HL Deb 10 June 1998 vol 590 cc1097-140

8.31 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 103 [Home-school agreements]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 235A:

Page 78, line 34, leave out from ("home-school") to ("to") in line 35 and insert ("policy").

The noble Baroness said: I see that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has had to do what I did last week; that is, not only be on the Bench throughout the day but speak also during the dinner break. I hope that his noble friends will allow him some respite.

I apologise for this group of amendments because it is slightly confusing. I am not sure how it happened, but at some stage someone should have advised us that something was wrong. If Amendment No. 235A were agreed to Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E would not make much sense. We want to incorporate Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E, which would change the Bill to read: The governing body of a school … shall adopt a home-school policy"— "policy" being the key word— for the school … For the purposes of this section and section 104 a `home-school policy' is a statement designed to promote partnership between home and school". Amendment No. 237 leaves out reference to a signed parental declaration. Amendments Nos. 237A and 237B change the Bill to read: Before preparing the home-school policy, or revising that policy, the governing body shall consult". This raft of amendments supports the proposition that legalistic signed agreements—

Baroness David

Will the noble Baroness tell me which amendments she is speaking to in the group? I have some amendments in the group and I am not clear to which amendments she is speaking.

Baroness Maddock

Although I am moving Amendment No. 235A, I shall not press it to a vote. It is an amendment I must move because it is the first in the group. However, if it is agreed to, Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E will not make sense. I am talking to Amendments Nos. 236A, 237A, 237B, 238A and 239A. I am not talking to the amendments standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady David. I hope that that clarifies the issue.

This raft of amendments follows our support for the proposition that legalistic signed agreements between school and home are not the correct way of fostering the most positive relationship between the two. We have received a great deal of support from groups and individuals outside the House. I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Tope to explore those later.

We believe that the format proposed in the Bill is likely to set up an antagonistic and litigious atmosphere from the moment a child sets foot in the school. If both the home and the school cling to this text as though they have rights under it we can see many problems ahead. Our alternative proposal is a process of continuous instructed dialogue between governors, staff, parents and pupils to develop a home-school policy rather than an agreement. We want to see that on paper, but not cast in tablets of stone. It will be a process in which all four interested parties work together. We believe that the process and the activities surrounding it will be useful in building constructive relationships between the four elements in the school community; that is, the governors, the staff, the parents and the pupils.

We see policy documents being produced on a regular basis in order to summarise where the dialogue has reached. We believe that a home-school policy as opposed to an agreement is much more likely to command the respect and support of all sides if it is developed in a spirit of mutuality. Many bodies and groups agree with us and my noble friend Lord Tope will explore that further.

I believe that the Government's intention is good but in their desire to change things for the good they have a tendency to want to control everything a little too much. The difference between us is that we want to give more opportunity for groups to reach a consensual agreement and not be told, "You must have this policy and every person must sign it. If you don't sign it there will be a problem." We see that creating unnecessary tensions. Our suggestion is in the spirit of the Government's intentions, but we believe that it will work better.

The Government talk about partnership. My experience of working in a variety of partnerships is that having dialogue and working things out together is most successful, receives most support and is most likely to work. That is the spirit in which I speak to the amendments. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Lockwood)

As the noble Baroness said, if Amendment No. 235A is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 235B.

Baroness David

I have my name to Amendments Nos. 237, 238 and 244 in the group. I am very much in sympathy with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Although I do not strike out "agreement" and put in "policy", I am sympathetic to the suggestion and would be happy with the word "policy". In fact, I think I prefer it.

I am very glad that the Government have decided not to use the signing of home-school agreements as a criterion for admission. I really did not like that. The increased emphasis given to the role of parents in the education of their children is very welcome, However, the potential of home-school documents to build constructive relationships is, in my view, undermined by this section of the Bill, which places the onus only on the parents, failing to establish a principle of mutuality which focuses the attention and efforts of all concerned—teacher, staff, pupils, parents and the governing body—on the educational experience of the child.

Home-school documents can be a means of engaging parents' commitment and involvement. Documents are best seen as part of a continuum of establishing a relationship between parents—some of whom have had negative school experiences themselves—and schools. Written documentation can be effective when used to facilitate discussion among staff, parents and pupils about shared expectations.

For example, a Children's Society project called Shine, working in two primary schools in Lambeth and Wandsworth, uses home-school agreements in order to gain parental consent to work with individual children and to invite them to participate in the work of the project. In fact, the All-Party Group on Children had the project leader in Shine speak to them about a week or so ago. It was very interesting how successful they had been in working with parents and children. I very much recommend the pamphlet which they produced describing their work.

I move on to Amendment No. 238. This amendment tries to ensure that the views of staff, pupils and parents are sought in the development and review of home-school agreements. It omits certain lines and substitutes all qualifying parents, the staff of the school, and … the pupils of the school". As I said on our last day in Committee, I very much want to get the word "pupil" on the face of the Bill. "Pupil" is not mentioned in the whole course of this enormous Bill. That does seem to me rather a mistake, so here is another chance.

We are concerned that the consumers of education are too often thought to be parents rather than parents and children. The consequence of this is that pupils are given little opportunity to exercise responsibility or to contribute to the organisation of school life.

This amendment is consistent with the principle of participation which I believe the Bill could establish in concrete and constructive ways. It is also consistent with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that every child capable of expressing a view has the right to do so on all matters of concern to him or her. I have mentioned that before, too. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international monitoring body, when examining the record of the UK Government in implementing the convention, expressed particular concern over the fact that children's participation in schools was at the discretion of the head teacher or governing body. It considered that the principle of participation should be respected as a matter of principle for all children. This amendment provides the opportunity to do this.

The amendment has a practical value too. Participation in the development of a mutually agreed set of expectations can motivate pupils to engage more fully in the life of the school and in learning by providing the opportunity for them to exercise responsibility and to contribute their views and to feel valued.

The process of establishing home-school agreements can lay the foundation for participation in other aspects of school life, such as behaviour policies.

The next amendment that I have in this group is Amendment No. 244, which in fact I do not think engages very closely with the other two amendments. But as it probably prevents me having to deal with the last amendment tonight I would prefer to have it in this grouping than by itself, which would be more sensible.

This amendment, which is a new clause following Clause 119, places schools and LEAs under a duty to listen to the voices and views of pupils on matters affecting them and, where reasonable, to ascertain their views.

During the passage of the Education Act 1993 a QC's opinion was obtained which advised that education legislation was currently in breach of Article 12 of the UN convention. This new clause is a modest and reasonable measure to bring education into line with the convention as well as with domestic law governing other sectors such as social services, health and civil court procedures. It does not prescribe how schools and LEAs will fulfil this duty, although formal structures such as schools councils and complaints procedures spring to mind.

It does not require schools or LEAs to follow the views of pupils, just to listen to them. This is simply a matter of good practice, which occurs in many schools and authorities but unfortunately not all. Listening to pupils of all ages pays big dividends in terms of reducing pupil disaffection and increasing their commitment to their education and the school.

I believe that these are important amendments in establishing the proper relationship between families, parents and children. Once again I repeat that I think that the views of pupils should really be taken into more consideration and that should be written on to the face of the Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

These are complex amendments. We are moving from party politics almost totally to the running of schools.

The first point that I should like to make is that, of course, children in schools are of different ages. We cannot just talk about every pupil because we are talking of children between the ages of five and 18. I have great sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. It is very hard to lay down on the face of a Bill exact details concerning discipline.

Home-pupil agreements are, in essence, a good thing. But there are two elements to these agreements. Each of them has equal importance. We must not give more importance to one or the other. First, there are the parents with their expectations of the school for their son or daughter. Then there is the school, which has created a certain style of community. People sometimes have a choice of schools—in the independent sector, for example. The noble Baroness knows quite a lot about that sector, since she sent her own children to one of those schools. Some may choose Bedales and some may choose a more structural school such as Winchester. In the state sector there are often difficulties. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, with whom I do not often agree, hit the nail on the head. We enter into enormously difficult areas.

We all agree that there should be a home-school agreement, but what form should it take? The agreement is between the school and the parents, and demands great sensitivity. I have great doubts whether it can be laid on the face of a Bill. Each side has equal rights. I do not think that you can write on the face of a Bill that the school must always consult the pupils, though most schools with any sense would. But how do you consult a five year-old? This Clause refers to "all maintained schools". What should be done about five, six and seven year-olds?

Baroness David

Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord just so that he might read the amendment and so that he knows what it really says. Amendment No. 244 says: due consideration is given to the views of pupils on any matter which affects them, having regard to the pupils' age and understanding". Probably a child of three or four would not be consulted.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

I accept the noble Baroness's correction. But it is on the face of a Bill. Who would decide "understanding" and so on? The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said that she wants flexibility and understanding on each side. I am worried about entering into detail on this. I agree in principle. We are now in a deep educational discussion. Fortunately we are free of the arguments of earlier in the afternoon. But it is a more complicated issue than can be developed in the clauses of a Bill. I would agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on one hand, but I am torn. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady David, that of course children need rights. I do not want courts to make decisions in relation to parents of, for example, a child of eight, who objected to a school. On the other hand, I want headmasters to be able to work out good agreements with parents. Home agreements are a great development. But the understanding of a child and such matters may raise legal complications and I am quite worried about the whole issue. Contrary to my confidence earlier this afternoon, I am now in a state of angst over this matter. I believe that it may create a number of educational problems. Stipulating the age of the child will not solve the problem. Once a provision is placed on the face of the Bill, it becomes a matter for lawyers. All you need is a litigious parent and you are in trouble. Therefore, for once, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has my heart.

Lord Northbourne

Accepting as I do some of the criticisms of the amendment made by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, nevertheless it is important that the Government should indicate—if not on the face of the Bill, as least in guidelines—their support for pupil involvement in these decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, chaired a commission on discipline in schools about 10 years ago. I remember him telling me—and indeed, I remember reading in the report—that one factor as regards which there was a consistent relationship with good behaviour was the schools where pupils were in some way consulted and involved in the behaviour policy. The involvement of pupils enables them not only to hear some of their concerns being considered but it enables them also to take ownership of the policy. I hope the Government will take that on board.

Lord Tope

I am distressed to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has been caused angst by all of this but he is right to say that we have at last moved out of the party political arena into the education arena. I thought that that was an interesting admission from the Conservative Front Bench, and it is a very accurate one.

I am certain that we are all in favour of partnership. The issue that we are discussing is how best to achieve it. I am quite certain that the noble Baroness, Lady David, desires the same outcome as does my noble friend and I. There may be slight differences as to how we wish to get there, although I was grateful to the noble Baroness for saying that she preferred our word "policy" to the word "agreement". I suggest that the difference between those words is rather more than just a difference between words. The whole point is that a policy is something which is discussed and developed through mutual agreement and is ongoing. The word "agreement" at least implies and usually means something rather legalistic and fixed. I know that that is not what the noble Baroness was talking about.

My noble friend Lady Maddock gave a trailer of what I was going to do at this stage. I have received quite a number of letters in support of our amendments and in support of the developing partnership in the way that my noble friend explained it. Rather than repeat what other members of the Committee have said, I wish to quote from some of the letters that I have received. I have received letters, perhaps not surprisingly, but very valuably, from CASE—the Campaign for State Education—and the Alliance of Parents and Schools. I have received a letter from the UK Education Forum which said among other things, that, we have been vigorously opposed to the notion of a signed home-school agreement, believing this is not the way to encourage the cooperation of parents". I have received a letter from Family Education and Playwork making similar points. I have received another letter from NASUWT which stated: There is little doubt that if the latter requirement", that is, the requirement for the agreement, is allowed to stand it will impose an additional administrative burden on already hard-pressed schools and could create division rather than partnership between school and parent". I have received a three-page letter from the Parent Teacher Association of Wales. I wish to quote from that at greater length because it develops the argument contained in all the letters. I begin with an extract from the letter which will encourage the Government to listen. The letter states: We fully endorse the priority afforded by the Government to education, and were heartened by the priority afforded immediately to education standards, and to the positive recognition in the White Papers that partnership between all those involved in schools would be an essential condition to achieving progress". I am sure that I now have the attention of the Front Bench with an opening like that. The letter goes on to state: However, we strongly disagree with the proposal that schools need to be required by law to have home-school agreements, in conjunction with a 'parental declaration' to be signed by every parent". The letter continues: The imposition of agreements will not improve relationships, will confuse existing arrangements, and will alienate the vast majority of supportive parents". It goes on to state: We therefore would like to see these clauses amended to reflect the true meaning of partnership … We believe that it would be far more open and effective for representative Home-School Associations … to agree jointly a home-school policy, after open discussion and consultation". The letter continues in that vein.

I quoted that at some length because I thought it encapsulated very well the sense and meaning not only of what we have been saying this evening but what all the other letters that I have received meant to say.

I do not believe that the Government will accept our amendments this evening. But I hope they will consider this matter seriously. As I said, we are all in favour of partnership and the question is how best to achieve it. For the first time today we have here a consensus on all sides of the Committee. We have had strong representations from responsible organisations concerned with schools, with parents and pupils. I should like to think that by the time we reach Report stage, we should all—and if the Government cannot, the rest of us perhaps can—get together to achieve a better way of arriving at the outcome which we all want but which most of us believe will not be achieved if we follow the proposals contained in the Bill.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

Perhaps I should enter into this very complex area. My position and the position of my colleagues is that we believe in home-school agreements. The problem is the relationship between the parent and the school. There is a difficulty with what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, and this is where I may part company from him. If a school, with its parents and governors, agrees a home-school agreement, then the next clause which we shall be discussing provides that it cannot be valid. My view is that if a corporate community agrees it and the existing community of parents, governors, teachers and head teachers agree it, they should be entitled, like independent schools, to ask the children to accept it, particularly as there is diversity of choice. As I read the following clause, that would not be allowed.

We are agreeing that a home-school agreement is a good thing. The noble Baroness, Lady David, wishes to improve upon it but there is a mutual agreement that it is a very good thing. Is it enforceable? In other words, if a school which has set a certain ethos reached an agreement with its governors and everybody else concerned, is it entitled to demand acceptance by its future pupils? Historically, that has been the essence of good schooling. We are entering into a very complex area.

My view would be that it should be possible to do that. A school may demand particular patterns of behaviour but there is a choice of other schools. The school would then be entitled to say, "No, this has been agreed by the totality of the community". Therefore, this clause slightly contradicts the next clause. Therefore, we are becoming involved in a dilemma in relation to home-school agreements. We all agree that they are good but what if it is said that they are no good and parents reject them? I shall be interested to hear the Minister's reply to this complex issue.

9 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

Perhaps I may assist the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington. Our vision is that this is a process which is continuous and the dialogue goes on. It is a policy rather than an agreement. I believe that that will answer one of the noble Lord's points. It is clear that we have agreement in the Committee. However, if we are to incorporate it in a proper way in the Bill, it will probably not be by way of the amendments we are now discussing. Indeed, if we all agree, we will have to work on it between now and the next stage. We see it as an evolving policy rather than an agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, was worried about everyone having to stick to it forever. That is the whole point and why we think that that is rather better than an agreement.

Lord Dormand of Easington

I should first make an apology for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I was held up by an unexpected visitor. I should like to say how much I agree with the principle under discussion. However—and I suspect that this may have been stated before I entered the Chamber—what does one do about parents who are not in the slightest bit interested in school? I believe that most of us have been involved in such a situation in one way or another. After all, they are the people who ought to benefit most from such an agreement.

The question really is: how are we to deal with it? What is to be done about the situation? I have not heard anything from my own Front Bench about this nor, indeed, from the other two Benches, but that is probably because of my late arrival. If the problem is not solved, it will not defeat the whole purpose behind the principle. However, if something is not done or if it is not properly thought about, I suspect that it will not be as successful as it ought to be.

Baroness David

My noble friend may not have been present in the Chamber when I spoke. If he cares to study the SHINE project, which is working with two schools in Lambeth and Wandsworth, he will see that it has been most successful in involving the parents of children who are perhaps causing trouble at school. Indeed, it has gone in and talked with them and encouraged them to be involved with the school. It is indeed possible. I believe that I have made it clear that I do not like the word "agreement". I said that I believe the Government have decided that they do not want the parents to sign an agreement about admissions, or whatever. That would have been a great mistake. It is possible to get parents involved if the process is worked upon carefully.

Lord Tope

In a sense the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, has given another reason for our concern about the concept of the agreement. As I and my noble friend have said, one of our concerns is that the whole intention of agreement is legalistic. As the noble Lord nearly pointed out, one of the problems with that is that it is unenforceable. For example, what do you do with a parent who will not sign such a declaration for whatever reason, whether it is disinterest or something stronger? I hope that we will not be refusing admission to the child. I assume that that is so; indeed, I know that that is not the intention. In such a case, the declaration then becomes devalued and other parents will wonder why they should sign such a declaration when someone living down the road will not.

I suggested to the noble Baroness, Lady David, that the difference between our amendments and hers was more than a difference of words. I know she has accepted that fact. It is not just a matter of "policy" being a kinder word than "agreement". It is actually a wholly different concept. I see that the noble Baroness is nodding her head in agreement. Our idea of a home-school link, a home-school policy, is that it is something which is developing and something which is worked upon. All of us readily acknowledge that it will be much easier to work with some parents and some pupils than with others. Indeed, for some it may well be a very long process and, sadly, it may never be successful with a few.

However, because it is a policy rather than an agreement and because it is ongoing and developing, we believe that it has much more chance of success and much more chance of being binding. In any event it is a much more positive approach in an atmosphere of mutuality between all the partners in the process rather than something which, in essence, is imposed. That is one of the things to which we object and which we believe will simply not be successful. It is not the best way of achieving the outcome that we all seek.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I shall begin by saying how much I respect the provenance of these amendments. I have not read all of the briefing which noble Lords from the Liberal Democrat Benches have quoted, but I have read that from the "Campaign for State Education". In particular, I have read the letter which appeared in the Independent on llth March this year from all the people who have been quoted in this debate, and more. They include the general secretaries of all of the teaching unions. Clearly, there is a wide consensus on the objections to individual agreements and there is a wide consensus that home-school policies should be in place—and that includes the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington. I am grateful for that.

However, I still have to say that I believe noble Lords are mistaken because I believe they have misinterpreted what is actually said in Clause 103. The whole of the argument from the Liberal Democrat Benches seemed to suggest that there was some alternative between a home-school agreement and a home-school policy. That is not our intention. We all agree that home-school partnerships are vital. We all recognise that parents are a child's first and enduring teacher. They play a crucial role in helping their children to learn. Children achieve more when school and parents work together. Clearly, all schools should have a home-school policy. Reviewing the home-school policy will be an important starting point when drawing up and then consulting on home-school agreements with parents.

Let us look at Clause 103 in more detail. I believe that it makes our position clear. First, there is no intention on the face of the Bill—and, indeed, it does not happen—that the content of a home-school agreement should be statutory. Subsection (2) says that the agreement is a statement specifying,

  1. "(a) the school's aims and values;
  2. (b) the school's responsibilities",
that is, the responsibilities which, the school intends to discharge in connection with the education of pupils at the school who are of compulsory school age;
  1. (c) the parental responsibilities, namely the responsibilities which the parents of such pupils are expected to discharge",
  1. "(d) the school's expectations of its pupils, namely the expectations of the school as regards the conduct of such pupils while they are registered pupils there".
That does not specify on the face of the Bill the wording of the agreement: it says, in very minimal terms, who the participants are in this home-school agreement—namely the school, the parents and the children. What could be fairer than that? The amendments of the Liberal Democrats would not remove that aspect. We are not trying to be dirigiste about this at all. We are outlining the scope of the home-school agreement. We are not saying that this is a one-off thing to substitute for a developing home-school policy. Clause 103(7) states, The governing body shall from time to time review the home-school agreement". Subsection (8) states, Where the home-school agreement is revised by the governing body following such a review, subsections (3) to (6) shall … apply in relation to the revised agreement". Subsection (9) states, Before adopting the home-school agreement or parental declaration, or revising that agreement, the governing body shall consult—
  1. (a) all qualifying parents, and
  2. (b) such other persons as may be prescribed".
Therefore there is provision for ongoing consultation. I do not know whether that conflicts with other people's ideas of stability, but it accords with my ideas of the way in which schools and parents should be thinking all the time about the nature of their mutual responsibilities.

I do not think that any of those who have supported these amendments have recognised that what they want from a home-school policy is achieved in Clause 103 of the Bill. If the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, will forgive me, I shall not comment on the points he made about admissions as that matter is covered in Clause 104, which is not the subject of these amendments. There are amendments to Clause 104 which we shall discuss later.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. I discussed Clause 104. That shows an active mind.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

What is different about what we are proposing? It is not that we are not doing all the things that other Members of the Committee want; we are going a little further. It was a manifesto commitment to introduce agreements between all schools and parents defining the responsibilities of each. Home-school agreements will play a major role in encouraging schools and parents to work together to ensure that children make the most of their schooling. The agreement will clarify each side's expectations. As I have said, it will explain the school's aims and values, the respective responsibilities of the school and of parents, and what the school expects of its pupils. All agreements should include expectations on the standard of education, the ethos of the school, regular and punctual attendance, discipline, homework and the information that schools and parents will give to each other. But that is not on the face of the Bill, nor should it be.

However, it is important that parents should be clear about their rights and responsibilities and what they can do to support and help their children. I suggest to the Committee that the way to ensure that the policy is not simply put on a shelf, behind the clock, in a file or somewhere else, is to ensure that this agreement is taken home and is signed. That is the difference between us and those Members of the Committee who have tabled these amendments. I venture to suggest that, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, the difference between us concerns how we achieve what we want rather than what we want, because we are in agreement about that.

I turn to Amendment No. 237 in the name of my noble friend Lady David. It would negate many of the points that I have made. I refer to all of the provisions for the parental declarations associated with home-school agreements. For the reasons I have given, I think it is essential that schools should invite parents to sign a declaration. We want them to demonstrate the importance of education by declaring their commitment to work in partnership. Agreements will be important in helping to engage parents in raising pupils' achievements, and in action to combat truancy, bullying and unacceptable behaviour. However, we are not being rigid about this. Clause 103(4) states, Subsection (3) does not, however, require the governing body to seek the signature of a qualifying parent if, having regard to any special circumstances relating to the parent or the pupil in question, they consider that it would be inappropriate to do so". I do not need to spell out what kind of parents and what kind of pupils we are talking about in these cases. There clearly will be occasions when it will be absolutely impossible, unreasonable and legalistic to try to secure an agreement. There will clearly be cases where parents do not care or are absent. There is the matter of children in children's homes. However, as I said, we are not being rigid about this. My noble friend seeks to remove from the Bill the subsections which allow flexibility on this matter. I do not think that is wise.

Amendment No. 238 in the name of my noble friend Lady David would remove the provision which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations providing who, in addition to parents, governing bodies should consult. While we share her conviction as to the importance of full consultation, we believe that the Bill's existing provisions already ensure that. We do not want to place a requirement to consult staff and pupils on the face of the Bill. We believe that that should be dealt with in guidance. We intend to issue guidance which will encourage a school to consult with staff and pupils.

Lest my noble friend should think that I am antagonistic towards her on this point, as a chair of governors in a comprehensive school I had pupil governors elected to the governing body. That went on for several years until we were told that it had always been illegal. We therefore had them come into the meetings informally. We had an A and B agenda, which is perfectly possible. It worked very well. Indeed, my younger son became a pupil governor, and then a governor, of his college of technology. In that way, pupils learn citizenship. I am strongly in favour of involving pupils. There is no disagreement between us as to the objective; it is simply a matter of what appears on the face of the Bill and what does not.

My noble friend then spoke to Amendment No. 244. The proposal in that amendment represents good practice and is to be encouraged. It happens in good schools. There is nothing to prevent pupils being consulted anyway on home-school agreements. It would merely seem too dirigiste to have that provision on the face of the Bill.

My noble friend said, puzzlingly, that the word "pupil" does not appear on the face of the Bill. A quick count indicates that Clauses 1, 4, 6, 15, 38, 40, 61 to 65, 67, 68, 81 to 83, 87, 88, 91, 96 and 103 contain that reference. Our objection is not that we are in any way against referring to pupils or consulting pupils. I hope that on that basis all noble Lords involved will not feel it appropriate to press their amendments.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

Before the noble Lord sits down, in the context of his remarks regarding three partners—the school, the parents and the pupils—would it not be appropriate for pupils also to be asked to sign this agreement on school policy, subject to age and understanding. That would have two favourable results. It would encourage pupils to take responsibility for their own behaviour and it might encourage parents to be helpful in that respect.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

There is no reason why home-school agreements should not be drafted on that basis. It is merely that we do not want to impose it. Also, we do not want to become involved in definitions such as what is appropriate for the age and understanding of pupils.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Minister for his long dissertation on the amendments and for pointing out our similarities of view. I was not entirely convinced at the end of his remarks. My feeling is that one reason some of us are slightly concerned about these agreements has to do with the words of a Minister in the other place, Mr. Jack Straw. His comments made me slightly worried. Given the remarks made tonight by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I feel rather happier. However, there are still problems.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady David, and our own amendments in a sense have the same effect and the same aim. It is a matter of involving teaching and non-teaching staff in a school, and pupils and parents, in trying to achieve agreement on school policy. Our amendments go further in emphasising the continuous and developing nature of the policy. Most noble Lords who spoke agreed that that was a good idea.

I, too, was slightly concerned that if people did not sign the agreements, it could be used in order not to have certain children in a school. I am glad that that point has been clarified. It is important to be clear that this is not a basis for refusing children admission to school.

However, I still have a problem with the idea of signing. If we are saying that there will still be those who will not sign the agreement, why do we set ourselves up to do something that we shall not be able to achieve? That was what worried many of us and others outside this place who have supported us in these amendments. We are all concerned about the true meaning of partnership; namely, that agreement is reached together. It is not imposed. I think that we are all agreed on that.

We shall have to read carefully what has been said in the debate and consult carefully with those who have in a sense been working with us on trying to clarify exactly what will happen in relation to this proposal. We may return to the matter at a later stage. Before I withdraw the amendment, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady David, wishes to speak.

Baroness David

Perhaps I may make one comment. I certainly admit to being guilty of exaggeration in relation to the word "pupil" not being on the face of the Bill. Of course, it is. The point is that it is not provided on the face of the Bill that pupils should be consulted in deciding the policy. For instance, Clause 103(5) states: Where the governing body consider that a registered pupil at the school has a sufficient understanding of the home-school agreement as it relates to him, they may invite the pupil to sign the parental declaration". I do not think that that is quite enough. We want pupils to be consulted about the best method of deciding the school discipline code, the way of behaviour, and so on. That is not on the face of the Bill at any point. I should like to see pupils being brought into the discussion early on. I hope that the Government could sometimes be a little flexible in responding to real anxieties with regard to this area. I think we shall have to come back to this issue at the next stage of the Bill. I hope that in the meantime the Government will give consideration to the matter.

Baroness Maddock

I support the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady David. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E, 236, 236A, 237, 237A, 237B, 238, 238A and 239 not moved.]

Clause 103 agreed to.

Clause 104 [Supplementary provisions about home-school agreements]:

[Amendment No. 239A not moved.]

Baroness Blotch moved Amendment No. 240:

Page 80, line 9, at beginning insert ("Unless any such arrangements were in force on 1st January 1998.").

The noble Baroness said: In the absence of my noble friend Lord Lucas, I shall move the amendment on his behalf. The amendment refers to subsection (4) of Clause 104. A good deal has been said about home-school agreements. It is interesting that the right honourable Lady, Miss Harman, and the right honourable gentleman, the Prime Minister, no less, are signatories to home-school contracts, it being a condition that, if they do not sign a contract, their child cannot attend the school. It is a binding contract. That is outlawed by subsection (4). At Second Reading, or certainly very early on in our deliberations, I asked the noble Baroness whether the home-school contract which was in operation at one school, at least, the Oratory in London, and maybe at a number of other schools too—because the Oratory cannot be the only school in the country to have a home-school contract—would be outlawed by the Bill. We now know the answer. I have read the Bill more carefully since I first asked the question. Subsection (4) states: Neither the governing body of a school to which section 103(1) applies nor the local education authority … shall— (a) invite any person to sign the parental declaration at a time when the child in question has not been admitted to the school". In other words, they may not make it a condition of admittance to the school. Paragraph (c) provides that neither the governing body nor the local education authority can, make any decision as to whether or not to admit a child to the school by reference to whether", they have signed the declaration. Fine words were spoken to the previous amendments, but it seems to me mean spirited, where these measures work, and have worked very successfully, to prevent them. My noble friend's amendment, which I would have supported had he been here, simply says that, Unless any such arrangements were in force on 1st January 1998", subsection (4) applies. In other words, the position that applies at present shall be allowed to continue and from here on schools are bound by the measures contained in the Bill.

It will be interesting if the Government persist in invalidating the contract system that works in at least one school of which the Prime Minister has first-hand information. In that school it works exceptionally well. My understanding—I may be wrong—is that the Prime Minister is not aware that the measures in the Bill will have this effect. I believe that he will be quite surprised. The debate tonight may bring the matter to his notice.

I hope that the amendment will be accepted by the Government. It is a modest amendment. It simply freezes those arrangements that were in place up to 1st January 1998 and allows the Government's measures to take effect thereafter. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I refused to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, when he anticipated amendments of this sort and I am therefore duty bound to respond properly. The noble Baroness is quite right. The provisions in Clause 104 prevent the use of home-school agreements in the admissions process. They do so uncompromisingly and, unless this amendment were to be accepted, they would apply also to existing agreements.

We do not believe it is right—this is a fundamental statement of principle—to allow admissions authorities to base their decisions on whether a parent has signed or is willing to sign an agreement. We uphold the principle that an admissions authority should not be able to attach conditions when making the offer of a place. It cannot be right to deny a child a place because his or her parents are unwilling to sign the home-school agreement. The interests of the child must come first, not the willingness or otherwise of the parent to sign a home-school agreement.

Once a child has been admitted to a school it is right to expect parents to sign a declaration that they acknowledge and accept both their responsibilities and the school's expectations of their child. Of course, we anticipated that either the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would refer to the case of the London Oratory. I do not deny that that is of both political and educational importance. I have looked at the missions statement of the London Oratory from its prospectus. I have it in front of me now. It contains a whole range of requirements setting out the priorities which will be given to those accepted into the school.

As all Members of the Committee will be aware, it is a good school; it is a successful school; and it is significantly over-subscribed. Priority will be given first, to practising members of the Roman Catholic Church. It goes on to say, The places available will be offered to the most suitable candidates and the decision will be made in the light of the following factors: whether the boy comes from a family in which the Catholic parent or parents are practising members of the Roman Catholic Church; acceptance by the parents and boy of the conditions under which the boys are admitted to and allowed to remain in the school; acceptance of firm discipline and the school regulations: commitment by the parents and by the boy to 11–18 schooling and an undertaking to remain at the school for sixth form". Other factors include the child's record at the previous school, interest in extra curricular activities and whether there is a brother or sister at the school. There is a whole series of criteria which a successful, over-subscribed school has been able, perfectly legally under DfEE Circular 696, to apply to its admissions policy. In this clause and in resisting this amendment we say that the willingness or otherwise of parents to sign a home-school agreement should not be one of those criteria. We do not believe that the opportunity for a child to attend that or any school should be affected by the willingness of the parents to sign a home-school agreement. For that reason, we resist the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Is the noble Lord saying in more simple terms that the situation that pertains at the Oratory will be banned by this Bill?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am saying that those parts of the agreement I read out, which involve the signature on a home-school agreement, will no longer be possible when the Bill becomes law.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

It is difficult to talk about those parts because any home-school agreement will have a variety of parts within it. It is no accident that this school is a very good school. What the noble Lord is saying is that from now on someone who refuses to accept those conditions cannot be discriminated against.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I did not say anything about the other conditions. I referred to a refusal to sign a home-school agreement. We spent 50 minutes debating the contents and context of a home-school agreement. The willingness or otherwise of a parent to sign a home-school agreement will no longer be one of the criteria for admission to any school.

Baroness Blatch

That was my question. I asked about parents who come along to that school and refuse to sign the home-school agreement, which includes many of those conditions. They are part of being accepted into the school. They are conditions in terms of the commitment of parents and in terms of a commitment to supporting the regime of the school, the ethos of the school and the discipline within the school. If parents come along and refuse to sign the agreement it will not be possible for the school to discriminate against them in terms of entry. Is that right?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

It cannot be a criterion for admission. I listened carefully to the preceding discussion and I took it that the movers of the amendments—both from the Liberal Democrat Benches and my noble friend Lady David—were very keen on a home-school policy which was arrived at by consensus between parents, the school and the pupils. They were keen on it being negotiated between the school and the parents and on the pupils being consulted. They were keen on it being a continuing process. How that is compatible with making it a criterion for admission is beyond me.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord is a past master at diversionary tactics. Nothing in my amendment invalidates Clause 103. Clause 103 is a very fine idea. If a school wants a voluntary agreement, if a school wants to set out conditions within its contract and invite parents to sign it and to accept as part of that that if a parent does not sign it that is all right, I have no objection. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that where one can get a voluntary agreement and a fruitful partnership, that is a good thing.

All I am saying is that one or two schools, perhaps more—notably one school to which the Prime Minister sends his children, another Cabinet Minister sends her children and a third government Minister sends his children—already have agreements which have worked for a very long time. It is no accident and no coincidence that those are fine schools. Because of the system, because of the signatures that they have on those agreements, they have the highest possible degree of conformity to the way in which the school is run and to the way in which the school operates.

The Bill proposes that that can no longer continue. In the future that will be challenged under Clause 103, because the prohibition is in Clause 104 and not Clause 103. Nothing in my noble friend's amendment invalidates what is in Clause 103. That can continue, I have no argument with that and I did not rise to object to it. I am simply saying that something which is satisfactory to the leader of the noble Lord's party and to Cabinet Ministers within his party should be allowed to continue for parents who follow behind them.

I find it mean spirited and politics for its own sake. The world will not fall apart if the school can continue with that system. The only thing that can arise as a result of the dogged determination of the Government to set their face against this policy is that parents will come along, will want entry to that school, will refuse to sign a home-school agreement but, under the law, the school will not be allowed to discriminate against them. A new ground for discrimination will be set up. It seems to me that it must be possible for schools to say, "This is how we are run", and, in conjunction with the agreement of the parents, to have the fullest possible conformity. I shall ask leave to withdraw the amendment. However, my information is that the Prime Minister does not understand what is being abolished here.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment perhaps I may say to her that I have set out the Government's position on this matter and I do not propose to repeat it. The position is entirely clear. She speaks as though the implication of Clause 104 is that there would be discrimination against a child whose parents refused to sign a home-school agreement as a condition of admission. That is not the case. That is not allowed to be a criterion for admission. Our view is that the importance of home-school agreements and creating a real relationship between the school, parents and pupils are the overriding considerations. It is on that basis that we resist the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I shall return to the issue once more. The noble Lord has again missed the point completely. If parents refuse to sign a home-school agreement one assumption is that they do not agree with everything in it. They may not agree with the disciplinary regime or all kinds of things that may be in the agreement, yet they desperately want to get their child into that particular school because it has a very high reputation in London. They believe that their child might receive a better education. Unless they have a commitment to the way in which the school is run and the disciplinary regime within it, besides the other conditions that are part of the agreement, then the noble Lord is saying that the school would not be in a position to refuse to accept the pupil on the grounds that the parents do not agree with some of the conditions in the home-school agreement. That would be wholly wrong for that particular school.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The noble Baroness has not said what the noble Lord said. What I have said, I have said.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 104 agreed to.

Clause 105 agreed to.

Clause 106 [Provision of secondary education for Key Stage 4 pupils by FE institutions]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 240A:

Page 81, line 23, leave out ("further education is provided") and insert ("education is provided to a person who has attained the age of nineteen years").

The noble Lord said: Clause 106, as currently drafted, stipulates that pupils aged between 14 and 16 who will be receiving secondary education provided by a further education college cannot be educated in the same room as 16 to 18 year-old students except in circumstances prescribed by regulation. The purpose of this amendment is to set the dividing line at the age of 19 instead. Key stage 4 pupils being educated in a school may be taught in the same room as older sixth form pupils.

The effect of the clause as it currently stands would be to restrict the education of the same age groups if the provision were to apply in a further education college. It was not our intention to restrict in this way the teaching of 14 to 16 year-olds in the same room as 16 to 19 year-olds. Instead there should be a single dividing line between persons aged 19 and over and younger persons. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 106, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 241 not moved.]

Clause 107 [Nutritional standards for school lunches]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 233ZH:

Page 81, line 27, leave out ("Regulations may prescribe") and insert ("The Secretary of State may issue guidance in relation to").

The noble Baroness said: This part of the Bill does represent the nanny state. The Secretary of State is now going to tell all our children precisely what they must eat in school. There are all kinds of practical problems with that. My memory goes back to the days when there were nutritional standards. Meat and two veg were cooked at the school by the dinner ladies. The pigs did rather well in those days because of the amount of food that was sent out. Children would not eat liver, cabbage, carrots or spinach. An incredible amount of waste left the school almost on a daily basis.

There have been a great many heartening developments over the years. Certainly, in the schools of which I was a governor, in a number of schools with which I was familiar in my own local authority and in the schools I visited across the country in my time at the Department for Education, and since, what I have seen has led me to believe that an enormous amount is going on in schools to promote healthy eating. That includes curriculum work.

However, it now appears that the Secretary of State is to reintroduce the notion of nutritional standards, which I suspect will come either from the Food Agency, as an adviser, or from the Government's Chief Scientist and his staff. Fashion about what does and does not comprise "healthy eating" changes so frequently that the notion that every single school child will receive a missive from on high, saying what he or she should eat on a daily basis, is almost incredible.

It is an inflexible policy. It appears that children will have to eat what is set out by the Secretary of State under the regulations to be made by him under the powers of Clause 107. I am certainly not against guidance, which would be helpful to some schools. However, there is the bizarre practical question of the growing number of children who take their own lunch to school. There will be no control whatever over what they eat. Schools are doing sterling service in trying to persuade parents to ensure that there is fruit in their child's lunch-box and that the child does not eat too much chocolate or too many sweets or crisps. Schools are doing what they can, but, ultimately, when a child opens his or her lunch-box, he or she will eat whatever the parent has put there. In many schools, the majority of children will bring in a lunch-box and there will be no nutritional control over them, while sitting alongside them will be children who should be eating their school liver and cabbage but who will probably be wasting most of it.

I am disheartened to see a return to such detail. Oh, that there were more detail in the clauses on action zones! The amount of detail on matters such as this is extraordinary. Guidance is more appropriate and we are given absolutely no detail on the very big political and educational issues.

I hope the Minister will appreciate the fact that schools would welcome guidance. The Government are setting all sorts of serious practical problems for many schools which may have disposed of their kitchens. Other schools may have a majority of pupils who eat their lunch from lunch-boxes provided externally. I hope that the Minister will see the merits of providing guidance, but not a diktat from above. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

I shall resist the temptation of arguing with the noble Baroness about the value of spinach or carrots. Her contribution failed to recognise the difference between nutritional standards and the provision of uniform meals. It is true that considerable progress has been made in a number of schools in ensuring that food is of a better nutritional standard and more enjoyable. However, that is not the case in other schools. Technically, as the amendment stands, it would remove the provision of compulsory nutritional standards from the Bill. In fact, the Secretary of State is already capable of issuing voluntary guidance—and has done so. Therefore, these provisions are, in effect, opting for the status quo.

In conjunction with other measures to improve food safety and standards, the Government believe that voluntary guidance was an important step but that compulsory nutritional standards are needed to ensure at least a common minimum in terms of nutrition in all school lunches. It is important that all children attending a maintained school should have the opportunity of a healthy school meal in whatever form it comes. That is commensurate with our drive to avoid an increase in diet-based diseases among schoolchildren and beyond, leading to diseases and premature death. The opportunity of a healthy school meal should not depend on the particular school attended and on whether its regime recognises nutritional standards. The short and long-term health of all children is vital.

I should have thought that Members of the Committee would agree that it is particularly important that children who are entitled to free school meals are guaranteed the opportunity of a nutritional, healthy meal in the middle of the day. Clause 107 guarantees just that. This can be mocked as the noble Baroness attempted to do so in her opening remarks. However, for many children it is vital that we accept the responsibility for ensuring that they have at least one decent meal per day. That is the intention of this clause. I ask the noble Baroness on reflection to withdraw her amendment.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

I am very much in favour of this measure. Over the years there has been a dreadful deterioration in the diet of children in this country. My generation, born at the end of the war, and those who lived through the war—we did not like the lack of choice—were the most healthy and we had healthy eating habits. Those of us who have visited schools recently will have been appalled to see children eating packets of crisps for breakfast. We are storing up tremendous problems for the future. Anything that we can do to encourage children and ensure that they eat healthily is to be applauded. I suffered as a teenager from my parents' belief that because of rationing they would be kind to me and let me eat various things. It was a tremendous mistake and made me rather strict with my own children. But now they are older they appreciate that there is a point in caring about what they eat. For that reason it is important to have minimum nutritional standards at least in early years. We know from all the surveys carried out that eating habits are developed in early years, and those are habits of a lifetime. If we do not get at children when they are young, we will store up all kinds of problems for the future.

Although on the whole I am not in favour of lots of regulation, I have a great deal of sympathy for this measure. If one looks at France, Germany and Scandinavia, those countries are very strict on these matters. Many of their schools provide free food to pupils, which ensures that they get a proper diet. I give this measure my warm support.

Baroness Blatch

I shall not press these amendments. However, my understanding is that the lifespan of men and women has increased quite dramatically. All the figures that I have seen indicate that life expectancy is higher than it was—certainly much higher than when I was a girl. My argument is about promotion. We must continue to promote healthy eating vigorously. I am concerned about rigidity: once it is written in, that is the law.

A very large percentage of children—I suspect, in primary schools, the majority of children—eat lunches outside the jurisdiction of the school. They eat within the school boundaries but lunches are provided by parents. This clause does not touch on that matter. Therefore, one will have a very large proportion of children who will not be caught by this. Before I withdraw my amendment, perhaps the noble Lord can tell me what evidence he has to suggest that there has been a rise in diet-related diseases among children and a rise in premature deaths due to diet. What is the source of that evidence?

Lord Whitty

Perhaps I may have elided two different matters. I do not have at my fingertips the evidence for increased child diseases. I have in mind obesity and breathing difficulties, which can be related to diet. In extreme circumstances in some communities malnutrition has increased. As to premature deaths, I was referring to the knock-on effects into adult life. I do not believe that there is a significant increase, if any, in premature deaths among children. I am sorry if what I said was misleading. However, I am fairly sure that I can produce statistics to show an increase in diet-related diseases in school children.

Baroness Maddock

Perhaps I may assist the noble Lord. I am aware that yesterday the Diabetic Association had an exhibition in the House. I am also aware that this morning it launched a report that demonstrated an increase in diabetes particularly connected with today's eating habits.

Baroness Blatch

As the mother of a diabetic child, I can say that it is not eating habits that cause diabetes. It is a breakdown in a particular part of the pancreas. In children it is not diet that causes diabetes. In older people it is diet, but in children it is a breakdown in the function of the pancreas. In my son's case, it was an attack of German measles that was both internal and external.

Baroness Maddock

I realise that what the noble Baroness says is true. Nevertheless, I report what I heard on the radio today: that there are two types of diabetes, as the noble Baroness said. There is concern that there is an increase of diabetes among younger people, but not of the type that the noble Baroness's son had.

Baroness Blatch

I had a lot to do with child diabetics. I know that I am talking about child diabetics and not adult diabetics. If the noble Lord will write to me with the specific evidence to which he referred on the rise in diet-related diseases and premature deaths, I should be grateful. I find the evidence and piece of research interesting. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 233ZJ to 233ZM not moved.]

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 241H:

Page 82, line 1, leave out ("has the meaning given by regulations under this section.") and insert (", in relation to a pupil, means food made available for consumption by the pupil as his midday meal on a school day, whether involving a set meal or the selection of items by him or otherwise.").

The noble Lord said: This is another amendment to put into effect the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee proposals. The committee invited the House to consider whether Clause 107 should be amended either to remove the power to define "school lunch" in Clause 107(5) or to put a definition in the Bill.

The Government agree that there is merit in that view. These amendments are therefore designed to define a school lunch on the face of the Bill. A school lunch can be but is not always a set meal. In the majority of secondary schools and in some primary schools a cafeteria style system exists where people are free to select whatever combination of items they wish. Those are part of the arrangements to which the noble Baroness referred earlier.

These amendments cover both arrangements. They are also designed to ensure that nutritional standards and the duty to provide paid meals only cover food which is part of the midday meal, therefore excluding sales of confectionary and crisps at whatever time of the day they are acquired.

There are occasions when LEAs or schools provide food in advance at midday to pupils for consumption at their midday meal. For example, a packed lunch may be supplied for pupils going on a school trip. It is intended that this should be covered by the nutritional standards provisions.

The amendments to Clause 108 apply the same definition of a school lunch to the new obligation to provide a paid lunch. Consequently, an LEA may meet its obligation by providing food either as a set meal or a cash cafeteria but not just by tuckshop sales. The last amendment is consequential on those two. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 107, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 108 [Extension of LEA functions concerning school lunches, etc.]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 241J and 241K:

Page 82, line 11, leave out ("meals") and insert ("school lunches").

Page 82, line 27, leave out ("has such meaning as may be prescribed."") and insert (", in relation to a pupil, means food made available for consumption by the pupil as his midday meal on a school day, whether involving a set meal or the selection of items by him or otherwise."").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 108, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 109 [Transfer of LEA functions concerning school lunches, etc. to governing bodies]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 241L:

Page 83, line 16, leave out ("meals") and insert ("school lunches").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 109, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 110 [Definition of nursery education]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241LA:

Page 84, line 5, leave out ("suitable for") and insert ("appropriate to the developmental stage or).

The noble Baroness said: We move on to some important aspects of the Bill relating to nursery education. I believe that nursery education means full-time or part-time education not that is "suitable for" but is "appropriate to the developmental stage of children who have not attained compulsory school age. I have tabled the amendment largely to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that at all stages of education, particularly at pre-school age, the stage of development will differ. There are many examples of children being inappropriately placed either in a large infant class or in a reception class. It is important that, if a major part of the Bill is to be dedicated to nursery education, the words "appropriate to the developmental stage of a child are included. Some children are more advanced and some will lag behind and need a great deal more attention. The most traditional forms of child education cater for that either through the personal care of mothers, through specialised nursery education where, under guidance, children are able to select their learning tools and learn by imitation and action, or in small groups with the support of mothers and volunteers.

All those approaches allow for flexibility and, where possible, a personal response to each individual child. It is not sensible or satisfactory for local authorities, still less the Government, to second guess the opinions and knowledge of parents and nursery teachers. Setting out rigid programmes of work or syllabuses of curricula for children of this age is not right because the needs of each child differ radically. Therefore, prescribing methods in such a rigid fashion would be difficult.

I am worried about the word "suitable". The provision can be suitable for the LEA and it can be suitable for the wrong reasons. A paramount consideration should be the developmental, educational and social needs of the child at that age. The words that I wish to put on to the face of the Bill will allow the Government to show their determination not to allow unsuitable provision in large local authority reception classes. I can point to many examples of that. No one who has the interests of individual children at heart could object to the wording. In that vein, I hope that the noble Baroness is able to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. I entirely agree that the nursery education which each child receives must be appropriate to his or her needs. Those needs will vary between children and there should be no question of forcing teaching and learning beyond that which is appropriate for the individual child. Equally, the most able children should not be held back.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to review what is known in the jargon as desirable learning outcomes which children in nursery education work towards. In doing so, it will cover specifically the concerns which the noble Baroness is expressing—they have recently been expressed by a number of others—about over-formalising early education. During my early career, I spent some time working on nursery education and I strongly believe that it should not be over-formalised.

When planning the provision of nursery eduction for four year-olds in an area, early years development partnerships must ensure that there is sufficient diversity of provision to meet the differing needs of the children in their area. Parents are best placed to choose the provision that is right for their child. Once a child is attending a particular provider, parents and staff ought to work together to ensure that the child's needs are met. Part of the role of the inspectors is to check that that is happening. Through our consultation on the regulation of early education and day care, and through the review which is being carried out by the QCA as well as through a review of qualifications and training, we will make sure that the education provided for four year-olds in all settings is of good quality and appropriate to the needs of the children concerned. That must include provision in reception classes. I should remind the noble Baroness, however, that it was the nursery education voucher scheme which led to an unfortunate and uncontrolled increase in the number of children admitted to reception classes as both schools and LEAs tried to maximise their income from vouchers. But we are trying to stop this.

We have already made it clear to LEAs in our guidance on drawing up early years development plans that we did not expect plans to provide a free place for all four year-olds simply by expanding reception classes. We have asked all partnerships to set out in their plans a strategy for raising quality and, in particular, to monitor how well provision in reception classes meets the needs of the youngest four year-olds. However, it would, I think, be wrong to assume that it is always bad for a child to be in a reception class. Ofsted's evidence, including the latest report, which will be published on Friday—but which I think the noble Baroness may have seen because at my request a pre-publication copy was sent by Ofsted to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Tope—suggests that most reception classes provide satisfactory or better education for four year-olds. I think that in the best reception classes teachers are often ably assisted by additional staff. Some pupils benefit from the flexibility that is offered to move beyond the desirable learning outcomes when they are ready.

Our firm intention is to ensure that every child receives good quality nursery education that meets his or her individual needs in whatever setting the parent may choose. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that the way to do this is not through amendments such as these, which seek to change a definition of nursery education which we believe is already quite broad enough for the purpose they envisage, but by actually influencing what happens on the ground. We have already made good progress on this and we shall go on pursuing it vigorously. So I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw these amendments.

10 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

I simply find it impossible to understand how I am changing the definition of education. If the noble Baroness is saying that to provide "appropriate to the developmental stage" of a child is changing the definition of education and is not consistent with what the Government want, I am really at a loss. I should have thought that the Government would at least sign up to the notion that any provision should be appropriate to their developmental stage, certainly for children who are in the most formative years of their lives. The accusation that my amendments change the definition of nursery education is perplexing. But I shall withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 241A:

Page 84, line 6, at end insert ("whether or not such education is provided in classes which include older children").

The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 241 and I shall speak also to Amendment No. 241F.

These two amendments are about definitions. It is not clear in the definition of "nursery education" in the Bill whether that would include education of children under compulsory school age in mixed classes with children of compulsory school age. My Amendment 241A would clarify that issue.

Amendment No. 241F addresses a rather different problem. I am advised that the phrase "nursery classes" is nowhere defined in statute. Nursery schools and reception classes are defined in the Education Act 1996. Nursery education and infant classes are defined in this Bill, but nursery classes are not defined. I suggest that it is important they should be. They are referred to not only in the Children Act but also in the recent consultation paper published by the department concerning Early Education and Day Care. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in both of his amendments.

Baroness Blackstone

The noble Lord is quite right to say that there is no statutory definition of a nursery class. Equally, there is no statutory definition of the difference between pre-school, a private nursery school and a day nursery. But what is important is not what a certain classroom or institution is called or how it is defined but what children experience when they are in that setting.

In fact, by defining any setting too closely, we should run the risk of removing the flexibility of provision to evolve alongside children's needs. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on the previous amendment, I agree that it is important that nursery provision meets the child's social, physical, emotional and educational needs.

Although we welcome the diversity of provision which comes from a mix of types of provider, I sympathise entirely with the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about such matters as staffing ratios, a concern which he has expressed previously, and the regulatory differences between the different types of early-years providers. The noble Lord will know also that I share his view that the current arrangements do not make very much sense. I have sympathy with those who call for a rather more level playing field. That is why we are consulting on the regulation of early education and day care, including the issue of adult-child ratios, which is mentioned specifically in one of the noble Lord's amendments.

Through that consultation and through the review of the desirable learning outcomes—

Lord Northbourne

I was speaking only to Amendments Nos. 241A and 241F. I had intended to make a few remarks about the other amendments, although I shall try to be brief. Perhaps the noble Baroness is answering all my amendments.

Baroness Blackstone

I was not moving on to the later amendments. I am aware that the noble Lord has tabled other amendments but if he thinks that I am anticipating them in some way, I shall not continue.

I hope that I have given the noble Lord some reassurance. I do not believe that there is a need for these amendments because the Government are absolutely committed to the provision of nursery education that meets the needs of all children. The statutory definition which the noble Lord suggests does not seem to us to be necessary.

Lord Northbourne

I accept what the noble Baroness says and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 241F not moved.]

Clause 110 agreed to.

Clause 111 [Duty of local education authority as respects availability of nursery education]:

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 241B:

Page 84, line 17, after ("education;") insert— ("() shall have regard to any facilities for providing education not supplied by the local education authority but which are or may become available within their area; () shall ensure that in the provision of such education the ratio of children to adults does not exceed the maximum ratio set out in guidance to the Children Act 1989 or any subsequent guidance issued by the Secretary of State, and shall ensure that any requirements as to qualifications which are required by that guidance are complied with; () shall have regard to the social and emotional needs of children in respect of class or group size and learning environment; () shall have regard to the role of parent participation and involvement in such education;").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 241C to 241E. These amendments express my concern on three issues. The first is that there seems to be too little provision in the Bill for what the Children Act describes as children in need. I am not talking about children with special educational needs, although some children in need may well have special educational needs. Children in need often come from families which have not been able to give them the parental support they need in the pre-school years. Very often, they have poorly developed emotional maturity and social skills. They need special care. They need a high ratio of caring adults to children. They need small classes with freedom from bullying by other children. I do not find anything in the Bill which provides for that category of children.

My second concern is about partnership. The Government have expressed their desire to have a partnership with the independent and voluntary sector. It is not possible to have a partnership if the partnership is too unequal. There is already some evidence to suggest that local authorities are what I can only describe as "bullying" the independent and voluntary sector by not keeping them fully informed.

There are three risks involved. The first is that the rules and regulations which the Government provide for the private and independent sector as opposed to the state sector will produce a level playing field. There is a particular problem in that respect as regards inspection. In many areas today—for example, in old people's homes—the local authority is both the judge and the plaintiff in its own cause. Such authorities inspect their own homes, but they do not do so with the same rigour as applies when they inspect homes which are run by the voluntary and independent sector.

Secondly, there is what is called in business the "waste paper basket principle"; that is to say, you fill your own accommodation first and then, if you have any left over, you make it available to your clients. In some cases, I believe that local authorities are doing precisely that in regard to old people's homes. They keep their own homes full and they let the voluntary and independent sector take up the overflow. Those are areas where the Government need to be concerned.

Finally, there is the question of the involvement of parents. We all agree that the most important single factor in a child's success at school is the involvement and support of parents. That is particularly important in the pre-school years. Without that kind of support from parents, the Government's new and admirable strategies will fail some children. I argue that teachers should not operate in an ivory tower; indeed, they should be concerned to build on the love and trust of children for their parents and to secure the kind of educational outcomes which we all want to see. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford

I rise to express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We have reached an important part of the Bill which deals with the very formative years of children. Having three grandchildren aged five, three and nearly three, I well appreciate that needs vary between children. Therefore, I should like to go through some of what the noble Lord said.

There is one matter which worries me about the Bill at present. In her previous reply, the Minister indicated that the Government are giving thought to pupil-teacher relationships. If my understanding of the provision is correct—and the noble Baroness will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—if children go to a starter class in a mainstream school the ratio is not the same as that required for nursery education provided elsewhere. I believe that the ratio in respect of private nursery education or playgroups is one to eight, whereas it is one to 15 in state schools. Therefore, straight away one does not have a level playing field.

One of the concerns that has been expressed to me is that there is a much greater squeeze on the voluntary and smaller groups and, indeed, on private nursery education which is already being provided because more of the maintained schools now accept children at the age of four. Surely that is not right. When the matter was debated in the other place the Minister, Miss Morris, stated again that she really wished to see wide provision. I am sure that that is a view which is shared by all Members of the Committee. Indeed, we want to see a variety of provision because the needs of one four year-old are not the same as those of another four year-old. Yet, by the very nature of the current situation, I understand that a ratio of one to eight compared with one to 15 does not enable those concerned to provide the same kind of education provision.

When the Minister replies, I should be most obliged if either he or she—I do not know which one it will be—could tell us a little more about the thinking behind this provision. It is most important that such provision should be diverse. The present provision should not be squeezed; and, indeed, we should be able to have playgroups and private nursery schools as well as entrance at the age of four to the maintained primary schools.

The noble Lord mentioned an interesting point. When I worked with WRVS we worked with old people and I had dealings with old people's homes. Perhaps it is not fair to the Minister to mention this matter as she is not briefed on it, but she may be able to comment on it. I was acutely aware of the strictures that were laid down with regard to the way in which private old people's homes were run and were inspected. I understand that in many cases local authority old people's homes were inspected by the local authority's own councillors. I am anxious to establish a level playing field in this regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned parental involvement. As a grandparent I believe that is extremely important. Involvement in a playgroup can comprise one of the child's parents not simply taking the child to the playgroup but becoming involved in its organisation. That makes a great contribution to the group. I fear that that kind of provision will be squeezed. I shall not lose that fear unless I receive some good reassurances from the Minister. I believe that in many cases the variety of provision that currently exists will be squeezed out of existence. I shall stop at this point but I reiterate my support for the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance on the issues that the noble Lord and I feel strongly about.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his efforts to persuade the Government to sort out the muddle of early years provision. I do not wish to be contentious at this time of night but I do not believe that the introduction of vouchers helped the situation. That was followed by a change of government. I support the Government as regards early years provision. They have said that they will make early years provision available for all four year-olds, and eventually for three year-olds. The Minister indicated that the Government are still undertaking consultation on that. For that reason it will probably be difficult to pursue this in any great depth tonight. However, we as a party support the provision of early years education for all three and four year-olds whose parents want them to take part in it.

I hope that the Minister can give us an inkling of the Government's proposals on this matter. However, I envisage problems for local education authorities in this regard. We have a large Bill before us and sometimes I wonder whether what we shall get out of it will correlate to the amount of discussion we have had on it. Schools and local education authorities want to know what will happen in this sector. When are the Government thinking of including three year-olds in this provision? Local education authorities and schools need to know that to be able to plan for the future.

Ministers in another place have clearly stated that they do not consider education for four year-olds to comprise merely accepting them into reception classes. However, that has happened. That may not be entirely this Government's fault, but it has happened. In the past year, that has resulted in some 800 community based pre-schools closing. People believe that another 1,500 may close in the future. Recently the pre-school alliance conducted a survey which showed a huge drop in the number of four year-olds attending pre-school groups. I hope that the Government will take those matters into account because I feel there is a real problem here. I believe that all of us have the same intention.

I hope that if nothing else comes out of the Bill we can try to sort this matter out. At an earlier stage I expressed sympathy with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the ratio of children to teachers in different early years education establishments. It is an awful muddle. When we consider that a child can one week attend what is termed a playgroup with a small ratio of children to staff and the very next week can attend an establishment where there is a much higher number of children per members of staff, it is crazy, and something ought to be done about it.

I appreciate that it is not easy. I shall be interested to know how the Minister sees the future, and whether we are likely to receive any indication before the next stage of the Bill. I can see the noble Baroness looking rather disappointed. This matter is important. The Minister may be able to give us some indication tonight. When I think of all the bits of schooling that we have at present, this is a mess. Everyone has now come to agree the importance of education in a child's early years, and the importance, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, of involving parents. That is where we set up the sort of relationships between schools, parents and children that can be fruitful in the future. It is not so easy with older children; this is where it starts. If we can engage parents at this stage, we shall do more for the future of our children than by any other provision.

Baroness Blatch

I also support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. The sector of under-fives provision where parents are most involved and inextricably linked is the playgroup sector. Playgroup provision has traditionally worked with the family. I have seen nothing in the early years documents from the DfEE which defines playgroup provision as appropriate for a four year-old. The promise for four year-olds does not appear to include, as a formal part of the provision, a place in a playgroup. The blame for the difficulty playgroups have had has been laid at the door of the voucher system. I am afraid that playgroup provision still appears to be on the decline under the Government's proposals.

There is a difficulty with the idea of a level playing field. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said it is all a bit of a mess, the sadness is that the generous ratios in terms of money—those that are most cost-effective—are in LEA provision. Those that are, by the strictures of law, more expensive but very often of a high quality are, of course, private. That works against private provision.

Much has been said about how destructive the voucher scheme was. Interestingly, I was talking the other day to a nursery teacher in the LEA-controlled public sector who said that the new system is not very different. As the money follows the child, then the school that has the child gets the money, whether it is in the private or public sector. Therefore the only difference between the voucher system and the system advocated by the Government is that, instead of the parent positively making the choice, the LEA is contracting on behalf of the parent. So there is not a great deal of difference—the money is going where the child is. LEAs will inevitably want to keep the money and keep the children. That presents all sorts of tensions for those who provide education outside the LEA.

The Government have done quite a lot to try to persuade local authorities to work in co-operation and partnership with local authorities. I want to reinforce the points made on partnership by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Some of my amendments seek to establish a formal partnership committee bringing together all the providers, the LEA and other nursery providers, to make sure that changes are made with the agreement of the partnership. It will be interesting to hear the noble Baroness's comments when we debate those amendments.

This is a very interesting area. Choice and diversity must be as appropriate for under five year-olds as it is for all other children. There is a tapestry of provision, much of it very good, some of it different. The needs of these children differ, and I therefore go back to my first amendment. We want a system that is flexible enough to provide for the different needs of different children, making the best of, and exploiting, what the private sector and the public sector have to offer in partnership.

Baroness Blackstone

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for reminding us once again of the primary importance of the needs of the child. Indeed, I think everyone who has spoken in this debate has made that point. It is one that the Government entirely accept and agree with. It is so important with children of this age group.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made some important points about involving non-maintained providers in planning nursery education, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Maddock. This is an area where we are all genuinely in agreement.

The Bill makes clear that the duty on an LEA is to "secure- places. That does not mean that the LEA provides all the places itself, nor should it. As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, we expect LEAs to have regard to the available non-maintained places in the area, and we have been working hard to persuade them of the importance of this.

Different children and different parents have different needs, and we want to ensure that those needs can all be met. Some children will be fine in a nursery or reception class; others will need something slightly different, maybe something a little more homely. Parents should be able to choose the type of provision that they think is most suitable for their child at his or her particular stage of development.

Several speakers, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned parents—the noble Lord always does so when we debate these matters. To help parents become more involved in making these choices, we want them to have access to a range of information about the types of provision available. LEAs and early years development partnerships must produce this information without bias to any sector. We also want to involve parents in planning local provision. Our guidance requires a parental representative to be included on the early years development partnership and requires the partnership to consult parents with young children on the content of the plan.

The noble Lord specifically mentioned children in need. Although the main focus of plans is to set out how a free, good quality place will be provided for all four year-olds, we have also asked partnerships to consider provision for three year-olds. They have been asked to set out in their plans what provision is available for three year-olds at present and their policies for increasing and improving this provision in future. The announcement of the national childcare strategy and the incorporation of elements of this into early years development plans will further help with the planning of integrated and appropriate provision for children of all ages, including children in need.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of partnerships. In drawing up early years development plans, partnerships are asked to take into account children's services plans and reviews carried out under the Children Act and also to consider how best they could identify and address the particular requirements of children in need.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Maddock, mentioned the issue of a more level playing field between different kinds of provision, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said that it was a bit of a mess at the moment. I entirely sympathise with the concerns of both noble Baronesses. There is a problem in relation to the staffing ratios and other regulatory differences between the different types of early years providers.

Members of the Committee will be aware that the Government share the view that the current arrangements do not make much sense, and we must do something about them. We are looking at these issues closely through our consultation on the regulation of early education and daycare. But it is a complex issue and it would be unwise to rush into it. We must not forget that in 18 years the previous government did nothing to address inequalities in the different regimes. We want to be sure that the changes we make are right, and right at the first time of asking. We do not want a second consultation on the same issues a few years down the line because we make hasty decisions now. We have therefore deliberately allowed a lengthy consultation period—over four months—to allow all those who want to respond to make detailed and well-considered contributions. We will then look in detail at what the changes will require in terms of cost and legislation, and any other practical difficulties that may arise.

I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on the importance of including private and voluntary sector providers on early years development partnerships. Again, that is something raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

I am sure that all those who have taken part in this debate will be pleased to hear that this amendment on representation and partnerships is unnecessary. The current guidance on early years development partnerships and plans makes it clear that non-maintained providers should be represented on early years development partnerships, along with all the other interested parties. Officials paid close attention to partnership membership when scrutinising this year's plans, and the guidance will be given statutory force by this Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked how soon we would be able to include three year-olds. I cannot give her the answer today. Again, this is one of those issues on which we await the results of the comprehensive spending review. The noble Baroness also asked whether I would be able to give any indication before the next stage as to how we would respond to some of these issues, including this issue of the level playing field. Because we have a long consultation on these complex matters—it does not close until 31st July—it would be premature to try to answer these questions before that time.

Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Byford, asked about playgroups. We do not want to squeeze out playgroups; that is the last thing we want to do. Indeed, we provided £500,000 to help support good quality playgroups, some of which have been partly threatened by what happened under the voucher scheme.

Baroness Blatch

On that point, can the Minister say whether a place in a playgroup is an acceptable way of meeting the pledge for a nursery place for all four year-olds?

Baroness Blackstone

The answer to that question must be no. We have given a pledge that all four year-olds can have a nursery place in a variety of different kinds of provision. Perhaps I should correct myself. I believe I am right in saying that, if it is a playgroup that has been accepted as of high quality, it will be acceptable. If it is part of an early years development plan that is put forward by a local education authority where playgroups are going to be included, the answer is that it will be possible.

The noble Baroness suggested that playgroups are not mentioned in the guidance. That is not quite correct. There is a reference to them on page 13. They are listed as an example of an acceptable form of provision.

I have tried to cover all the questions that have been raised. I think that I have. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will accept that we are already taking action on the points that he raised and that, in the light of that, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Byford

Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may come back on a couple of points. I am grateful to her for her response and I do not intend to get into a political debate. She implied that the previous government had done nothing over the past 18 years. However, the new intake of the reception classes is a very recent development and has implications for the other varieties of provision. This did not happen 18 years ago; it evolved only recently. The ratio equation is of immense importance because it affects those who provide private nursery places. They are in competition with maintained primary schools.

While I am not making a political point. 1 wish to stress that this problem is accentuated now because more parents realise that there is a place for children in reception classes at primary schools which was not there before. This is having a direct effect, and a very immediate direct effect, on the other providers. That is why I wished to come back before the Minister sat down.

Baroness Blackstone

I did not imply that nothing was done over the past 18 years; I said that nothing was done. That, in fact, is the case. I also do not entirely accept that, because of the Government's decision to make a pledge that all four-year olds should have a place in adequate nursery provision, somehow or other these differences have become magnified. They have always been there. They have been there for many years. They were there when I first started to study this subject nearly 30 years ago.

I have already said that we will be looking at this issue. We are going to take it on board. We are consulting about it and we shall come up with a solution.

Lord Northbourne

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for all she has been able to say. When I spoke previously I omitted to thank her for arranging for a preview of the draft Ofsted report on the quality of education to be sent to me, which, unfortunately, I received only this morning and which caused me slightly to change what I was planning to say this evening in respect of these amendments. It is encouraging that the report will be published on 12th June and that this will perhaps inform the next stages of the Bill, or will be useful in discussion of the next stages of the Bill.

I should like to thank the noble Baroness for giving the assurance that representatives of the non-maintained providers will be included in the consultations about local provision. The consultation will not be completed until 31st July, so we shall not know the answers until the autumn. That makes it much more difficult to frame amendments in this context. However, I have done my best. I shall look at what the noble Baroness has said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241BA:

Page 84, line 17, after ("education;") insert— ("() shall have due regard to the importance of diversity of provision and philosophy of education and, in particular, to the right of the parents or guardians of children who have not attained compulsory school age to make private arrangements with non-maintained providers of nursery education for the education of their children in such manner as may seem satisfactory to them, whether or not such providers conform in every respect to any guidance on nursery education which may be given by the Secretary of State or by local education authorities;").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 241DA, 241DB and 241EJ. I agree most strongly with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has just made. This part of the Bill ought to have been in the next Education Bill. It is bizarre to try to discuss amendments and to get all evening from the noble Baroness only the answer, understandably, that everything is in the melting pot and that the Government are consulting. By the time the consultation is over the opportunity to do something about it in terms of what does or does not appear on the face of the Bill will have passed by. That is very unfortunate indeed.

My first amendment is an important one. It goes directly to the core of two issues which are at the forefront of the worries among nursery providers about current government policies. First, there is the importance of diversity and conformist regulation and bureaucracy. There is a plethora of that. Secondly, there is the importance of parental choice.

The worry is that the state will squeeze the private sector and voluntary sector by stealth out of pre-school education. Although there is a great deal of exhortation, the truth is that the LEAs will want the money and be close to the provision. The Committee may or may not appreciate the immense burden of regulation, inspection and form-filling that nursery schools now face. On top of that there is the new bureaucracy and the arm twisting with LEA development plans. I believe that most of this bureaucracy is unnecessary. It is something of an imposition on experienced and dedicated nursery teachers. Many of them have said to me that it is removing much of the pleasure that they once took in teaching.

There are self-appraisal documents; forms with box after box to be filled in; un-numbered pages of regulations and the vexatious and frequently duplicated inspections. All that is very hard to bear for these schools. There is more than a suspicion among private and voluntary educators that it is about crushing diversity. I know that is not the Government's intention, but they will need to keep an eagle eye on what is going on to see that those kinds of things do not happen.

There is another fear that the Government are using their regulatory powers and taking more powers in this Bill in order to do what Parliament has never willed—and, I believe, never would will—the creeping nationalisation of nursery education.

The amendment does two important things. It safeguards freedoms which I hope this House and Parliament should hold high. It also enjoins the state sector, which has the whip hand now that the Government have abolished the parental choice of the voucher, to preserve maximum diversity. It enshrines the principle, with which surely everyone must agree, that the regulations and guidelines of the Government and local authorities do not interfere with private contracts between parents and private and voluntary providers.

I believe that the principle should be on the face of the Bill so that those in local authorities and inspectors' offices throughout the land are in no doubt that the Government and the courts will not allow private arrangements to be overriden by such rules. Are the Ministers and her colleagues prepared to give clear directions to those involved in inspecting and registering private and voluntary bodies that they may not use those responsibilities to enforce change which parents have not sought and do not need?

The first amendment is mainly about diversity. Amendment No. 241DA covers a very important point. There are some local authorities who are now asking almost gratuitously private nurseries to open up their accounts. If they have good reason for checking whether the money that has been given by a local authority has been properly used, there are proper procedures for that. But the worry is that they may require, or seek to require, the production of copies of extracts from unpublished accounts or from confidential tax documents prepared by, or on behalf of, a non-maintained provider. That is a worry. There should be some very real parameters within which the local authorities have to work.

Amendment No. 241DB says that where one has, for example, Montessori schools, Steiner schools and the like, providing good quality education which does not always conform absolutely to the edicts that come from local education authorities, if they are to be part of the tapestry of the provision for under-fives they will not have a style of education imposed on them.

Finally, there is the effect of paperwork. That is now reaching almost impossible levels for these schools. My Amendment No. 241 EJ asks that the effects of national education policy and the regulations or guidance on the non-maintained private or voluntary providers, the burden and volume of paperwork and the costs to them in time and money of compliance are taken properly into account. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

I hope that I have already made it clear how greatly we value diversity of provision, and the contribution that providers outside the maintained sector can make to good quality nursery education. I absolutely refute what the noble Baroness has just said about the likelihood of the Government crushing diversity in this area. I also refute the suggestion that the Government are involved in an arm-twisting exercise here. That is entirely untrue.

While we acknowledge the need for provision to differ in the same way as children's needs differ, there is a clear distinction between diversity and quality. Diversity does not mean that anything goes. Good quality provision can be found in all sectors, but so can bad provision, I am afraid. Nothing is more important than the support we provide to young children. If something goes wrong at this age, children can be damaged fundamentally and for the rest of their lives.

We do not want to stifle individuality or blur the distinctions between different types of provision, but we do want to be sure that parents taking up an early education place for their child which is funded by public money (although it may be private provision), can be assured of a certain minimum standard of quality. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will agree on the importance of that.

We want to be sure that all those involved in early years are consistently working together to raise that minimum standard while ensuring that it remains inclusive rather than exclusive. All providers receiving government funding under the early years development plans must agree to work towards the desirable learning outcomes and to be inspected by inspectors recruited, trained and registered by Ofsted. From September 1999, all providers will have to have the involvement of a qualified teacher.

I do not think that any of those requirements are unduly prescriptive. They are what any child in that age group deserves. The desirable learning outcomes do not define what a child should be doing each day. They are a set of goals for children to reach at the end of his or her pre-compulsory education. It is not "undue paperwork" to make sure that those goals are clearly set out and available to the providers. Individual providers can, of course, design their own programmes as long as they promote the agreed outcomes.

We have said that all settings have to have the involvement of a qualified teacher but we have left it up to individual partnerships and settings to decide exactly how that system should work. We are thus allowing initiative, flexibility and imagination. It is true that we are prepared to allow partnerships to set quality requirements over and above those set by the department and to make delegated conditions of grant in areas such as provision of information to parents. That goes back to what we were saying on the previous group of amendments. It is part of our strategy for raising standards across the board in a way which meets the needs and starting point of each local area. But LEAs will not be able to impose additional requirements willy-nilly. Any additional requirements must be a decision for the partnership and the partnership must consult on them as part of the early years development plan.

I turn now to the issue of the opening up of accounts, to which the noble Baroness referred. If there are cases where there are improper requests for accounts to be opened up, I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could write to me about them. It is not something of which the department has been aware. We have not heard of any such examples, but it would be helpful to know of any. In general, let me begin by making it clear that no money flows between the provider and the parent in respect of a free place. Nursery education grant is claimed by the provider from the LEA, which in turn claims it from the department. This is public money. We expect LEAs to take whatever steps are necessary to satisfy themselves and their district auditors that the grant is being spent on the purpose for which it is paid—that is, on nursery education. I am sure that the noble Baroness accepts that that is a proper way of regulating the use of public money.

We also expect LEAs to ensure that parents and children rather than providers benefit from nursery education grant. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that an audit process does not need to be some kind of Spanish inquisition. Although we expect LEAs to be rigorous in this area we also expect them to act reasonably. We do not want to place any artificial restraints on what LEAs can and cannot do.

In the light of what I have said I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Baroness has given a rather long and complicated answer, for which I am grateful. I shall reflect upon it. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 111 agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241BB:

After Clause 111, insert the following new clause—


(" . A local education authority shall—

  1. (a) ensure that no maintained school or voluntary aided school within its area requires children to enter school under compulsory school age as a condition, or implied condition, of admission to the said school at the age of five; and
  2. (b) ensure that, with respect to the admissions policy of any maintained school or voluntary aided school in its area, entry into the said school's reception class or classes in the term following a child's fourth birthday shall not confer any preference or advantage over other children in the same or neighbouring local authority area who may seek entry into that school at the age of five.").

The noble Baroness said: This particular amendment is designed to deal with a very real concern on the part of providers; namely, a school may make it a condition of admission that unless parents send their child to the nursery school that child will not get a place in the junior or upper part of the school. Parents who want to do what is best for their child and exercise their preference, in most cases to leave their children in the settled, secure environment of a specialist nursery class, are being told that if they do not send their children to a reception class in their preferred primary school they may not get a place at five; or, alternatively, that if they move their four year-old they will be guaranteed a place in the primary school.

Such undertakings are rarely, if ever, committed to paper. Sadly, it is all done by a nudge or wink, but to secure the resources or the child many local authority-maintained schools up and down the land are doing this. In a way, it is grossly anti-competitive and educationally damaging for many children. Their education is interrupted at this crucial development stage and they are sometimes put into a less satisfactory environment. If the choice is a good quality nursery class with a good pupil:teacher ratio and the alternative is a crowded reception class, the parent finds it difficult to exercise a preference.

I am aware that the Minister has professed concern about this in the past and I understand that the matter is being looked into. However, currently parents have no clear power in law to resist this insidious form of blackmail. The amendment would declare with utter clarity that such practices were wrong. It might also give parents grounds to pursue in the courts schools or councils that behaved in this way. I am open to advice from the department on better wording to achieve this aim. I am sure that my attempts are rather clumsy. I hope that the noble Baroness will have some sympathy for this amendment to deal with concerns that have arisen. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone

I have some sympathy with the concern that lies behind this amendment. The guidance and evaluation criteria for this year's early years development plans made it clear that information provided to parents must be without bias to any one sector and should also make it clear that children are not legally required to attend primary school until they are of compulsory school age. This message will be strengthened in next year's guidance.

I turn to paragraph (a) of the amendment. No admission authority for a maintained school can require parents to send their child to a school before the child has become of compulsory school age. Even where a school does admit before compulsory school age parents may apply for a place starting from when their child reaches compulsory school age. But where a school is popular and oversubscribed a place may no longer be available. Where schools are very popular and competition for places is high I am sure that no one will deny—least of all the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—that a very popular school that operates an early admission policy should inform interested parents of the popularity of the school. Parents should know that places might not be available at the school of their choice if they choose not to apply for a place until their child is of compulsory school age. Not to do this would deny parents the opportunity to make informed decisions. But there is a key difference between informing parents and "blackmailing" or "threatening" them. The latter are clearly unacceptable.

However, some authorities have adopted a practice of agreeing parental requests to defer entry to a primary reception class until a child reaches compulsory school age. My department will be drawing the attention of school admission authorities to this in the interim guidance on arrangements for school admissions which will be issued for consultation shortly. Where this practice is adopted, parents apply for a place at the normal time of admission but in effect the place would be held for the child until he or she is older, up to compulsory school age.

But we have no plans to require admission authorities to allow deferred entry. It is right that the decision to adopt this policy should be made at local level where an assessment can be made of any financial implications for schools and LEAs as well as the extent of disruption both for children and schools. For example, the financial implications of deferred entry could threaten the viability of small rural primary schools.

Paragraph (b) of the amendment would have the effect of severing the link between early admission to reception class and admission to the primary school proper. I sympathise with the reasons behind this part of the amendment, but its introduction would not be practical. I think that the noble Baroness was aware that this might be the case. Let me illustrate this with an example. We already have separate admission arrangements for securing a place in a primary school's nursery class and for securing a place in the same school's reception class. To then suggest that there should be another admission process to secure a primary school place at five would for some parents mean making three separate applications for a place at the same school within a period of two years. That is not a sensible position for parents.

I sympathise with what the noble Baroness seeks to achieve but I believe that severing the link between early admission to primary schools' reception classes and admission to the school proper is not the answer. The right approach is to have guidance on good practice. That is much more likely to be effective and we shall consider providing guidance on good practice in the admissions code of practice.

I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I shall reflect on what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 112 [Early years development partnerships]:

[Amendment No. 241C not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241CA:

Page 84, line 23, at end insert— ("() Every partnership shall establish a committee (the "partnership committee") which shall include broad representation of all parties concerned with early years education in the local authority's area.").

The noble Baroness said: This group of amendments dovetails in well with the earlier amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the importance of partnership. They may seem technical but they have a serious practical purpose.

The early years development partnerships are intended to involve the broader spectrum of parties in the area concerned with nursery education. In most cases it seems that they do, but the nature of these bodies is unwieldy. In terms of running the partnerships and advancing local nursery plans there will need to be an executive body. The Bill envisages in effect that this will be the local authority. It will have power to make arrangements for meetings, establish committees, and so on. But the local authority is, through its maintained schools, a provider of nursery education. In a direct sense it is a competitor as well as a partner. We discussed on Amendment No. 241BB ways in which this competition emerges. An LEA cannot be a fully impartial representative of the nursery interest in its locality.

Amendment No. 241CA seeks to ensure that the local authority should establish, as the executive body for the partnership, a committee that contains a broad representation of all the interests, all the types of providers, and professionals. I believe that it is this committee, not the local authority alone, which should organise the activities of the partnership. After all, what is the meaning of partnership if it is not that?

Amendments Nos. 241CB and 241CD ensure that the local authority should act with the agreement of the partnership as it is constituted. That is an important safeguard. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Lord Whitty

I have some sympathy with what lies behind the amendment. It is absolutely right that early years development partnerships should include representatives of the non-maintained sector and indeed a wide range of early years interests, including the local authority. But we do not intend to allow LEAs to dominate partnerships and use them to their own ends. The guidance we issued last year makes that clear. The guidance goes further. It places responsibility on LEAs for convening a partnership which includes representatives from private, independent and voluntary providers, childminders and parents as well as LEA and GM schools, the social services department, the health authority, diocesan authorities, local business and SEN groups. That is quite a list, but it enables partnerships to ensure that the full range of issues relevant to young children are taken into account in drawing up plans.

It is only now that partnerships are beginning to consider how they operate under the guidance. I do not believe that the aim of ensuring that all voices are equally heard would be achieved by establishing a partnership committee which is somehow separate from the main partnership. Indeed. I cannot see what establishing such a committee would achieve. Furthermore, the need for some representatives to attend two sets of meetings might well reduce their ability and willingness to be actively involved in the business of partnerships.

I hope that that explains our reaction to the proposal and that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I shall reflect on what the noble Lord said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 241CB to 241CD not moved.]

Clause 112 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 241D not moved.]

Clause 113 [Early years development plans]:

[Amendments Nos. 241DA to 241E not moved.]

Clause 113 agreed to.

Clause 114 [Approval, modification and review of statement of proposals]:

Baroness Blatch move Amendment No. 241EA:

Page 85, line 29, at end insert— ("() In considering such statements the Secretary of State must at all times have particular regard to—

  1. (a) such representations as may be made to him by non-maintained providers or by local bodies representative of non-maintained providers in the local authority area; and
  2. (b) such comments as may from time to time be made by the Chief Inspector of Schools on the quality and appropriateness of the nursery education provided by maintained and voluntary aided schools in the local authority area, and on the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the local education authority concerned.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 241EA, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 241EB to 241EF and 241EG, which is the final amendment standing in my name tonight.

Amendments Nos. 241EA to 241EF are designed to ensure that when considering statements from a local authority on its early years development plan the Secretary of State has a specific duty to take into account representations made by and on behalf of private and voluntary providers. That would greatly reassure them that there could be no stitch-up between the department and a local authority behind their back. It also ensures that local authorities and the department keep private providers fully informed about any changes in the plan that may be under discussion or required.

Furthermore, as is reasonable, the amendments require the Secretary of State to take into account comments from Ofsted about the general quality of the LEA and the appropriateness of its provision in deciding what weight is given to its plans.

I turn to Amendment No. 241EG. There are already great outcries about the ever increasing burden of bureaucracy. The Bill and all the apparatus that goes with it will further increase that burden. The Bill also creates an astonishingly cumbersome bureaucratic procedure for creating and monitoring the plans. I believe that we have established a right and proper principle in legislation that the compliance costs to business of any legislation should be calculated and published first. Surely, it is right that we should consider also the compliance costs on government, local government and the voluntary sector. The amendment asks the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on this and for the Chief Inspector of Schools to report on the burden as he finds it on private and voluntary providers. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

Again, to a large extent we share the desire of the noble Baroness to ensure that the drawing up of early years development plans and views from all early year interests in the area will be considered.

Obviously that consultation will raise concerns. That was certainly the case in terms of the plans that are already in place. Those concerns were considered before approval was given. That process will continue.

It is obviously also important that all providers are aware of the developments that affect plans they are part of. However, I am not convinced that we need to place a duty on LEAs to provide this information on the face of the Bill. I think the appropriate place for this is in the guidance, which will arise again for next year. This Bill will, of course, give the guidance statutory force.

As far as concerns Amendment No. 241EK, there are benefits in having a single inspection day—

Baroness Blatch: Amendment No. 241EG.

Lord Whitty

I am sorry, Amendment No. 241EG. We are talking about the same amendment. There are benefits in having a single day. However, we would not wish to legislate for that at this stage, but to consider the options in the light of consultation.

There is a further amendment relating to the impartiality of inspectors, which the noble Baroness has moved. Paragraph 12 of Schedule 26 already, in our view, ensures that inspectors cannot inspect where their connections or loyalties are suspect, so I think that is unnecessary.

With regard to the final amendment, Amendment No. 241EG, which was originally grouped separately, I think we are slightly at cross-purposes. The amendment I referred to is in an earlier group. I shall not be partisan at this stage of the evening and make more than the slightest reference to the cost of voucher schemes. Nevertheless, we consider that the conditions for participating in this Bill are considerably less than that scheme. We do not consider it is desirable to require an indication on the face of the Bill of the cost of administering this new system.

We shall of course, listen to views on this and review the guidance and requirement, and grant if necessary. But it should not be an amendment on the face of the Bill.

I hope that in the light of that rather hurried reply at this stage of the night, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch

My apologies to the noble Lord for intervening on Amendment No. 241EK. He was, in fact, right. He was speaking to Amendment No. 241EK. Amendment No. 241EG was the one which came later.

We have had a lot of warm words and a lot of sympathy. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I find it frustrating that we will not know the results of our labours until many months have passed. We shall watch vigilantly but it may just be that on reflection, when we have read what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have had to say, some of these amendments may come back at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 241EB to 241EF not moved.]

Clause 114 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 241EG not moved.]

Clause 115 agreed to.

Schedule 26 [Inspection of nursery education.]:

[Amendments Nos. 241EH to 241EL not moved.]

Schedule 26 agreed to.

Clause 116 agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 241M:

After Clause 116, insert the following new clause—