Education Bill

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Mrs. Laing: No, it does not, although I appreciate the point. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman is confused about what I am asking; I am asking questions because my hon. Friends and I are confused about what the Government mean. I am pursuing the point, as I am beginning to suspect that the Government want to leave the matter in some confusion because for various reasons they do not want to provide a definition. If they do not want to provide one, let them say so, but if they truly want to give a definition, let the Minister give it now.

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that we do not want provision to be exactly the same throughout the country, but the Government have made a huge fuss in spinning about the promises that they have made about places for three and four-year-olds and so on. If they are making a pledge, it should be clear, so that people will know whether it has been adhered to. The clause is not clear, which is why I am asking further questions.

Mr. Lewis: I will be content for the people of this country to consider whether the Government are spinning on child care and early-years education or whether we have delivered significantly and will deliver even more in future. I will certainly be happy for people to contrast this Government's record of investment in child care and early-years education

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with what went on for the 20 years when there was a disgraceful abdication of responsibility in that policy area. That is what the debate is really about, although I am sorry to have to be partisan in this Committee. The hon. Lady is casting aspersions on the Government's commitment in this policy area. I am tempted to suggest that she should combine my original answer with that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough to get what she really needs. However, if she wants me to go one stage further, I will clarify what is already in the public domain about our commitment for three-year-olds. This is not a revelation to the Committee; the pledge on three-years-olds is clear. It relates to providers in receipt of nursery education grant, whether they are in the maintained or non-maintained sector. They must follow a curriculum that is consistent with the foundation stage to be provided with two and a half hours of funded early education a day. That is the unequivocal pledge, which is clear and often repeated by Ministers.

It is offensive for the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to suggest that early-years partnerships are not consumer focused and do not consult parents or take account of users' needs, but are purely a vehicle for providers to maintain the status quo on the existing configuration of provision. There is no evidence to support that attack on their performance and responsibilities. They have been generally successful, innovative and responsive to community needs. They are representative in terms of voluntary and private sector involvement and, in my experience, go to extraordinary lengths to consult parents and their local communities before they decide on appropriate early-years and nursery education provision.

The hon. Lady is sincere in her commitment to the issues and has a strong belief in what we are trying to do with early-years and nursery education. However, I do not accept her concerns about a lack of clarity, either with the legislation or the Government's pledge, and do not believe that her aspersions are fair or reasonable. I ask the hon. Lady to accept my response.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 74

General requirements in relation to curriculum

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move amendment No. 480, in page 49, line 29, leave out 'adult' and insert 'later'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 479, in page 49, line 37, leave out 'adult' and insert 'later'.

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No. 482, in clause 95, page 61, line 43, leave out 'adult' and insert 'later'.

No. 481, in page 62, line 8, leave out 'adult' and insert 'later'.

Mr. Brady: Thank you, Mr. Pike, and I add my welcome to you this afternoon.

The amendments should not detain the Committee for long, not least because, as those hon. Members who have examined them will have noticed, they would all replace one word with another. They remove an expectation that educational provision should prepare a child for adult life and replace it with a more sensible and appropriate requirement to prepare a child for later life. We have just discussed early-years education, and there is a long time between that and arrival at adult life. It would be more appropriate for early-years education to have a role in preparing the individual not for adult life, but for the challenges of later life in the more formal school environment.

Moving through a child's school career, a child in an infant school needs to be prepared, as a pressing matter, not for adult life but for the developmental challenges and other needs that must be addressed as he or she moves on to primary school. Through early years, infant and primary education, the crucial challenge is to prepare the child for secondary education, when a whole new set of challenges will arise—all of this long before adulthood. It is common sense that the requirement placed on the earlier stages of education should relate not only to a point after the end of formal schooling but to all the stages in the intervening years. I hope that the Minister will accept that our sensible amendment would improve the Bill.

Mr. Lewis: In a spirit of consensus and good will and, consistent with new Labour's desire to heal wounds and bring people together, the Government have significant sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's amendment and wish to introduce an amendment on Report that reflects its sentiment and objective. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Willis: A breakthrough.

Mr. Brady: As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a breakthrough. It is the first time in our proceedings that the Government have given any commitment to revisit any aspect of the Bill, notwithstanding that they have found it necessary to bring numerous amendments. However, it would be churlish to dwell on that when the Minister has responded with good grace. We are delighted to receive his assurance and look forward to seeing the Government's amendment. In the light of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 74 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 75 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 76

Basic curriculum for every maintained school in England

Mr. Lewis: I beg to move Government amendment No. 412, in page 51, line 3, leave out

    ''342(6) of the Education Act 1996 (c.56)''

and insert

    ''71(7) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c.31)''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 413.

Mr. Lewis: These minor technical amendments are designed to rectify a clear oversight. The regulation of religious education in special schools in England and Wales comes under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and not the Education Act 1996, as is presently stated. The amendment corrects an error that has, unfortunately, been on the statute book since 1998. I hope that the Committee will support the amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 76, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 95 and 96 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 97

Basic curriculum for every maintained school in Wales

Amendment made: No. 413, in page 63, line 20, leave out:

    ''342(6) of the Education Act 1996 (c.56)''

and insert:

    ''71(7) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c.31)''.—[Mr. Lewis.]

Clause 97, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 77, 79, 98 and 100 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 85

Implementation in respect of nursery schools etc.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

5.30 pm

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: clause 106 stand part and new clause 3—Pre-school nurseries, etc.—

    '''Pre-school nurseries and other groups shall be free to modify any curriculum provision in the foundation stage unless subject to special measures.'''

Chris Grayling: New clause 3 is designed to address a problem that has been put to me by several providers of pre-school nurseries and playgroups. I have spent some time talking to the proprietors, teachers and child carers in those groups over the past few weeks and have come away with the inescapable conclusion that the Government, for all the right reasons but in

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many cases with the wrong consequences, are putting too onerous a curriculum on children and their carers. The children are very young and in many cases the carers are developed amateurs. Mothers, part-timers and even the proprietors of the groups often do the job in between looking after their own children.

As a result of the restrictions that we are placing on those carers, they are spending long hours managing curriculums, writing detailed lesson plans and dealing with thick curriculum manuals. They are finding it very difficult to do the job. We must remember that we are talking about playgroups in church halls.

Caroline Flint: Does the hon. Gentleman understand that if other child care settings—pre-school playgroups or whatever—decide that they want to provide an additional early education service, for which they will be paid, they must ensure that the service can be audited against education services provided by other settings? That deals with the point that the hon. Member for Epping Forest raised about clarifying the type of nursery education to parents, and how it is provided in different settings.

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