HC Deb 18 October 2001 vol 372 cc307-48WH

[Relevant documents: First Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000–01, HC 33; the Government response thereto, in the Committee's Fourth Special Report of 2000–01, CH361; and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Education Sub-Committee on 25 April and 2 May 2001, HC 438-i and ii.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the Select Committee on Education and Employment's report on early years. I am especially pleased because I assumed the chairmanship of the Education Sub-Committee late in the previous Parliament, and this report was the first produced under my chairmanship.

I did not write the terms of reference, which were already established when I became Chairman; my able colleagues had already worked hard on that. However, I made one small contribution to the terms of reference. We were to concentrate on the years three to eight, but during initial discussions and the seminar that we initiated to discuss how we would develop the inquiry, it became obvious that it would not be wise to concentrate on ages three to eight because a child's development starts at birth: if we intended seriously to examine early years education and the early years environment, it was clear that we should start from birth. Others might have argued that we should discuss what sort of music should be played close to a pregnant woman's stomach and so on. We treated such suggestions seriously, but we decided that birth to eight was the right framework.

I start by confessing that the fascinating aspect of good Select Committee work—our Committee worked very well on the report—is that one learns so much as one goes along. My background is that of a university teacher, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you are one of my former students; I taught you a long time ago, and you were a highly successful student. I am a specialist in higher education, and when I was a Labour Front-Bench spokesman, I worked on policy for the 14 to 19 age group.

It was a delight to me to learn about early years. I had to rely on wonderful colleagues and experts who knew far more than me, and I was surprised by the sheer quality of both academic practitioners and practitioners in the field—those who are doing the job. There is a richness of voluntary organisations and non-Governmental organisations of peerless quality. There was absolutely no problem in learning what was going on from that range of experts. Had it not been for wise advice from three women—Professor Christine Pascal, Mrs Rosemary Peacocke and Professor Kathy Silva—who were special advisers to the Committee, our report would not have been of such high quality, so I thank them for their good work.

The range of evidence given to the Committee required us to get out of the rarefied atmosphere of the House of Commons and see what was happening on the ground. We pursued that course vigorously in Oxford, Bristol, London and many other places. We visited many early years settings and learned a great deal about what was happening in the field. First, we held a seminar in which we shared knowledge, then we got out and looked at good practice; in addition, we did what all good Select Committees do—obtained written and oral evidence of high quality.

We received positive responses from the Government, some of which I shall mention this afternoon. One never gets all the responses that one wants from any Government—if one does, it means that the report is not very good: one should always ask for things far beyond what one knows that the Government will give, certainly in the short term. However, the framework and background of this report were a Government who, when they entered office in 1997, were very committed to early years education. They boasted about how much cash they had committed, and despite arguments about the exact sums, there is no doubt that a lot of money has been ploughed into early years. It is the Select Committee's job to make sure that that money has been a good investment for the taxpayer.

We expect Governments to trumpet their track record and what they consider to be successes, but the Select Committee, as a body that represents Parliament, must determine whether the Government have stuck to their manifesto pledges. If they said something in their manifesto and the electors voted for them on that basis, we should be part of the tracking mechanism to find out whether they have kept their promises. Moreover, it is all very well throwing money at a problem, but if that money is wasted an opportunity is missed and no one will be very impressed.

As we went around the country and took evidence, we saw that some very good things are happening in the pre-school sector. Welcome developments are enabling children to have half-time education at four, and there is a gradual trend towards providing that at age three. All of us who know anything about the subject—I am no expert, but having had four children I have gained some practical experience of early years education—know how important it is to give children the right environment for early years development.

I have missed out one aspect of our unique inquiry. We heard from a senior student from one of the university of London's research institutes—I will later correct the record in terms of which college, although I think that it is University college. That PhD student was researching the development of the human brain in the early stages and the appropriate education for—[Interruption.] I think that that came from outside, Madam Deputy Speaker. To resume, it was important to hear from an expert on the development of the brain as it enabled us to examine what stimulation is appropriate for a child in his early years.

Any good Select Committee realises that its inquiry has not been a full job. Although we extended our period to nought to five years, and then to nought to eight, to be honest we did most of our work on the three to five period, even though we made up in part for that when we extended back to birth. However, because of that expertise on early brain development, we uncovered interesting areas that we should further examine. I believe that a Select Committee that does its job well does not simply carry out an inquiry—for example, into early years—and then say that it is done. Many people would say that on its completion a report can be put on a shelf and allowed to gather dust, but that is not right. We should return to the subject within a short time, revive it, add to it and keep on going back to it. The report deals with such a vital period of education and with such an important sector that we should not walk away and forget about it. It should be returned to as source material and built upon. I hope that special attention will later be paid to the period from birth to three.

One of the more self-evident of our recommendations, albeit one that needed saying, was to urge the Government and everyone else in the sector to take parents more seriously. The involvement of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who is sadly no longer on the Committee, was strong on that issue. He felt, as did we all, that parental involvement is essential. That may be self-evident, but the early years often seem to exclude the parent. Committee members were keen to involve the parent from the early stages of assessing a child and understanding what the child needs in terms of stimulation. Another recommendation was not to be obsessive about the age at which a child begins school, or pre-school, but instead to be obsessive about the school having the right environment, conditions and stimulation for the child; that is more important than a fixed age.

We felt it important to treat the parent as the key person in the development of the child. We wanted to say that we understood how crucial the period from nought to three is to a child's development. However, that period is also difficult to influence. The sure start programme has triggered massive investment in projects across the country, especially in more deprived areas. It is, without doubt, an interesting innovation, but during the period in which we carried out our inquiry most sure start initiatives were in their early days, so it was too soon to draw conclusions. We found that those who often needed help most were families at home, especially mothers at home who normally spend the most time with a child aged nought to three. We felt that if parents were to be reached out to, they must understand the importance of early stimulation.

At an early excellence centre in Oxford, or perhaps it was Bristol, we saw some fascinating work that brought parents into the centre even when the mother was pregnant and later when the child was tiny. Parents were taught about the importance of things that many people take for granted, such as play, nursery rhymes and other activities that stimulate children in their early years. Getting through to parents is a delicate operation—a balance has to be struck.

Later in my speech, I will make some harsh comments about the Government, but I am pleased to see that Professor Lesley Abbott, who has an extraordinary reputation in this field, has been seconded from the wonderful establishment of Manchester Metropolitan university to the Department for Education and Skills to devise a curriculum for the under-threes. That is a wonderful idea. In the past, people might have thought that a dreadful development, but I think it is a step forward which the Government took because they were encouraged by our inquiry. The issues are sensitive and I hope that the whole Chamber will understand the delicacy required in providing early stimulation for a child. The work following our report must be about how to strike a balance.

We went to Denmark, which is not particularly exotic but very pleasant. We went not because we wanted a trip, but because we wanted to see what is considered the best practice in Europe for early years. We learned a lot. One of the wonderful things about getting away from one's own country and looking at someone else's practice is that it enables one to reflect on domestic practice. I came away feeling that I did not want to recreate the Danish system in the United Kingdom, even though the Danes pour money into it and there is much to recommend it. In many cases, Danish children that are just weaned leave their families to go to some form of care at 7 o'clock in the morning, reappearing at home at 5 o'clock—a pattern that persists throughout their young lives. They see their parents only at weekends and after 5 o'clock in the evening. I would like the Danish resources but I am not sure that I would want such an all-embracing service—nor, moreover, would most of my constituents like to face 50 per cent. income tax and 25 per cent. VAT to pay for such a system. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see what the Danes are doing, and there is no doubt that they invest considerable money, resources and care in early years.

That leads me to the second part of our core recommendations. I know from our oral examination that the press have picked up on this point, but it bears repeating. 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. However, many people leave their children in the care of unqualified people who are paid the minimum wage, or sometimes less when the rules are bent.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

That is breaking the law.

Mr. Sheerman

Yes, but I am trying to be a realist.

In terms of quality of training, the pre-school care system in Denmark, which covers up to age seven, was astonishing. All staff are graduates and properly trained, and on average they earn only about 10 per cent. less than qualified teachers. According to evidence given to our Committee, pay and training in this country are worst in respect of the ages of nought to three, five and eight—probably the most sensitive period in a child's development.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I accept that training is crucial, but does my hon. Friend share my concern about the Government's response to the report's recommendations on training? They tended to focus on the need to get more child care workers with qualified teacher status and more graduates in the profession. However, discussions with the Bury early years development and child care partnership in my constituency lead me to believe that the real priority is to get more unskilled and unqualified workers who have basic training. We should get more people through NVQ level 2, because that is the level at which need is greatest. Will my hon. Friend comment on that, and perhaps suggest that the Minister discuss the need for more NVQ training in his winding-up speech?

Mr. Sheerman

I am sure that the Minister heard what my hon. Friend says. That voice from Bury is very welcome, but I want to have my cake and eat it: I want basic training, as our report strongly recommends, but I also want a graduate-trained teacher in every setting. Indeed, having our cake and eating it is what good education policy should be about.

It is early days for sure start. Although we welcome the programme, concern persists—here comes my first piece of hard news for the Government. As is usual after producing a Select Committee report, we have stayed in touch with the special advisers who gave evidence to the inquiry—some of whom are not a million miles away from this debate—and we hear on that wonderful grapevine about what is going on. There is concern about a slowdown in the rollout of sure start: the figures reveal a big underspend, and there appears to be a bottleneck obstructing the next tranche. Evaluation of best practice in the early stages of sure start may not be taking place or being communicated fast enough. That is the view of many people who took part in the inquiry. I hope that the Minister will respond to that.

Sure start is welcome because it will break through the cycle of deprivation, underachievement in education and social exclusion. It is vital to tackle poverty between the ages of nought and three, so anything that may prevent sure start from being successful is a cause of great concern. Most members of the Committee saw sure start as a great cross-departmental opportunity to break into the cycle of deprivation and underperformance that marks so many families and children.

Here is good news for the Government—my old colleague the Minister will be pleased. Most of us thought that what I call the early years partnerships—they are really called the early years development and child care partnerships—had the raw potential to act as energisers that would bring together, with leadership and at every local authority level, all the people and groups interested in early years education. I am disappointed that in my local authority of Kirklees leadership still comes from the local council. We recommended that the chair of early years partnerships should, if possible, come from the independent sector, because too often one could see the signs of the local authority being reluctant to let go. If we could clone Rosemary Peacocke, who chairs the partnership in Oxford and was one of our special advisers, and scatter copies of her around the rest of the country, what a formidable group of chairs we would have. We need independent chairs because if early years partnerships are to be successful they must provide leadership and be bold: they must set the agenda. However, some of the evidence suggests that they are not energising as quickly as they should.

I want to link training and pay to a practical problem. Our report strongly recommends that as we gain the real plus, celebrated by most, of more children being able to get into pre-school, paid for by the Government, at four and now three, we should not push them through the system into formal learning too early. Pushing them into reception classes before they are ready does children more damage than not giving them the education at all. Many experts are saying that four-year-olds are being put into reception classes. What next—three-year-olds?

In practical terms, that means that we lose adult-child ratios of 1:11 and 1:13 and instead get a ratio of 1:25, which entails formal learning where children sit in little rows and learn by rote. That is not what we want for our children in their early years. We urge the Government to take action. It cannot be good to ratchet down the start of formal learning to the point where it comes too early and too quickly. Our report flags up that danger, which we identified by keeping our ears to the ground and talking to informants. On the ground, it is a more significant concern than it was six months or a year ago—we published the report a year ago come December. The Government and Ministers must be careful. We do not want children in the wrong setting and atmosphere for learning: that must not happen. We must also be careful to ensure both that staff are appropriate and that staff pupil ratios are right.

Throughout our report we said that early years has historically suffered from the divisions among education, social services, health and, if one is honest, the Benefits Agency. Joined-up government can make a significant difference with integration. The Government stated yesterday that they are keen on integration, and the early years partnerships help to achieve that, but we still need commitment and leadership from both Ministers and a single Department to ensure that that happens and does not go by the bye.

There has been good progress, but I must tell the Minister that the word on the street, or at least the word from some people on some streets in some towns, is that the Government are losing their interest in early years—that having produced the Green Paper and the White Paper they consider that they have done early years and they have decided to move on to post-11 education. The former Under-Secretary Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who has moved up, was answerable to the House of Commons and passionately involved in her work. I am sure that the new ministerial team is as committed, but I remind the Minister that the word is that there has been a fashion shift: perhaps the commitment to sure start—and to a great deal else besides—has decreased. I do not say that as Chairman of the Select Committee. A voice—not a loud voice, but a little voice—is asking the Government, "Have you lost interest? Is there less interest than there was?" We will need strong leadership from the Government if the process is to continue. We need to care continuously about this issue.

When we took evidence, one thing that shocked members of the Committee was the uneven distribution of early years settings around the country, which meant that some people had few options in terms of early years care. In other areas, there was little integration of the marketplace, which meant that children were carted around to many different settings. One piece of evidence revealed that some families were taking their children to as many as six settings in a week, which cannot be good. Children were walking—we hope that the children were walking because, as we said, it is an outdoor activity that is good for them—to six settings.

I shall end my remarks—I am sorry that I have taken so long—by stating that although the Government have done some excellent things on early years it has been suggested that some backsliding has occurred. We hope that the Government will not backslide. It will be necessary to continue to invest considerable resources in early years provision if the Committee's ambition, that all the nation's children should be able to realise their full potential, is to be achieved. It will be achieved—along with further successes at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16—and accompanied by a subsequent increase in the number of entrants into higher education only if early years education continues to be of paramount importance to all Governments, now and in future. Working on the early years report has taught the Committee that there is only one education system, which integrates upward and downward. Early stimulation is vital. Imagination and creativity must be awakened in children when they are very young, because the cost and difficulty of doing that becomes greater as children get older. It is therefore essential to get it right at an early stage.

I have spoken for long enough, but I emphasise what my remarks have already made clear—every member of the Committee felt that working on the report was not only interesting and stimulating, but highly enjoyable. Members learned how to understand early years education. I realised that, although I have been visiting schools for many years, I had not been doing the job properly. I was taught for the first time how to look at a classroom—how to interpret the paintings and artwork on the walls and the other schoolwork. Therefore, I should like to add as a postscript that if working on the report educated me at my stage in life, it must have been a celebratory experience for every other member of the Committee.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The number of hon. Members who are present indicates that there is considerable interest in the debate. I hope that many, if not all, will be able to catch my eye. It will be helpful if hon. Members keep their contributions brief.

3.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I apologise for the fact that I shall have to leave at 4.30 pm for a meeting of Standing Committee D and will therefore not be present for the conclusion of the debate.

I understand that there is a tradition that members of the Select Committee are more likely to catch the eye of the Speaker in debates such as this, and I am grateful for that, although I do feel a bit of a fraud because I was not involved in any of the deliberations of the Committee that produced the report. I am also not qualified to speak because, unlike the Chairman of the Committee, I have no children, nor do I have experience of early years teaching. My limited experience has been gained in my constituency and from serving on an early years partnership on behalf of the London borough of Southwark. That partnership was independently chaired, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) suggested that it should be. The chairman was none other than the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), whose chairmanship was certainly independent of the council.

My speech has two parts: I shall offer three general observations, then make a few remarks based on my local and national experience. The first of my three observations is that there is a tendency to over-bureaucratise the development of education; the early years sector suffers from that. Secondly, there has been a tendency to diminish the role of parents compared with that of professionals; the report fully recognises that. Thirdly, funding and accountability of early years education is overcomplicated, which can lead to waste, duplication and further complexity.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that we must take parents more seriously, and in paragraph 10 the report states: Parents are the first and most enduring educators of their children. There is a danger of patronising, undermining or deskilling parents by treating them as though they know less and have less appropriate instincts than the professionals who are involved in early years development. In The Times today, the head of policy of the National Family and Parenting Institute says: Experts are undermining the confidence of parents in their own ability to bring up happy, healthy and well-adjusted children. The article continues: A survey of 1,391 parents found that despite their deep concerns about their role and the wellbeing of their children, a substantial proportion—48 per cent.—felt that they did not require outside help from parenthood experts. When they did want help or information, parents were likely to turn first to family and friends and then to local services, such as their doctor, local school or playgroup rather than to national or Government information sources. It is entirely healthy for parents to look to local expertise, whether it is qualified, as in the case of doctors; part qualified, as in the case of early years settings; or totally unqualified, as in the case of family and friends. I am pleased that the report places such emphasis on involving parents in the daily activities of their children's settings. The report states in paragraph 13: more important than the mother's educational qualifications is what the mother does with the child. We should all have that text before us.

There is a national shortage of child minders, and I wonder whether that is getting better or worse. Is the shortage associated with increasing demands on child minders to register, to attend courses and conferences and to obtain qualifications? Is a shortage that is based on such causes more beneficial, even if it leads to fewer places for youngsters, than providing more places with less qualified child minders would be? I am worried about the bureaucratisation of the profession.

In illustrating the bureaucracy, I am indebted to Sandra Snell of the Bethel pre-school and nursery in my constituency, which was established by the Bethel Christian fellowship. She told me about the massive effort required in a relatively small nursery for such things as the creation and writing of policies: there are 30 pages of policy in a document for a setting that takes only 60 youngsters. What can we do to slim down the requirement for policy documentation and the provision of standards on which to base those policies?

Mrs. Snell welcomes Government action to amalgamate the work of the Office for Standards in Education and social service inspections so that inspections are not duplicated, but she is worried to discover that an Isle of Wight kitemark is to be established, apparently at the behest of the Government who say that every setting must be accredited by a kitemark. Isle of Wight council is setting up a kitemark, as are other local authorities and some national bodies. That is getting rid of duplicate inspection with one hand, and creating it with another. There is little point amalgamating two nationally required inspections if the Government or local authorities invent another. That adds to the burden on a setting and its management.

Mrs. Snell mentioned her concern about the availability of capital resources, especially in a church setting. It is sometimes difficult for her to obtain funding because her playgroup is based in a church building, which is used for religious purposes at weekends. She was concerned about the shortage of revenue to pay sufficient and sufficiently qualified staff. Even on the Isle of Wight, where unemployment among women is high, it is difficult to obtain and pay appropriately her unqualified staff, let alone the qualified staff whom she hopes to employ in her nursery. Mrs. Snell would like a reliable income stream and to have effective measures against non-payers.

Mrs Snell drew to my attention the possible scope for financial abuse: for example, in order to claim the working families tax credit, parents put their children in the nursery for a fortnight or three weeks then withdraw them but continue to receive the money. Concern has been expressed that some local education authorities declare that all children are needy children for the purposes of receiving money for early years education. They claim the money, but cannot then provide the children to fill the places that have been created with that money. LEAs insist that children move too early into reception classes in primary schools, telling parents that there may not be a place available for their children if they are not moved into reception classes—a point that I am glad was mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. They say that a place may be available at four, or rising five, but not at five, with the result that children are moved out of the nursery into reception too early. The EYDCP, which is composed primarily of providers, is not necessarily as accountable as it should be to those who pay the bills. I hope that the Minister can deal with those matters.

I have not been uncritical of the Government's policy or the report. I congratulate the Government on their efforts to meet perceived need, but the report needs to cover the key question posed by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, which is whether we are receiving good value for the money that is spent on such an important service. Are all children benefiting from early years provision, or are we providing more than commensurate benefit to the education of young children? Perhaps we should deal with that matter on a future occasion.

3.12 pm
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I was pleased to be a member of the Education and Employment Committee that drew up the report and proud to take its members to see the quality of nursery provision in Bristol. We in Bristol have a good record: we set up one of the first nursery nurses colleges after the war and our early years provision is of remarkable quality. I was also pleased that, during the Committee's visit, the Reggio exhibition was being held in Bristol, which meant that we could enjoy international flavour from the Italian village that has prided itself on the way in which music, dance, painting and sculpture have been motivating factors in early years education. Taking members of the Committee to see that exhibition was an important part of sharing with my colleagues what was happening in Bristol.

I shall focus on the last of the matters that the Committee examined, which is at what age formal schooling should start. It was not long before the then Under-Secretary with responsibility for early years education said, in a robust response to the Committee, that there was no point querying the statutory age at which children started school. In fact, she said that the argument was redundant.

In another context, some of us went to Switzerland to see the range of early years provision there. We recognise that children in many countries in Europe start statutory education at a later age than children here, and we share many convictions on the subject with those in other countries. However, the former Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), is an astute politician and recognised that as education for children in this country has started at the age of five since the Education Act 1870, there is no question of changing that age.

None the less, it is worth considering a little more carefully what we mean by that starting age. The law states that children start statutory education the term after their fifth birthday. Most parents recognise that—certainly, the parents of my generation took their children to school once they were five to join the reception class, in which they learned in a range of ways to be social and creative. Little formal education clicked in until the following year.

Many parents still have difficulty understanding the terms used in early years. The Chairman of our Sub-Committee rightly pointed out that early years can mean three to five plus, nought to five or, as the report finally defined it, nought to eight years. We carefully defined what is now meant by a reception class, bearing in mind the age at which children join it. Today, it is not as I knew it: it now means children who have reached their fourth birthdays and will go on to become five in that year, whereas year 1 is five rising six.

Those ages are important to remember when considering the statutory requirement for children starting school, which starts at year 1. We have somehow slipped in a year almost surreptitiously, as there was an important period in which rising fives were encouraged to enter school. I was a member of a county council at the time, and the way in which rising fives were encouraged to come to school and have all the benefit of, initially, an extra term in education was brilliant. If my twins, with their July birthdays, had been rising fives, they would have started school at Easter.

The report contains a useful table that shows the range of early years provision. Children arrive in year 1 at anything from exactly five years old to five years and 11 months. We must recognise the fact that children at that age should not be put into year compartments. As any parent knows, half a year makes a huge difference. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is right to say that the emphasis must be on the culture, the provision made, the staffing levels and the whole remit of education provided for the children according to their stage of development rather than their age.

We carefully stated that education in early years needs to be provided according to the child's stage of development, and no one knows that better than professional teachers. That is why the Committee was concerned to ensure that highly qualified professional teachers were responsible at every stage in early years. We were not prepared to equivocate about that

We made it a firm recommendation that the teacher-pupil ratio in reception should be 1:15; in fact, we were a little more generous and said the adult-child ratio, and the Minister graciously accepted that. However, we also said that it should be 1:15 in year 1. In other words, the foundation stage, which the report recognised covers children aged three to five-plus, with all their wonderful characteristics, should cover reception and the first part of key stage 1, in year 1. We are talking about personal, social and emotional development in the foundation stage, communication in language and literature, mathematical development, knowledge and understanding of the world, and physical and creative development. Those are clearly key subjects for the foundation stage, but they are also important for year 1 and the beginning of key stage 1. I meet teachers in infant schools who celebrate with us the introduction of the foundation stage and who welcome the training that teachers are being given to develop it. That is not happening in isolation; it is being linked with development in key stage 1. In that way, teachers will anticipate and understand a child's development from three, four and five right through to the end of key stage 1.

Teachers at schools in Bristol that I visited again this September told me, "Our professionalism comes up against Ofsted." Ofsted is examining not only the literacy hour in year 1, but the development of the formal stage of education in the reception year. There are some very careful words in the report from people at Ofsted and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who tried almost to fudge the fact that the curriculum stretches back into the reception year and can be judged by Ofsted in terms of curriculum. I shrink in horror from the Chairman's tentative recommendation that there should be a nought to three curriculum. I do not want the curriculum that Ofsted monitors and regulates to stretch back into the early years. I want the Reggio concept of the creative spirit and the creative nurturing of the child to develop through the reception year into year 1 and as far up the system as possible.

The cry "too formal, too soon" comes persistently from the trade unions and the professional bodies. I want to underline the report's view that we need to ensure that there is a less formal approach in the foundation year and into year 1. We should question Ofsted about being too strict in its observance through year 1. We need to recognise teachers' professionalism. Children do not legally have to enter statutory education until year 1. In many cases, it genuinely represents reception. I celebrate nursery education.

I end by underlining the most important of the report's recommendations. I want an adult-child ratio in year 1 of 1:15, with one of the adults present being, of course, a professionally trained teacher.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair):

Order. Many hon. Members want to speak. Madam Deputy Speaker suggested that brevity would be essential if all those who wanted to be called were to catch the eye of the Chair. I understand that the Front Benchers would like to begin winding up at 5 o'clock.

3.24 pm
Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I welcome the increased attention given to early years policy and practice in recent years. I congratulate the Committee on its report, although I had no part in its preparation: although I am now a member of the Committee, I was not a Member of Parliament during its production. The report makes many good recommendations, but like my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) I have a couple of reservations. In particular, I share his concern about increasing bureaucracy in early years provision. That is unnecessary and to be deplored. However, I shall not repeat his comments about that.

The key responsibility for the education and care of children must lie with parents and the wider family. It is in that context that we should study the report and think about policy development in the future. Development of child care and early years care and education is increasingly necessary because of changes in the way in which families are structured. There are many more families in which both parents need to work and many more one-parent families these days. As my hon. Friend said, we must do nothing that dilutes the responsibility, experience and skills of parents, or to undermine their duty or ability to care for their children in their own way.

3.26 pm
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

I shall address my remarks mainly to issues relating to early years centres and joint working between health, education and social services, and to the recommendations for years 9, 10 and 11. My working background before becoming a Member of Parliament was in social services.

In the 1980s, when I worked with young people, there was often huge frustration about the fact that many teenagers' problems could have been predicted when they were young children first entering school. The importance of their previous experience and what had happened to them in the first years of their life to determining what would happen when they were older seemed to me to have been overlooked. I am not here as an expert witness or to give evidence, so I shall not go into great detail about my academic experience of this sphere, but we know that the way in which early years issues are tackled by parents and children as the children go through the toddler stage and become more independent of their parents is to some extent repeated when young people reach adolescence. If those issues are dealt with well in the early years, fewer problems are likely as a young person reaches the teenage years.

I welcome the Government's approach to early years and the current level of investment. It is long overdue. The benefits are seen in research that has been available for years, some of it done in America and some of which is quoted in the Government's response. The response to recommendation 12, on page 7, states: In one case, for every £1 spent on Early Excellence Centre services for family support, £8 was saved on alternative services. We should note the money that can be saved when young people do not become involved in offending and crime and when the devastation that results from young people being out of control is avoided.

I welcome the parenting orders introduced by the Government, which are linked to youth offending. However, how much more effective would it be if parents were given support when they first become parents? I note that in both the Select Committee report and the Government's response—I am referring to recommendation 4—it is recommended that there should be more support given through the health, social services and education services working together to provide assistance to parents. We recommend that the Government should work with BBC Online and other innovative providers to produce appropriate programmes on parenting. I do not decry such initiatives, but as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, most people looking for help on parenting are more likely to go to a local source, involving people they know. Such is the advantage of the joint working that is being developed through programmes such as sure start and early excellence centres. Local authorities, education and social services and health are working together. Health visitors are well placed to help parents—their whole approach is one of prevention and support for parents. The removal of the stigma that is often associated with being given advice on how one should parent one's children is hugely important. That is why I am a strong supporter of the sure start initiative.

From the point at which I was selected as a parliamentary candidate, I was anxious to secure a sure start project in my constituency, so I welcome the fact that the Gleadless Valley area is in the process of establishing such a project. We know that the investment will not reach all areas, but we can develop joint working between health, social services and education without having sure start centres in every community.

I would like us to go even further and consider a more imaginative approach such as the one that we tried to implement at an authority where I used to work. If we regard the local school just as a school, it can be quite off-putting to some parents who did not have a good experience of education and do not wish to go to a school to get advice. If, however, from an early stage—I am not talking about a formal curriculum for nought to threes—the local school were regarded not as a school but as the local family centre where services were provided, parents would have a positive experience from the start. By the time that the child started formal education, the barriers would have been broken down and there would be every opportunity for help and support to be given.

On the whole, I welcome the report and I welcome the Government response. However, I want us to get the benefit from it and for that benefit to be spread throughout schools and communities.

3.33 pm
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Early years education has undergone a sea change since 1997. Pre-school education is not now only for the very poor or the well off. The Government's planned approach to early years development has changed all that.

An example from my constituency illustrates the Government's approach. Staffordshire education authority wanted to move some school nursery places from a school in Leek to a more deprived school just up the road. I involved the then Minister for early years education, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), and the end result was a net increase in nursery places. Beresford school, in the most deprived area, received its extra nursery places and that nursery was opened this term, but All Saints school in Leek maintained its places—they were not transferred. Indeed, All Saints, too, opened its new nursery this term, so there has been a net expansion of places. Peter was not robbed to pay Paul because the Labour Government are about expanding quality provision, not closing it down. They are creating partnerships to provide the flexible provision most suited to both working and non-working parents.

Early years education and child care are too vital to leave to chance—the chance that parents will be rich enough to buy good quality private provision or poor enough to qualify for good, free state provision. Since 1996, 126,000 new, free early education places for three and four-year-olds have been made available, and an additional 80,000 new early development places for three-year-olds will be created in the coming year. It is the first time that any Government have made funding available for three-year-olds.

As we move towards universal provision, funding is inevitably and rightly targeted at the most deprived areas—those in most social need. However, that has created some problems in my constituency. Those who live just outside the targeted wards and who are not eligible for free provision have complained that they are being discriminated against. In fact, the reaction of some parents has been extreme: they would prefer that no one received free provision if they cannot have it. That strikes me as the politics of envy, which I do not support. On the positive side, however, it at least demonstrates that parents now recognise the need for early years education, as it provides the essential, quality start for the children. I would be interested in the Minister's reaction to that, because I am sure that the problem exists elsewhere.

In the past, parents did not encounter such problems. Nevertheless, I have met the same problem with education maintenance allowances. Under the previous Government, there were no such allowances for post-16-year-olds, nor was there any expansion in the number of early years places. We have had to live with the legacy of the divisive nursery voucher scheme, which led to competition between playgroups and schools in the provision of early years education, but no expansion in the number of places: the Tories did not have to face that problem. From September 2004, all three-year-olds will have access to a free place, and I am pleased to say that the problem will ultimately disappear. However, in the meantime, local education authorities such as Staffordshire's are trying to meet the Government's tough challenge of expanding quality provision in early years education and in child care.

In my area, private day nurseries are flourishing, which demonstrates that the Government's approach of partnership across the private, voluntary and state sectors is right. Thirty-one potential new nurseries are awaiting registration by Ofsted and 38 are in the process of completing their applications. Child minders are decreasing in number, but I am glad to say that the startup grant is working well. Last year, 136 new child minders were registered in Staffordshire; that would not have happened but for the start-up grant. The trend is continuing this year, with 40 child minders awaiting Ofsted registration. Another 100 are completing Ofsted registration forms and 90 begin their pre-application training next month. That is encouraging.

Since April 1999, Staffordshire has had nearly 5,000 new out-of-school child care places and nearly 1,300 new full day care places for pre-school children. However, there is one cloud on the horizon—delays caused by Ofsted. Since it took over on 1 September, no new facilities have been registered. That situation may persist until March and could result in the loss of many potential providers, because those people will not be able to wait for very long. Is the Minister aware of these problems, and if so, what is he doing to tackle them? Although I recognise the value of registration—we must ensure that the quality is right—it is important to be aware that in a very low income area such as Staffordshire, people who decide to become child minders or to open early years provision cannot wait for six months on no income for registration.

My constituency has secured a rural sure start pilot project. I campaigned for it, and I was delighted that we got it. However, I was amazed by the reaction of local Conservative councillors—one of them said something to the effect that there is no poverty in rural areas because all the children have bicycles. The reality is different—the challenge in rural areas is to make sure that we can bring early years services to small and isolated communities with poor transport and few community facilities.

After a slow start, the early years team is now working extremely hard. It is involving parents from the beginning, so that the right services are delivered. It is employing a bank of trained staff to serve an area, rather than leaving each village to develop its own staff. That is important because as its children grow up, a village's needs can change—for example, from early years provision to a youth centre. The next issue is to improve venues. Buildings such as church halls, which are used for a multiplicity of purposes, are not necessarily easily adapted to meet the needs of very young children, those aged nought to three. The team is developing sure start venues attached to community halls, which can perform that specialist function. The other vital area is the provision of low cost community transport that can be used by families who do not have their own car. We all know that local bus services are a joke.

I hope that we shall learn from the experience of this rural sure start project and others around the country. They are vital and greatly appreciated. For too long, rural areas have been the poor relations of towns and cities in terms of services, yet their needs are just as great as, if not greater than, those of towns because of the current rural crisis and the isolation that it has created. Many farming and other rural incomes have been badly hit, so many families are on very low incomes—despite the views of some local Conservative councillors. In that respect, the working families tax credit has been a real boon, providing a basic family income and help with child care costs if the parents work.

The local sure start scheme has generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, but some disappointment, because some areas were not able to be included. I was especially concerned about one of my most deprived areas, Biddulph East. I was delighted when I discovered recently that it has been included as a small sure start project in the fifth wave. I am grateful to the Minister for having allowed that to happen.

Early years education and child care developments must rate among the Government's biggest success stories, but there is still a long way to go to expand capacity, to provide more training and to create further quality partnerships with early years providers right across the independent, voluntary and state sectors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) said, the introduction of a foundation stage combining nursery and reception into one curriculum has been a big step forward. The concentration on providing appropriate high-quality curriculum learning opportunities for early years children, whatever the setting, has alleviated concern about the right age for children to start school. That argument has gone off the boil; if we can provide quality early years provision, there is not such a problem about young children being forced too early into school. The nature of the curriculum and the appropriate way in which to deliver it ensure that children are happy and learning.

More must be done. We must ensure that parents are fully involved, whether they live in rural areas, working class areas, or anywhere else. By parents I mean mothers and fathers, as it is essential that fathers, too, are involved in early years activities. Just the other day, a father told me that his son was not as focused on learning as his daughter. That situation develops because boys do not have role models in early years or primary school who would encourage them to believe that learning is important.

The early years development and child care partnerships that dot not meet in public must be made to do so. How can they be accountable and open to scrutiny if they do not meet in public? Those that continue not to meet in public must begin to do so, and the advisers appointed by the Government must ensure that they are helped in that process. We must ensure that staff in the reception years are not pressurised to provide an education structure that is too formal. Many of them feel, either because of parents or because of Ofsted, that they must provide a formal setting. We must give them support to enable children to learn at their own pace and to explore and develop their own skills.

Most of all, however, we must ensure that early years staff are sufficiently well trained, paid and motivated to encourage more high-quality people—men and women—to come into the sector. Those staff should, like teachers, have access to professional development as of right, as the report recommends; otherwise, how can we ensure that we can develop—and, more importantly, maintain—the diverse, innovative and effective early years sector that we so badly need?

3.47 pm
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

My first experience with early years came as a parent, 18 years ago, when I was a parent-governor. The reception class contained 40 children every afternoon, but I was told that it was perfectly all right for children's formal work to be done in the mornings and that they could play in the afternoons—as if formal work and play could be separated for children of reception age. I took advice from lecturers at Manchester Metropolitan university, which was then Manchester polytechnic, and the British Association for Early Childhood Education. I developed an interest in that age group, which, as a secondary school teacher, I had not encountered before. More recently, I have been chair of social services in Stockport.

I read the Select Committee report with great interest. The decision to extend the age group covered down to birth is an excellent one, and further work needs to be done in that area. The suggestion that parents need to be taken more seriously is wise. My son and his wife live in a sure start area and their baby is having the benefit of that programme, which I commend to anyone. However, it is clear from the report and my experience that training is one of the most important and necessary aspects of improving the work that is done with children in that age group. It is not good enough to leave children of that age to untrained staff.

Ofsted's expectations tend to formalise the curriculum for the age group. We in this country have a lot of obstacles to overcome. Victorian attitudes of strictness with children prevail and, at times, it is almost as though kindness is an aberration to be eradicated. It is essential that everyone involved in early years education understands the importance of play. I applaud the recommendation that children below compulsory school age should be taught informally and I think that it should go further Some people think that the word "informally" means anything goes, but anyone who has ever been in a nursery class or group knows that it means anything but anything goes.

I applaud the money that is now going into early years—as I said, my son, his wife and their baby are beneficiaries of it—but it does not go far enough. My constituency of Cheadle is in Stockport, where more than half the poverty and need lies outside the four wards designated as being in most need. If we focus on those four wards, children who desperately need support will not receive it. I go further and say that inappropriately formalised assessment, to which the report refers, is leading children to believe that they are failures at an early age. That applies to children not only from deprived areas but from areas that are clearly not deprived.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

If assessment is not carried out at key stages—even early key stages—how can a parent, teacher or anyone else involved in the education of small children know how much the children can do, so that difficulties that must be addressed early can be picked up?

Mrs. Calton

Of course assessment must take place—it is important. The problem is formalised assessment, especially when it is based on formal teaching methods and learning.

The report mentions insufficient physical exercise. I firmly believe that young children need play that involves big movements, not just small movements or little pen-writing movements. They need to be able to use their arms and bodies and to roll over and over. They need to take part in physical activity with other children, but that cannot happen if children are sitting in small places. They must have more space in which to let off steam and to learn how their bodies work. Too often, outdoor play is funded solely by parental fundraising—it is treated as though it were an optional extra that can be added later, but outdoor play is vital because children learn big physical movements first and fine motor control comes much later.

As an ex-teacher, I have had my own share of Ofsted and the stress that it causes is extreme and rubs off on children. To my mind, there is nothing worse than a young child being subjected to a teacher who is frightened and stressed by the idea of Ofsted. In my experience as a chair of social services, the model wherein the social services inspectorate works with social services departments and social workers is far better because it is consultative and informative. There is no use of the big stick. It is much better than the education model.

During the 18 years that have elapsed since I was a parent-governor, understanding of how young children learn has greatly improved. Sadly, that knowledge has not got through to all the places where it is needed, which extend far further than deprived areas. All our children need the work of the report.

3.55 pm
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I congratulate the former Select Committee on its excellent report, which has played an important part in the education debate as well as in influencing the Government's education policy, which, from the Committee's point of view, is more important.

One example of that is baseline assessment, which is an important way of benchmarking children in primary education. The report recommended that such assessment should take place in year one, and I understand that pilots are taking place for that. Each local authority area has a different baseline assessment, which is something to which we need a formalised approach. However, if we have baseline assessments at the beginning of year 1, they should not be published and become another league table—in this case, detailing how children are developing on the basis of one year's experience at school.

The report has been well received by practitioners in the field. I have spoken to many people who have read it, and they support its recommendations. I have briefly been in the luxurious position of being able to associate myself with the praise that it has received. Furthermore, when I speak to people who disagree with its findings, I can say, "Of course, I was not on the Select Committee when it was written." This is the one time when I can have it both ways. Practitioners have welcomed the report, and I am grateful to the early years staff at Medway council whom I met recently to discuss parts of it.

The report begins: A quiet revolution has been taking place in the education of children". It certainly has. In the Medway towns in 2000, there were 291 pre-school places for three-year-olds; now there are 2,366. That is an enormous change that has delivered for families who are my constituents. The focus has been on tackling deprivation. The early years programme should not be about light touch; it should be about intervention. Such intervention to help parents is not patronising. I am of the Heseltine school of thought—let us intervene at the breakfast club, the lunch club and the tea club. That is the support that parents say they want. They want to be involved in shaping early years facilities, programmes and services.

We should assist parents in learning both new ways to develop their relationships with their children and different ways of play. We know from the research that was presented to the Committee that such relationship-building is critical to the social and educational attainment of youngsters, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finding the right keys to engage parents in new ways of caring for, and playing with, their children is not easy—it requires practitioners to show innovation and skill—but it can be done. Great strides have been made, not least with the sure start programme.

I am delighted to have a sure start programme in Chatham, and I recently met some of its staff. They mentioned one of the innovative ways in which they were encouraging parents to touch their children. They had organised immensely popular baby massage classes. Some parents had never experienced such touch with their baby. Such engagement can sow the seeds of better relationship building. It can progress to help with reading. If parents can engage their children in such ways, their education and social development are likely to be improved.

Not every area has the benefit of a sure start programme, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) mentioned. We have to find other ways to support parents and provide finance in regions outside the sure start area. A brief from the Royal National Institute for the Blind examined how parents of children with disabilities from a very wide area could access the specialisms and benefits that come from the understandably targeted sure start programmes. The challenge is not easy, but I am sure that the Minister will address it when he winds up.

Getting parents engaged early with their children does not have to be rocket science. Research from the Bookstart programme that Sainsbury's supported—sadly the funding for it for the next couple of years has hit the rocks—demonstrated that giving books at the nine-month health-check that parents have with their children led to more parents taking their children to libraries. There was improved quality in the relationship between parents and their children. Such things are fundamental to tackling issues that arise from deprivation.

Increasing the quantity of child care provision must go hand in hand with improving its quality. I will later discuss child minders and the inspection process, which is now under the auspices of Ofsted, or Oftot, as it is sometimes called. However, I will first mention that to create diversity and quality in child care, we have to meet some of the challenges set out by the Daycare Trust. It is important that pay, qualifications and therefore status are raised for those who provide this service to children. For too long, it has been seen as "women's work" and been poorly paid. That is still largely the case. We need to encourage more men into the service. Only 1.5 per cent. of all pre-school leaders and 3 per cent. of nursery nurses are men. Only 17 per cent. of primary schoo1 teachers—a group that, perhaps, Members of Parliament have had more experience of—are men. For many children, that means a lack of positive role models.

Mr. Sheerman

Male role models.

Mr. Shaw

I thank my hon. Friend for interrupting me. It is important that children have positive male role models, especially when they are from backgrounds in which they have experienced domestic violence, or there has been no male role model at all. The Government could send messages to the gatekeepers—the colleges and careers tutors—about communicating the possibility of child care as a career for young men.

Mr. Andrew Turner

An obstacle to young men taking part in education, especially that of very young children, can be fear. That extends throughout the education system, but in the case of young children, there can be unnecessary fear and an inappropriate suspicion of motives.

Mr. Shaw

That is a reasonable point. In recent articles, some people have talked positively about how parents react to seeing a young man in the day care centre, but others say that they have been physically threatened, by fathers who perhaps feel undermined, and accused of being child abusers. The way to get over that is for male carers to become more common, rather than the exception that they now are. The more men in child care and early years, the better. That will break down some of the prejudices.

Ofsted is now responsible for the inspection and registration of nurseries, playgroups and child minders. During consideration of the Care Standards Bill, I expressed the worry that we would remove an important informal network from the social services and child protection system. I repeatedly asked the Minister for Lifelong Learning whether inspection officers would work in isolation—a point that greatly concerned the trade unions at the time—but she did not give a clear answer. However, it is clear from talking to staff from Medway and other local authority areas that inspection officers are indeed working in isolation. That removes an informal network of social workers and teachers that is important for child protection.

There has been a shortage of child minders, but the new set-up grant has led to a considerable increase in numbers, certainly in my area. Moreover, it is bringing together child care networks and enabling nursery funding for three and four-year-olds. That is good for child minding, and also offers diversity and choice.

The Government have made great strides. There has been a revolution and the feedback from my constituents is certainly positive. During the general election campaign, free child care and the working families tax credit proved an enduring theme. However, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will not rest on his laurels, and we will chase him to achieve even better standards in early years care.

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair)

For clarity, let me say that I intend to call the Liberal Democrat spokesperson at about 4.50 pm. Although Front Benchers do not of course need to stand to catch my eye, other hon. Members do.

4.8 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I want to introduce the issue of special needs in early years, and I begin by reading a paragraph from the response from the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers to the report: The early identification of special educational needs is essential and must be accompanied by adequate resources that will enable those needs to be fully met, ensuring appropriate provision and intervention, in order to enable all children to make the best possible progress. Not all children will be able to 'catch up' and many will have severe and complex learning needs that will require long-term support. There are also implications for the demands on other qualified professionals working in areas providing that support. These days, most reception teachers will identify in their first term at least half a dozen children with special needs. Some of those needs derive from a lack of the normal home and family experiences. Such children may come from homes that do not have books. Perhaps they have not been exposed to children's literature, from Little Red Riding Hood to Harry Potter. They may not have had nursery rhymes sung to them. They may not even have been exposed to normal conversation sitting round a table and eating with the family, so they have poor development of language and other social skills. They may not have had the normal counting games that parents usually introduce to their children when they are dressing, such as counting shoes or buttons. Those children will be able to catch up once they go to school and experience the whole range of things that teachers put in front of them.

Other children have learning difficulties and may never be able to catch up. For example, they may have chronic illness that has taken up much of their early years in hospital visits or has made them unable to join in robust forms of play with other children owing to their being more protected, thus delaying their development. They may have physical or mental impairment that necessitates special educational provision. There is a wide spectrum of need: the one thing that one cannot do with special needs children is generalise about them. We need to offer them a wide choice of provision. There is a case for introducing as many such children as possible into mainstream, with the proper support. However, some will never be able to survive in mainstream schools, so I make a plea for the retention of the special school in the range of options available to parents.

I have deep concerns about a policy of total inclusion. Inclusion may be appropriate for some children—if not at the beginning of their education, at some time subsequently—but some will always need the protective environment of a special school. I should like to tell hon. Members about a child at the school where I spent many years, who had brittle bones—a very fragile but quite intelligent child, who, after many years in a special school, was transferred to mainstream at her and her parents' request. I am going back to the 1980s, when the policy of putting special needs children into mainstream school with support was in its infancy. The child had acquired a large measure of independence in her special school, and when she went to mainstream the other children and the teachers were so overprotective that she lost some of that independence. It is a complex matter: each individual child must be looked at carefully and the appropriate provision chosen.

I was concerned recently to learn that a special needs nursery in my constituency which usually had about 20 pupils referred to it each year had no children referred to it this September. This morning I heard that a consultation procedure is in progress for the closure of the nursery. It is ironic that in the same area a sure start programme is in preparation. I hope that the consultation procedure will take account of all the objections that arise.

I end by quoting a paragraph from a letter by the special children editor of the Teaching Times: There is still a great deal of confusion about what 'inclusion' means: for some people, the term is synonymous with mainstreaming, for others it signifies the consideration of a child's specific needs and how best to meet them, by using a wide range of provision. For policy-makers and senior managers, it often comes down to what is practicable within the existing system and budgetary constraints. We are faced, as ever, with the compromise between idealism and reality. I leave hon. Members with that thought.

4.14 pm
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair)

Order. I am Mr. Pike, not Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Judy Mallaber

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and I were just having a debate about that, Mr. Pike: I am glad that you have put us right. She put it to me that you would not mind being promoted to Mr. Deputy Speaker, but might be offended if you were wrongly called Mr. Pike—and we got it wrong. We now know for future reference.

I, too, welcome the report, its recommendations and the positive tone of the Government's response. I would not be doing justice to the wonderful work done in Derbyshire, if I did not speak in this debate. Much has been achieved, and we are exceeding many of the recommendations in the report and many of the Government's targets. That is not to say that more is not needed, but we have done enormous amounts of work and the early years sector is being transformed.

I have one quibble with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman): I have attended the meetings of our early years partnership and they are lively, energetic and imaginative. Those at the meeting cross all sectors, and are active and supportive. Its chair is one of my local county councillors, who is inspirational. I am glad that Ministers have backtracked slightly and that people are not being excluded because they are county councillors. Similarly, the excellent early years and child care unit in the county is based at the county council. Its work is outstanding. Although concerns are understandable, we should not dismiss the fact much has been achieved through co-operation.

My one party political point is that during this year's county council elections, our county council Labour group made much of the work and the £11 million spent, while the Conservatives completely forgot about it—they did not even mention it. I cannot remember how much the Liberal Democrats said, but it was not a noticeable amount.

Some of the most interesting projects that I have been involved in have been associated with early years. I visited Alfreton nursery, which is now a beacon nursery, and talked to the person running it about her work with parents to identify and assess all the children as they arrived at nursery. They could identify problems children might have, their weaknesses and where problems might develop later when they start to learn to read. It was inspirational to see that wonderful work.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) might have been less worried about child minders being put off training had he been in Chesterfield with me a couple of years ago when I gave awards to a huge roomful of child minders who had achieved accreditation when Derbyshire became the first area to have a nationally accredited network for child minders from the National Childminding Association. Our child minders do some great work, and they took pride and pleasure at receiving recognition for their work, at being recognised as professionals with expertise, and at being given further professional support and help. It was wonderful to see.

Our child minders receive much help, such as training that exceeds the Government recommendations. They get support from qualified early years teachers. We now have 34 accredited child minders who receive grant funding for their work with three and four-year-olds. They also have a toy library. We have a flourishing child minders network, although there is always more to be done.

Some issues are relevant to both child minders and other early years practitioners. We have made progress with early years, at national level and in areas such as my constituency. We must not lose impetus on the practical issues and we must further improve in future. Our child minders have the same access to any training courses advertised in the county's training directory as all early years practitioners in the county. Locally, I think that the budget for training is regarded as generous but, in a spread-out rural area, the costs of administration to make training accessible are greater than the 5 per cent. allowed in the budget. We found that people were not attending courses and that there were many cancellations owing to travel problems. Courses have now been set up in places where people want them, such as local village halls, and they have been inundated with requests from early years workers. However, that costs money to organise in a wide geographical area.

During the past year in Derbyshire, teenage mothers have been entitled to 20 hours of child care, and receive an allocated carer before birth. That was implemented in advance of recommendations and pilots from the Government. I have not been able to check whether we receive funding for that, although I suspect that we lose out because we were ahead of the field. I ask the Minister to examine that.

A further matter has been raised with me about qualified teacher involvement. A 1:10 ratio is recommended, and early years partnerships were asked to examine how that could be done. In Derbyshire, the involvement of qualified teachers, which was extended broadly, means that our level of satisfactory or better than satisfactory Ofsted reports in all sectors is above the national average. For example, more than 96 per cent. of Derbyshire's private day nurseries receive a satisfactory or better than satisfactory report compared with the 88 per cent. national average. In playgroups, our level is 83 per cent., compared with 79 per cent. nationally.

The 1:10 target for qualified teacher involvement is welcome, and we wish to achieve that. Unfortunately, the support is not ring-fenced, and if an area suffers as we have because of our education standard spending assessments and how we do not do as well as more prosperous counties—we hope to win the arguments yet—the money must be obtained from other sources. I hope that the Minister will examine that, too.

On sure start, I echo the thanks to the Government from my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands. We argued, during the early period, that spread-out areas did not meet criteria that could be met only in urban areas. We were pleased, in round two, when there was an extension to rural areas and we were given the ability to link villages. That enabled us to extend the scheme to Bolsover and North-East Derbyshire, as well as Chesterfield, which is more urban. This year, we will extend to Amber Valley and Erewash, and we have pilot small schemes in High Peak and South Derbyshire, one of which involves only one estate. Where there are pockets of deprivation, our schemes must fit what is needed, not the original programmes. I am pleased that Ministers have responded to that.

A further problem is the sustainability of projects. The report said little about out-of-school clubs and breakfast clubs, although they affect the early years. In Derbyshire, we have done outstandingly well at an early stage, and received £3 million from the new opportunities fund for 1,000 places. However, two clubs in my constituency would fit the criteria to move, for sustainability, from one-year to three-year funding. However, as the clubs went in too early they were past the seven to eight-month period during which they could access funding. We have had to scrabble for funding to maintain excellent breakfast and out-of-school clubs in my area, in the most deprived places. I visited a breakfast club in my constituency, and the head came out to tell us the wonderful effect of the club on children's learning when they get to school, because they have had their breakfast and they settle down. We must not be penalised because we were ahead of the game, and I appeal for that not to happen.

Owing to expansion, one of the main difficulties and pressures is how to get sufficiently qualified staff. I ask for further emphasis to be put on the learning and skills councils about the ambitious targets that they were set for NVQ 2 and 3 training. It is difficult to find sufficient people to meet the expansion that is required in the sector. It ties into pay and conditions, and I welcome recommendation 33, which concerns equitable pay. One of my local early years development workers put it to me that the main barriers to recruitment in the child care work force is lack of status and low pay: it is often possible to earn more working at Sainsbury's than in the child care sector. Many hon. Members are familiar with the problems that playgroups have faced in managing to meet even minimum wage levels. That matter will be addressed in the future, as things develop.

I have not raised those points to criticise, but to emphasise that they must be examined, and that they will need to be tackled if further progress is to be made.

Practical problems are arising in involving the private sector in neighbourhood nurseries when income is not guaranteed. For instance, it might be desirable and appropriate to establish a neighbourhood nursery in an area that already has an infants school with an attached nursery class, and therefore that school is already receiving some of the funding for children aged between three and four years. That is another matter that must be addressed.

The report is excellent and progressive and I think that all hon. Members will welcome its recommendations. An enormous amount has been done. Like many other hon. Members who have spoken, I have found early years education to be an inspirational area with which to be involved. The Committee has addressed a number of practical problems, but at every place that I visited, I encountered a win-win situation. That holds true for all early years settings: there is always real achievement and real progress, with children doing wonderfully well, and adults committed to their work, and that provides a fantastic foundation for the lives of our children.

However, the impetus must not be lost. The recommendations must be implemented. The practical problems must be taken on board and dealt with, and it is important to ensure that hon. Members and the general public raise them with Ministers. If that is done, it will provide a wonderful stepping stone for even more progress to be achieved in the future.

4.27 pm
Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

In the interests of openness, I want to start my speech by declaring an interest: I have three children aged between seven months and six years, so children's early years are dear to my heart.

I welcome the work that has gone into producing this comprehensive report and the cross-party consensus regarding the importance of the pre-school years and environment. However, I do not underestimate the disappointment that is felt by parents and families up and down the country about the unadulterated failure of the Labour party's million-place pledge, made in 1998–99. During that year, child care provision fell: compared with the figures for the previous 12 months, 45,800 places and 12,900 providers were lost. The report's ambition should not cause hon. Members to forget the reality of the situation, which is that there is an increasing scarcity of good-quality child care.

My role as a father has taught me the value of preschool activities. My son has been extremely lucky: when we lived abroad, in Moscow, he attended an international kindergarten, and he was the only English child in his class. That gave him a unique window on the world. It was an important learning experience and opened his mind to possibilities outside his own little world. When he returned to England, his handwriting was less good than that of his London-based peer group, but that was of little consequence when measured against the rewarding experience of making friends of so many nationalities, and of opening up his mind. He is now six, and his handwriting has caught up, but the advantages of experiencing that special environment at an early age will never leave him.

I commend the remarks of the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) about the importance of male role models. When my son returned home from his first day at school, I asked him how it had gone. He said that it had been terrific, and that his teacher was like Action Man. It immediately engaged his interest to have a male teacher. I have encountered some remarkable vocational male teachers, and more of them are needed.

Having seen my child in an unusual pre-school environment, I am absolutely committed to diversity and parental involvement in the pre-school environment. All too often, uniformity—especially if it is imposed from the centre—can be the enemy of creativity in very young people. We must do all that we can to keep off the straitjacket of uniformity.

By far the most important qualification that we can look for in those to whom we entrust the care of our young children is enthusiasm and an affinity with their charges. We must remember that early years education is not only a stepping stone to primary school or later life but a period to be enjoyed, relished and cherished by both parents and young children. Our most important wish for those who provide such care as well as for our children is that they be happy and confident.

I want briefly to warn against the causes behind the sad and depressing fall in the number of day care places. Much of the Government's failure to provide more places is due to the fact that private provision is decreasing. Regulation upon regulation, red tape and bureaucracy, which afflict all small businesses and increasingly the hard-pressed voluntary sector, are making the provision more difficult to operate.

Clearly, a balance must be struck between giving people operational freedom and monitoring those who are in charge of young people. Guidelines on smacking, smoking, sharing best practice and involving parents in such activities and targeting areas of social exclusion, all of which are contained in the report, are greatly welcomed, but I cannot but recoil at the notion of a curriculum for the under-threes as suggested earlier by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).

In our determination to drive up opportunities and standards, we must be careful that this constructive debate does not send out a wrong message to the brilliant and dedicated pre-school teachers in this country. We are extremely lucky to have so many people involved in looking after young people. We need more, but I recognise that great teachers do not necessarily have NVQs or formal qualifications and that the ability to teach, to care and to stimulate young people is a vocation. It should be nurtured, appreciated and, at all points, talked up.

4.33 pm
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

I thank you, for giving me the opportunity to contribute in this afternoon's important debate Mr. Pike. I wish first to remind hon. Members of the nature of my constituency, because that moulds my views on early years issues. My constituency has the lowest level of gross domestic product per capita of any in the United Kingdom. That is a direct consequence of the forced closure in the early 1990s of our one staple industry, coal mining. Barnsley and Doncaster councils are still coming to terms with that and are doing everything in their power to regenerate the local economy. It is no wonder that both Barnsley and Doncaster form part of the wider South Yorkshire objective 1 funding area.

There is no doubt that the impact of deprivation on a child's life chances, particularly in the early years, can be enormous, and should not be underestimated. What must be welcomed in the report on the expanding provision of early years education is that it must be based on quality, with greater emphasis needing to be placed on better training and enhanced qualifications. That has been particularly welcomed by the relevant trade unions. Many recommendations in the report refer to the central role played by parents in a child's educational development. Positively engaging parents throughout the whole of a child's school life is the key to improving educational standards at all levels. That is important particularly in the early years. Many parents physically take their children to the nursery or child care unit each day. We must make the most of that early direct contact with the parent and try to maintain it throughout the child's school life.

Many people are only now beginning to recognise the crucial role that early years and child care can play in trying to regenerate places such as Barnsley and Doncaster. The national child care strategy is a key aspect of regeneration, with twin aims. The first is to raise standards of attainment in schools by the provision of high-quality pre-school or nursery education for all children, and the second is to increase the quality and quantity of child care available, which would enable parents to re-enter the employment and training market. Both those aims are crucial, and especially relevant to Barnsley and Doncaster.

Nursery provision in Barnsley and Doncaster, in common with many metropolitan councils, has always been good in the maintained sector but relatively weak in the private and voluntary sectors. Using single regeneration budget money, two new maintained nurseries were built in Barnsley between 1997 and 1998 to ensure universal provision for all four-year-olds. However, in recognition of the imbalance between sectors, the Barnsley early years partnership agreed that all future expansion should be targeted outside the maintained sector to encourage choice and diversity—a strategy that I fully support.

Low levels of attainment in the work force are constantly cited as a major barrier to attracting employment to the Barnsley borough. However, standardised scores of children entering reception classes show that Barnsley children consistently score above national averages in key areas that correlate highly with subsequent performance. Widespread nursery provision in Barnsley and its high quality are therefore having a demonstrable impact on standards.

More than a third of the work force in Barnsley have child care responsibilities, yet fewer than 5 per cent. can access a registered child care place. Such a shortfall in child care availability clearly represents a considerable barrier to parents accessing employment. Many parents can therefore access only low-paid shift work to fit around their partners' work patterns, which has a direct effect on economics and the social well-being of all families. The Barnsley early years partnership has set the target of doubling the provision of places to 10 per cent. by 2004, which is realistic.

In areas of chronic deprivation with high levels of social exclusion, child care should be used to enable capacity building of communities, especially the former mining communities. Such programmes must be viewed and funded differently so that parents can develop the skills and confidence to enter the employment market

Provision of child care must be viewed as supporting other regeneration activity rather an as an end in itself. Early years partnerships must be steered by key initiatives such as objective 1 and the neighbourhood renewal strategy to develop appropriate child care in response to local need and emergent economic growth. As yet, insufficient links exist to ensure that. In Barnsley, the early years partnership acts as a subgroup of the Barnsley learning partnership, which is one of the four strategic goal groups feeding into the Barnsley forum, the local strategic partnership. The infrastructure exists to ensure the links, but they need further development. That is true of areas other than Barnsley and Doncaster.

The SRB 3 programme in Barnsley delivered several high-class programmes, such as right start, to support parents in their role as primary educators. Such programmes empowered parents as educators, but also provided them with a key gateway to return to education and training. New funding regimes, such as objective 1, will not fund those programmes in the future. Fixed-term regeneration funding should be used to fund programmes to bring about fundamental change in the short term. The balance between core and externally funded activity must therefore be reviewed. It is unfortunate that objective 1 cannot be used for sure start programmes in areas such as Barnsley and Doncaster.

Coincidentally, a local newspaper, the Barnsley Chronicle, has produced a 20-page colour supplement entitled "first class", which supports the local partnership in furthering the objectives of the early years partnership. An article entitled "Setting out on the path of learning" states: Starting school is a milestone for every child and family. In the last few weeks, hundreds of children have stepped over one of the most important thresholds of life. No doubt they found it exciting to wear their school uniform, meet their first teacher and open their first school book. Also to feel something special when asked to carry out their first school task. Starting school is another part of the growing up procedure. On the opposite page, a big advertisement states that the early years development and child care team would like to hear from you if You are thinking of setting up any kind of childcare provision You want to work with children You are already working with children, and wish to access training". It then gives the national freephone number. It is nice to have the support of the local media on issues that involve partnership.

The report is excellent. I commend the Committee for it, and I hope that the Government will accept many, if not all, of its recommendations

4.42 pm
Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

I commend the report. I was on the Committee for one day, so I obviously had a huge impact on the outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) reminded me of my early years with my seven children. I have probably changed more nappies and wiped more noses than anyone else in the Chamber. He was right about bonding for fathers—it is critical. I remember bathing my children and often getting in the bath with them, although that is not very PC nowadays. Those were joyous times: there was lots of fun, lots of splashing about and lots of telling off from my wife afterwards because of the mess in the bathroom. Never mind, it was good stuff, and it is vital for fathers and their children.

All the policy and educational reasons for concentrating on early years have been well rehearsed by hon. Members who are more expert than me. I want to highlight two examples of excellence from my constituency. The first is a new nursery class, which opened at the school to which all seven of my children went. There was no nursery then, and I bitterly regret that they did not have the advantages that children do now. The head teacher, Yvonne Hawkes, beavered away for years to get a nursery class. She put in bids again and again, which were rejected. However, one was recently accepted and the nursery class was built and is now working perfectly. My only regret is that my children were not able to attend it. It is already making a big impact on the school and the local community.

My second example is the St. Albans children's centre, which is one of only 18 such centres of excellence in the country. We are proud that we got the money for it. I cannot say that St. Albans, which is the fourth wealthiest town in the land, is deprived, but we have areas of deprivation, as every town does. It is important that that was recognised and the centre was built.

The centre is unique because all the agencies are represented there: education, health and social services. The centre has a full range of facilities: paediatricians, child psychologists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and many others. There is also the Muriel Green nursery school, which is thriving and full. One innovation is the setting up of the St. Albans opportunity class, which is a specialist nursery for children with difficult needs who cannot go into any other nursery provision. They need one-to-one relationships, with one child to one helper. That system works well, and those children could not be catered for in any other location. Our Government put the money in, drawing on the budgets for health and social services.

There are also 90 child care places, providing care for neglected children in our community—that, too, is working well. Early years provision is working well in my constituency. It is an investment in our children that is worth every penny.

4.45 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I start by paying tribute to the Committee for producing such a comprehensive report. There is general consensus throughout the Chamber that this area is hugely important and that the work of those who perform the various roles in early years education is enormously valuable. I have seen that in my constituency and am sure that other hon. Members have seen it in theirs. That consensus on early years has been noticeable in the initiatives that both this Government and the previous Conservative Government created, albeit from different political perspectives, to strengthen the provision of early years education in this country.

I want to add a cautionary note about the dangers of over-bureaucratising early years education. All too often, in the primary and secondary school sectors, we have seen the consequences for the management of schools and for the ability to recruit teachers of imposing too many bureaucratic guidelines, too much paperwork and too much of a structure on those who run educational organisations. In many cases, early years provision is run on a shorter shoestring than full schools, so it would be a mistake to attempt to impose too many rules and regulations.

One example of that tendency is the trend towards certification of those who work in early years education. It is clearly desirable that those who look after the youngest of our children should have educational qualifications, when possible and appropriate. However, there is a great army of volunteers who may not be in that position. My wife has spent several terms with four-year-olds in schools, helping them to read and learn about computers, and other mothers throughout the country have done the same. It would be a shame to lose the services of the gifted amateur in early years education because we over-regulate for certification.

There is a danger of over-legislation in several areas. The Select Committee Chairman at the start of this debate referred to the need for joined-up government. We must ensure that the consequences of legislation intended for different matters do not force out of existence pre-school groups of whatever kind.

Mr. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although the provision of child care has a zero rating for VAT, the erection of nursery buildings does not? Given what he said about joined-up government, should not Customs and Excise liaise with the Minister's Department to remedy the situation?

Chris Grayling

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the need to ensure that different Departments provide the right support to this sector.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the need to avoid getting children to do too much, too young. Many other countries do not start children's formal education until they are six years old. In this country, all too often, children who are barely beyond their fourth birthday are in mainstream schools. For some that is a success—some flourish in that environment, but some do not. I have seen that at first hand. We must be careful about formalising education for the young.

Charlotte Atkins

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that children do not have to be in a formal setting simply because they are in a mainstream school? It is perfectly possible for a reception class to provide the appropriate lack of formality that exists in other settings.

Chris Grayling

I agree with the hon. Lady. Some local education authorities manage a well-thought-out system, in which there is a staggered intake. Children may start the term after their birthday and work only in the morning, going home at lunchtime. In other LEAs, that does not happen. I would like there to be informalisation both for pre-school and reception to meet children's needs. That is tremendously important. We must not get children to do too much, too young.

One cautionary note that I would sound about the reports is that I have read too little about the role of parents. The Select Committee rightly points out the importance of the contribution that parents make to the education and development of their children. When I read the Government's response, I was concerned that it was about parental contribution to the assessment of pupil needs and so forth but perhaps did not acknowledge the fact that parents' role starts in the home. Parents are often the most important pre-school teachers. I should like to see much more done—through all aspects of our legislation, our tax system and our benefits system—to ensure a balance between the clear and obvious needs of those parents who both have to go out to work and who need pre-school support for their children, and those in families where one stays at home to develop the children in their early years. Will the Minister please ensure that that balance exists in future legislation?

Mr. Shaw

In his list of scenarios, the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the single mother or the teenage mother living in a bedsit. Many Labour Members have referred to the sure start programme, which engages such people, who might not have had the positive parenting experiences that have been referred to. Does he welcome the aspects of the report that are covered by sure start, and my other remarks?

Chris Grayling

I recognise the diversity of parents' needs. All too often, support goes to those who need to go out to work and there is not enough directed towards those who choose to stay at home with their children. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am saying that there is often a dimension missing.

I began my political career, and my family life, in the London borough of Merton, where, some 20 years ago, the Conservative party was a pathfinder in managing the introduction of nursery places for all pupils in the borough. That has been a tremendous success, and my own children benefited from it. Those benefits should be shared by children elsewhere. This is a crucial area. Governments and political parties of all persuasions need to continue to invest effort in finding ways to improve such provision in this country.

4.52 pm
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield)

Although I am a member of the Select Committee, I am speaking today on behalf of the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who was called away on urgent business.

The Select Committee's report is very good. I can say that without fear of being accused of bias, because it was produced before I even entered Parliament, let alone joined the Committee. It highlights many of the problems in the Government's strategy for the early years and provides some excellent comments and suggestions for improvement. If only the same could be said of the Government's response.

That is not to say that the Government have not done much good work in the area. The expansion of early years education since 1997 has done much to meet the Liberal Democrats' often-stated goal of access to free, high-quality education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents wish it. Note the use of the phrase "high-quality". I shall return to that in detail. We still have some serious concerns about the quality of provision. We support the replacement of the desirable learning outcomes with the early learning goals and the establishment of the foundation stage—and in particular, its applicability to all children in the reception year. We are glad that the Government are putting in place resources to fund in-service training of practitioners although, once again, there are issues about the effective targeting of such resources and the implications for primary schools of the foundation stage.

Liberal Democrats welcome the establishment of the early years development and child care partnerships. We have long argued for the integration of care and education for children under five, and the partnerships are proving, as we thought they would, an effective vehicle for movement towards that integration.

However, the Government should be aware that there are considerable problems in the operation of some of the partnerships. My information is that local authorities are not always enthusiastic in their support for partnerships. In many cases, there is not enough funding to support the infrastructure for an effective early years and child care policy. How many hon. Members know, for instance, that lead partnership officers often have to cope with more than 40 funding streams for the implementation of their plans? How many of those people have been driven to the point of a nervous breakdown by the load being placed on them? I do not wish to criticise the principle, because it is a sound one, nor do I want to criticise the enthusiastic implementation by the Department for Education and Skills, whose efforts are widely appreciated. However, I criticise the complexity of the burden and the lack of resources, which will hamper its successful implementation. If an unenthusiastic local authority is required to set up and maintain the bureaucracy from its rate support grant, it will do so unwillingly and with as little cost to its budget as possible. Evidence suggests that that is the case in far too many authorities.

With my background in education—I have been a teacher for the past 22 years and a local government councillor for 11 years—I am sympathetic to the plight of councils with overstretched budgets that are under ever increasing pressure. As a Liberal Democrat, I am loth to argue for more centralisation, but a strong case can be made for increasing the central grant for the funding of early years development and child care plans to enable much better implementation throughout the country. That is not to say that there are no success stories. A willing local authority can work wonders. I know that excellent work is being done in Oxfordshire, in Brighton and Hove and in West Sussex. I am sure that many other authorities could be included in that list, but too many do not have the will and the service suffers as a result.

Another related matter impinges on the problem. The partnerships are under a duty to produce the plan, but it is the LEA's job to fund it. That produces tensions that can sometimes lead to severe curtailment of the plans and a reduction of morale among the partnership support officers. They often feel caught between two stools—between the partnerships and the authority. That situation must be clarified if progress is to be made. The partnerships are representative of virtually all the interest groups in the area, but they have no democratic base—representatives are appointed by each interest group and by the authority—which can result in a clash between the democratically elected authority and the non-elected partnership. That principle must be revisited in order to clarify the responsibilities of the partnerships and the authorities.

The most glaring abdication of responsibility in the Government's response to the Select Committee report has been touched on only once today. I refer to smoking and smacking. The Committee was clear in its view. It stated: We recommend that no childminder should be allowed to smack any child in their care". Again, the Committee said: We recommend that no childminder should be permitted to smoke in the presence of any child in their care". What was the Government's response? They retreated behind the defence of public opinion. I shudder to think what sort of society we would have if every time a moral issue had to be considered we acted on what we perceived to be public opinion. For a start, we would be hanging those convicted of capital crimes.

In any case, there is no consistency in the Government's stand. It is a criminal offence for a teacher to smack a child of statutory school age. Why, therefore, is it not the same for very young children, who are probably more at risk? No teacher is permitted to smoke in front of children. Indeed, many schools, including the one where I last worked, do not allow anyone to smoke on the premises. Why should we allow smoking to take place in the presence of those very young children, who are even more impressionable and whose health is more vulnerable?

Many parents actively want teachers to use physical violence on their children—or they would not object if it were to take place, as I was often told at parents evenings at the three schools in Derbyshire where I taught. However, the law does not allow it. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), another Derbyshire Member, will know that that local education authority was one of the first to abolish corporal punishment in its schools in the early 1980s, some years before the Conservative Government made it national policy. Why then allow physical violence against the very young that cannot be inflicted on older pupils? We would strongly oppose any move to reintroduce corporal punishment in schools or to allow teachers to smoke in front of their pupils. We oppose the Government's response just as strongly, as it completely ignores the Select Committee's recommendations. At best, the response is ill advised; at worst, it is moral cowardice. It must change.

I want to deal with the quality of provision of care and education for the very young. Quality was always going to be a problem when such a rapid expansion took place. It was never going to be easy to deal with that problem, but if we do not get the quality right in the early years we risk doing irreparable damage to countless young people. It is vital that attention be now focused on ensuring that the quality of all provision is above a fairly high threshold, as soon as is humanly possible. The previous Ofsted standards for nursery education were not high enough. I know several registered nursery inspectors who said, "I have to pass this setting as satisfactory, but I wouldn't send my own child there." The new Ofsted early years directorate is apparently of the opinion that those standards are adequate for the new form of inspection shortly to be introduced.

I applaud the establishment of the early years directorate in Ofsted, although I do not applaud, I hasten to say, the push towards a much more formal curriculum at too young an age. It was high time that some system was set in place to ensure that minimum standards were set across the country. However, if the standards set centrally are too low, it will do positive harm. I understand that Ofsted is committed to reviewing standards in 2003, but the review should be going on now for the sake of the children already in the system.

The partnerships have precious little in the way of regulatory powers to ramp up the quality in their areas. If Ofsted says that a setting is satisfactory, by definition the LEA has to accept that, even if it knows that that judgment is flawed. There are stories of settings getting by during an inspection, sometimes by foul means. Often, the LEA knows what is going on, but is unable—

Charlotte Atkins

Has the hon. Gentleman visited his own early years unit? I would be interested to know his views on the standards maintained there.

Paul Holmes

My point was about the inspection of particular settings in various parts of the country. A setting in a certain part of the country may not meet the required standards, but settings in the same town or city may do so. The point was about the standards applied by Ofsted when it inspects those settings and about the lack of powers to force settings to come up to those standards, not about any particular group in any particular constituency.

If an LEA wants to ensure that all its settings—not most, or some, but all—exceed minimum standards, if it really cares and wants to do better, the regulations do not allow it to enforce standards in the last resort. Its only weapon is encouragement, and if a setting refuses to improve above the, in my opinion, unacceptably low minimum standard, nothing can be done. There is, of course, a lot of good practice. There are many successes, such as the locally devised and agreed charter marks. However, if a setting or a group of settings chooses to ignore such standards and there is a continuing shortage of alternative high-quality places, there is nothing to be done.

I am tempted to say that if we cannot get the quality right, we should not bother at all. That is indicative of how strongly the Liberal Democrats feel about the issue. However, that would be to deny the excellent work being done by many early years settings. The Government must act quickly to raise the minimum standards and to allow local partnerships and authorities to set their own aspirations.

One way of raising the quality of the education of our young children would be to put resources into in-service training for practitioners, particularly at the early learning goals and foundation stage. I appreciate that much good work is going on already, but more needs to be done. I not sure that all primary school head teachers have taken on the implications of the foundation stage for children in their reception classes. Many have, but many still need to understand fully what this means in terms of different teaching and learning strategies, staff training and the deployment of resources.

The Liberal Democrats have long called for the appointment of supernumerary early years specialist teachers in primary schools to take on the whole of the early years agenda, to train and support staff in the school and to work with the feeder early years settings in the area. I have heard of one authority that is actively considering that, but as usual it is finding the funding a problem. If we value the importance of the best possible education for our youngest children, we should be fully committed to supporting the improvement of quality in that way. It would make a significant difference to the situation in schools and would actively support the many, mainly voluntary, early years settings in achieving the higher standards to which I referred.

I know that there is a commitment by the Government to increase the number of teaching assistants in primary schools by 2002, but there is a danger that these words could be seen as weasel words. What is meant by "teaching assistants"? What qualifications should they have? Where should they be deployed? We are unequivocal: we say that all those teaching assistants in mixed reception and in year one classes should be qualified to at least NVQ level 3 in early years and that the guidance from the Department for Education and Skills should make it clear that the increase in teaching assistance should be targeted at the foundation stage. Achieving such an increase in suitably qualified people will present short-term problems, but they are not insurmountable.

I commend the Government on their sure start and early excellence centres initiatives. There is no doubt that they are contributing greatly to the provision of high quality services for the under-fives in areas where they exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) said that up to 50 per cent. of needy pupils in her area do not have access to that because they do not live in concentrated wards.

I am concerned that there are not enough early excellence centres. The Government should be unequivocal in their commitment to ensure that there is at least one early excellence centre in every LEA area. I say at least one, because large authorities will need more and unitary authorities will often need considerable support to establish and maintain an early excellence centre in their areas. Those centres are the best possible way of demonstrating best practice and the provision of combined care and education for very young children. They and future generations deserve nothing less.

A number of years ago, early years education in this country was a model for the rest of the world. There were many examples of nursery schools being exasperated by the number of overseas visitors coming to learn from the very best practice. Previous Tory Administrations allowed those standards to slip, and although we are pleased and gratified that the Labour Government have taken on so much of our longstanding policy on early years, much remains to be done. More needs to be done urgently to bring this country back to the pre-eminent position it once held in early years education.

5.6 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and his Committee on producing an excellent report, much of which, surprisingly, I agree with. However, there are a few points of contention to which I shall refer.

I note that there is a lot of interest in this debate today, and it is good to see so many people in the Public and Press Galleries because the subject is important and all too often there is not much interest in what is said in Westminster Hall. We have heard many excellent speeches from Back Benchers.

I was concerned that I might have to declare an interest in the debate today, but I do not think that that is necessary officially. I am chastened by the thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has today been prevented from speaking from the Opposition Front Bench on the subject of agriculture on the grounds that he is a farmer and knows what he is talking about. I do not pretend to know what I am talking about, but I am the mother of a small child and wonder whether, on the same grounds, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards might chase me to say that I should not speak from this position on early years education. I shall plough on anyway.

Judy Mallaber

We congratulate the hon. Lady on the recent addition to her family. She definitely has an interest and it should be declared.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind wishes.

I thoroughly endorse what has been said today about child care. It is a very difficult job and anyone, anywhere, who is involved in child care deserves a medal. I can think of many jobs that are much easier.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly began by considering when learning begins. An interesting part of the report deals with evidence taken from Miss Rosemary Roberts of the Peer early education partnership who posed the theory that a child learns in the womb. I am not sure whether I can corroborate that, but when my little baby was crying yesterday afternoon, I switched on the television for Prime Minister's questions, and as soon as he heard the usual "Hear, hear, hear," from the Chamber of the House of Commons, he immediately calmed down and started to watch. There might be something in that, or there might not. I merely offer it as empirical evidence, but clearly he likes it, and I have found a way of keeping him quiet for at least half an hour a week.

I have some points of contention, to which it will be interesting to hear the Minister's response. The Government want to provide education places for three-year-olds. I accept the importance of beginning education at the earliest possible stage, but I question whether the right way to spend the education budget is to give school or nursery places to three-year-olds. Does that not blur the distinction between education and child care?

I appreciate that paragraph 33 of the report clearly says that education and care are inseparable", and I am sure that the Committee gave that matter adequate consideration. They might be inseparable, but in terms of who pays for what, a distinction must be made. I am not entirely comfortable with money from the education budget, which is scarce enough, being taken to provide for child care, which should perhaps be provided for from elsewhere. I will be interested to hear the Minister's comments. Every pound spent on a three-year-old is another pound not spent on a 12 or 16-year-old.

Concerning qualifications, I think that a sufficient standard for child care training is reached at, say, NVQ level 2. It is the least expensive option, and is achievable, so will make the greatest difference. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Huddersfield wishes to see graduates going into this field. However, if we make the qualification level too high we might make it impossible to achieve. I think that standardisation here is the enemy of development.

There are many difficulties in that area. Training is good, but if the requirement of certain qualifications is a barrier to involvement in early years education, we are producing an inconsistency. Many people in the Room have mentioned the importance of parental involvement. I certainly endorse that. Too many parents have said, "My child is now of school age and not my responsibility any more. Let the school teach them everything." That is certainly not the way for a child to receive the best education, but where do we draw the line? Parental involvement, although important, by its very definition means the involvement of the amateur, not the qualified person. If a parent wants to help in a nursery or other early years school, is he or she to be prevented from helping with other children because he or she has no qualifications?

I see that the hon. Member for Huddersfield is saying "no", and I appreciate that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's opinion and the Government's policy on where one draws the line. I am afraid that if we require too many and too high qualifications, we will end up with even fewer teachers and carers in this field and make it even more difficult to achieve what we want. I would give further examples, but I appreciate that I must leave enough time for the Minister to answer.

It is interesting to note that the debate continues about how children learn to read, and what professional expertise is needed to teach a child to read. I know that I learned to read before I went to nursery school. De facto, I must have learned from my father, because I had never met a teacher. It might have been from my mother, but I think that she was too busy being a mother. Only fathers have time to do things like teaching. It must therefore be possible for a child to learn in such an informal environment. If we require qualifications from too many people, we will be taking away the informality through which many of us must have learned.

The number of nurseries and early learning schools or establishments that have recently closed concerns me. We all want more provision in that area because it is good for children and communities. Early years provision is a good start to anyone's educational career, but sadly it is not happening in practice.

I should like to ask the Minister about a letter that I wrote in June last year to the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who is now the Home Secretary. The proprietor of a nursery in my constituency brought to my attention the way in which business rates are applied. It appears that in January 2000 the former Secretary of State said: Nurseries have raised the issue of rates they pay on their premises and their wish for a level playing field between private and local authority providers. These rates should reflect the fact that childcare providers in the private sector who offer nursery education in similar premises to those in the public sector should not be disadvantaged". I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to answer the point now, but it is important. His Department refused to answer it last summer, but passed it on to another Department, which has not even tried to answer. It is an important matter of educational policy and I hope that he will take it on board and answer it in a letter.

We want to see the best possible education for children in Britain for a variety of reasons, which include children's personal development, our country's economic development and the good of everyone in the community. However, I warn that repeating the word "education" again and again and again does not show commitment to it. Commitment to education is shown not by what the Government say, but by what they actually do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) said, the number of places available to children is falling, not rising. We all want more children to be able to go into early education and better quality provision, and we should like to know how the Government propose to achieve that.

5.17 pm
The Minister for Schools (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who opened the debate, and to the members of the Select Committee who produced a thorough and informative report. A great deal of time, effort and energy was devoted over an extended period to that work, which involved taking a wide range of evidence from, as my hon. Friend described them, "peerless experts" who were all committed to making improvements. I also pay tribute to those who have contributed to the debate, which has been interesting to listen to. That reflects the high level of interest in the House in making progress in this area.

The report rightly highlights how crucial the early years period is in a child's development. I am glad that it supports the Government's approach and that it acknowledges the enormous investment that we have made in developing services for children and families, and ensuring that those services are accessible. In broad terms, we were spending £1 billion a year on this area in 1997, and that has increased year on year so that it will be £2 billion a year by 2003.

I should like to pick up on the point made by the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker). It is not the case that the number of places is falling. There has been a net increase of 221,207 child care places between the beginning of the financial year in 1997 and the beginning of the present financial year. We are on track for the current figure to rise to 1 million by 2004, as pledged. We are absolutely on track to deliver on the commitment that we have made, reflecting the substantial investment that we are making and a very large increase, year on year, in the number of places available.

Mr. Barker

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

I really cannot, unfortunately, because of the time. I must respond to the points that have been made.

Early years development and child care partnerships are now operating in every local education authority area, doing excellent work in planning local services, closing the child care gap, providing nursery education places for three and four-year-olds and working to ensure a supply of suitable and appropriately trained staff. Many of those partnerships are excellent—my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) gave a good example. They often work with local regeneration partnerships, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) pointed out. Where there are problems, we are working with the partnerships to improve their performance. We have in the Department partnership advisers who are able quickly to identify the weaker partnerships and to provide them with the support that they need.

For the first time since September 1998, we have been in a position to offer every four-year-old a free early education place in a range of pre-school maintained school settings. We are investing a total of nearly £1 billion to extend that entitlement to all three-year-olds by September 2004 and to support related initiatives. Some 55 per cent. of three-year-olds are already accessing a free place and we are on target for 66 per cent. by next March. That is a very impressive expansion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) said, and there will be universal provision when we hit the September 2004 deadline.

We have introduced the foundation stage, which was widely welcomed in the debate, as a new distinct phase of education with early learning goals, which sets out clearly what we expect children to achieve from the age of three to the time they complete their reception year. The foundation stage emphasises the importance of education during children's formative years. We want children to enjoy high-quality experience during that time, supported by competent adults.

I listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and other hon. Members about the dangers of too early a start to formal education. We are watching with interest the development of the evidence base on that, but at the moment it is still inconclusive: there are only a small number of studies. However, the research has demonstrated the great importance of the quality of what is provided, whatever setting it is delivered in. We are very much taking that message to heart.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) talked about special educational needs. Early years development and child care partnerships are working towards specific targets to improve the identification of special educational needs in early years settings and equipping the staff in those settings with the skills that they need to support children with special needs or disabilities. My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, who was mentioned several times during the debate, has put an enormous amount of work into that, for which I pay tribute to her. She outlined the targets to the Select Committee on 2 May.

The early excellence centre programme, which was welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), is promoting the benefits and raising the standards of integrated early years education and child care. There are 49 such centres offering high quality services, and we want to double that number by 2004. The first year evaluation of the programme shows clear evidence not only that there are cost savings to be made by bringing together and streamlining services, but that it is having significant benefits for children, families and practitioners. We recently issued another invitation to join the programme, and we are especially keen to receive expressions of interest from early years and child care partnerships that do not yet have an early excellence centre in their area.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the commitment in the White Paper that we will legislate to free school governors to run a wide range of family and community facilities and services, including child care, in schools. We hope to take forward that commitment in the forthcoming education legislation.

Sure start has featured prominently in this debate, and rightly so. It is another excellent, widely acclaimed example of integrated provision aimed at nought to four-year-olds. The emphasis is on early identification and early support to prevent problems, or to tackle them before, as a number of hon. Members have said, they become too difficult to solve. To achieve that, service providers will need to consider innovative ways of working more closely together, and with parents. We have doubled the size of the programme, and are well on our way to meeting our targets of establishing 500 local programmes and reaching a third of all children under four who live in poverty by 2004.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield that there is no weakening in that commitment. Contrary to the word on the street in his area, the target has not been watered down. Some 437 local programmes have already been announced, and of those, 197 are approved and at various stages of implementation. In the next nine months, 177 fifth way programmes will develop plans to begin delivering their services from next summer. I can therefore assure him that this is a determined programme of delivery of the various very ambitious targets that we have set.

It is early days, but initial qualitative research suggests that sure start is beginning to make a significant difference to the lives of the young children and families who use its services—a point to which a number of hon. Members have drawn attention in respect of their own constituencies. A study of a small group of parents in eight of the trailblazer programmes found that sure start had given both parents and children more confidence. Parents felt that one key benefit was the way in which children had learned to interact with other children.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands mentioned, in July we announced a package of £22 million over two years to support the development of 50 small sure start programmes in pockets of disadvantage in rural areas and smaller towns. We aim to reach a further 7,500 children through that programme.

The Select Committee's report was clear in its message that learning begins at birth, and that nought to five should be viewed as the first phase of education. I agree, but I also recognise the points that were made about undue early formality. In our Green Paper, we signalled our intention to develop a framework that supports the development of children from birth. That is what the work of Professor Lesley Abbott is contributing to. Her objective is a framework of effective practice, rather than a curriculum. Great work is being done through early excellence centres and sure start. We need to build on that and to draw on existing expertise and experience.

The Select Committee report and several contributions to the debate emphasised the vital role of parents, and I welcome that. Parents will always be their children's first and most important educators. They shape children's lives more than any other influence. Research on the impact that parenting can have on later attainment, social skills and productive adulthood is compelling. We know that learning and development activities experienced by the very young have a highly significant effect. Investing in young children and their parents may well yield the biggest payoff in long-term social and economic returns.

In the light of our plan to continue this big expansion of early education and child care places, we need to attract thousands of new workers by 2004. They must be the right kind of people, with the right skills to work with children. We have therefore launched a major four-year national recruitment campaign for the sector. Its aim is to raise the profile and to help recruit suitable new workers. I am happy to report that by the end of August the campaign's national helpline had received more than 67,000 calls. Some 10 per cent. of those callers were men, which is encouraging in the light of some of the points that have been made.

A number of issues were raised that I have not had a chance to comment on, but I have taken careful note of them all. We have come a long way. What we have achieved so far is excellent, but we know that there is a good deal more still to be done. I conclude by expressing again my thanks to the Committee, to those who supported it and contributed to its work, and to all who participated in the debate, for helping to take our thinking—

It being half-past Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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