Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)

WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001

MS MARGARET HODGE, MBE AND MR ALAN CRANSTON

Chairman

  140. One of the fears that this Committee had as we did our original report was that we were going to push conventional learning down the age range; yes, provision expanding, yes, more schools and the state sector getting more involved in bringing children into a school environment if not into a proper school setting in the classroom, but that there would be this inevitable creep of the curriculum down to younger children and numeracy and literacy down the average. Much of the evidence that we received was this fear that if you took that and you took the more rigorous inspection, the only way that people in the early years' settings can prove they are good and they meet a standard—and the Prime Minister and his wife launched your star rating—is by being more formal, yet all the evidence from the excellent people that you and I both know in the pre-school area are terrified that we are going to drive imagination out of the early years and lurch to too much formal learning early on rather than what we have been told, which is that children learn best in this crucial period by play and active exploration having their creativity stimulated. Yes, under guidance. That permeated even what we recommended in the report on access to the outside world. That is the fear. It is articulated quite strongly out there. You spoke, in answer to Nick earlier, about unintended consequences, but one of the unintended consequences of what you are doing, Minister, might be more inspections with a lot more money being spent because those inspectors are going to want to prove they are doing something. On the other hand, more facilities to schools to take early years could end up with a much more formal structure with 3, 4 and 5 year-olds sitting in rows learning to read and write. Alan shook his head there.
  (Mrs Hodge) I think the foundation stage was born with a lot of suspicion and fear. I now—and I am sure you do, Chairman—go round a huge range of early years settings and I always ask "How are you finding the foundation stage?" and I am now getting universal—literally, I have never walked into a setting where people have not welcomed the structure and the recognition that there is a distinct phase of development of learning which we have called the foundation stage. I think there is now universal support for it, and that has been a great triumph. Having moved that debate from it being seen as something which would damage children's intellectual development or hold back their imaginative capacities—all that sort of stuff—I think we have killed that agenda. Partly we have done that because we do talk very strongly about social, emotional and physical development as well as intellectual development in what we see as important for a child in their early years. That is recognised both in the framework and in what is offered. What I have always said is that what is absolutely crucial for children at this age is that they should be given—of course children learn through play and learning should be fun, and those two things go together—an appropriate offer which is relevant to their age and relevant to their stage of development. We are continuing, Chairman, to work extremely hard to get this right. For instance, there is an element in the OFSTED Inspection Framework which talks about how to deal appropriately with the literacy and numeracy strategy in reception classes. In the training that the literacy and numeracy strategy are doing with headteachers there is a bit in there about how it does not mean that you sit kids in rows and formally teach them for a hour from the age of four but how you deal with a reception year and ensure that learning is appropriate. There is some specific guidance that goes out to teachers in reception classes to make sure that they understand it. It is an integral part of the training. We work very, very closely with the Foundation Stage Working Group which brings in a whole lot of those with professional interest in the issues, and with the literacy strategy people and the numeracy strategy people, to make sure that all the work they are doing fits in. If you want my view, I think we are getting it better now up until the end of reception year. I am now going into a lot of schools where that link between the nursery and the reception year is pedagogically very well structured and put in place. What we now need to do is make sure that the links at the end of the foundation year and the start of Key Stage 1 are properly bedded. We have got to do extra work in that, and I am talking to the Foundation Stage Working Group and my colleagues in schools to make sure that we get that right. I think it is a success story.

  141. Can I hear from Alan as well? He was shaking his head so vigorously.
  (Mr Cranston) I do not think I have anything to add to that very full answer.

Charlotte Atkins

  142. I was very pleased that you indicated that the adult/pupil ratio in reception is now going down, I think you said, to 1:10.
  (Mrs Hodge) One to fifteen in reception.

  143. One to ten is for what? Did you mention 1:10?
  (Mrs Hodge) Sorry, 1:10 is the ratio of teachers to settings.

  144. Obviously, in reception and as throughout schools but particularly in early years, the role of the classroom or teaching assistant is absolutely crucial over and above any nursery nurses, and so on. How successful are schools being at recruiting these valuable members of staff?
  (Mrs Hodge) I think incredibly successful. You do hear wonderful stories everywhere you go about women who come in, perhaps with their child, to a mother/toddler group or they come in at a later stage to help with the cooking in the nursery class or reception class, with no qualifications at all and they move from that into a career in childcare or early years education or elsewhere—health and social work. There are some really brilliant stories and there are some great places that are supporting those routes through. It is good for women. I think it is one of our good policies of providing greater opportunities for women. It is good for children—good for everybody.

  145. I agree it is a great story but my concern, as a parent and school governor, is that there is no structure in terms of the pay of these teaching/classroom assistants. I am a school governor at a London school and we pay way above what other schools pay in terms of our classroom assistants because we value them for what they do. A lot of them also go on twilight courses if there is on-the-job training as well. However, I fear that in many areas those teaching assistants are more or less on a minimum wage rate of pay and there does not appear to be any input, certainly from DfEE, about how we should develop those, despite the fact that the strategy seems to be to use these very good-value adults—mothers or fathers—within the classroom. Why are we not backing up that strategy with a bit more strategy about what would be the appropriate level of pay?
  (Mrs Hodge) Because we leave that to local determination. There are all sorts of jobs in the world where there is a rate for the job and if you want to earn more you move through that climbing frame.

  146. I do not believe there is a rate for the job. That is the problem. In fact, the rate for the job can be anything from £4 up to £7. That is exactly my point, there is not a rate for the job. I think if we are going to value this particular group of help within schools who are, increasingly, getting qualified, rather like having a nursing assistant who goes through the State Enrolled system and then up through qualification—yes, that happens but if we do value these teaching assistants then it seems to me there should be some sort of guideline. Yes, of course, it is up to local determination but there should be guidelines about what their level of expertise should be and what would be the appropriate guideline for their pay?
  (Mrs Hodge) I think, probably, that is something we differ on. I think that is something that we believe should be left to local employers to determine the rates of pay. What we can do is provide a framework to enable people to come in either as teaching assistants or nursery nurses and continuously develop and enhance their skills and qualifications. In the end, I do not think the Government would want to interfere in establishing national pay scales.

Chairman

  147. Minister, I think you are missing the point that Charlotte is making, with great respect. If I can draw an analogy from the Home Affairs sector, one of the best ways of recruiting someone in the police force, especially women and ethnic minorities—is when they join the Specials. They get experience and they get identified as having the potential quality and so on. It is one of the best routes. What I have found, and I agree with Charlotte on this, is that you get people in that classroom assistant's role who are wonderful; they have missed out on the opportunity of education for whatever reason—they have had children very young and so on—and they are a real potential for the teaching profession and a whole range of other things. However, they are left to fester and, I have to say, very often exploited because their abilities are far higher than the job they are asked to do. What I would see the Government doing is actually giving an incentive or some kind of golden hello for those people to get into training, to uprate their qualifications and expand the world they live in in terms of ambition. I do hope you will go away with this, because I think Charlotte makes such a valid point. We all meet these people working below their full capacity. I certainly came into politics, as you did, to enable people to reach up. I do think all of us who go to schools regularly, as this Committee does, see this potential and can see a Government scheme, not costing a great deal of money, in which you can say "Here is a bonus to think about getting into teaching, or getting into a much better qualified part of the profession."
  (Mrs Hodge) We provide the opportunities, we do not provide golden hellos. I think the argument with the nursery nursing sector, when I meet them and talk to them, is that they want to stay as a nursery nurse.

Charlotte Atkins

  148. I am talking about classroom assistants.
  (Mrs Hodge) The opportunities are there, the personal financial incentive is not, but I will go away and think about it.

  Chairman: I think we come to what is generally known as "smokers corner". I think Nick has been waiting.

Mr St Aubyn

  149. Minister, do you agree that the guiding principle in the Children Act is the welfare of the child?
  (Mrs Hodge) Yes.

  150. Presumably that is why your regulations—could you just clarify are they draft regulations for childminders now, or are they actual regulations?
  (Mrs Hodge) We will publish the final regulations in the next few days.

  151. And they will then have to be approved by Parliament?
  (Mr Cranston) The regulations will come before Parliament, but smoking and smacking is covered under National Standards.

  152. In the regulations you are proposing that childminders should make sure that all children wear a seatbelt in the car. Is that correct?
  (Mrs Hodge) No.

  153. That was the evidence we heard last week. I am sorry, that is the draft standards. That is going to require that all children are restrained in an appropriate car seat or car belt. Presumably that is because we are concerned about the welfare of the child.
  (Mrs Hodge) Yes.

  154. Why then, in your approach to the issue of whether childminders should be restrained from smacking or smoking in front of children, do you rely on what many regard as a misleading poll of parents' opinions rather than letting the guiding principle of welfare of the child guide you in your decision on that issue?
  (Mrs Hodge) In all daycare settings we are prohibiting either smacking or smoking, so the only issue that we are in conflict with you on is the issue of how we deal with the relationship between a childminder and a parent. We have thought about this and I think the interesting debate is where the boundaries lie between the state choosing to regulate—and it is never a clear one—and parents themselves determining an appropriate behaviour code for the person they put in charge of looking after their child. I have to say it is an interesting issue and I have worried about it, but at the end one of the things that convinced me that we had got that boundary right—apart from the survey, which I will come back to—was when I did meet a whole group of professionals who very clearly said to me that this is an issue in which professionals know best. I was outraged by that, because my whole adult life in public life has been about empowering people to take decisions. All parents care deeply about their kids, care about their health, and this sort of judgment that some other professional can make a better judgment over what is best for a child is just, I think, very wrong.

  155. Are you suggesting that a lot of parents like the idea that their childminders smoke?
  (Mrs Hodge) No. I actually think that the way in which we have set the standards will mean that parents will engage in the issue in a way that they have not done in the past because they will have to. They will have to have a specific agreement around it, and you will probably find, at the end of the day, that both smacking and smoking will not take place in all childcare settings. However, that will be for the parent to determine, not for the professional to say somehow "I know the child's interests better than every parent." May I just come back to you on two things? Our poll was not a rigged poll. In fact, at one of the conferences at which I spoke, Bob Worcester, who had not a clue about the issue but looked at the poll, said "This is a completely valid bit of testing of opinion". It did surprise me but I think we were, to that extent, reflecting public opinion. If 83 per cent of parents say to us that this is a decision that they feel they should take, what right has any Government got to override that and say "We little politicians know better"?

  156. Can I answer that, because it does seem to me there is a difference between asking parents whether parents or the Government should run their children's lives—as a parent I would have instinctively the same reaction—and coming to a informed view which, I would suggest, is not for Government to do but is for Parliament to do. This is an issue which should have been debated in Parliament so that many people in Parliament who have informed views about this could have expressed them. Why should this be a Government issue? As you said, it might be offensive to people. However, Parliament might say "Yes, we are alive to what parents' feel about this, but we are going to be guided by the primary consideration of the welfare of the child". The vast majority of parents themselves will not, as you said, allow their children to be smacked or allow childminders to smoke in front of them. What, unfortunately, you have done is you have made it far harder for parents who feel like that to impose their wishes. If there was a national rule about this then in trying to find a childminder and in trying to find someone to look after children the issue just would not arise, it would just be accepted. You have made them negotiate a point. In that you have made the job for the parent who wants to find a childminder who will stick to the rules much harder.
  (Mrs Hodge) I have to say that is nonsense. The first thing is that I do not trust professional politicians any more than I trust professional social workers to take the decision away from the hands of parents. I do not see why we should decide what is best for parents any more than, I think, social workers, health workers or education workers should decide. I just do not accept that. I think this is an issue for parents. I think the idea that we as professional politicians have a better understanding of the welfare of the child than parents is insulting to parents, and I have to say that I actually think a negotiation between a childminder and a family about how your child is going to be cared for is very important; to talk about how you are going to have a code of practice to deal with a child when the child is naughty and whether or not you should smoke is crucial. When I had my first childminder yonks and yonks ago I did not think of talking about these things, it never occurred to me. What we have now established in our structure is a necessity for parents to think about the code of behaviour. It is complete nonsense to suggest that this will, in any way, constrain parental choice. I think it enhances parental choice and parental control.

  157. In response to a much earlier question you described how you, as a parent (and I would agree with this from my experience) knew far too little when your little one came home. Is not the problem here that parents are not perhaps always best informed about the consequences which may occur if they do not take the right attitude on this particular issue? Much as we resent the Government getting involved in the home, if it is felt necessary to require childminders to put a seatbelt around a child in the back of a car then, surely, it is necessary—if that is necessary—to make sure that in disciplining the child they observe some basic rules which everyone with professional knowledge of care say are needed and should be enshrined—?
  (Mrs Hodge) Why do we not ban every parent from smoking? Why do we not ban every parent from smacking?

  158. Because parents are bound in their treatment of their children by ties of love. They are not just there because of the contract they have—
  (Mrs Hodge) If smoking and smacking is so terrible should not Big Brother state come in and say "We will imprison anybody who smacks a child"?

  Chairman: I think this is deteriorating somewhat.

Mr St Aubyn

  159. Surely there is all the difference in the world between a parent who wants to stick by their children through thick and thin, and the child wants them to be there, warts and all, and somebody who wants to be a childminder who would meet certain basic standards. If they cannot meet those standards there are plenty of other job opportunities out there.
  (Mrs Hodge) Parents' love will mean that parents will want the best for their child and that is for parents and families. It is just the question of the boundaries between the state and the individual.


 
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