HL Deb 16 October 1997 vol 582 cc550-2

3.34 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made towards integrated education provision for children under five following the ending of the nursery voucher scheme.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, all local authorities will draw up an early years development plan for implementation from April 1998. The plans will show how early education places for all four year-olds will be secured by September 1998. The plans will also examine how early education can be integrated with day care.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and congratulate her department on its progress in meeting that manifesto commitment. I should like also to welcome the Prime Minister's recent statement about setting up a committee for the family which I believe will be chaired by the Home Secretary. Perhaps I may convey to my noble friend that I have heard concern expressed that that committee should have as wide a remit as possible and should not concentrate only on problem families, which is the fear of some people in the voluntary sector. I am sure that my noble friend is aware that ordinary families need the integrated support of childcare for under fives, flexible working practices and many other measures which that committee should have within its remit. I should be grateful if my noble friend would convey that concern to the Home Secretary.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his remarks about the speed with which we are dealing with our manifesto commitment to provide places for four year-olds in nursery schools or classes.

As regards the inter-departmental group to be chaired by the Home Secretary, I shall certainly convey to my right honourable friend that there is concern in the voluntary organisations about that. I am not sure that there is a need for such concern. I know that the group will have a wide-ranging remit and will look at all the issues which my noble friend raised. But in particular it will address the issue of how we can develop good parenting skills. I am sure that everybody in your Lordships' House will agree that it is enormously important that we should provide the help and support which parents need to be good parents. That is desirable both from the point of view of children's education, including young children, but also in helping to avoid juvenile crime.

Lord Peston

My Lords, it is a bit late for some of us to learn how to be good parents. Will my noble friend clarify one matter in her original Answer? I believe that she said that by the start of the school year 1998 all four year-olds will be in some form of education. Will she define whether she meant those who are already four or those who will become four in the subsequent academic year?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I thought that my noble friend was learning how to be a good grandparent. I have observed him in that role and he is carrying it out very effectively. It is the Government's intention to have all children who are already aged four in nursery schools and classes by the autumn term of 1998: 79 LEAs are already able to meet that target. It will be more difficult for some LEAs to achieve the target but we are confident that they will succeed. Many of the children who will be starting will not be four years old when they start but will become four years old during the term in which they take up their place.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House how many places have been lost to the private sector and the pre-school playgroups sector for children under five? In the absence of that information, will she assure us that she will bring it to the House? I am referring to the past six months. Will the noble Baroness tell the House also what are the adult-pupil ratios which apply to state provision in mainstream schools for under fives and the pupil-adult ratio which applies to private provision and pre-school playgroups?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Baroness back to the field of education and employment. She and I have experience of sparring in such matters in the past when she was on this side of the House and I was on the other. I also express the hope that the mistake made by the Guardian yesterday, which described me as "Lady Tessa Blatch", will not be repeated by other newspapers which might describe the noble Baroness as "Lady Emily Blackstone". Such hybrids do not exist.

In answer to the noble Baroness's question, it has been said, although I cannot confirm such figures, that about 800 places have been lost in playgroups over the past year. That is a matter of great regret. The Government value the work undertaken by playgroups. However, that is a direct result of the competition between different participants in the sector which derived from the introduction of nursery vouchers. We hope that the new spirit of partnership and co-operation that we are developing in the provision of early childhood education will alter the situation.

As regards the noble Baroness's final question about ratios of adults to children in different types of provision, I shall have to reply by letter because I cannot produce such figures off the top of my head.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the great satisfaction felt on these Benches, and indeed by thousands of parents throughout the country, over the Government's swift action in getting rid of the ludicrous voucher system? In view of what has been said—and I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the provision for four year-olds—can she say what opportunity there will be for the private and voluntary sectors to ensure universal provision for four year-olds, especially as there is such a wide variation in that provision among local authorities?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there may be an even more significant role for private providers of one sort or another in making available places for three year-olds. Approximately 35 per cent. of three year-olds are currently able to take a place in some form of state provision. So there is still a big gap to fill. Indeed, that is a gap that we would encourage playgroups to fill, and we hope that they will do so. However, there will also be a place for private sector providers as far as concerns four year-olds, as some parents want full-time places for four year-olds from perhaps as early as eight in the morning to as late as six in the evening; namely, those parents who are out at work and who need full-time childcare. The private sector will continue in partnership with the state sector to make such provision available.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, as the Government believe that the voucher scheme was such a very bad idea and that their new approach is so much better, can the Minister tell the House why the scheme is continuing, in Scotland?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am extremely sorry. I am not able to answer the noble Baroness's question. To be frank, I was not aware that the scheme was continuing in Scotland. However, I shall write to her when I have consulted my colleagues in the Scottish Office.