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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 March 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Nursery Nurses

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.30 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I am absolutely delighted to be opening this important debate and I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) for suggesting it.

Nursery nurses have been the unsung heroes of early-years education and living proof of the need for trained specialists for children during their important, early, formative years when their personal, social and emotional development is so crucial. For too long, the early years have been seen as the province of the well-intentioned but untrained mother figure. In saying that, I do not wish to underestimate the fundamental role of mothers and fathers as children's first teachers, protectors and play partners because their role is central and must never be eclipsed by carers or paid professionals. Indeed, I am pleased that early-years practitioners now accept the importance of involving parents at every stage. However, because the early years have always been seen as an extension of the home environment, early-years practitioners have been seen as the poor relations in the child development world. Nursery nurses have been living proof that young children need particular support and special skills to help them to progress positively through the early challenges faced by all children.

Children are starting school earlier and earlier and nursery nurses provide the bridge from home to school. Whether in school, nursery or other settings, nursery nurses have provided the essential understanding of early child development, which has sometimes been lacking. Primary school teachers may end up teaching reception classes or even nursery classes without specialist training and I am pleased that the Government intend to change that and to insist that all teachers have specialist training in crucial early-years education. Nursery nurses are invaluable as experts in their field.

Happily--and after a long time--we now have a Government who value early-years education and recognise its huge impact on the lifelong potential of children, particularly those from disadvantaged homes. Replacement of the previous Government's nursery voucher scheme was a welcome first step. It created damaging competition between schools, playgroups and private nurseries for early-years pupils. Many pre-schools have closed since 1995 and only recently has the number of pre-school places increased under this Government.

Competition between the different providers led to schools hastily setting up nurseries and nursery classes to capitalise on vouchers when many were ill prepared to do so. I am concerned about the child-adult ratio that

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frequently exists in the school setting, which is often less favourable than in private settings. The establishment of a partnership between the voluntary, private and state sector through the early-years development partnerships is a welcome change. Some partnerships work better than others, which is to be expected at this early stage, so I welcome the Government's appointment of advisers to help these early-years development partnerships.

The boost that those partnerships will give to the training of early-years practitioners, be they in education or in child care, will be crucial. The national framework for qualifications, which was launched in September 1999, rationalised the existing 1,600 qualifications and gave individuals and employers clear information on the qualifications that are appropriate to different jobs. That is a good start, but in its recent report on early years, the Select Committee on Education and Employment, of which I am a member, went further. It recommended national targets for training, so that within 10 years all early-years practitioners will have appropriate specialist training, and all heads of centres and nurseries will be graduates or of an equivalent level. Moreover, all early childhood workers should be at national vocational qualification level 3 or equivalent.

That is not the entire story. Continual professional development is also a must. It is not easy to keep abreast of new developments, especially given that many child care workers have their own family and care commitments. Professional development should be a right and should be available flexibly. It should be available during the day in flexible training packages--including distance learning, workplace learning and modules--to allow qualifications to be built up progressively, and to increase access to training across all sectors of child care and early-years provision.

I welcome the Government's efforts to expand training in early years, and their commitment to provide appropriate training and development in early education for all qualified teachers and practitioners by 2004. Access to an average of four days relevant training for all early-years practitioners is crucial, but it is not enough and should be expanded further. For too long, early-years practitioners have been the poor relations of other education practitioners who get Baker days and associated training packages that help them to develop their professional expertise.

If we are to improve the quality of early-years provision, the dissemination of good practice is vital. I am excited at the prospect of helping to develop a rural sure start for pre-four-year-olds in my constituency, but we should not underestimate the difficulty of building such a project in areas where little infrastructure exists. Ensuring that rural villages and towns have the benefit of early education and health intervention will be a real challenge, especially in low-income areas. In practice, the so-called rural idyll can mean isolation and poverty. That is particularly true now of rural areas that face the devastation associated with foot and mouth disease.

I want to see a huge expansion in good-quality and affordable early-years provision. I am grateful to the Minister for supporting the expansion of nursery classes in Leek within the All Saints and Beresford schools, which are in my constituency, but we need to go further. Nursery nurses have blazed a trail for early-years education, and working as part of the early-years team

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they have played a vital role in its expansion. I should stress the need for teamwork. Nursery nurses must be involved in planning, monitoring and developing good practice, and in helping to develop the skills of colleagues, including classroom assistants. In my view, the role of classroom assistants is underdeveloped. Schools such as Kelvin Grove--of which I have been a governor for many years, and which was the most improved primary school in London last year--have used classroom assistants creatively. They should not be left out of the equation, but they are often an undervalued part of the team. They are usually paid on local government manual pay scales, so their pay is low and their training can be neglected.

Nursery nurses have a different role, but I believe that classroom assistants can complement them. We must have a proper strategy for developing the skills of classroom assistants and nursery nurses as part of a ladder of qualifications through to graduate status.

I should like to see more men in early-years education to teach young boys at an early stage that learning is for them too. Unusually, a private nursery in my constituency, Nursery Thymes in Craigside Biddulph, has helped to develop young men interested in entering early-years education. I am delighted that it is successfully developing that interest among young men. Of course, the boys who attend the nursery also benefit, so it should be congratulated on its initiative.

Nursery nurses have shown us the way in early-years care and learning; we owe them a great deal. However, we must ensure that that message is expanded. We must ensure that the important role played by nursery nurses and early-years practitioners is properly rewarded and recognised because they play a crucial role that complements parents in developing young children's early lives. I should be interested to hear how the Minister anticipates that qualifications in early-years education will be developed so as to improve pay for nursery nurses and other early-years practitioners.

9.42 am

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I should begin by declaring an interest: my daughter is a qualified nursery nurse. Throughout her career she has worked in a private-sector nursery. I hope that that will not be seen as the only reason why I feel that it is important to debate the topic. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing today's debate.

I echo my hon. Friend's remarks about the importance of the Government's national child care strategy. It has been welcomed by everyone in the education sector and by many parents in my constituency. Last week, the Minister had the opportunity to meet some of the people involved in early-years education in the Brighton and Hove local authority area, and I know that the comments that she made to our local press were valued by those people. I add my congratulations to those working in my local area.

The Brighton and Hove early-years development and child care partnership offers an example of good practice to other parts of the country. Its regular

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newsletter "Partners" informs those working in early-years education and parents about services. As my hon. Friend said, partners form the keynote of a strategy that involves a partnership between the state and private sectors. The Government's laudable ambitions for early-years education need a relationship with the private sector.

In Brighton and Hove, we have secured a free nursery place for every four-year-old and we are making progress on our commitment to provide places for three-year-olds. Thanks to additional funding from the Government, we hope by April this year to be able to offer a place to all three-year olds from the term after their third birthday. We are making progress toward achieving our ambition--and the Government's--that a free place should be available to all three-year-olds by 2004.

My interest in early-years education was sparked not only by my daughter's job, but by the suggestion made last year that the name of the job done by nursery nurses be changed. Many people in the profession were surprised and dismayed by the suggestion that their job title should be "classroom assistant" or "teaching assistant". My hon. Friend talked about the important role of classroom assistants and teaching assistants and the way in which that role should be developed, expanded and given greater recognition. However, nursery nurses were hurt by the notion, which seemed to come from Government sources, that their role was merely to provide assistance, whether in a nursery classroom, reception class or private sector nursery.

I was interested in the wealth of correspondence published in Early Years Educator magazine from practising nursery nurses who were shocked and dismayed by what appeared to be undervaluing of their professional status. In the course of that correspondence, Dr. Vivian Robbins of De Montfort university described nursery nurses as the invisible profession, relied upon throughout early-years education, but often overlooked in terms of professional status and qualifications.

The role of nursery nurses is extremely wide ranging. I received a letter from a Brighton and Hove resident who works not in the Brighton and Hove education authority area, but under East Sussex county council. She said that, in the course of any one day, nursery nurses have to

That is an interesting summary of the range of educational and caring responsibilities that are common to any nursery nurse in whatever setting she works. As my hon. Friend suggested, the profession is largely female, and I echo her sentiments about the need to attract more men into the profession.

More than merely the name of their job lay at the heart of the concerns expressed by many nursery nurses last year, but that issue was symptomatic of their feeling that their professional expertise, acquired during two or

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more years' training, is not properly recognised. That expertise is vital to the success of the Government's strategy, which I am sure all hon. Members support.

There are two related issues, the first of which is pay. The basic scale from 1 April last year for nursery nurses in schools ranged from £9,531 to £12,444. For most nursery nurses working outside London and its fringe areas, the second figure is the maximum that they could hope to earn, irrespective of their qualifications. Although there are higher pay scales for nursery nurses working in social services departments, the majority working in education feel that the main pay scale does not sufficiently recognise their training, expertise or experience.

We can understand that feeling if we examine the new earnings survey carried out in April 1999, which examined the average earnings of many related professions. At that time, the average earnings of nursery nurses were £10,777, whereas the average earnings of classroom assistants, who probably have far less training--although, no doubt, they bring other expertise to their work--were £10,385. The difference, which is just a couple of hundred pounds, does not recognise the qualifications of dedicated nursery nurses. The Professional Association of Nursery Nurses has recommended that a pay scale of between £11,628 to £18,000 would be reasonable recognition of the professional status of a nursery nurse.

I have been talking about pay in the state sector, but the picture is quite different in the private sector, where pay often depends on the whim of the manager or owner of the nursery. Often, nursery nurses working in the same nursery have no idea of differences in pay between colleagues because there is no clear pay structure. My daughter, who works in a private sector nursery, has had a different experience. Her nursery has developed a clear pay structure that recognises training undertaken since employment. It is a pity that many other private sector nurseries do not follow that example.

Career structure, like pay, is important. Many nursery nurses felt that the Government's suggestion that nurses who want to earn more or increase their professional status ought to train as teachers might appeal to some. However, the survey suggested that the majority of women and men in nursery nursing are doing that job because it is the job that they want. They do not want to be teachers, but prefer instead to concentrate on a particular age group and use the skills that they learned during training.

There is a need for a career structure. My hon. Friend outlined some of the proposals that Government agencies have made on the recognition of qualifications. That is a step forward, but I suggest that the Government take a leading role in that respect. I recognise that the Government cannot intervene in the relationship between employer and employee in the private sector, because that is a matter for nursery staff and their employers, but they should indicate the direction that ought to be taken.

The emphasis must be on partnership. The Minister's letter to nursery nurses, which said that the role of nursery nurses was to support teachers in primary, secondary and special schools, suggested a lack of understanding of the professional role of the nursery nurse. Obviously, nursery nurses provide support, but they often take a lead role in their institution as well.

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My plea is that the Government play a clear and leading role in bringing together the public and private sectors to work on creating properly recognised career structures and pay scales across both sectors. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments. Nursery nurses are the valuable people on whom we will rely to deliver the child care strategy of which the Government can be justly proud.

9.56 am

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) on the work that he has done to raise the profile of the subject. The child care workers whom we are discussing are an important but often neglected group who have an important role to play in the Government's agenda on raising standards. Nursery nurses work in a variety of settings, but I will concentrate on their role in the early years, when they can and do play a part in improving standards for our youngest children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands mentioned the Select Committee on Education and Employment report on early years. The Committee, of which I, too, am a member, emphasised clearly that the early years--from birth to five-plus--are crucial in determining a child's life chances. That had been said before, and all the evidence that we received confirmed it. My experience as a secondary school teacher has led me to think that more money invested in the early years would lessen many of the problems that emerge at later stages of education. The Government, to their credit, have recognised that and, starting from a very low level of provision, they have done much to improve early-years provision. However, it must be recognised that, unless we can recruit and retain qualified and well-motivated staff, we will not be able to raise standards of provision. The Select Committee stated clearly its desire for integrated provision across health, education and social services.

We received much evidence regarding the importance of involving parents as partners in their children's education, especially in the early stages. However, that would require far more early-years staff than have previously been employed, they would need a range of skills to deal with the social, physical and intellectual development of children, and they would have to work proactively and constructively with parents, many of whom may have had a poor experience of the education system. In some settings, such as early excellence centres, parents are encouraged to learn and take courses themselves.

The job of working with young children, especially in disadvantaged areas, giving confidence to them and, in some cases, to their parents, is not one for a gifted amateur. There was much debate about that in the Select Committee, as my hon. Friend knows. The job requires staff who are highly skilled, take a broad view of education and recognise the importance of developing their own learning. We hear much about teachers in those settings, but not enough about the nursery nurses who work with them. Those who have worked in the education sector know that teachers and nursery nurses work as a team, and that the nursery

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nurse does not have merely a support role. They also know how much teachers value the nursery nurses who work alongside them.

In practice, nursery nurses are involved in planning, assessment and record keeping, as well as dealing with parents. They are increasingly involved in delivering the national literacy and numeracy strategy. We require a lot from them. Despite that, theirs remains a low-paid, low-status job, with the low pay deriving from that low status. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion said, the average salary of a nursery nurse in education is just over £10,700, and the maximum that she can earn, whatever additional qualifications she may have, is just over £12,400.

It is no wonder that the Select Committee heard repeated evidence of the difficulties of attracting men to work in the sector. There is a gender issue, springing from the view that the job done by a nursery nurse is somehow an extension of women's natural role--that it is just a caring role. As a mother and a teacher with a higher degree in education, I have to say that I would not last five minutes in a nursery. I could not do the job.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I would last even less time.

Helen Jones : Yes, so it is time that we valued properly the skills of those who do the job.

The Select Committee was adamant about the need to recruit a stable and highly qualified work force. We want to have a qualified teacher in every setting, but we also want a ladder of qualifications to ensure that nursery teachers can progress to a qualification equivalent to that of a qualified teacher. I am convinced that the key is not only to improve the qualifications of those staff who are currently poorly skilled, but to provide a proper career structure for the qualified nursery nurses that we have. At present, even if a nursery nurse obtains an additional qualification such as an advanced diploma in child care and education, it makes no difference to the sort of job that she can do or to the pay she receives. It is that lack of career structure that leads to a high turnover of staff and difficulties in recruiting men into the profession.

Members of the Select Committee were impressed with what we saw in Denmark. Pedagogues are a separate profession, trained to deal with children in the early years and in after-school activities, with a proper, recognised and valued qualification, and a pay scale that is almost on a par with that of qualified teachers. Unless we work towards a similar structure in this country, we shall neither achieve what we want to achieve in early years nor attract and keep the right staff. We should aim to put our best teachers and nursery nurses into the early-years sector, where they can do the most good.

I hope that the Government will consider that proposal seriously. Nothing will happen by telling nursery nurses that they can go on to become teachers. That approach does not value their existing job, nor does it recognise the different skills that they bring to a classroom or an early-years setting. I hope that the Minister will say something about improving the pay of nursery nurses. We need a proper job evaluation scheme

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to examine what nursery nurses do. I hope that other measures to provide an interim boost to pay will be considered. It says much about our priorities as a country--we are all involved--that when money was given to improve pay in higher and further education, it was given to all staff, whether or not they were lecturers, whereas similar action was not taken in early-years education. Perhaps it is time that we lobbied my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the money to do that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on the problem of nursery nurses being replaced in some settings by classroom assistants. I valued the classroom assistants with whom I worked when I was a teacher--in fact, I valued them so much that one of them is my son's godmother. However, they are not the same as qualified nursery nurses and they do not do the same job. The current practice of many local authorities of replacing nursery nurses with unqualified classroom assistants or making nursery nurses take jobs as classroom assistants on lower pay cannot be allowed to continue because, in the long term, that is detrimental to good education.

I am not merely talking about the pay and conditions of one group of people, important though that is. It is crucial to raise standards and to deliver the Government's agenda on social exclusion and poverty. Unless we retain the right staff, we cannot deliver what we want to achieve. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that on board and that, in future, we can raise the profile and status of such key child care workers.

10.6 am

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is a rare privilege for me, either here or in the House, to be able to agree with virtually every word that has been spoken. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on introducing such an important debate. The quality of the contributions from the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) emphasised the seriousness and importance of early-years development. The only matter that I question is the title "nursery nurse". It is outmoded, as the hon. Member for Pavilion said. A more comprehensive title is "early-years learning assistant", but I urge the Government and their spin doctors to work out an appropriate title with the Department for Education and Employment.

As a member of an opposition party that has been committed over the years to early-years education, it is important to put on the record our support for the Government's actions. It would be churlish not to recognise the framework that has been put in place during the past four years. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) agrees that nursery vouchers were an abomination. They have now been abolished. We have got rid of the ludicrous idea of creating a market place within early-years education and turned rightly to a comprehensive framework for early years that brings together the voluntary and the state sectors into one organisation.

The early-years and child care partnerships in the North Yorkshire county council area, in which my constituency is situated, have provided opportunities, particularly in some of the remote rural areas, which

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until now often had only scant provision. We must recognise that. I am delighted that, during this Parliament, the Government have adopted Liberal Democrat policy on free places for all three and four-year-olds. It is always good to see the Government adopt ideas that we proposed in our manifesto. It shows great strength on the part of the Minister and her colleagues that they have done that.

The provision of places for three-year-olds by 2004, however, is a target that lacks vision. Given the resources at the Government's disposal, and the money that tomorrow the Chancellor will undoubtedly give to all who need it, delaying the introduction of free nursery places for three-year-olds until 2004 is a step that I hope that the Government will revisit. I am not making a cheap point, but I am sure that the Minister will recognise that a significant number of early-years settings are struggling desperately, given the resources that they receive. Despite what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands said, there is still a drive by schools--particularly primary and infant schools--to hoover four-year-olds into school settings.

I was especially interested in the Lady's comments about staff-child ratios. If I understood her correctly, she said that the Government were committed to a uniform structure for such ratios. If the Minister will clarify that point, particularly with respect to four-year-olds in schools, it will be a remarkable achievement from this morning's debate. I strongly disagree with the Government that it is acceptable to set rigid ratios in early-years settings that are not schools, but that such ratios should not to apply to schools themselves. If the hon. Lady has advance information of the contents of her party's manifesto, I should be delighted if they could be revealed today. If the uniform structure is included, the Minister will have my wholehearted support.

We should move on from the subject of universality and, rather than simply looking at quantity, we should feel the quality. A satisfying aspect of the debate has been that all those who have spoken have mentioned raising the quality of the settings. Liberal Democrats support that. However, I ask the Minister to clarify what resources are being used to support quality and training. There is clearly confusion about the announcement on 27 February by the Minister and the Secretary of State about the £58 million that was allocated for additional training. Will the Minister confirm that £30 million of that money is coming from Europe, and that such resources have not yet been accessed? If she says that we have the money, that is great, but it is not Government money, it is money from Europe. Although I welcome the money and the fact that we are receiving resources from Europe, I hope that the Minister will clarify where the resources are going.

Will the Minister also clarify how much of the £113.5 million, introduced as part of the comprehensive spending review for 2001 to 2004, will be used for training? [Interruption.] I believe that the Minister said that all of it would be used for training, but the press release clearly states that a lot of the money will be allocated for recruitment and advertising. That is a separate budget, and I do not regard it as training.

I understand that some £57.5 million of the £113.5 million announced in the comprehensive spending review is allocated specifically for training. Will the Minister make it clear that 47 per cent. of that--some

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£27 million--will have to be found from the budgets of local education authorities because of the match funding arrangement? That money is not Government money, but will require local authorities to pay more. The Government cannot claim to be spending such large sums of money when a significant amount--about £90 million--is coming from other sources.

The two press releases show confusion about the Government's training targets. I totally support the Government's ambitious targets to professionalise early-years settings. As hon. Members have said, for far too long it has been accepted that anybody can teach in such settings and that training does not matter. I reject that view, and I hope that we can clarify the matter.

On 27 February, a DFEE press release stated that new resources would provide enough

The Minister confirms--she nods from a sedentary position--that the resources referred to are for training, which is welcome. However, the press release that accompanied the comprehensive spending review stated that the Learning and Skills Council's target for training was 230,000 workers for child care and early-years education by 2004. Are those figures coterminous? Is the figure of 150,000 part of the 230,000, or is it 150,000 plus 230,000? If the latter is the case, I congratulate the Minister, because that ambitious target goes beyond my expectations.

I presume that the Learning and Skills Council will provide training for 230,000. Will the Minister put on record what additional resources have been given to the council for that purpose? My investigation reveals that its budget contains no additional resources for that element. If the Learning and Skills Council is to rob Peter to pay Paul, will the Minister be kind enough to let hon. Members know where the cuts will be--in the funding of sixth forms perhaps?

Will the Minister tell us to what standard the training will be done? If the figure is 230,000--we will keep with the Learning and Skills Council target for the moment--to what level will people be trained? Will they be trained to level 2, level 3 or, as many have hinted this morning, do the Government want to see more graduates in early-years settings? A breakdown of the figure would be useful because the level of training often determines the cost. Therefore, one cannot have one without the other.

On the same theme, how will the training costs of people in the voluntary sector be met? The voluntary sector felt enormously let down by the Select Committee's report. It was not that the report did not emphasise the need for training--the voluntary sector, especially the Pre-school Learning Alliance, supports the idea of training--but Government announcements make virtually no mention of resources to reflect the need to help the voluntary sector with training costs.

Staff in virtually every small voluntary sector early-years setting that I visit tell me that they cannot afford to let staff go on training courses because they do not have the wherewithal to cover supply costs. Indeed, there are often no supply teachers or nursery nurses available. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us how the voluntary sector is to be supported.

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The Select Committee should be applauded for the emphasis that it rightly placed on training in its report. If the figures materialise at the levels that I mentioned earlier, the Government's response marks a turning point in the professionalisation and training of staff in early-years education. However, I need to explore that a little. There appear to be two level 3 NVQs for early-years training. There is the traditional National Nursery Examination Board route, which is tried and tested, and is recognised in the market place. The second principal route is the diploma in child care and education at level 3.

I disagree with some of the comments made earlier--especially those made by the hon. Member for Warrington, North--about the Government's agenda for growing professionals. It is an exciting agenda. People can leave the process at whichever stage they desire, but it creates a real opportunity to grow professionals from inner-city communities, not only in education but throughout the public sector. There will never be enough "middle class" people who want to work in inner-city areas, so we must encourage growth from within. I hope that that is not an either/or situation, but that both options are possible.

Does the Minister agree that, given the present structure, it is virtually impossible to move from level 3 to level 4? A level 4 NVQ in early-years education has been on the cards for some time, but one of the criteria for people moving from level 3 to level 4 in that course is that they must be in a management position. In reality, the vast majority of people who work as nursery nurses are in not management positions but support positions. I do not decry that, as it is right and proper that people should occupy such positions but, if they want to move on, we must remove artificial barriers rather than erect them. Will the Minister outline the Government's policy or vision for progression from level 3 to level 4?

Will the Minister respond to some joined-up thinking? I am sure that she has read the national skills taskforce reports word by word so that they are emblazoned on her heart, especially the significant piece of work by Chris Humphreys published last year. The final report stated that our major problem was with level 3 qualifications. One cannot disagree with that conclusion as, behind Greece and Mexico, this country has the fewest people qualified to that standard in the first world.

The report made two recommendations. The first was that people should have access to training at level 2 throughout their lives and the second was that 16 to 24-year-olds should have access to free level 3 training. My party supports those recommendations and argued during consideration of the Learning and Skills Bill that the Government should support them. The Government rejected them at that time because the Chancellor had yet to unlock his war chest and provide additional resources. Does the Minister intend to press for that level of commitment for training at levels 2 and 3? Many people--certainly in my constituency and the others that I visit--find the costs of training prohibitive, especially in the private sector. Such a commitment

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from the Government would unlock an enormous amount of potential at the crossover to which I referred and give people free access to child care training.

Another question raised by the national skills task force and many of the national training organisations is how people may receive the right to time off for study. In the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, the Government committed themselves to giving 16 to 19-year-olds without level 2 qualifications the right to time off for study. An extension of the right to time off for study, if it is paid for by the state, will be of enormous help to the voluntary sector, which desperately needs support in training its staff.

The hon. Member for Pavilion made a tremendous speech about pay. I applaud his critical comments about the Government's policy on pay. He was right. Pay cannot be ignored. We cannot talk about a high-quality early-years setting, valuing people and giving youngsters a flying start, while we pay people at appalling levels. We are not only talking about salaries in the state sector or local authority settings. Pay levels are extremely low in the voluntary sector. I visited two early-years settings, one on the Stockwell estate in Knaresborough, and one on the Knaresborough Road estate in Harrogate, both of which questioned the minimum wage because they could not afford to pay it to their staff. I said, "My goodness, you must afford it, and you must go beyond it." We must tackle that issue. How do the Government intend to ensure that people in the voluntary sector who receive training and develop their expertise are paid appropriately for the job and are not expected simply because they live in rural or poor areas to do the job for the love of it rather than as professionals?

10.26 am

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I echo the welcome given to the debate. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) deserves our congratulations. She has achieved what few could. For some time I have been pressing the Government for a debate on early years on the Floor of the House, and I have written to the Secretary of State on the subject. He tells me that he is discussing the matter with the Leader of the House, and I hope that we shall have such a debate. I am delighted to see the Minister nod.

I should declare an interest in that I have an adorable three-month old son, who is a potential client for early-years education. Despite my enormous respect and affection for you, Mr. Jones, given the choice of being here with you or holding him in my arms, I would have him in my arms. Notwithstanding that, I turn to the job in hand.

There will be little debate or disagreement in the Chamber about the importance of early-years education. Since I became a member of a local education authority many years ago, I have held the view that early-years education is vital, and all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have made that point. We understand and appreciate the importance of early-years education. The hon. Lady said that it has an impact on lifelong potential, which was an apposite phrase. We also know from Select Committee evidence that early-years education is important, and the hon.

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Lady and others are right to say so. We know from academic work on child development and early learning that the first interface and experience of learning and socialisation has a significant impact on subsequent progress. We are all happy with that conclusion.

Provision is, however, patchy. Genuine problems are experienced in securing access to early-years education. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly drew attention to the problem in rural areas, and mentioned north Yorkshire. The same would apply in many parts of Lincolnshire, including my constituency, where access to early-years education is difficult simply because of physical issues, such as travelling, especially from remote and sparsely populated areas, to sources of such education.

The problems of patchy provision are significant and also apply to some inner-city areas and social groups. Take-up of early-years education among some minority groups is much lower than for the majority population.

Parents have different expectations for their children and different requirements for early-years provision. That may be because they have a particular view of what is right for their child or because of their personal circumstances. All sorts of factors impact on people's opinions about what they want. There is no uniform demand; different parents have different demands in different parts of the country.

Parental involvement and the link between home and school are also vital. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) referred to the Select Committee's findings in that respect. My discussions with teachers have shown that that is a real problem in many schools and communities. It is an important aspect of addressing the issue of early-years provision, and I shall deal with that in respect of the trends and changes that have taken place under the Government's stewardship.

We also understand that a child's experience should not be merely about learning. Play, for example, is an important feature of the early-years experience. Rigidity and formality in early-years education are not always desirable. The education provided requires a degree of flexibility and informality and, certainly, a high level of diversity. The hon. Member for Moorlands, in an unfortunate remark, talked about damaging competition. I am not entirely happy with the concept of damaging competition. I am not so arrogant as to believe that any single solution is the right one in every circumstance on every occasion. Diversity of provision is needed not only to allow for choice, but, more importantly, to allow for a variety of approaches to develop and prosper in order to identify best practice.

Charlotte Atkins : The damaging competition was drawn to the Select Committee's attention by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which complained that school settings were taking potential pupils and making pre-schools unviable. That was the damaging competition in question, which the alliance felt was unfair.

Mr. Hayes : Now that the hon. Lady has made her position clearer, I endorse what she says. She is right to say that in many ways there is less choice than there was four years ago, which I shall illustrate later. That is because of the unfair and unreasonable competition

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from schools, as a result of which the number of alternative providers, especially playgroups and pre-schools, has shrunk dramatically during the past three or four years.

Flexibility and diversity in the sector, to which the hon. Lady alluded, are genuine concerns. It is true that parents want choice, and it is true that diversity has diminished. The facts are clear enough. The Minister will remember that, in November last year, I asked her what had happened to the number of pre-school and playgroup places under this Government. In a clear and frank answer, she told me that there were 30,000 fewer places than in 1997. She will also know--although it was not included in her answer--that the number of providers has reduced dramatically. According to one of the provider organisations, there are nearly 20,000 fewer providers. I would be interested to hear the Minister's precise interpretation of that.

There is a danger that we are producing uniform, vanilla flavoured provision. Perhaps that has been caused by the damaging competition that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Moorlands. The matter needs to be addressed, and I wonder whether the Government's current policy does that sufficiently, as there is no sign yet of that trend being reversed.

There are also issues concerning the diminishing level of parental involvement due to the reduction in community and volunteer provision of an informal nature. The great feature of the system of early-years provision that developed in part by accident--or, perhaps, by evolution--until 1997 was that it guaranteed a high level of self-help, community involvement and volunteering. Many parents, grandparents, and other members of the community became involved who would, perhaps, never have thought of becoming involved in a professional capacity had they not come through such informal routes. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough talked about some of them becoming professionals as a consequence of their first involvement as volunteers, but the current policy puts that in jeopardy.

Volunteer and community involvement is diminishing, but there are also other problems, such as the difficulties of establishing private provision. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion talked about the matter at length, but he did not, perhaps, have enough time to add that it is extremely difficult to set up a private nursery. A considerable amount of bureaucracy is involved. One has to be registered, secure planning permission and find suitable premises--and trying to find suitable premises in which to set up a private nursery in some London boroughs must be a nightmare. It is a lengthy and intimidating process, and many people who might wish to establish private provision are deterred from doing so.

Mr. Lepper : I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the highest standards of property, administration and management need not be insisted on for private sector nurseries. His remarks seem to suggest that.

I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge the Government's introduction of the neighbourhood child care initiative, which is aimed at providing capital

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and revenue resources to help set up child care places, particularly in the 20 per cent. most deprived wards in England.

Mr. Hayes : The hon. Gentleman is correct that standards need to be guaranteed. However, I have received correspondence from someone who is very interested and committed to the private sector and who has no particular political prejudice. The letter tells of a group of people who offer early-years provision to small rural communities from a local church. They have been told that they are obliged to have low-level toilets, in other words, separate toilets for staff and children, and other health and safety facilities that are beyond the limits of many premises that are designed for general community use. Those early-years providers were using a building that was, perhaps, also satisfactorily being used for other community activities, but they have been asked to make changes that they cannot afford. That will prevent them from continuing to provide a popular and valuable service that displays good practice in an area where there is, perhaps, no alternative on offer.

A balance needs to be struck with regard to our expectations of voluntary and private sector providers between the hon. Gentleman's desire for regulation and my desire for self-help, entrepreneurship and the widest possible provision. I am sure that the Minister will want to address that.

A recent report by the National Early Years Network addressed the problem of the decline in the number of nursery schools. The Minister will be aware that that report also described the Government as opting for the "lowest common denominator" with regard to early-years provision. The report suggests that up to 100 of England's 513 state nursery schools will close because of damaging competition unless the Government recognise the service that they offer. The National Early Years Network believes that the Government's current policy is a further threat to diversity and choice in nursery schools, in addition to the threat to the voluntary and private sectors.

My next point concerns the complexity of the system. The Minister knows that there are more than 20 separate funding streams for early-years education. It is very difficult for those involved to comprehend the process and simplification is required.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge ) indicated assent.

Mr. Hayes : I am delighted to see the Minister nodding in agreement.

The number of initiatives, new schemes and pet projects has led to a multiplicity of funding streams, which has created confusion and perhaps incoherence. We must examine that.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of the current regime, and I am angry about it, although I know that one should never become angry or animated in this Chamber, is that now, in 2000-01, more children are being taught in early-years classes of more than 30 than was the case in 1996. That information came from the

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Library, which stated clearly that, in 2000, 29 per cent. of pupils were taught in early-years classes of more than 30; in 1996 that figure was 27.3 per cent. and in 1997 it was 26.5 per cent. One result of more children being educated in reception classes and the unequal requirements for the pupil-teacher ratio, to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough drew attention, is the irony that the Government, who are determined to teach five to seven-year-olds in smaller classes, are teaching an increasing number of younger children in larger classes. We have heard the argument that the younger the child, the more important the direct contact with a teacher, but that is contradicted by the results of the Government's policy. I am entitled to be angry about that, not on my behalf but on behalf of the children, parents and others who feel cheated--

Helen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes : I shall not give way because I have done so a couple of times and I want to conclude.

I am angry on behalf of those who feel cheated by that policy.

I welcome the helpful comments in the Green Paper on the Government's national accreditation scheme. I thought of that excellent idea at the same time as the Department for Education and Employment. I came up with it alone, working by candlelight, and the Department for Education and Employment matched me. I am proud of that very good idea and I welcome it. However, significant problems exist that are not addressed in the Green Paper or in anything that we have heard from the Government. They include lack of flexibility, diversity, choice, volunteering and involvement, over-regulation, bureaucracy, a multiplicity of funding streams and, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, difficulties in meeting recruitment targets.

Perhaps the Minister will refer to retention when she responds because I believe that there is an issue concerning not only graduate recruitment, but retention. How long do we retain people when they enter early-years teaching? Is that trend improving or worsening and what impact will it have on meeting targets, even with ambitious targets on recruitment? What is the balance between European money and other money? How much of the extra money targeted on the expansion is being taken from the standards fund? The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked whether it is new money or whether it is being taken from elsewhere, which is an important point that I want to amplify.

Can the Government assure us that they will address the issue of clarity in the funding of early-years education? We must ensure that people are not disincentivised from establishing voluntary and private nursery provision. Diversity must be allowed to continue to flower because that is the prerequisite for choice in a healthy sector.

I am delighted that we have had today's debate. I hope that the Minister will address some of my questions in her response and write to me about the remainder.

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10.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge ): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. I also congratulate those hon. Members who have participated.

Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to visit the local authority in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper). I was impressed by the work that is being done by the partnership there and delighted that it has endeavoured to bring forward the introduction of free nursery education for three-year-olds as well as for four-year-olds in advance of national targets.

This is a period of massive expansion in services. I shall quote two relevant figures. First, we are doubling spending from £1 billion to £2 billion to secure free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds. Secondly, the Department for Education and Employment budget for child care has tripled. Furthermore, we are securing European resources and have secured a new budget of £155 million from the new opportunities fund, which will enable us to create 1 million places for 1.6 million children by 2004.

On the issue that was raised by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), we want to time the implementation of places for three-year-olds in a way that assures us of quality; I took that on board when we decided the timing. We could bring more resources to bear more quickly, but, if we went too fast, it would be difficult to train sufficient people to obtain the quality of nursery education that we want. Child care and early years is the second fastest growing sector in the labour market. We have added 122,000 jobs in the past three years, so we have more than 660,000 people working in it, which demonstrates the extent of the task. On top of that, we have the 150,000 additional jobs alluded to by the hon. Gentleman.

I say to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that competition damaged diversity. The legacy that we inherited from the previous Government led to many private and voluntary groups losing four-year-olds to the nursery sector as competition drove schools to grasp children. We have proved that competition damages diversity; co-operation through partnership enhances it.

I shall put to rest the charge that playgroups are experiencing a continuing decline. They were declining as a result of parents' changing demands and the damaging nursery vouchers scheme. It has taken time to turn that round, but, in the last year for which figures are available, nearly 6,000 extra places were available in playgroups. We addressed that through the way in which we distributed money for three-year-olds, the massive resources that we have given to the PLA and the money that we have set aside to help struggling playgroups. I hope that the pre-school sector will play a role both in our new plans for neighbourhood nursery expansion and in our other initiatives.

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's negative and rather pessimistic attitude about the role of the private and voluntary sectors in the expansion of neighbourhood nurseries. I am in constant conversation with them. We are determined that they will play a

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proper and appropriate role in creating the 900 new or extended nurseries in deprived inner-city areas, giving for the first time high-quality early-years experiences to young children in need.

On the issue of nursery schools, the hon. Gentleman has missed some of what we have been doing. We woke up a long time ago to the threat that nursery schools were under, which is why we gave them specific money to look at new ways in which to extend their services and to remain part of the diverse provision that is on offer.

I have talked about expanding numbers and how we value everyone who works in the early-years sector: nursery nurses, teaching assistants and all others. Far from devaluing them, our policy is about enhancing their esteem and enabling them to participate in training and development. It is not our intention to abolish names. I say again to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that we are leaving that matter for people to decide locally. If he wants to change the name in Harrogate, he can do so, but the Department for Education and Employment is not taking a view on names. We are investing £350 million in the next three years not only in nursery nursing, but in teaching assistants. Many teaching assistants have the NNEB qualification, so there is some synergy between teaching assistants and nursery nurses.

Our overriding vision of the early years is about greater integration of care, education and health. Many of the traditional structures and jobs will be recreated over time to form a new early-years profession. As the early-years world becomes more integrated, nursery nurses, whom we value and whose contribution we recognise, will become part of a greater offer and fit into that greater structure. I do not want to hold on to past definitions and past professional jealousies and divisions. I want to bring the best of the worlds of care, early-years education and health together to create a new highly valued profession. That period of change has caused some tension in the teaching profession and in the nursery nurse sector.

We are tackling recruitment with energy. This year, we are spending £8 million on a recruitment campaign and we have had 60,000 calls to our telephone line since it started. We contacted the people who had telephoned six months later, so it was not a matter of hitting them when they first contacted us. Interestingly, 79 per cent. have taken action, such as looking for job vacancies, with a further 6 per cent. intending to do so; 32 per cent. have enrolled on training courses; 16 per cent. have found work in the sector; 39 per cent. have applied, attended an interview, or been successful in finding a job as an assistant in a day nursery; and 20 per cent. did the same for nursery nursing. I am proud of our efforts to bring more people into the sector.

On the issue of training, generous money is available. We are using some of the money that is available for learning and skills councils, which have traditionally trained people in early years and child care, but there is extra money from the Government and, I am happy to say, from Europe. I am delighted that we have been able to use that European money. A sum of money also comes through the standards fund--there will be a local authority contribution. The investment is massive. I shall write to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough with the details. I assure him that included in that sum is £7 million from the Government

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and £15 million from the European social fund. It is all about unblocking the barriers to training, so it deals with issues such as supply cover and course costs. Training is across the private, voluntary and statutory sectors.

I accept entirely the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) about the importance of working with parents, and the additional skills and competences that are required in that regard. We are trying to build those factors into the core competence.

I am proud of the framework that we established in 1999, which recognises 16 qualifications, including the NNEB qualification. We have asked the Learning and Skills Council to train 230,000 people to NVQ levels 2 and 3. We must remember that, according to the 1998 work force survey, 44 per cent. of existing staff have no such qualifications. That is why a pot of money is being provided. It will include funds from the Department for Education and Employment and from elsewhere.

NVQ 4 is an exciting development that will provide a route--as my hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands will recall, we call it a climbing frame--to enable those with an NNEB qualification that is equivalent to NVQ 3 to progress. I do not accept that those with NVQ 3 cannot work in management. We have negotiated with a number of universities to ensure that, with a little underpinning knowledge, those with NVQ 4 can regard it as equivalent to 240 credit accumulation transfer points, which is two years off a degree. Our Green Paper makes it clear that, by 2004, we hope to be working with 1,000 people towards establishing a new senior early-years practitioner route that will be just below degree level and that will enable the desired careers progression for those who enter at NNEB level.

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On pay scales, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, there is the single status agreement, which presumably takes account of such issues, given that it was based on a job evaluation scheme. We have asked partnerships to report on pay in this year's plans and we will see what comes of that. Of course, pay is determined locally and we must work hard in the coming years to raise the status and pay of early-years workers.

We recognise that ratios in reception classes are an issue. We have said that we want a ratio of 1:15. We have invested money to ensure that, in this Parliament, the 60 most deprived LEAs can establish such a ratio and recruit more staff through the standards fund. We need to make further progress throughout the country, but there is nothing to prevent any LEA from making ratios a priority; all LEAs have plenty of additional resources to enable them to do so.

In terms of gender, we have a very distorted early-years work force. Much of that distortion relates to status and to equal pay for equal value. At the moment, only 2 per cent. of the work force consists of men. Our target is that, by 2004, 4 per cent. of those working in the early-years sector will be men. We have also set targets in respect of ethnicity, disability and age. The work force tends to be very young and we want to encourage older people.

There has never been a more exciting time in the world of early-years education and child care. We take to heart many of the issues that hon. Members have raised and I hope that they will accept that we are making progress. We want to work with the private and voluntary sectors through the successful local partnerships that we have created to provide the best start for young children, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands said, makes all the difference to outcomes in their adult lives.

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