HL Deb 22 October 2001 vol 627 cc894-910

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any plans to introduce a professional qualification for those involved, or seeking to be involved, in the management of early years' provision.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise with Her Majesty's Government an issue of the utmost importance. All noble Lords believe that education in the early years is probably the most important period of education, the time when the intellect, the emotions, social skills and the physique develop rapidly, and when good foundations can be laid for the future—or not, as the case may be.

The commitment of the Liberal Democrats to high quality and inclusive early years education is well known to the House. I use the words "high quality" and "inclusive" deliberately, because they are at the heart of the question I have tabled this evening. If we do not get the quality right for all children in the early years then we risk doing irreparable damage to countless young people.

We believe that the child should be put at the centre of early years' provision and that care, health and education should be integrated, something that is particularly important for children with special needs. That is why some of the Government's initiatives on early years education made over the past four years have been most welcome.

We welcome the National Childcare Strategy as a serious attempt at co-ordination and targeting scarce resources towards those who need them most. If we have a criticism of the strategy, it is that it places too much emphasis on getting parents back to work and does not always put the child at the centre of policy.

We support the replacement of Desirable Learning Outcomes with Early Learning Goals and the establishment of the Foundation Stage, in particular its applicability to all children in the reception year. These changes, of course, have training and resource implications. Many primary school teachers who are still in post and who qualified before 1985 do not have any specialist training in early years development, such as trainee teachers can choose nowadays, so there is much professional development work to do.

I should like to explain the background to my Question. The pre-school sector is expanding rapidly and is probably the most complex in the whole of education in three ways. First, the structure of provision is extremely varied. There are childminders, voluntary and community playgroups, toy libraries, nurseries run by the state, charities, voluntary organisations and for-profit companies. The organisation of these provisions is covered by many bodies, policies and initiatives.

Secondly, the range of skills and knowledge required to deliver quality services in the sector is wide. Knowledge of appropriate teaching techniques and the value of play, childcare and health, child development, psychology, physical education, the recognition of special needs and, most of all, managerial and organisational skills are needed in all early years settings and in the organisations that run them.

Thirdly, there are numerous entry points and the academic backgrounds of practitioners who have ambitions to manage are varied. A wide range of qualifications is currently available. I counted 30 job roles and 25 different qualifications in the matrix available from the Academic Qualifications Council website and I know that the range is still developing.

I understand that three management qualifications are already available: those from BTEC; NVQ level 4 and those covered by the new Council for Awards in Childcare and Education, known as CACHE. Some of the qualifications are aimed at managers of settings and not at senior practitioners. None of them has sufficient mandatory content aimed at increasing the confidence of trainees in recognising special needs and managing resources to help children with learning and physical disabilities.

In view of the complexity of the knowledge base and the impossibility of any one person having all the skills needed to work with small children, it is common to find teams made up of several different specialists working in the field. That means that those who hold senior positions in early years' provision desperately need high-level managerial skills to ensure that the teams operate effectively for each child in their care.

Liberal Democrats have welcomed the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships. We believe in integration of care and education for children under five and the partnerships are proving to be effective vehicles for movement towards that. Although the principles behind the partnerships are sound and the DIES is enthusiastic about them, there are some problems. Local authorities are not always quite so enthusiastic in their support. Many urgent calls are being made on the available cash and priorities have to be decided. The partnerships sometimes suffer. Management of the partnerships is a very difficult task, requiring in-depth knowledge of the sector and enormous dedication. Lead partnership officers have to cope with over 40 funding streams for the implementation of their plans. There is a great need to raise the standards of managers within the partnerships to help them to meet the enormous demands made of them.

The Government have committed themselves to raising standards as well as to widening the availability of places. We applaud the establishment of the Early Years Directorate in Ofsted, but we are cautious about the level at which standards are set. If standards are too low, damage will be done and some anecdotal evidence suggests that this is currently the case. Our European partners are moving ahead of us already. For example, Spain and Portugal now expect degree level qualifications from those working in early years' provision. I understand that Ofsted is committed to reviewing standards in 2003, but I wonder if the Minister can tell the House whether that review could be brought forward?

If standards really are to be raised, there is a need for new thinking in primary schools. We call for the appointment of supernumerary early years specialist teachers in primary schools to take on the whole early years agenda. Such people could support and train other staff, work with feeder early years settings to raise the standards of provision, and would be the ideal candidates for a management of early years qualification such as we envisage, since they would already come from experienced teaching backgrounds. People working in the excellent Sure Start schemes and the Early Excellence Centres would also benefit from such qualifications. Both of those initiatives are growing, so there is a pressing need for the right people to manage them.

The expansion of early years education and childcare was never going to be easy. If the Government are to meet their goals, they will have to provide additional training for existing experienced practitioners and attract into the profession many more men and women of ability and ambition. For some of the people we need to attract, a professional management qualification, age-specific to early years, would be an attractive addition to the range of qualifications now available.

Although the National Professional Qualification for Headship would be relevant to early years settings since it focuses on generic leadership skills, few early years managers have historically undertaken it. There is a view that this may be because of the limited opportunities for career progression and the fact that, historically, graduates of NPQH working in the early years sector would still be remunerated on the main pay scale. If qualified teachers are to undertake further study on accredited courses, there is a need for age-specific leadership courses and further pay and career progression opportunities. There must be parity of opportunity for professionals in early years with their colleagues higher up the age range.

In addition, recent changes to the SEN framework, the new approach to identification and assessment heralded by the forthcoming SEN code of practice and the advent of new duties on all early years settings not to discriminate against disabled children make a review of this area all the more vital since they will mean new challenges for senior managers across early years. Awareness of these new and additional duties should permeate everything in which senior management is involved—planning, reviewing and developing policies, staff management and recruitment, and even the content of job descriptions—as well as the more specialised SENCO role.

The senior management teams of all early years settings will need training and guidance in the new duties, as will cluster SENCOs and registered childminders. All managers should in any case be required to have some level of training in identifying and responding to the needs of children with SEN, including those with low incidence disabilities such as visual impairment and deafblindness and those with complex needs. I would not expect every manager or SENCO to have in-depth knowledge of such low incidence disabilities, but they do need to feel confident about where to turn for further help and information. Modules covering this area need to be prominent and not optional in the qualifications available to those wishing to climb the ladder.

I know the qualification matrix is evolving and I welcome, for example, what the Government have done to open up access to higher education for nursery nurses and others already working in the sector. However, I would encourage the Minister to accept the case that I have made this evening for additional professional managerial qualifications to match the new duties and the expansion of the sector.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Bhatia

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for raising this issue before your Lordships' House today. I am grateful because the whole area of early childhood education until very recently has been the Cinderella in our education system. Hitherto, it has been relegated to the margins of our education system, without commitment to invest adequately in the training of professional teachers with credentials and making facilities available for children of three to five years of age.

The good news is that the Government are now making what appears to be a massive investment through the Sure Start programme in 260 of the poorest areas of the country. The emphasis is on the zero to three age group. This needs to be extended to the three to five age group in a more defined manner, with additional commitment to curriculum development and a proper teachers' training programme. The emphasis also has to be on high quality educational intervention.

I wish to declare my interest as a former board member of the High/Scope Education Foundation of the USA and having been, in a very small way, responsible for the establishment of the High/Scope Institute in the United Kingdom. Both these institutions are dedicated to early childhood education.

I firmly believe—I hope that the House believes—that the Government should help to establish programmes that contribute to the development of three to five year-olds, particularly those born in poverty.

The longitudinal research spanning four decades that was carried out by the High/Scope Foundation, known as the Perry Preschool Study, shows interesting results. The study began in 1962 with 123 children, who have been tracked from the age of three to their current age of 40 (except for those who died). Out of those 123 children, 58 children received a high quality early childhood education, with trained teachers, and 65 children received no early childhood intervention.

The research has shown, first, that the group of 58 with the benefit of an early childhood education programme graduated from high school at a greater rate—75 per cent versus 54 per cent; secondly, the girls in the programme group had fewer teenage pregnancies; thirdly, those in the programme group had better jobs with higher earnings, they had less need for welfare payments from the Government and they had fewer children out of wedlock.

An important part of the research showed that the programme group committed significantly fewer crimes—7 per cent versus 35 per cent—but, most significantly, the benefits to society of providing the programme greatly exceeded the cost of not providing it.

It was also found that, at the age of 27, for every US dollar spent in relation to the programme group, society spent 7.15 US dollars on the non-programme group. The statistics were particularly relevant to children from poor families. The evidence was compelling in pointing out that investing in early childhood education saved seven US dollars for every one US dollar spent in the early years. As a result, many state governments in the USA have invested heavily in this area of their education systems.

A pound spent today should not be seen as an expenditure but as an investment which will bring back £7 as a saving in the long run. There will be less crime, more jobs and less poverty.

I am not promoting any particular model of early childhood education. What we should be thinking about is high quality early childhood education. This needs investment in a quality teachers' training programme and a well paid profession, properly accredited and appreciated.

The scope of our early childhood education programme should cover all three to five year-olds, backed by a validated curriculum and trained teachers. The growing demand for childcare is an essential consideration in providing early childhood programmes.

The prime purpose of early childhood education is to contribute to children's development. Commitment to children's development differs from, on the one hand, custodial care that seeks only to keep children safe and out of trouble, to good early childhood teaching that promotes children's development by practices that support them at various steps on their developmental path on the other.

Apart from investing in high quality teachers, there should be a partnership with the parents. Parents should be full partners with pre-school teaching staff in contributing to children's development. Mutual respect between parents and teachers is essential. Teachers should respect parents as the experts on the lives of then- children, and the parents should respect the teachers as the experts in early childhood development and education.

Barnado's in the UK has invested substantially in early childhood education in partnership with the High/Scope Institute in the United Kingdom. Over the past six to seven years they have trained and endorsed 140 teachers and an estimated 17,000 practitioners are reaching 250,000 children. No doubt there are other successful programmes. It would be useful for the Government to evaluate such programmes and to invest by replicating them across the country.

Here again, through Sure Start, the Government are committed to carrying out a national evaluation of Sure Start over a period of seven years. It is a longitudinal study until 2007 and is said to be the biggest piece of social research the Government have commissioned in recent years. This is indeed good news as important lessons will be learnt and from that will emerge a coherent early childhood education policy to benefit future generations in the UK.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government will continue to move early childhood education from the margins to the mainstream of our education system, with adequate resources for promoting the right models of early childhood education, coupled with a rigorous accredited teachers' training programme, with adequate recognition and reward policies. Otherwise we will be consigning future generations of children, mainly from low income families, to a cycle of unemployment, crime and more poverty.

8.30 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, l am grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for raising this important Question.

The UK has a poor record in early years provision. Our spending is well below the 13 to 14 per cent of education budget that one finds, for example, in the Scandinavian countries. Indeed, provision generally in this country is well below the kinds of levels that are found across all our partner countries in the European Union. Thanks to the Government, the position is rapidly improving, but it is important to get it right. The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, rightly referred to the increasing recognition of how crucial the early years of education are in terms of learning experience and later achievement.

It has long been recognised that a mother's educational qualifications are important in terms of defining a child's achievements at school. But it is now recognised that what a mother does with a child in the early years is even more important. The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, referred to the various programmes in the United States, including the Head Start programme. I remember the Red House programme in the 1960s which was associated with the. Plowden report. It included peripatetic teachers, toy libraries and all kinds of experiences that we are now beginning to replicate in programmes such as Sure Start and the early years centres of excellence. But it is a shame that we have had to wait for 40 years to put into practice some of the lessons that were learnt in the 1960s.

The emphasis resulting from those experiments and from continuing work and research over 40 years is not merely on the importance of education but on the integration of services. We must integrate health services, social care and education in order to provide high-quality early years provision. As the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, mentioned, there is increasing recognition of the value that this achieves. He put it in terms of dollars in referring to the American experience. In this country, for every £1 spent on effective early years intervention we save £8 later in terms of having to provide for special education needs and the failures of children.

Let us go further. There is now substantial evidence that successful early years intervention helps with the problems of social inclusion, child poverty, educational under-achievement, adult illiteracy, welfare dependency and unemployment. In other words, if we are to break the cycle of deprivation, the early years are the point at which we must intervene.

Why has it taken us so long to recognise that? Two questions are raised in relation to training and qualifications in this sector. The first concerns the general level of qualifications. Why, if the early years in a child's life are so important, do we 'value professionalism in this sector so poorly? Nearly all four year-olds are now taught in a school setting by those who have qualified teacher status—although not all of them have specific qualifications in early years teaching. If we look at the under-fours—all the evidence points to the importance of those years—the bulk of the provision is not in the maintained school sector but in the private and voluntary sector, where, although 75 per cent of paid staff have some relevant qualifications, many of these are only at NVQ levels 1 or 2. By no means all settings where early years care and education are provided are led by those with qualified teacher status. Indeed, many are led by people who have no qualifications at all. The many volunteers in this sector play an important part without any qualifications. Many children from nought to three years of age are looked after by childminders, only 30 per cent of whom have any relevant qualifications, and many have relatively low qualifications.

During the House of Commons Select Committee investigation into early years provision which took place two years ago, Barry Sheerman, who chaired the committee, kept raising the question: if you will not employ a plumber who has no qualifications, why do you trust your children to people with no qualifications? It is an important question and one that needs answering.

One answer is that, traditionally, low level qualifications go back to the low level of provision, especially in the education sector. The fact that much care was counted as social care, or childcare—a term that is still used—meant that it was provided within the social services sector. So a dichotomy arises between the caring tradition of the social services sector, with its nursery nurse qualification, and the teaching tradition of classes in nursery schools which demanded some kind of teaching qualification but not necessarily a qualification in early years teaching.

As many reports have pointed out, it is important to link the two traditions. It is important in particular to ensure that those who start by taking one of the lower level NVQ qualifications should have the opportunity, if they are so inclined, to shift across into the higher levels and to be able to take degree courses and achieve qualified teacher status. The new "climbing frame" of qualifications that is being introduced will enable them to do so. But equally important is the need for recognition within the teaching tradition of the importance of early years specialisation. Opportunities must be provided to progress along that route. In other words, we need to see a general raising of standards across the board, but in particular the opening up of opportunities for those in the voluntary and private sectors to improve their skills and capabilities.

That brings me to the key issue of our debate; namely, qualifications not only for practitioners and teachers within the sector, but also for those moving into management positions. As I stressed earlier, there is a need to integrate the health and social and services sectors and the education sector. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, made clear, many diverse groups are playing a part. We have early education centres; Sure Start initiatives; peripatetic teachers attached to primary schools; outreach workers; new regeneration projects; and education action zones—to mention merely a few. There is an enormous diversity of provision.

These are now being brought together at local level in the early years development and childcare partnerships. The initiatives are now pulled together with existing public and private provision. So we are looking for people with wide experience who can work across different sectors, both within the various crosscutting initiatives and within the partnership. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, indicated, we should be working to develop at least part of this within the climbing frame of qualifications and a set of qualifications aimed at people who can integrate these skills—or perhaps more appropriately at managers of integration.

Early years education in this country has been moving fast over the past few years. From these Benches we applaud and endorse many of the new initiatives introduced by the Government. As I have argued, the early years are a vital stage in education and as a nation we have perhaps undervalued the fact for far too long. New initiatives provide an opportunity to reverse the position, but in order to succeed they require three crucial elements.

First, resources are needed—and it is not yet clear that the Government have realised quite how big the bill is likely to be. The second element is a willingness to overthrow old traditions and bring new joined-up thinking and working into this area. There is now ample evidence that people working in this area are willing to do this, provided the resources are there.

Finally, it needs leadership. Leadership to seize these opportunities and to integrate and build a new, sustainable tradition out of these new opportunities. What we are talking about this evening, therefore, is how we can grow the leaders to fulfil this third function.

I very much look forward to the Minister's response to our questions.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on selecting this subject for debate. As the noble Baroness said, the care and the education of our young children are very important.

This is a timely debate. The report on early years education which was published last December and the follow-up report which was published in May this year, together with the response from the Government, were discussed last Thursday in another place.

I noted that the chairman of the Education Sub-Committee, Mr Barry Sheerman, MP, admitted that although the report covered children from the age of nought to eight the committee mainly focused on the years three to five. One could therefore argue that the report is incomplete and the committee will have to revisit this subject before too long. Would the Minister be able to say whether there are plans to extend the work of the Select Committee on this issue?

Before addressing the issue of qualifications and training, I must refer to a concern about the distinction between care and education. I know that in some ways for the age group under discussion they are inextricably linked. However, given the way in which Whitehall works and the way in which departmental budgets are arrived at, together with complicated and often burdensome bureaucracy, it is important to know who is responsible for what, in terms of delivery of service and funding.

As so many in another place and in this House have said, there are many people involved with children during their early years. The most significant of these is the mother. The report recognises this by claiming, rightly in my view, that the parents are the first and most enduring educators of their children. There is also, for many children, considerable informal contact with other members of the family, including grandparents and also neighbours and friends, all of whom will have an impact on the development of the child.

As was said by Mr Sheerman in the Westminster Hall debate last Thursday: I want basic training, as our report strongly recommends, but I also want a graduate-trained teacher in every setting".—[Official Report, Commons, Westminster Hall, 18/10/01; col. 311.] Will the Minister agree that such a policy will signal the end of the existence of playgroups? The playgroup and mother and toddler groups have been the mainstay of the provision in rural areas. Can I ask the Minister: is the aim to have a graduate-trained teacher in every setting by a particular date? If so, what is the timescale and what will be the cost?

I agree with my honourable friend Eleanor Laing MP who, in another place, made the point that schools, both primary and secondary, are having financial difficulties. In fact, it is true to say that unprecedented sums of money are being held back by the Government to fund initiative after initiative. "Initiative fatigue" is a much-used reason given by teachers for their discontent, yet more resources are siphoned off at local government level to fund the costs of the additional bureaucracy imposed by central government.

The recommendations from the Select Committee report that have been accepted by the Government will make even greater demands on resources. It goes without saying that, unless new money is provided, every pound that is spent on new policies, however welcome, is a pound less available for the core funding of our primary and secondary schools.

To return to the distinction between care and education in the context of this debate, is the funding for childcare to come from education budgets? If not, what provision for nought to eight-year-olds is to be met from the education budget?

It would also be helpful to know from the Minister precisely who must have qualifications and what qualifications they must have. For example, will the raft of informal arrangements that are made by so many families be affected by these proposals? To what extent will they be compulsory? Who will fund the training? Who will manage the certification and validation process? In what way will the new arrangements affect the private and voluntary sector? In particular, will the Montessori training and qualifications be accepted without amendment?

Mr Barry Sheerman, when referring in another place to all those involved with the care and education of children having appropriate qualifications, said: Most people in this country would not get someone who is unqualified and untrained to fix an appliance such as a washing machine or dishwasher, even if the person were recommended or appeared in the Yellow Pages".—[Official Report, Commons, Westminster Hall, 18/10/01; col. 310.] The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, alluded earlier to a similar quote.

Most parents, grandparents and friends who have provided that informal childcare have not had formal training, and yet their instincts and natural talents have enabled them to fulfil the childcare role most effectively. For decades, untrained and often very gifted amateurs have assisted teachers in classrooms. They have contributed greatly to the lives of our young children. I do agree, however, that, where appropriate, qualifications should be developed and training should be provided to equip those responsible for the care and education of children.

The Sure Start programme, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has been in place for some time but it has slowed down in recent months. Is it true that there is a substantial underspend on the budget, and what is the reason for the delay in expanding the Sure Start programme? From the evidence given to the Select Committee it is clear that there are some concerns about this.

The role of parents was particularly emphasised in the report as a key factor in the care and education of children. I am pleased that the role of parents is to be strengthened.

My honourable friend Andrew Turner, MP, has said in another place that there is a danger of patronising, undermining or de-skilling parents by treating them as though they know less and have less appropriate instincts than the professionals who are involved in early years development. Clarification on the strengthened role of parents would be most welcome.

It has to be said, however, that all this is taking place against a background of a serious crisis in teacher recruitment. The number of vacancies has been running at a record level. There is frantic recruitment from overseas and poaching of teachers from some countries which can ill afford to lose them. A substantial number of teachers are teaching subjects for which they were not trained, and there remains a lack of core funding for schools. The level of unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy has not, as promised, decreased sufficiently, and the problem of indiscipline in the classroom is growing. Unruly classrooms and lack of protection are being cited by many teachers as the reason for leaving the profession.

There has been a massive reduction in playgroup and nursery places in the private and voluntary sectors and, finally, there is a shortage of childminders. My honourable friend Damian Green, MP, shadow Secretary for Education, has said recently that we need to reverse the trend that has seen 2,000 nurseries closed since 1997 and that protection has to be given to the early years providers, who are under a continuous and growing threat.

It will be essential for the Government to be explicit about who must train and be qualified. How many more graduate-trained teachers will be required? What will be the cost and what will be the timetable?

Finally, I must ask on behalf of the statutory school sector that any additional expenditure required to meet these recommendations should not be at the expense of primary and secondary schools.

Once again I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for the opportunity to discuss the most sensitive and formative years of young children.

8.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for initiating this debate and for providing me with the opportunity to talk about the new senior practitioner qualification which is currently under development and to agree with her on the importance of early years.

I noted the noble Baroness's comments about child-centred education and whether our focus perhaps had been too much on parents returning to work. It is within the Department for Education and Skills that these issues lie, which I think is a reasonable indication of the value that we place upon the child in this context.

I am also grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken. All have focused on how vital it is to attract and retain high quality people who can provide the very best care and education for our children. I wholeheartedly agree with that. This new initiative will play a part in helping the sector to hold on to experience and talent while meeting individuals' desire for better career progression.

I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, on the role of parents. Parents are, of course, the most important and the first educators of children. We believe strongly in supporting parents to enable them to provide as much as possible for their children.

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, mentioned the American experience of High/Scope. That US programme has an evidence based approach to early education. It is highly respectable and I believe we can all agree with the noble Lord that it has had a dramatic impact and points to the need to look carefully at the quality as well as the quantity of early years provision.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the Sure Start programmes. I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, described some of them as excellent. I agree entirely with her. The longitudinal study is, of course, extremely valuable in Sure Start.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, asked about the underspends. It is true that if you take a simplistic view there is money currently in the budget, but all of it is committed. It takes time to develop such unique programmes at a local level, building, as other noble Lords have pointed out, on bringing together in a joined-up manner (if that is not a rather bizarre expression) health, social care and education. Therefore, it is not that we have been slow or have delayed bringing forward the money; it is simply that we need to get these groups working in an effective way to enable them fully to utilise the money.

We can all support—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned this—the integration of services as being the appropriate way forward. I recognise that early years care, education and playwork have a key role in delivering a range of strategic government goals. We are committed to raising children out of poverty, in part by offering opportunities for parents to improve their skills and be able to work to support their families.

For those who work in early years provision we are committed to raising their skills and enhancing their professional reputation, recognising the important role that they play. We are equally committed to ensuring that children enjoy the benefits of high quality care and early years education. I need not remind noble Lords of the importance of those early years of play and discovery.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, asked about having a qualified teacher in every setting and whether that would mean the end of playgroups. That is certainly not the case. Qualified teachers will help support playgroups to deliver the foundation stage effectively. We work closely with those national organisations involved in that provision.

A key operational objective, therefore, is to secure 230,000 people trained to level 2 or 3 by 2004. We talked about the role of Ofsted. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked whether we could bring forward the review of regulation that Ofsted is undertaking. The answer is, no. The reason is that it will take time to embed the standards and complete the first round of inspections. At that point we can review the provision and see how it is progressing. I am sure that noble Lords will debate that at length. We are obviously working closely with the Learning and Skills Council to promote its support for training in the sector, and this is co-ordinated locally with early years partnerships, early years development and child care partnerships.

A number of noble Lords talked about the need for leadership in those partnerships. We recognise the importance of that. In an early excellence centre it is quite normal to have 40 or 50 people involved and therefore developing leadership skills is crucial and is something to which we pay particular attention.

I believe that the new qualification we are pursuing will be a huge career boost for early years workers and others. That initiative follows our education Green Paper published earlier this year. In that we made clear that we would create a new professional level and career staging post at foundation degree level for those who wish to continue working directly with young children rather than moving into a wholly managerial position. The new qualification will be a sign of professional excellence. And for people who want to progress even further, it can be a springboard to becoming a fully qualified teacher specialising in the early years. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned that.

The foundation degree is designed to link to a new employment-based route to qualified teacher status involving the achievement of graduate status and completion of initial teacher training requirements. The Government are investing £18 million over the next three years to help create these new qualifications in partnership with universities and employers and to help the first 1,000 people to start studying for them. Noble Lords will be aware that the foundation degree is a new kind of qualification launched in the summer of 2000 to provide a more work-based route to higher education. Thus, the foundation degree in early years enables learners to remain employed and to study through a variety of means including on-line and distance learning.

We are working with the universities and their further education college and employer partners to ensure that learners are well supported in the workplace, including through a mentoring scheme. We wish to ensure they are able to complete the foundation degree successfully despite the demands of work and family life.

The foundation degree is linked to a carefully constructed "statement of requirement" which sets out the content and preferred delivery processes necessary to ensure a consistent approach and maximise every learner's chance of success. More importantly in the long-term, basing the foundation degree on a statement of requirement agreed by employers through the Early Years National Training Organisation and universities will ensure that the content really does represent what is required to be a senior practitioner.

We are also supporting learners financially through course fee waiver and personal bursary schemes to help with the purchase of essential items, such as books and computer consumables. We hope, too, to develop a particularly innovative aspect of support for learners with the loan of a laptop computer and printer for their personal use. They will be able to purchase this equipment on leaving the programme. I answer that question before it is asked.

We are doing this because we want to pay particular attention to ensuring that learners are not only computer literate themselves, but are able to use information and communications technology to benefit the children in their care. It is a requirement for those wishing to proceed to qualified teacher status.

There is no time limit for completing the foundation degree, although it is anticipated that most learners will require between two and three years. The employment-based route to QTS will take a minimum of two further years, giving an average time from entering the programme to qualified status of around five years. It is certainly a substantial commitment, but the universities believe that it would be difficult to shorten the period for a work-based degree.

Everything possible will be done to ensure that each learner has a personal learning plan and access to learning and tutor support at all reasonable times. We believe that the key to the success of the new route is adequate support for learners, and we are confident that the universities and colleges involved understand this challenge and are ready to rise to it.

A number of noble Lords raised the question of special educational needs. SEN is covered in several of the modules. I, too, accept and recognise the importance of developing special educational needs work within the early years. We know that the greatest advantage is found when children are diagnosed early as requiring a special educational need and the appropriate support can he put in place.

If I may use one of the mantras which those who work with me in the department are used to hearing, it is my view that when a child arrives at school with his or her little rucksack containing pencil case, ruler and lunchbox, it should also contain a special educational needs kit that the child might need. For far too long, far too many resources in primary education have been taken up with identification assessment before providing the necessary and appropriate resources. I believe that we can do more in the early years to establish those requirements for the development of those children.

The QCA framework has provided for the first time clear, comprehensive and integrated information about the skills, competence training and qualifications needed for the wide range of jobs in the early years education, childcare and playwork sectors. It has also provided much needed consistency and clarity, and made it easier for people to know what training and qualifications they need to progress in their careers.

The framework gives the sector information and guidance on which qualifications are appropriate and gives national recognition to the standards that workers have achieved and their level of professionalism. It also provides a clear career structure for early years education, childcare and playwork practitioners by helping them to build on their past experience and qualifications for their own professional development and satisfaction. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, asked about the Montessori system. Those qualifications are currently under active consideration for inclusion within this framework.

The new framework will help people to make progress in their careers to move sideways and, if they wish, to move upwards and/or into related sectors. It describes the content and purposes of early years and childcare qualifications.

We have to recognise the contributions of others. Noble Lords—and the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, in particular—mentioned the role of volunteers. In setting the level of qualifications, one has to be mindful of the difference and variety in provision. We would not wish to do something that in any way prevented those good volunteers from working within the sector, or indeed involving parents.

At the moment there are 18 qualifications in the framework. Awarding bodies are still developing National Vocational Qualifications at Levels 2 and 3, based on the standards. Those will be added to the framework when QCA accredits them. In addition, the same bodies are reviewing their non-work-based vocationally recognised qualifications relating to the standards. Those will also be incorporated into the framework when the QCA accredits them. Those initiatives will help the sector to hold on to experience and talent while meeting the desire for better career progression.

We all recognise how vital it is to attract and retain high quality people who can provide the very best care and education for our children across all education. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, talked about the difficulties within education. Crisis is a very big word, but it is not one that I have learnt to use lightly in your Lordships' House. I do not believe that we have a crisis in education in terms of teacher recruitment, but I recognise that we have a problem. The investment that we have made in early years education is specifically aimed to help children to develop their potential and to arrive at school more able to enjoy and develop in the way that we all wish to see. It is an integrated approach to education that begins at nought and should end at 99, or possibly even older.

I once again pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for initiating the debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed to its quality. As the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, said, this is about moving from the margins to the mainstream. I echo the noble Lord's sentiments.

House adjourned at two minutes after nine o'clock.

Back to