge because although it might not be of interest to your Lordships I live in a farmhouse whose farm buildings until recently were used for housing Jersey cattle. One of the big farm buildings now houses a nursery school for children between the ages of three and five. In order to obtain a nursery place at the age of three their names must be registered at birth. The school is run privately—there is nothing wrong with that —and is staffed by fully-qualified people. There is a long waiting list.

I have the opportunity of seeing the children and. the way in which they are taught. That is mostly by example and also by discipline. They learn from each other and from their adult teachers. Their behaviour is almost impeccable. I never hear any of them cry. They come out to play and kick the balls around and throw themselves around as all small children do. It is a formative part of their lives and I believe that we should plough more money into that age group as the future generation.

I was interested in the fact that the children learn by example and that they will retain what they have learnt for the rest of their lives. Yesterday morning as I was leaving my house I was interested to hear them singing nursery rhymes which I was taught 75 years ago. They were exactly the same nursery rhymes. They will teach them to their children. They will have the discipline which they have learned in a nursery school. My aim—and I hope it is the aim of the Government—is for all children to be taught by qualified people in nursery schools. If that is done, the outlook for the future will be much brighter than it is at present.

One of the problems as regards babies and young children is that created by one-parent families. We are all extremely worried about the increase in the number of one-parent families. As we all know, those families usually consist of a mother with one child. I remember during the war trying to bring up one of my children without losing my temper. I have two children but the one to whom I am referring is my first child who was always a thorough nuisance. However, she has grown up to be so beautiful that it does not matter now that she was a thorough nuisance. At that time there were no nursery schools. We had to look after our children without any help at all. I am sure that my temper became ragged and frayed at the edges, far more so than would have been the case had there been nursery school provision.

If the mother of a one-parent family is able to send her children to a nursery school, I am quite certain that her family life will be much happier, more regulated and more tenable for the children than if she had nowhere to send them during the day. Also, children from a one-parent family need to be able to play with other children. Children need encouragement to be able to play by themselves, but they need to be able to go out during the day and learn how to play with other children.

I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich wishes to speak in the debate so I shall cut short my remarks. However, I wish to ask the Minister whether she will try to encourage young males into the teaching profession. Some young children rarely hear a male voice at all and often they do not have a male teacher until they are eight or nine years old. It makes a considerable difference if children hear a male voice giving commands and making them obey the discipline of the school.

My main point relates to Northern Ireland. I believe that the state should provide mixed-faith schools for all three to five-year olds. That should be mandatory. All children in Northern Ireland should have to attend those mixed-faith nursery schools. The reason for that is obvious: the children of mixed faiths would learn to play together; the parents would come together for events such as carol services, fetes and other functions, which parents must attend. The parents of the children would then meet one another, talk to one another and, in some cases, they may even become friends. I feel sincerely that if we can make that provision in Northern Ireland we shall build a future for the very young children in that extremely unhappy Province.

I should like the Minister to take away the message that I hope that the Government will be able to spare the time in the foreseeable future to educate in play and discipline the three to five-year olds of this country.

6.34 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for initiating the debate.

For far too long child care has had a low priority on the political agenda. It has been understood only as a welfare issue which allows women to work and which protects vulnerable children. However, child care arrangements are an essential component of the economic infrastructure, something which the Government have consistently failed to understand.

Child care is an issue of the labour force, of family policy, of the welfare of children and women, of child development and equality. It relates to the work and responsibility involved in caring for children and meeting a child's full range of needs, and to how that work and responsibility are organised and divided.

At present, the division is unequal. Women carry too great a share, while society, employers and men carry too small a share. Despite the growing number of women at work, despite the fact that 45 per cent. of mothers of children under five are at work, and despite the economic importance of women's work both to the family and to the country as a whole, the care of working mothers' children is still seen as a private matter for the mother to arrange and pay for. The cost is a hidden tax on women.

Even taking into account the child care allowance announced in the Budget, which will provide limited relief to working parents, many mothers will still be precluded from working because of the cost of child care. As has been pointed out, that is especially true for lone parents.

For most working mothers, finding adequate and suitable child care is a headache. I have been through it; I have had the experience. It is rather like a national lottery. If you live in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire or Humberside—three Labour-controlled authorities—you will have a better chance of access to child care than if you happen to live in Somerset, Norfolk or Kent. The European child care network study carried out in 1990 identified only Portugal as having a worse record than Britain as regards the provision of nursery education. But Portugal recognised the problem and launched a national crusade to increase the level of provision.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the level of nursery education remains at only 35 per cent. to 40 per cent. There are child minding and day nursery places available for less than 10.5 per cent. of children under the age of five.

There has been discussion about playgroups and I have no wish whatever to denigrate their role. But it must be clearly understood that for working women who wish to carry out a full-time or even a part-time job, a playgroup will not satisfy their needs. Sending a child to a playgroup for two or three mornings per week still restricts a women as regards being able to work and contribute to the family budget. Nor do playgroups have the educational content that should be and is required for children of the age in question.

A quantity of care is not by itself sufficient. We are talking about quality. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to the Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, which recognised that nursery education and child care are an indivisible and vital part of national and personal development when it stated in its 1989 report: Education for under-fives can not only enrich the child's life at the time but can also prepare the child for the whole processing of schooling". The report further pointed out that, while early years education is of benefit to all children, it is particularly beneficial for those with special needs, those from socially or economically deprived backgrounds and those whose first language is not English. There is ample evidence of the effectiveness of good quality early education leading to improved educational performance and better social behaviour, particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The noble Viscount referred also to the High/Scope research undertaken in the United States. That showed that, for every dollar invested in good child care, some seven dollars were returned to the taxpayer by way of savings in the costs of juvenile delinquency, remedial education, income support and joblessness.

The lack of national urgency in Britain has led not only to a poor service but to a confusing array of services in both child care and education for the under-fives. That includes nursery schools, nursery classes in primary schools, day care nurseries, pre-school playgroups, child minders, family centres, out-of-school hours provision in schools, workplace nurseries, nannies and the invaluable support of family and friends. They all have a part to play, but the lack of proper co-ordination has led to considerable overlap and gaps in the service.

The latter underlines another key problem; namely, the failure to unify responsibility under a single competent national authority. I shall be interested to hear the Minister indicate whether there are any such proposals. Such divisions are mirrored at local level with the split of responsibility between education and social services. The development of more and better services could be more simply achieved if child care matters were the responsibility of a single administration. That administration would be responsible for co-ordinating the supply and funding of the services. I know that there is considerable opposition from the Government to the role that Labour-controlled councils play. However, I believe that the Government might do well to look at some of the provision being provided by Labour-controlled authorities and assess the impact on the local economy of those schemes which have been achieved by an imaginative partnership of public and private finance.

For example, the borough council in North Tyneside has attracted money from employers who have sponsored places in nurseries. In my home town of Leeds, local employers; have hired the services of the council to manage their workplace nurseries and to co-ordinate child-minding schemes for company employees. The Northam Neighbourhood Training Centre in Southampton provides a crèche dedicated to trainees' use which is funded jointly by a number of private and public sources, including support from the European Social Fund.

There is a growing consensus as to the need for a national child-care strategy co-ordinated by government. The organisation Employers for Childcare has stated that, unless there is a nationally recognised childcare policy and strategy, any efforts to enable staff effectively to combine work and family responsibilities can only be piecemeal and fragmentary". The National Commission on Education has called for a national strategy for improving early childhood education and care, as have the Daycare Trust and many other organisations working in the field. The Government's response has been to ignore that consensus and, instead, to attack those who are already disadvantaged by the lack of child care. However, I have to say that the Government's response is not surprising. Indeed, one can go back, for example, to October 1979. At that time the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, was then Secretary of State for Social Services—and I regret the fact that the noble Lord is not present in the Chamber today—and made clear his opposition to provision for the under fives when he said: If nurseries are made available at public expense too readily they can all too easily be seen as the expression of a philosophy which preaches that parents can do as they like and it is the duty of the state to look after children". I find that to be a most extraordinary statement. Again, in 1991, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, publicly abandoned the promise made in 1972 by a former Secretary of State for Education and Science (now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher) to provide a nursery place for all three to four year-olds whose parents wanted it by saying that he did not think it was a promise that anybody could sensibly renew.

It was therefore encouraging to hear that it is the Prime Minister's ambition to renew that promise when affordable. But, yet again, we have a different view being expressed by the Education Secretary, who rejected nursery education for three to four year-olds on the grounds that it is too expensive. I see that the Minister who is to reply to the debate is shaking her head. I look forward to hearing her explanation for that, as what I have said has been well and truly reported.

We therefore have to ask if the newspaper report last weekend under the headline, "Nurseries seen as a Tory vote-winner", is true; namely, that prior to the European elections the Government will initiate a campaign to boost the number of three to four year-olds in nursery classes and bring provision nearer to continental levels. We can only hope that that will be the case and that this time the view of the Prime Minister will actually prevail; that his Government will accept the need for a national strategy and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said, the need for the ploughing in of more resources to provide good quality nursery provision.

I hope that the Government take on board and understand that the effectiveness with which they deal with the reconciliation of employment, family responsibilities and equality of opportunity will have profound consequences for the economic prosperity, the social well-being and the quality of life for families in this country. Let us sincerely hope that, in the Year of the Family, the Government will take that challenge seriously.

6.45 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, have already mentioned the report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts of 1989 on educational provision for the under-fives. In its conclusions and recommendations, the Select Committee states: We recognise that in a world of scarce resources it is not enough to say something is very valuable, and we have considered it equally important to demonstrate why it is particularly vital now". Its reasons are, first, that the child of the 'eighties may be lonelier than in the past; families are smaller; and it is more difficult for children to play with others in public places. The second reason is the increase in the number of families where both parents work, and there is less time to focus on the development of the child. That seems to me to be just as relevant today, if not more so, than in the 1980s.

The Select Committee also strongly supports the place of the playgroup movement as part of the various forms of provision for the under-fives. In our mixed cultural society of today, it is important that children are able to play together and learn together whatever their ethnic origins were. My own children started their school lives in East Africa (Tanzania), then in Aden and also in Ghana where many nations were represented— not only the local population, but also from many countries of the world—and where they played and learnt together very happily. It also helps those whose first language is not English. They quickly learn the language through playing together.

More children will attend playgroups than any other form of provision; yet many playgroups do not receive a grant. The Education Committee of the North Yorkshire County Council values the work of the pre-school playgroups, especially in rural areas, and has given them a small grant which I am sure is very welcome. The NSPCC finds that the early years of education are undoubtedly enhanced by the diversity of ways in which the provision for under-fives is provided; for example, nursery schools and classes, local authority and voluntary sector nurseries, playgroups, parent and toddler groups, among others. The latter is an important one in rural areas or very small communities, where the toddler and parent are on their own all day, in helping the child to learn to play with other children and giving the parent the opportunity to talk with other parents.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, is to be congratulated on his choice of subject for today's debate as education is so much in the public eye at the moment. The Motion mentions the need for playgroup "and nursery education", in particular in deprived inner-city areas. I am sure that we are all agreed on the need for parent and toddler groups, as well as playgroups and nursery schools in deprived city centres. However, there are equally deprived situations in rural areas. They may have different needs in rural areas, but, nonetheless, they are just as real.

In my county of North Yorkshire, there are enormous variations of need to be met. In the rural areas when trying to site a nursery school, or playgroup, or any under school age group, account has to be taken of community circumstances, social circumstances, the availability of access to provision and family mobility. As in many very rural areas families often have no car, or one, which the breadwinner needs to get to work, or even use for work, and no bus service. For this reason North Yorkshire Education Department started peripatetic nursery education.

In rural areas where pupil numbers are lower and schools smaller, it would not be feasible to have full-time nursery schools or nursery classes in individual schools. They have therefore at present established four peripatetic nursery schools, which serve 12 village schools in total, each nursery school serves three schools. This provides for anything between two and five half-day sessions in each of the schools served. The number of sessions provided varies according to the size of the school. The arrangements vary from place to place according to availability of accommodation. So far the nursery schools have been able to use spare space in existing schools.

It is also arranged with local voluntary providers, usually a playgroup working under the auspices of the Pre-School Playgroups Association, to target the nursery school provision on days of the week, when any other local voluntary group is not operating, thus maximising the provision in any particular area.

Also in North Yorkshire, one of the LEA's objectives in trying to build a network of nursery schools across the county is to ensure that there is access to a nursery school for any young child with special educational needs. Special schools and units are inevitably thinly scattered in a rural county because they need a concentration of pupil numbers. A young child with special needs could therefore be many miles from a special centre, so that nursery schools or nursery classes in primary schools can provide great help and a starting point for such children. All this of course costs money; but may I ask the Minister whether the need for extra financial provision for these clearly essential needs in our educational system will be looked at sympathetically when the Education Bill goes through Parliament?

6.52 p.m.

The Marquess of Bath

My Lords, I would like to voice my support for the idea of universal nursery education. But I remain concerned over the choice in the direction which this could take, according to whether or not it should be introduced as an integral part of the state system.

My preference for the concept of state education, even at its nursery level, relates to the value I attach to a fully integrated society. Although I myself am an unashamed product of the private system in education—I enjoyed it greatly, and might even claim to have been successful while there—I chose the comprehensive system for my children on the ground of it being less class divisive. If we promote a system where the majority of those who are affluent send their children to private schools, while those who are devoid of affluence send theirs through the state system, then we entrench the class divisions in our society in a manner where they are likely to endure over the course of that entire generation.

Universal nursery education offers each community the possibility of a bonding experience, even when their subsequent educational tracks might differ. I believe in the importance of that bonding. I would be happier, of course, if the Government were to advocate a more prolonged period of shared educational experience, in that the bonding would then be even greater and the class divisiveness that much diminished. But I would like to think that whatever the Government advocate could be regarded as an initial step towards an eventual universalisation of the whole schooling process.

The bonding experience is perhaps more important still to those who are disadvantaged in our society, and I am particularly concerned for the welfare of one such group—namely, single parents: both single mothers and single fathers incidentally—where the existence of nursery education will be invaluable. The position of single parents is currently under threat, especially in the case of unmarried mothers. It might be anything from the proposed loss of benefits to the question of reverse discrimination in their application for housing. There is also a suggestion that the Government might be intending to force them into the monogamous fold with threats of disadvantage while they choose to remain single.

One of the threats is that benefits could only be paid to them via the grandparents, even when this might be seen as a denial of an adult's option to set up house for herself. Or there is talk about obliging single parents (as a condition that has to be met before benefits are on offer) to dwell together in distinctly unlisted buildings, which might otherwise be ready for demolition—a suggestion that could be paraphrased as driving them into ghettos. Then, on raising such a family within the disadvantaged environment that our society creates for them, they find their children categorised as potentially criminal. This may take the form of a statistical forecast, which is then offered as spurious justification for pressing the case for adoption, which goes against any mother's natural inclination to raise a child herself.

It is a matter of great importance to single parents that free nursery education should be on offer and readily available at the hands of the state. With all the problems peculiar to her situation, the knowledge that her children are in safe professional hands throughout the time of day releases such a parent to the freedom to get back to work. Even prior to nursery schooling, there should be day care centres and playschools which would furnish for her children the most appropriate arena for their initial bonding with society. When objection is raised as to the expense to the taxpayer on this issue, then the cost should be measured against the reward to all of us in the attainment of an integrated society, and in the satisfactory development even of its more disadvantaged members.

I would like to stress that single parents frequently do not choose that status for themselves in that it often takes the form of an unintended situation which arises to clobber them (so to speak) from out of the blue. When it does arise as something planned, then it should not be our role as legislators to punish them for not having chosen differently. A mother's freedom of choice as to the family form which might suit her the best should be respected, no matter what form that it takes. It is the psychological welfare of her children, even if we have personal reservations concerning the advisability of that choice, which should emerge as our prime concern. So it is especially, though not solely, in the interests of single parent families that I beg your Lordships to do all that is possible to accelerate the introduction of both day care centres and nursery education in general.

7 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, when I found out today that it would fall to me to congratulate the noble Marquess on his maiden speech little did I know that I would be able to do so wholeheartedly. We have heard a radical speech. Having followed his career, I know that he is a person with radical and different views. He has argued his case with such power and eloquence that I look forward to many more of his speeches in the House.

I shall confine myself to a fairly limited argument about the affordability of day care, playschool and nursery education. It is often said, "It is very good but we cannot afford it". About 10 years ago, when the noble Lord, Lord Joseph (then Sir Keith Joseph), was Secretary of State for Education, I remember the argument being made that the nation could not afford higher education. He commissioned a study by Professor Robin Marris of Birkbeck College who had recently returned from America. At that time the UGC (as it then was) put out a circular asking how it was intended to restrict the expansion in student numbers. Professor Marris, being a straightforward, good, applied economist with no political affiliation, i.e., he was not a member of the Labour Party, found that the return to higher education was 18 per cent—much higher than the return from any other investment that the Government could possibly make. It was possibly due to that that a few years later we saw, quite correctly, a substantial expansion in higher education. I have some minor complaints about resourcing but I will not go into them.

When we talk about affordability we ought to examine the question very carefully, because things are affordable if we take a broader and longer rather than narrower and shorter term view. I do not want to stick to "nursery education". I refer to universal provision for children between the ages of two and five to do creative and interesting things for a substantial part of the day. I am referring to active education of children under five. I cannot imagine that such activity is not affordable. I believe that not only is it affordable but that it will be massively profitable. It will help children when they are small and improve their performance when they are older—socially, economically and as members of the community. It will release their parents so they can do things that they wish to do. Last but not least, it will perhaps produce some revenue to the Treasury when those parents go out to work and pay taxes.

I know there is good will. I believe that there is less partisan division here than has perhaps been apparent. I believe there is a consensus among people that this provision is needed. The doubts are about affordability. I strongly urge the Government to have the question examined as carefully as possible. I know from studies done in other countries—for example, those conducted by the World Bank and other agencies—that this kind of education produces higher yields per dollar spent than is normally suspected.

Having said that, I will stop. I know that the right reverend Prelate wishes to speak during the gap, and I wish to give him time. I also apologise to the House that for the first time in many years I cannot stay to the end of the debate. Therefore, I beg forgiveness.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, perhaps I may tell the House a little fairy story. The story is about a king who lived in a country where the children were liable to get rickets. Being a generous man, he bought crutches for the children when they got rickets. One day, along came a doctor, who was a wise man. He told the king that if he gave the children vitamin D they would not get rickets any more. But the king said that he could not afford to do that; it would be much too expensive. He went on buying crutches. I think that some of your Lordships will agree that that was an unwise decision on his part.

There is ample evidence that good parenting of under-fives and their preparation for entry into school saves later social costs and wasted lives. I should like to quote the words of one or two people wiser than myself. I turn first to the report of the National Commission on Education by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and Sir Claus Moser. I quote from page 114: The research which has already been undertaken, supported by informed opinion, does provide convincing evidence of the beneficial impact which good pre-school services can have on young children's learning and social behaviour. Studies in the USA and in the UK have amply demonstrated this potential". I turn now to a report by the Family Policy Studies Centre, Crime and the Family, with which some of your Lordships will be familiar. The report notes (at page 11): Seven out of ten deprived children receiving poor maternal and domestic care before the age of five became delinquent compared with four out of ten whose parental care was judged to be good". The report goes on to say (at page 17): One early-stated conclusion of this report is that the scope for family-based crime prevention work begins as early as parenthood itself". The report also says (at page 23): David Farrington and Donald West in one of the most recent reports from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development call for a series of practical experiments: 'It is clear from our research that problem children tend to grow into problem adults, and that problem adults tend to reproduce problem children. Sooner or later, serious efforts, firmly grounded on empirical research results, must be made to break this cycle". Finally, to show the breadth of opinion on this matter, I turn to Relate, the marriage guidance counsel service. Their experience covers over 70,000 couples and individuals each year. They say: The quality of the parents' relationship in a family is crucial to their capacity to provide effective parenting … there is now plenty of evidence of the correlations between the quality of parenting and juvenile crime". The consistent theme of these reports is the need for universal affordable access to pre-school education of high quality in partnership with parents. The problem is cost. I found the evidence on cost confusing, and it took me a little time to discover why. Having made inquiries and discovered the underlying costs, I realised that some authorities were talking about the basic needs of care for the child whilst other authorities effectively talked about the needs of the parents.

Therefore I produced some budgets. I set out a "menu" of services which, in my view, and in the view of other experts, provide a better than adequate level of support in relation to the needs of the child. The average cost per year over the four and a half years before the child goes to primary school was approximately £1,000 per year. All-day care, calculated to enable both parents in the case of the two-parent family, or the single parent in the case of a single-parent family, to go out to work, costs four times as much.

There is a danger that we may be allowing the best to become the enemy of the good. I immediately acknowledge that allowing parents to go out to work when they want to do so is an extremely important political issue which needs to be debated. To a significant extent, it is a separate question from the welfare of the child. No doubt we shall debate that subject on other occasions. I do not intend to address it today.

Perhaps I may detail my menu of services for the child. From nought to one year, I envisage some home support; for the one to two year-olds, parent-toddler groups; for two to three year-olds, a playgroup or parent-toddler group; for three to four year-olds, nursery school; and for four to four and a half year-olds, nursery school. The total cost over four and a half years is approximately £4,500, or an average of £1,000 per year. When parents cannot pay, I believe that it is in the interests of the taxpayer to pay for these services, which are necessary to ensure that every child has a good start in life. We have adopted that principle in regard to physical health. Why should we not adopt it in relation to emotional health?

Investing in vitamin D is a good investment as compared with investing in crutches. Two noble Lords have already said that the evidence from the High Scope scheme in the United States indicates that there is a seven to one return on an investment in good quality nursery education. Furthermore, we have to bear in mind the costs of doing nothing. A Home Office working party report estimates that the prevention of crime, and losses due to crime, are together costing the country something like £18 billion a year. We know that the cost of the new secure accommodation that the Government propose will be of the order of £200,000 per child per year on recurrent costs alone.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to give an indication, if it is known, of the cost to the taxpayer of disruption in schools by disruptive children, of truanting, and of provision for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. Those costs could be largely eliminated if children went into primary school emotionally and socially adapted to get on with the job of learning.

Clearly, if support is given it has to be targeted. There are two problems about targeting support in the area of concern. One is the possibility of stigmatisation; the other is the importance of keeping an appropriate mix in schools of children from disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged homes so that we do not end up with all the disadvantaged children together. Such a situation is difficult to manage and is not in the interests of the children.

I propose a voucher scheme. Out of a total under-five population of 3 million, there are a little over a million children under five whose families are on income support. That is 35 per cent. Every child whose parents are on income support should receive a free moneys-worth voucher encashable only on behalf of a named child at registered facilities appropriate to the age of the child. Parents who are not on income support, and not disadvantaged, should have the opportunity of buying similar vouchers at the Post Office, or wherever, so that every child's parents would arrive at school presenting a voucher. There would be no social distinction. If all parents could afford to pay in that way, there would be a rapid increase in the facilities available. That increase would arise as a result of demand; and the problem of certain children being privileged and using up the available facilities would not arise.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will seek to persuade her eight colleagues—it may be seven—who have involvement in the issue that it is better to provide vitamin D than to pay for crutches.

Finally, I commend to the Government the proposal of the right honourable Member for Devon West and Torridge that, as a token of their good faith, they should provide user friendly facilities for children in the place of employment which is probably the most child-unfriendly in the United Kingdom—the Palace of Westminster.

7.18 p.m.

Baroness Faithful

My Lords, during the passage of the Education Bill through your Lordships' House many noble Lords argued the case for nursery school education. We were greatly encouraged by the understanding and support for the value of nursery education given by the Prime Minister.

I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, will forgive me if I talk about more than the nought to five year-olds. I make a plea to the Minister that, as they are about to leave school, we educate our children in what family life will involve. We do not give our children that education. Family life, and the care of children, is a personal affair. If it is a personal affair, people should know what is wise, right and good for the children for whom they may be responsible.

The noble Marquess, Lord Bath, spoke about the bonding experience. Perhaps I may tell noble Lords a story. One Sunday morning I was called to a hospital where two women had just had their babies. One was a happily married woman. She had had her baby at the same time as a very unhappy woman. I spoke to both as I walked out of the ward. The one woman had her baby in her arms, was crooning to it and was looking sublimely happy. The other woman's baby was in its cot and she was looking at it not with love and affection, but with appalled horror at what she had done and what lay before her, knowing that she had an unhappy life to face. She was not bonding with her baby; and I have to say that I needed to give her considerable care all through her life. Indeed, I am still in touch with her—and I am 83 and she is 40-something.

The bonding experience is something that children in schools should learn about. I believe that in every school human growth and development should be taught as a subject. Older children should learn the importance of bonding with their children by having a relationship with them, caring for them, loving them, giving them security and consistency and giving them education when they are small by reading to them. I believe that to be important. Older children should learn to use the toy libraries and look after their health. How can we expect people to have personal responsibility without training them for it? We do not train our young. By the same token, teachers in the teacher training colleges have given up the subject of human growth and development, whereas those who spend long hours with children should know of the need for bonding and care for children.

We should also know of the research being done at the Maudsley Hospital and the teaching of two outstanding psychiatrists, the late Dr. Winnicott and Dr. John Bowlby. We have not realised what it is for a child to be cared for by someone who is unhappy and at odds with life. The Maudsley Hospital has shown that, when a child is looked after by parents or a parent who is insecure and unhappy, that unhappiness and insecurity are mirrored in the child.

How do we know that? An extraordinary organisation started by the Rowntree Trust is called the Nurturing Group. With it, either a health visitor or a teacher will recommend a disruptive, unhappy child to the nurturing unit. The unit will not visit the child; it will be concerned not with the child but with the parents. Teachers in primary schools will say that, when parents have faced and understood their difficulties and gone some way towards resolving them, that in turn helps the child, which loses its disruptive and unhappy behaviour. These points should be known to our adolescents leaving school.

Many parents love their children deeply, but, if they have practical difficulties with finance, housing, work and relationships, the texture of their love alters. It is not that they do not love their children, but they do not have the love within themselves to give to the children. Therefore, the texture of the love is riot as deep and helpful as it should be and does not show awareness. Children in our schools ought to know that. Therefore, they should know what family life, marriage and the upbringing of children are concerned with. I make a plea to my noble friend the Minister, now that the Education Bill is being considered, that children should learn of these things so that they can make the right decisions. I say hurriedly that that applies to boys as well as girls. Not enough help is given to the boys in their late teens on what it means to be a father and to the girls on what it means to be a mother and what the family means to a child.

In this country an enormous number of organisations have carried out an outstanding piece of work. I should like to enumerate them all but I shall not. I wish to ask my noble friend the Minister whether it has ever been considered that the structure of education should be altered and that up to the age of six education for children should fall under the umbrella of nurseries and from six onwards it should happen in our schools. That is what happens on the Continent and I believe it is the right way to do it. We ought to work towards it and I am sure that many people agree with that.

My other point is that there are many outstanding organisations dealing with the needs of children. The parents must have choice. It must not be for us to put on to parents what they should do and how they should do it. I believe in nursery school education and that the pre-school playgroups have much to offer. I received a letter today giving the figures they deal with. I believe that some parents want to stay at home. A brilliant woman with a good degree said to me the other day in Oxford, where I live: "Why am I made to feel inefficient and hopeless because I want to stay at home and look after my children?" Everyone has the choice to do what he or she wants, but the choice must be based on knowledge, understanding and the teaching they have received.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, it is right that in the International Year of the Child your Lordships' House should address itself to the issues of nursery education and child care costs. In general, it has been shown, particularly in research in America—which is the best example of research in depth and was referred to by my noble friend Lord Falkland—that children who are exposed to education early respond more positively to education throughout their school lives.

It has also been suggested that children at this formative stage are highly receptive to certain forms of education. It is very important. For example, in the multi-cultural society which we now have, and which is becoming even more so, the ability of children to acquire facility with languages is considerable. This point has been excellently illustrated in my country, Wales, and I shall return to that later, save that I make the observation that we start teaching second languages in our country generally at far too late a stage.

The positive response of young children is not limited to the area of languages. Early exposure to education also shows advantages in many other areas; basic arithmetic and reading are two good examples. Numeracy and literacy in adults are very often the product of early training in both those subjects.

The American report to which I referred showed that the benefits of nursery education were not limited to the educational development of children. Children who had been to nursery schools were less likely to get into trouble in their teens and also stood a better chance of getting work after leaving school.

The social benefits of nursery education need not be limited to children. Nursery schools can offer an excellent opportunity for mothers and fathers to meet and develop an interest in their communities. The bonding is not confined to the children. Equally, the school may provide a mother or father with an opportunity to get away from a child for a brief period a few times a week.

Those functions may be of particular benefit to children and parents coming from deprived or unstable backgrounds. In such circumstances the nursery school, as well as providing a degree of stability and care for a child, may also provide an opportunity for tension and strain in parents to subside; thereby reducing the risk of such latent irritation manifesting itself in an unattractive form.

In some areas, a nursery can operate as an alternative creche, allowing mothers to supplement their income with part-time work and helping them to avoid the sometimes prohibitive costs of child care which might otherwise condemn them to a life of state dependency during the infancy of the child.

If I may, I shall now direct myself to the position of nursery education in Wales and the exceptional functions that it fulfils there. As well as the internationally recognised benefits of nursery education which I have outlined briefly and which apply as much in Wales as in any other area, nursery education in Wales can and does perform the highly desirable function of encouraging children to learn the Welsh language at an early age. Children become bilingual by the age of four or five. Learning the language is not a separate part of the nursery experience. Rather it goes on simultaneously with the learning activities common in any other nursery. Through all the activities of the nursery group—for example, playing music, listening, observing, discovering and creating—the children also acquire a mastery of language, and an appreciation that there is more than one language and more than one culture. That approach has been very successful with young children. Indeed, the younger the child, the greater is the hope for effective teaching.

Among other organisations is one called Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin—the National Association of Welsh Medium Nursery Schools and Playgroups. It has played a leading role in promoting nursery education for that purpose. The organisation is a voluntary body which charges children who attend its nurseries a minimal amount, determined in each case by its local committees. It has over 600 nursery groups in Wales attended by over 10,000 children. It should be noted that over 60 per cent. of those children come from non-Welsh speaking homes, showing the considerable demand that exists for such a provision. The greatest area of growth in that organisation's activities is in the predominantly English-speaking south-east Wales, where the call for more Welsh nurseries accompanies the development of several Welsh medium primary schools.

The playgroups and the nurseries meet daily. However, owing to a shortage of staff, space and other limitations, each child gets only two to three sessions a week. Statutory nursery education for five mornings or afternoons a week would offer considerably more contact hours with each child, perhaps in the region of 10-plus hours a week. The implications of increased contact time on the rate of learning are obvious.

Another reason for the adoption of statutory nursery education is to provide and improve the uniformity in the provision of nursery education in Wales. At present provision varies greatly from county to county, and policy can vary between schools in the same authority. For example, in the county of Gwynedd, in North Wales, if there is a viable group of children older than three, then nursery education is provided by local schools. That happens in about 20 schools in that county. Resources are supplied by the county council and children going to those schools get free nursery education. In contrast, children under three, or those who live in other counties, must pay to attend voluntary nurseries. There is little doubt that at present the provision of nursery education throughout the country is irregular and inadequate.

During the course of this debate I have enjoyed no contribution more than the exhilarating maiden speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Bath. He touched on an important matter. I could not help thinking as I listened to his speech—I do not know who coined the phrase, but the noble Baroness will know—that the language of politics is the language of priorities. The question for our country is: what priority do we give to nursery education? At the moment I regret to say that it is a fairly low one. Yesterday this House was concerned with great arguments on two very important aspects of he criminal justice system, in which I have been involved in varying degrees throughout my adult life. In my view, if one looks forward 20 or 30 years to the kind of society that will exist then, the investment that we make in nursery education is at least as important as any aspect of the criminal justice system.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Charteris of Amisfield

My Lords, I greatly enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Marquess, the Lord Bath. I hope that we shall often hear him in this House. I congratulate him. I also congratulate the noble Viscount on having introduced this Motion calling for an increase in the provision of playschools and nursery schools throughout the United Kingdom and particularly in deprived urban areas. I cannot honestly pretend that 14 years as Provost of Eton has particularly equipped me to be an expert in this subject, although we did have a school for some 30 under-threes who were on the campus. It was a great success and I used to visit it.

I am very interested in this question and I give the noble Viscount's Motion my full support. I am convinced that nursery education, which is a convenient blanket phrase to cover the various different types of playgroups, nursery schools and child-minders which are available is a thoroughly good thing. I believe that nursery education has been shown statistically to be beneficial, not only in straightforward educational terms but also in helping children to become better adjusted socially. If I may he allowed to put it rather more bluntly, when they grow up they are less likely to get into trouble than those who have not enjoyed nursery education.

That that should be the case is not in any way surprising. On the contrary, it is exactly what anyone who knows anything about children would expect. In good nursery education they are taught the very difficult business of getting on with other children and accepting authority. It is not possible for that kind of learning to begin too soon. What is more, what is learnt when one is two, three and four stays with one for the rest of one's life. The Jesuits have told us that if they can have a child for the teaching until he is seven years old, he will remain faithful to the Roman Catholic religion until his death. I believe that nursery education can help to make people good citizens all their lives.

Good nursery education can help the parents as well as the children. I do not mean that it gives them time to do a job outside parenthood. I mean that it can help them to be better parents. In good nursery school education young parents will come into contact with other parents and with older women who can give them good advice. That is particularly important for the single parent who perhaps has to live at the top of a tower block in a deprived area. In the old days the whole of life took place in the street, and one was always in contact with other families over the garden fence. Things are very different now. Life at the top of a tower block can be dangerously lonely.

If it is correct that good nursery education has the advantages that I have outlined—and all the evidence shows that it does—it is a pity that we do not have more of it. According to the statistics prepared by Kathy Sylva and Peter Moss in 1992, some of which have already been reported, Britain is way down at the bottom of the European league table when it comes to publicly funded nursery education. According to those figures, Britain has between 35 per cent. and 40 per cent. of children catered for. Belgium and France each have 95 per cent.; Germany has 77 per cent.; and Italy 85 per cent. Only Portugal, with 35 per cent., is lower than we are.

If we are to have more provision, it will cost money. But, as we have been told, research seems to indicate that it is not very long before one gets one's money back. That is simply because if you have good nursery education, you get fewer people in approved schools and in prisons. There are all kinds of questions about the form that nursery education should take. Should it be a part of existing schools or should it be separate? Should it be voluntary or should it be compulsory?

My own view is that it should be voluntary but available to all. I concede that if it is voluntary it may mean that those most in need of it for their children will not take advantage of it. But if it is made compulsory, I fear that the system will become entangled in a jungle of bureaucracy. For instance, I have heard that some excellent nursery schools had to be closed because the ratio of "loos" to children required by the Children Act has not been achieved. I feel that one must not be too exact or pernickety when it comes to "loos" for small children. I believe that a great deal can be done with pots.

I believe that I am correct in saying that there has never been a comprehensive review of nursery education in this country. There ought to be one which would make recommendations on any required harmonisation with what is now available and recommendations on what needs to be added, so that we are properly equipped with facilities for nursery schools. Those should be available for all. They should be first class. The system should not be over-bureaucratised. It should probably be run by a few professionals with a great deal of voluntary support from mum's army.

7.42 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Marquess, Lord Bath, on his excellent maiden speech which was both compassionate and courageous. We look forward to many such contributions in the future. They will be well received on these Benches, especially if he continues to honour us by wearing a purple tie.

I am also most grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing this important debate and to other noble Lords for their generosity in cutting short their speeches and allowing me to speak in the gap.

I fear that my contribution will be slight and not worthy of their generosity, but I shall speak quite briefly.

There are three kinds of argument put forward in this matter: economic, educational and what one might call social and moral. I understand that there are good economic reasons for increasing the provision for very young children, though I do not feel at all qualified to comment on that aspect. The educational advantages have been thoroughly researched and convincingly demonstrated. They have been comprehensively set out, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, in the report of the National Commission on Education. Those educational reasons will be very familiar indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I do not believe that there is any need to labour them at this point.

I want to speak briefly about the third factor: what one might call the social and moral aspect. There has been much discussion both inside and outside Parliament on the subject of single parent families. Most people would say that there is little doubt that the interests of a child's welfare are better served by an upbringing involving both parents. I hope that we would also agree that the encouragement of that natural care for children can more effectively be achieved by the provision of economic benefits to the married than by the negative device of penalising the single parent.

We might also wish to say that the care of a child up to the age of five years by one of its parents in a secure and loving home while the husband or wife is at work is the best preparation in early years for school and adult life. However, we do not live in an ideal world. The phenomenon of the single parent is a fact of life. We may regret it, but it is the reality with which we have to live and the situation that we are asked to address.

That leads me to my second point. Christian moral thinking is cautious about the concept of rights. Much of the talk about parents' rights is both muddled and morally questionable. When speaking of parenthood it is not the language of rights but the duties and responsibilities of parents which should be the guiding principle.

This is not the time to comment further, but the recent discussion about infertility treatment and embryo research has been dangerously distorted by talk of the rights of women to bear children. If one wishes to talk of rights in that context, the only legitimate use of such language is to stress that it is the rights of the children which should dominate all other considerations. Although the needs of parents, especially single parents, matter very much, I am sure that we all agree that in the Motion before us it is the needs of young children that must be at the forefront of our thinking. That is most certainly the priority for any Christian approach to these issues.

When Jesus admonished His disciples: "Let the children come to me. Do not try to stop them", He was rebuking those who found the children's presence a nuisance which interfered in the supposed rights of adults to His undivided attention. Jesus underlined the point dramatically: "Of such," He said, "is the Kingdom of God. Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall never enter it." In this area, as in so many areas of moral debate concerning children, the interests of the child must be paramount.

The noble Viscount's Motion calls attention to the needs of children in deprived urban areas. Social and moral deprivation is not always confined to urban priority areas. There are many poor families in which children are brought up in a loving, secure and disciplined home. Conversely, wealth is no guarantee of a secure and morally sound upbringing. Also, though it is not on such a wide or well advertised scale, there is real deprivation in many rural areas, as the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, pointed out. I hope that this Motion could be understood to embrace those areas too, where the problems can be very severe indeed.

However, the truth remains that in our inner cities there are worrying trends. Apparently there is an increasing number of such areas where children experience neglect and abuse, where there is no experience of consistency, affection, firm and loving discipline and no understanding of what is and is not acceptable behaviour or of what is right and what is wrong. Those are the very experiences that help a child to grow in mind and spirit and to relate to other children and adults.

Those are rights which children have. They are rights which, as a society that has a duty to care for its little ones, we have a responsibility to provide, especially when parents do not or cannot provide them. Where parents are struggling to survive, the lack of child minding, playgroup and nursery facilities makes the prospect of paid work impossible; and where the educational and social skills of the parents are themselves lacking, the peril to the moral welfare of the child is obvious. The effects are long term, as the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, pointed out. Studies have conclusively demonstrated that the influences received in the early years of childhood are formative into adult life. If those influences are morally confused or even depraved, the long-term effects on society are grim to contemplate.

There is already an increasing provision in the private sector, which is good. Few people are asking for wholesale provision of state nursery education. At the moment many of the parents of children most in need of that provision cannot take advantage of it. There is an area of serious need which can only be addressed by government action.

I repeat the question asked by many noble Lords this afternoon: is there a good reason why the United Kingdom should have one of the lowest levels of publicly funded pre-school provision in Europe? In response to that the Minister will doubtless say that we have to take seriously economic realities. That is correct. As a Bishop I am no stranger to the discipline of hard economic reality. But I believe the citizens of this country are deeply concerned about its moral welfare; that they are deeply anxious about moral confusion in society in general and in the young in particular. I believe that there is a willingness to support measures which would make possible a better provision for our children's moral and spiritual upbringing.

I may be naive but I find it difficult to understand why politicians think that the subject of increased direct taxation should be anathema to the public. I cannot believe that I am alone in my willingness to pay more taxes if the revenue raised is used for the kinds of purpose the Motion envisages and which I wholeheartedly support.

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I begin my brief remarks by adding my voice to the many voices who have already congratulated my noble friend Lord Bath on his maiden speech. He spoke with both conviction and compassion on a subject about which it is not always easy to speak. The sense that he had of the plight of single parents, the feeling that he had of the importance of children bonding with their society at an early age, is one which I believe impressed all those in the House. We all look forward to the contributions he will make not only on education but on many other aspects of the issues about which he spoke in his speech. I am therefore glad to add my thanks to the many that he received this evening.

I should like to say also that there will be no point in my repeating what has been a series of extremely eloquent speeches on the need for nursery and pre-school education. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, the noble Lord, Lord Charteris and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, all addressed those issues with great strength and passion. I add just one point to what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said. She spoke of the position of mothers who are obliged to work when their children are young. It is worth adding to the group of single parents the devastating truth that it is increasingly difficult for men from the old industrial skill areas to obtain work at all.

I was looking recently at the figures which indicate that in the North of England unskilled men between the ages of 21 and 60 now have a rate of unemployment of 24 per cent. That means that in many cases the husband of the family cannot obtain a job because of the area in which he lives and the decline of heavy industry throughout the western world. Therefore, in that family it is a necessity for the wife to go out to work. Yet it is often in such families that the habit of husbands being very much fathers is one that has been slowest to develop.

The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, spoke of the importance of training children in parenting. I want to underline her passionate plea for boys as well as girls to be taught about parenting. We have increasingly learnt of the importance of the father and the significance of his being a model and example to his children.

Lastly, in referring to other speeches, I refer to the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, who spoke of rural deprivation. My noble friend Lord Hooson spoke of some of the problems of trying to produce nursery education in the rural parts of Wales. Both produced some extremely interesting evidence regarding how early children can benefit from some form of structured education.

Having said that, I turn briefly to a question that I wish to ask the Minister regarding policy and finance. Several speakers in the debate—I associate myself with them—indicated that they fully approve of the recent changes made in the Budget with regard to families drawing child benefit which allows them to claim on the basis of the child care expenditure into which they enter. That is a step in the right direction which all of us welcome. I hope that it will be extended to tax relief for child care for working families as well, for the reasons I stated.

I should like to consider two points in regard to policy. The first is that my understanding is that the standard assessment made for local authorities is not, to use the jargon, ring-fenced in regard to the education of pre-school children. In other words, local authorities, under the pressure of rate capping and the recession, may begin to raid the very budgets which are currently ear-marked for under-fives in order to meet other more urgent needs. I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, shaking her head. I hope that she can give us full assurance on that point.

It may be more difficult to give a full assurance on the other issue that I want to raise but the noble Baroness may be able to explain to the House the situation into which the Government have entered. I refer to the funding agencies for grant-maintained schools which, as I understand it, have no obligation made upon them to provide pre-school nursery education. The anxiety in that regard is that we may See a development of that sector which does not carry its share of responsibility for pre-school provision at a time when the strain on the schools that remain within the state system is likely, if anything, to be greater. Can the noble Baroness tell us what the position is with regard to grant-maintained schools and the responsibility of the funding agencies for the education of the under-fives?

Because I have some sympathy with the Minister I believe that she always finds it difficult to argue the urgent against the important. I recall that it was in my case, too. The urgent in government so often replaces the important, especially when the important contains a long-term aspect; in other words, the benefits will occur in 10, 15 or 20 years' time. Arguing with one's Cabinet colleagues about the importance of long-term provision is always a dreary activity. The short-term needs always come up and tend to push the long-term needs to one side.

I therefore conclude by saying that one of the areas that I believe could be most responsive to the kind of eloquent statement on moral and social needs described by the right reverend Prelate is the bringing together, in a single broad umbrella provision, of playgroups, child minders, nursery schools and day nurseries. Nursery schools can provide resources for those other areas of under-five education as well as for themselves.

We spoke of pre-school playgroups and they can certainly benefit from some training. But even more urgent is the position of child minders who are so often the residual legatees of the most disadvantaged children of all in urban areas: in areas where there are large minority populations and in areas where many parents are unemployed or in difficulties. Child minders are the provision of last resort. Those of us in this House who have seen child minding sometimes at an appallingly low level, with children being lined up and not developed in any useful way, will know that child minders should have the benefit of training, of toy libraries and reading libraries and of the expert advice of trained nursery school teachers.

Bringing those things together—I know that the Minister has herself indicated how complementary these provisions are —would enable the least advantaged children, to whom my noble friend referred in his opening remarks, to be caught up in the general provision of pre-school education so that their needs can be met alongside those of their more favoured colleagues in the same age group. I commend the suggestion to the Minister that we try in urban and rural areas alike to bring together the provision and to see nursery schools as the central resource to train, advise and counsel those other kinds of provision that we make for the under-fives.

I have one final word with regard to what the right reverend Prelate had to say. He described in very eloquent terms the position in which many children find themselves. I could not agree with him more that it is the child's rights that need to come first and that we should think very hard indeed about what may be a selfish demand to take a designer child off the shelf and to do it even by the use of embryos from mothers who never saw adult life at all. The consequences of those ideas seem to be almost infinite in what they could mean for the mental and moral security of children in the future. I should like to associate myself very strongly with the words of warning that the right reverend Prelate gave to the House.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I hope that when the Minister replies she will be able to deal with the important points that have just been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, deserves the appreciation of us all for having given the House the opportunity yet again to debate this vital topic. His own speech was distinguished and helpfully reflective, and we appreciated that. It is also good that the noble Marquess, Lord Bath, chose an issue so central to the future of our nation whose greatest asset is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, so persuasively said, its children. That he chose this subject to make his maiden speech augurs well for the future. He spoke powerfully and has given us all considerable food for thought. I greatly look forward to his future contributions to our deliberations.

I am afraid that in all the muddle surrounding the present Government's policies nursery education is no exception. Last April in this House the Minister told us during our deliberations on the Education Bill not to put, an impossible imposition on this House and the country", and that comprehensive nursery education would be, an impossible bill to impose on this or another place".—[Official Report, 20/4/93; col. 1495.] At the Report stage in the summer the Minister adamantly refused to accept an amendment argued from this side of the House and moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, with all her vast experience, which again sought to extend the provision of nursery education.

When the National Commission on Education reported in November last and added its stamp to the case for extending nursery education the Secretary of State himself immediately responded by saying that it could not be afforded. But within a week a major story appeared on the front page of the Daily Express, with all the indications of an authoritative leak. It told us that, notwithstanding the Secretary of State's position, the Prime Minister aimed to give every child of three a place in the nursery classroom; an objective repeated by the Prime Minister in an interview published in the Daily Telegraph on 23rd December. However, when questioned on the Daily Express report in the other place on 23rd November by Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Ann Taylor, the Secretary of State declined to comment. Significantly, in a letter to Ann Taylor dated 22nd December last—the day before the report of the interview appeared in the Daily Telegraph—the Prime Minister disappointingly said: Apart from the question of diversity, education for all three and four-year olds would be very expensive and, given the Government's other more pressing priorities for improving the standards of primary and secondary education, is unrealistic in resource terms at present". The letter made no mention of even a long-term aim. And yet the confusing reports continue.

On 26th December the Sunday Times firmly stated: Parents of young children will be given government vouchers to help them pay for nursery education under plans to be unveiled by John Patten, the education secretary". And only this past weekend the Observer told us that, Department of Education officials are working flat out on a scheme, to be announced shortly, that will bring provision nearer to continental levels". The Minister is nothing if not candid, and even, let us face it, blunt. She is not one to prevaricate. Will she therefore categorically clear up this matter tonight? Are the Government or are they not about to do a U-turn and accept the case, repeatedly put from this side of the House, to make comprehensive provision for nursery education? I, for one, will lead the cheers if they are.

What, however, would not be acceptable is some fudge in the name of choice with nursery education available to all who can afford to pay for it, albeit with voucher subsidies, but only, as now, patchily available for those who cannot. Such a compromise would be grossly unfair. It would mean that far too often the children arguably most in need of nursery education —those from deprived circumstances—still would not get it. We are for variety and choice. Of course we are. Good play groups and other facilities have a vital place. While we favour the availability of nursery education with professionally qualified staff, we nevertheless respect the principle of parental choice with a variety of provision before the age of five. But it must be choice for all and not simply for those able to afford it.

At a time when community and community values are everywhere under attack amidst inflexible and unimaginative doctrinaire application of market dogma, what would also be sad is to see the future of nursery education increasingly in the hands of the private sector, unduly driven forward by the profit motive rather than by the motives of care and service. What is desperately needed, as tragic events last year so well illustrated, is a strengthening of community and neighbourhood concern for the young. That, I do beg the Minister to try and understand, is the reason why the role of local democracy in education is so important. When local democracy has failed, as it sometimes fails, the response should not be to run away or find alternatives but to determine to reinvigorate it.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has underlined, at present two different departments at national level—the Department of Health and the Department for Education—have the responsibility for services for young children. The Health Department oversees day nurseries, playgroups and the regulation of child minders. The Education Department is responsible for pre-school education. They do not plan together, budget together or provide comparable statistics. The discussion surrounding the Children Act recognised these problems but the legislation failed to take all the necessary steps to resolve them.

These divisions are mirrored at local level. Services for young children are split between education and social service departments with out of school care often funded through recreation departments. This is a recipe for disorder when new services are being introduced. Parents, employers and independent providers often do not know whom to approach for advice or to find out what the regulations are. This results in duplication and large gaps with no services at all. It would be helpful to hear the Government's thinking on all this, especially if they are, pray God, after all at last contemplating extended provision. Do they see the Department for Education or the Department of Health as the lead Ministry?

I have argued the case for the key role of local democracy, but I recognise that there is room for a genuine debate about which department of local government should take the desperately needed lead in achieving the best possible integration of child care, nursery education and other services to young children. I believe the LEA is a strong candidate, but what is essential is that a clear lead responsibility is established. It would therefore be helpful to know the Government's thinking.

On these Benches our position is unequivocally clear. We believe in the availability of nursery education to the children of all parents who want it, irrespective of their social circumstances—a goal powerfully and rationally argued in the cogent sixth chapter of the report of the National Commission on Education. We cannot conceive of any other single investment in our young which would yield more fruitful results both in improved performance through our primary and secondary schools, given adequate resources and a sensible role for those sectors themselves, and in helping to reduce delinquency and social fragmentation.

Nursery education for all children would be a constructive step towards making a success of our multicultural society where significant numbers of children start school at five from homes in which English is not the first language. It would be an ideal way to involve more parents naturally in a sense of shared responsibility for the education of their children. It would release more parents to enhance the financial well-being of their families and to contribute to the strength of the nation's economy. As we have heard again tonight, all the reliable evidence from both sides of the Atlantic powerfully suggests that in terms of enhanced educational performance, a strengthened economy, and greater social stability, it would rapidly pay for itself. The issue is not whether we can afford it, but how on earth the United Kingdom can convincingly meet the future without affording it.

No less than 50 per cent. of intellectual development takes place in the first five years of life. In no other advanced nation in the world is it necessary to argue that nursery education and childcare are an indivisible and vital part of national and personal development. As the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, said, at the beginning of this decade the Institute of Education in London revealed that, while in Belgium and France more than 95 per cent. of three to five year-olds were in nursery education, in the United Kingdom it was still only between 35 per cent. and 40 per cent. In the European Union only Portugal was below the UK. As my noble friend Lady Gould said, on recognising this Portugal set out to put things right.

Perhaps I may conclude by repeating the words of Charles Pollard, Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police, speaking on Question Time last October. He said: Pre-school education is very important. It is at that stage that children learn habits. They learn right and wrong, life skills, so that when they get into school they can grasp what the school is teaching them and grow up as mature adults. If they don't, when they get to school they are lost and they just become completely alienated from society and that's where crime starts. In the Government's current desperate struggle to decide on the definition of the basics to which they want to get back, they could not do better than to settle for a truly comprehensive system of pre-school education.I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to announce her conversion to that immediate objective tonight.

8.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education. (Baroness Blotch)

My Lords, as always, the enemy tonight is going to be time, but I shall do what I can to answer the points made in the course of the debate. Perhaps I may start by thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing this debate. It is a very important debate and I have enormous pleasure in answering it. I also join with the whole House in welcoming and congratulating the noble Marquess, Lord Bath, upon his speech. I know what a daunting experience it is. We look forward to hearing much more from him. Perhaps I may also say that I have the happiest possible memories, not only for myself, but of taking my own children—occasionally Sunday school children and playgroup children —to his great family home. We look forward to hearing from him on many more occasions in future.

This has been an interesting debate, as always in this House, with a wide range of issues raised. It is right that we should have this debate. Provision for under-fives is an important topic and it can lay the foundation for children's subsequent personal, academic and social development.

Let me take first the education provision for under-fives. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we inhabit different planets. He speaks with almost total disregard for what has been done and what is being done for under-fives in this country. I find it a great sadness that we cannot at least arrive at some consensus on what is being done by our local authorities and by the encouragement which is being given by my department.

I understand the concerns which lie behind the speeches in favour of more and better education for under-fives. This Government recognise the benefits which can be derived from good provision, particularly for those who have special educational needs or who are socially disadvantaged. We have a very real commitment to development in this area, but to propose that universal free state nursery education as such is the answer to all our problems is greatly to over-simplify the position.

First of all, such an answer takes a very narrow view of parental and child needs. The present situation is one of a range of needs and a range of provision to match those needs. There are various providers—state, voluntary and private; a variety of settings—nurseries, nursery classes, nursery units and play groups; and different modes of attendance—sessional, part-time or full-time. For many, including working mothers in particular, a nursery class place would not provide the length of day care that is sought. New working and domestic patterns will increase further the need for a flexible response. That is why government policy is to encourage choice and diversity.

Secondly, to go down the route of universal free state nursery education would have an adverse effect on other forms of provision and might put them at risk. Pouring taxpayers' money into nursery education would make many perfectly good playgroups and private nursery schools unviable, perhaps to the point of closure—indeed, in the playgroup movement, perhaps to the point of extinction. That would be extremely wasteful of all the expertise and resources and personal commitment invested in the private and voluntary sectors as well as imposing another restriction on consumer choice. I welcome the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on the diversity of provision which he certainly gave voice to in his speech.

Thirdly, it is not proved that a nursery class place offers a better outcome, pound for pound, than other forms of provision, including better infant schooling. The pro-nursery education lobby is far too dismissive of alternatives. There is much evidence to support the view that well run playgroups, often working in co-operation with infant schools, can offer an excellent and cost-effective social and educational experience for under-fives and provide a good preparation for primary schooling. The close involvement of parents in a playgroup is a particular strength of which we should not lose sight.

These factors explain why the Government's long-term ambition is to promote a variety of high quality, cost-effective forms of pre-school education, open to all who want it. But further progress must depend on the availability of resources. There is no conflict in that view across the Government as a whole. We are looking again at what might be achieved in that field and we are currently studying a range of possible options for the future. If and when we are ready to announce any new proposals we shall do so in the usual way.

Within the related child care area I want to remind the House of what initiatives this Government have announced in the past few months. In the last Budget speech my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined a new child care scheme to be introduced. As from October of this year eligible families will receive extra help, worth up to £28 a week in family credit, towards the cost of a variety of registered child care.

Child care does not cease to be an issue when children reach school age. Indeed it can sometimes be harder to arrange, which is why the disregard extends to children aged 10 years. We already have a £45 million programme of out-of-school child care being administered by training and enterprise councils. That is providing capital and running costs, funding a variety of schemes to help with the care of children aged five to 12 years. It will stimulate much good practice in this area. We hope to create up to 50,000 new child care places over a three-year period.

These initiatives build on earlier ones, such as the underpinning of child-minder and day care quality, through the registration and monitoring arrangements introduced by the Children Act and tax concessions to employers to encourage the provision of workplace nurseries. These things will all indicate quite clearly that the Government wish to help families whose economic well-being is dependent on a sufficient supply of affordable child care.

Perhaps I may now turn to points raised during the course of the debate and begin with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. I deeply appreciate the points made in his speech. Many children do not enjoy a nurturing and loving home life. Therefore, for many of those children, school is the only anchor in their lives. It is the only place where they will receive any kind of ground rules and where they will have a framework within which to grow and develop. It is the only place where they will have any sense of right and wrong or of desirable and undesirable behaviour or be given any sense of morality and immorality. It seems to me that it is absolutely right that not only my department but local authorities also should give priority to making provision for those children. When my department approves nursery school places, we look for such factors when improving and considering priorities. I understand that investment. What we hope to do is to make better parents of those young people, who will be the parents of tomorrow's children.

I return now to statistics. Enough have been bandied around during the debate. At present—the latest statistics relate to 1992—over 90 per cent. of three and four year-olds receive some form of pre-school education with 26 per cent. admitted to maintained nursery schools and classes; (of whom four per cent. are in nursery schools and 22 per cent. in nursery classes); 23 per cent. are admitted to maintained primary schools (mainly four year-olds in reception classes); and 4 per cent. are admitted to special or independent schools. Thus, including pupils in independent and special schools, the overall participation rate in education is 53 per cent. In addition, 41 per cent. attend playgroups (including some who go on to under-fives schooling daring the year and may also attend school and playgroup) and about 5 per cent. receive other group day care. Most playgroups are affiliated to the PPA. The playgroups cater for about 525,000 three and four year-olds. If one includes the under-threes also, the figure rises to 770,000—or 21 per cent. of all under-fives. That process involves 250,000 parents in running the groups.

As for four year-olds and what we call the "rising fives"—that is, the children who enter school in the term in which they are five—82 per cent. of four year-olds—that is, not including the rising fives or those children who are four by 31st August but of compulsory school age by January —are admitted to maintained nursery and primary schools.

When one puts all that together, one sees that the overall participation rate has gone up 10 percentage points since 1983. Over the same period, the maintained sector rate has risen by 9 percentage points and the number of under-fives in independent schools has risen by 56 per cent. So, the record is a good one.

The funding mixture of education, which is again probably a fine point between us, is a mix of private and public. All nursery education for the 53 per cent. of children to whom I have referred is free provision.

We are often compared with our European neighbours, so I should point out that 71 per cent. of the provision in Germany is paid by private funds. Indeed, in many of the European countries with which we are compared, some of the costs are met by private funds.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull referred to the importance of taking into account another group of parents. The interests of the parents who wish to stay at home must be taken into account. We need to bear in mind that the rights of those parents who wish to stay at home to look after their children must be respected.

Reference has been made to a strategy on education and care for young people. Our policy is to encourage diversity and to devolve decisions to the local level. That way the needs of parents are more likely to be reflected in the services provided. It is important to ensure co-ordination between the various services. The Children Act provides for this at local level. At central government level, there is an inter-departmental consultative group. It is chaired by my honourable friend Mr. Bowis. The group relates specifically to under-fives and involves regular contact between departments. Those points of contact should be sufficient to ensure effective co-ordination of education and child care interests.

I think that there is agreement right across the House on the long term and wider benefits of nursery education. We accept that there are long-term educational and social benefits to be derived from pre-school education. Where we would depart from those who call for nursery education for all children is that we believe that this benefit can also be obtained equally, or more cost effectively, from other forms of under-fives provision such as playgroups. It is important that the provision should include the involvement of parents; a suitable curriculum; appropriate resources and effective transition between stages. I have said that the issue of universal funding remains a point of conflict between us.

Reference has been made to research in the United States. I know of the High/Scope scheme, which was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. As he acknowledged, it is fair to say that that was a limited scheme. It was very intensively funded and involved special provision with very close parental involvement in a particular type of pre-school experience for especially disadvantaged children. It is not clear that that could be readily translated to Britain, so we are not comparing like with like. We shall certainly take account of all the research that is conducted into the provision for the under-fives.

The noble Viscount was also concerned about the United Kingdom's provision as compared with other countries. International comparisons are quite inadequate unless they allow for the range of settings for the under-fives and the ages from which the different countries provide compulsory schooling. When this is done, the UK compares very favourably. As I have said, over 90 per cent. of our three and four year-olds attend either playgroups, education or group day care. This is an impressive figure especially as we have compulsory full-time schooling from age five. I note what my noble friend Lady Faithfull said about that. However, not only do we admit children at the age of five in this country, but we also provide the highest number of years of compulsory schooling. We are equalled only by the Netherlands, where children start school at five and finish at 16. Most other countries provide only eight, nine or 10 years of education.

Children who are socially disadvantaged or whose first language is not English are certainly a. government priority. Under the Children Act, local authorities have a general duty to provide a range and level of services appropriate to the children in their area who are "in need". This includes those with social problems. The Children Act also lays down principles of good practice on how to respond to needs arising from different racial, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds. Our colleagues at the Department of Health issue guidance to assist local authorities to meet this responsibility. There is real evidence of local services being better targeted as a result of these new arrangements.

Criticisms have been made that playgroups are under-resourced, have inadequate premises, lack equipment and have insufficient trained staff. Some playgroups may not come up to scratch: some, we know, are excellent. As a means of delivering pre-school education, playgroups have shown that they can achieve results. In recognition of this, the Department for Education has very substantially increased its grant for the training activities of the Pre-School Playgroups Association—to £887,000 in the current year—with the aim of developing the educational content of playgroup activities. The Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence also make grants to the PPA.

We are aware that LEA financial support for playgroups is very variable—but almost half receive an LEA grant towards running costs or receive some help with fees. In 1992 this contribution amounted to almost £7 million. We join with others in encouraging local authorities to regard playgroups as part of their comprehensive provision of education.

Many noble Lords have made the point that more help should be given to enable mothers to return to work. We have taken steps to help mothers who wish to return to work. Since April 1990, employees have not been taxed on the benefit of workplace nurseries provided by employers. Employers were already able to get tax relief, under the normal business rules, for day-to-day expenditure on child care provision. Also, the Department of Employment's current out-of-school child care grant—for which an allocation of £45 million has been announced—is helping employers. Many women returners benefit from the help in finding work that is given by the Employment Service and from the training programmes that are offered by the training and enterprise councils.

Many noble Lords were concerned about lone parents. It is not always easy for parents—particularly lone parents—to reconcile employment with family commitments. It would not be right to use taxpayers' money to subsidise the child care costs incurred by all parents, but there are special provisions that can help lone parents. These include the extra help given through the benefits system to lone parents, and the provision in the tax system whereby lone parents may claim an additional personal allowance.

My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve wanted us to encourage male teachers into the system. We have a teaching-as-a-career unit which is doing just that: trying to persuade young men to come into education, especially into the early years of education. My noble friend made a point about Northern Ireland. I am sure we all accept that greater integration of young people, and at the earliest age possible, can only be a good thing and would help to solve some of the problems.

My noble friend Lady Thatcher was mentioned a number of times during the debate. Reference was made to her statement back in 1972. The first thing I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is that her party has been in office a number of years since then. Its record does not bear too much scrutiny. I do not remember it having much of an impact on nursery education and certainly not on higher education. The proportion of children in nursery education at that time was only 40 per cent.; it is now 53 per cent. Only one in eight children went into higher education then and now one in three children goes into higher education. But the aim remains the same. When it can be afforded, when the balancing act between competing needs is addressed, we shall do what we can to improve the provision.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull was interested in preparation for parenting. Much is already being done by schools, but my noble friend will know, as indeed will the House, that there has been an issue on the overloading of the national curriculum, which is being addressed by Sir Ron Dearing and his colleagues at the moment. The intention is to free up time during the school day and week to allow schools more flexibility to provide alternative subjects. I know that a subject close to my noble friend's heart, such as home economics, could be reintroduced in what will be the equivalent of a day a week freed up during a child's school life.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, proposed the use of vouchers for under-fives. Let me answer him by quoting from a speech made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the North of England conference earlier this month, when he said: We do intend to explore ways of adding, as resources allow, to the choice already available to parents from all sources". Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. We shall be exploring all possibilities.

On special needs for under-fives, a draft circular has been issued for children with special needs as guidance for local authorities which are making provision for under-fives. I know that that will be welcomed. It includes working together with the voluntary and private sectors as well as the state sector. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was worried about truanting and its cost. I notice the clock. I am running out of time. I wonder whether the noble Lord would allow me to continue that debate at another time, because the point he raises is complex.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked one or two questions. First, on ring-fencing expenditure, this is a House that has spent many hours arguing for the independence of local authorities to enable them to make their own decisions at a local level. If we were to pre-empt their funds and to ring-fence them for nursery education it would mean that we should be making the decisions nationally. I believe that local authorities will jealously guard their right to spend their grants in the way that they decide. I can say to the noble Baroness, because this is an important point, that no local authority can, in a cavalier fashion, merely close down nursery provision. Local authorities have to go through a procedure and come to our department. I cannot remember an application to close down nursery provision. It is much more likely that we should be asked to improve or expand nursery provision.

As for grant-maintained schools, they are in the same position as LEA-maintained schools, because the responsibility for expanding nursery education is that of the local authority. That does not prevent an individual school from saying, "We would like nursery provision", but it will be the local authority that will have to approve it.

I end on the point of balancing priorities. For bedtime reading, I have been browsing through some of the past Hansards and some of the political papers produced by the Labour Party and the Liberal Party, and they have made good reading. I have listed just a few areas upon which people wish to spend more money: nursery education, of course; more teachers in schools; more school transport; more on capital; more for housing; more for police; more for social services; more for local authorities; more for legal aid; greater increases in social security benefits; and greater increases in aid for special groups. That list is by no means complete. Governments in office have to face the challenge of balancing competing needs with the cost of those needs to the people who pay.

Finally, I reiterate our approach towards the provision for under-fives. We are not complacent. We recognise the case for continuing to move towards greater access to a wider range of better quality provision. We have already made good progress, but further progress will depend, in part, on the resources that can be made available in this field, and that will mean, as I have said, balancing this and urgent calls with the limited total of public funding that can be afforded. Your Lordships' debate today, as always, will be a powerful contribution to that discussion.

8.35 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, the clock is against us. I would like merely to thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. There have been many moving and forceful speeches made today. I should like to draw attention, in particular, to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Bath, which, by any standards, was exceptional. We on these Benches obviously hope to hear him talk on our behalf and his own behalf on many occasions in the future. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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