Education Bill

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Clause 147

Childcare functions of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector and national assembly for Wales

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

Chris Grayling: I want to make a brief point, not so much about the individual requirements but about the overall facility that the clause gives to the Secretary of State. Members of the Committee will know from my previous comments that I am concerned about the over-regulation of the pre-school sector; I am extremely concerned about any provision that confers on the Secretary of State the power to provide additional functions to the chief inspector of schools in regard to nursery education. The current inspection regime for nurseries is already too onerous. It is right and proper that we should monitor the standards and the way in which our youngest children are looked after in the pre-school and nursery environment, but there is a huge danger in making a jump beyond that by trying to impose on the relatively informal pre-school and nursery learning environment an inspection framework that resembles that for a primary school. I have seen some of the details of the Ofsted inspection requirements for such schools; they are too onerous.

An inspection regime for pre-school groups should not go much beyond an assessment of the environment in which the children are kept, whether they appear happy, well looked after and to be developing well and of the broad range of activities to ensure that they are consistent with the children's development. I am opposed to the expectation that people running such schools, often on a voluntary or part-time basis, which have limited resources and small financial turnovers would have the time to prepare detailed documentation or to relate their curriculums to detailed stipulations. It causes me great anxiety that the clause gives the Government the power to place additional functions onto the inspection process and, by definition, onto those schools. There is a danger that the Government will put such a burden on pre-school and early years organisations and that many of them will be forced out of business. Such groups are not creatures that have emerged in the past two or three years under the Government's funding. The Minister has been trying to make party political capital out of his contributions—I do not blame him for that—but he should remember that it was the previous Conservative Government who took the first step towards much broader funding of nursery education. Whether or not he agreed with vouchers, they were designed to create greater opportunities in nursery education.

The Government therefore need to remember that many of the groups covered by the provisions are long-standing; they have not grown up over the past couple

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of years. Those playgroups, pre-schools and nurseries have successfully existed for a long time, in—until the past few years—a relatively unregulated environment. The Government rightly expect that if those groups or the pupils who attend them are to receive Government funding, the Government have a right to set out an inspection regime and parameters for standards. No one would dispute the logic of that; it is a question of the degree of burden that one places upon them.

I caution the Government to be careful before they attempt to take these powers and turn them into additional regulations to impose on those pre-school groups. Such groups do a great job for our children, and for society, and it would be a shame to lose them because the Government tried to regulate beyond the groups' ability to deal with the regulations.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I apologise for arriving a little late this morning; my exam paper from Edexcel did not arrive on time.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. The Liberal Democrats support the raising of standards in early years settings and child care placements. However, one of the sad things about this part of the is Bill is that there is no support for such settings—the Minister may tell us about plans that are in train—in the way of training and additional in-service support.

We all listened to the regulations for special education needs, which will apply to early-year settings. One of the requirements of early-year settings is to have the equivalent of a special education needs co-ordinator. When I asked about special education needs co-ordinators in early years settings—even a single-child minder, minding one child could be covered by the regulations—the Government said that the provision could be shared.

If the regulations for special education needs are to be met—I believe that they should be—and if we want to encourage a better quality of provision for children with special education needs in early years settings, it is incumbent on the Government to put in place, together with the early years and child care development partnerships, some support mechanisms that will allow those settings to flourish.

I agree with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that we seem to be adding burdens and regulations on to such settings without helping them to use the regulations as positive tools for improvement. Instead, as the hon. Gentleman said, they are simply burdens that might force such groups out of business.

Mr. Lewis: The purpose of this part of the legislation is to ensure that the inspection regime is consistent and that it links to child care tax credit. If the Government decide that they wish to extend the providers who are able to claim child care tax credit, it is important that the inspection regime is the same and that the quality required is the same.

Earlier in Committee we said that, if the Government are to fund providers to offer a child care service, those providers should be subject to a reasonable, but not over- burdensome, inspection regime. That balance is always difficult to achieve,

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particularly when the inspection regime is new. It takes time for people to get used to new regimes.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, there is an issue over support and training. Therefore, it is important that all providers feel that there is an infrastructure through the early years partnerships and the LEA, to offer the support that is required. It would be strange to have legislation that states that some providers would be subject to an Ofsted inspection, but that others would not. If we were to extend the tax credit eligibility, but the clause was not passed, some providers who would, for the first time, receive significant additional resources, would not be subject to the same inspection regime.

11.15 am

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of training. I agree with him. Despite what the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said about history, which was a slight rewriting, this is a development of an entirely new service on a universal basis: high-quality child care and high-quality nursery provision. Those who manage that provision and the staff who work in it must receive adequate training and development support. Agreement has been reached with the learning and skills councils that they must enhance the training that is available locally to child care providers. Significant resources will be provided for that purpose. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Returning to the effect of the amendment, if new providers become eligible for the tax credit, they will have to be subject to the same inspection regime as other providers.

Chris Grayling: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. Could you confirm that we are debating clause 147 stand part and that there are no amendments?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The only vote would be on whether the clause should stand part.

Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for the few words that he used just before he gave way, which reiterated that he regards support through a tax credit as indistinguishable from support through Government subsidy. Is that his position?

Mr. Lewis: No. The general point is that if a provider receives Government support, in whatever form, there should be a consistent inspection regime and a requirement to meet certain standards. We said all along that the international evidence shows that simply going for increased volume of child care does not achieve the desired objectives. Along with an increase in capacity and volume, the quality must be a central element of the care that is being provided.

Mr. Turner: I entirely accept that argument. I am not clear how the Minister regards support through a tax credit. He has just implied that he regards it as support for a provider. Surely support through a tax credit is support for a consumer, whereas support through direct subsidy can be described as support for a provider. Is there not a distinction between those two types of Government support?

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Mr. Lewis: No, I do not think that there is. One of the things that consumers or parents are entitled to know about the new purchasing power to buy quality child care is that it includes a regulatory regime that guarantees certain basic standards. We all know that regulation does not always work, but it minimises risk and as much as possible helps to guarantee the quality of the provision that parents purchase.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised an important point that, with respect, I do not think the Minister fully understood. Funding places for three and four-year-olds means giving the money directly to a provider, which then comes into the scheme and is inspected by Ofsted. Tax credits, however, go to the individual.

Let us imagine that Government Members run an early setting called ''Labourbirds''. All the parents of children who go there pay the full, commercial fees. If Mr. Whip and his wife fell on hard times and had to apply for tax credits, would they have to tell the provider? The hon. Member for Isle of Wight and I might be wrong, but the Minister seems to be saying that, in that situation, the whole setting becomes subject to inspection by Ofsted. If a week later Mr. Whip and his wife go back into employment—that is the nature of the modern economy—they no longer need the tax credit and the setting must no longer be inspected by Ofsted. That seems to be a bit of nonsense, and the provider will know that they have applied for tax credits only if Mr. Whip and his wife tell it. If they do not, how will the provider know?

 
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Prepared 22 January 2002