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Baroness David: It is more than that.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, my noble friend is correct. It was before the noble Baroness,

20 May 1996 : Column 687

Lady Thatcher, became Prime Minister. But after 17 years we are having the first possible intimation of public nursery education. On the whole noble Lords opposite have sent their children to private nurseries. I do not complain about that. However, it is time that there was an expansion of first-class public nursery education which is free.

The Bill before us is not quite the same proposal. We on these Benches will show that the Bill may reduce the number of nursery school places. Moreover, the scheme is being proposed against a background of a steady expansion of nursery education provided largely, but not entirely, by Labour local authorities.

The pathetic proposals in this Bill are set against the overwhelming case for nursery education--evidence seen not only in this country but in every nation where nursery school education is established. Its value is not in doubt. My noble friend on the Front Bench spent some time on that issue. I hope that in a debate of this kind we need not spend time on it. We are concerned about how nursery education can be delivered. We believe that the proposals are inadequate. Perhaps we should be kind and say that at long last the Government have been converted to seeing the value of education for the under-fives. I only hope that the proposals in the Bill will produce that education.

The basis of the Government's case is that by providing vouchers worth £1,100 for parents, there will be an expansion of the provision of high class nursery education--indeed, they would argue a massive expansion of such provision. On the quantity of that increase, we shall have to wait and see. But I suspect that it will be parallel to the forecasts made by the Government in relation to grant-maintained schools. There was to be a tremendous rush for grant-maintained status. Noble Lords will remember that being said many times. It has turned out that some 1,100 out of 25,000 have chosen to opt out. However, the quality of the increase, if it should come about, gives rise to considerable doubt. What about the buildings and related facilities? What about the number of qualified teachers? That factor is crucial in the development of nursery education. What about proper supervision and inspection? These are vital matters, and if the standards required are not met, great damage will have been done.

Even more important is the fact that the issuing of vouchers in many cases simply will not produce nursery school places. Is not this already being seen by parents in the pilot areas? My noble friend Lord Morris produced a formidable list of opponents to the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I produce one instance more. I cannot forget that in 1994 when a voucher scheme was first suggested, the Secretary of State described such a proposal as "unwieldy", and as recently as 1995 she had not changed her mind because she said that it is "not the favoured option". In the fullness of time it will be interesting to know why there was such a fundamental change of mind--although some of us can probably have a good guess as to why that came about.

I press the point about provision under the proposed scheme. The DfEE said in a briefing note that there is,

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    "no cast-iron guarantee of a place, at least in the first instance, until new places are introduced in response to parent demand".
Demand, apparently, is the answer and the key to it all. I pose the question: how long will the "first instance" last? Will it be weeks, months or years? What happens in the meantime? Nothing, presumably.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I turn to a specific case because I believe that it is important to understand how the scheme will work. The proposals in the Bill are causing great concern in County Durham. The county has an excellent record in the provision of nursery education. However, the details that I shall give will apply equally to other local education authorities which have taken such provision seriously over the years, and which have the same excellent record as County Durham. They take the view, correctly, that the essential difficulty with the voucher scheme is that most of the funding for it is not new money from the Government but clawed back from LEAs on the grossly unfair basis that only money provided by the Government for four year-olds which is actually spent on four year-olds is clawed back by the Government. In other words, local education authorities which receive the same grant but do not value nursery education highly and spend that money on other things, keep their money; and those authorities which have the best record of providing nursery education will lose the most money.

County Durham has 24 nursery schools, 87 nursery units and one children's centre, which provide 7,654 three and four year-olds with free part-time nursery education. Therefore, is it not strange that with that kind of dedication and enthusiasm under proposals purporting to increase nursery provision money allocated by Government to LEAs but not spent in that way is left intact and thus lost to nursery education, but other funding actually spent on nursery education is withdrawn? That seems to be a ludicrous situation.

It is necessary, too, to remind your Lordships that the Government's scheme is for four year-olds only, with an unspecified intention to provide for three year-olds at some time in the future. For those LEAs like Durham which have extensive provision for three year-olds as well as for four year-olds, the three year-olds could well be left high and dry if nursery provision collapses as a result of the voucher proposals.

The figures for Durham County Council are dramatic and should be put on record. The council spends £21.5 million each year providing education for three and four year-olds. In 1995-96 government funding to support this was £10.66 million, only half of the cost involved. To fund nursery vouchers, the Government will take away over £8 million from the £10.66 million.

Have the Government really thought through what might happen to what might be called "good" authorities? If what I have described happens, does it not mean that poor providers of nursery places will keep the government grant which they receive but do not spend on the under-fives and will, in addition, receive the "new money" too?

I want the Government to make this central point clear, so I pose the question in another way. Four year-olds who attend a maintained nursery school or unit

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will be able to exchange their voucher, worth £1,100, for the same education they receive now, and the LEA will make up any difference in the cost. Is that the position? We bear in mind that it is generally recognised that an LEA nursery education place costs more than £2,000 a year. That figure varies--it is set somewhere between £1,500 and £2,000. For every four year-old who does not take up a maintained place, the LEA will lose £1,100 which could mean that nursery places would have to be reduced.

I turn briefly to the working of the scheme in the pilot areas. Three of the local authority associations sent all or most of us, I presume, a brief which contains disturbing figures. They are that 40 per cent. of initial application forms sent by Capita were not returned by mid-March 1996. Parents had then to apply to local providers from a list supplied by the voucher agency. The associations say that nearly one-fifth of those eligible in the four pilot areas failed to return their application forms. When he winds up, will the Minister say whether the figures are correct? If not, what are the figures? On such a basic aspect of the scheme, we need to know.

It is said, too, that all four of the pilot areas--or should we now call them phase one?--have expressed concern that vulnerable parents may fall through the net. That causes me great concern. Having regard to the bureaucracy of the whole scheme, it would not be in the least surprising but it will be tragic--and that is not too strong a word--if the children of such families were not to receive the benefit of nursery education. They are the ones with most to gain from nursery education.

Applying the principles of the market for an increase in the provision of nursery education could not be more misguided. A golden opportunity has been missed, not least because there is so much good practice throughout the country. A new untried scheme involving so much bureaucracy is completely unnecessary, open to abuse and, we ought to remember, expensive. An assessment of phase one of the scheme is essential, but I find it impossible to accept that the Government will be objective in their examination. The Minister will know that in another place a number of his honourable friends pressed the Government closely on that. I realise that the Secretary of State said that a deep assessment would be made. However, this is the last Government to say that they were wrong on anything, so why do they not have an independent body or person to examine what has happened in the pilot areas? A Ron Dearing--though not necessarily Ron, he has plenty on his plate at the moment--would produce a report which would be broadly acceptable to everyone interested in the scheme and could be carried out with a minimum of expense and time. Unless that is done, there will be as little faith in the assessment of phase one as there is in the Bill as it now stands. Parents will see the measure as the completely inadequate proposal that it is.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being here at the start of the debate; I did my

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best but I could not make it. I regret in particular not hearing my noble friend's opening speech and that of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris.

I wish to comment on both parts of the Bill and I start with Clause 6 which allows grant-maintained schools to borrow money commercially on the security of their land and property. Apparently they will only be allowed to pledge surplus property as collateral, property not necessary for their core functions. That does not seem to me to be well defined, but I pass that by.

The question I wish to ask is this: if grant-maintained schools can borrow on their property from the private sector, why not local authority schools as well? The answer seems to be that local authority loans are guaranteed by the Treasury. Local authorities have not been allowed to borrow against their assets since the late 1980s. Their borrowings count as part of the PSBR which the Government are trying to reduce. So local authorities can keep part of their receipts from sales, but the rest has to go to debt redemption. Grant-maintained schools are not obliged to return to LAs the property they took over when they opted out, even if it is surplus to their needs.

My first question and worry about the Bill is this: does it not redistribute assets from the local authorities to the GM schools? Is it not unfair that that accounting convention enables GM schools to borrow to improve their facilities but it prevents local authorities borrowing to do the same because their borrowing is included in the PSBR? I see the attractions of the position from the Government's view. The Bill gives more reason for local authority schools to opt into grant-maintained status. But I am against the method adopted. It is ad hoc and highlights the absurdity of the accounting convention, without doing anything to remove it. If private money needs to come into the state sector--as I think it does--it should be available to all schools on the same terms. That requires all schools be put on the same legal basis as far as their borrowing rights are concerned. In the end, we will have to get rid of the anomaly because it is unsustainable.

I turn to the voucher part of the Bill. In principle, I am all in favour of steps to increase parental choice. I also understand that a choice system is easier to introduce when there is a deficit of places, as exists in pre-school education. I have no worries about the take up of the voucher. Noble Lords quoted the figure of 60 per cent. take up; my information is that to date 13,650 eligible parents--that is 84 per cent.--have applied for the voucher, not 60 per cent. So phase one has been much more successful than was stated at the outset. We know from experience that the take up always expands for every entitlement when information about it spreads, so I believe that take-up is a red herring.

The question I have for my noble friend is rather different. Is a universal entitlement to pre-school education for four year-olds and eventually three year-olds the best way of using scarce resources? I have to point out that despite almost unanimous support for the principle of pre-school education, the empirical basis for believing that it will more than pay for itself in the long run is shaky.

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I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, that I shall spend time on this. Whenever an opinion is completely unanimous, there must be something wrong with it. It is remarkable how credulous some noble Lords are about evidence which justifies large increases in public spending. Scepticism is a more appropriate Conservative attitude and I intend to apply it to the evidence.

The only systematic research into the long-term effects of pre-schooling--and the long-term effects are the most important--comes from the United States. Major studies in 1985 and 1991 of Head Start, begun by Lyndon Johnson to break the cycle of poverty, as noble Lords know, showed a modest initial improvement which disappeared after two or three years. I quote from the 1991 report: the programmes had "little lasting effect" on scholastic attainment or social behaviour.

A research-focused programme known as High Scope, to which the noble Lord, Lord Walton, referred, tracked two groups of heavily deprived children from the ages of three to 27. The first group which received pre-schooling has caused less criminal damage, incurred lower costs to the criminal justice system, paid more taxes and required less remedial schooling than the second group. That programme has been successful.

What conclusions can we draw from it? The per capita costs of the programme are 12,500 dollars per pupil. That is much higher than anything that has been contemplated here, either through vouchers or current per capita provision. Only 60 children were involved and a high level of parental support was secured. The conclusion is that costly, well-targeted programmes may yield beneficial long-term effects. But that is very different from creating a universal entitlement to four- and three-year education.

The Government have budgeted £390 million of new money for three years. But we know that it will not end there. All experience tells us that the costs will escalate. Already, there are loud cries--we heard many this afternoon--that the entitlement is being under-financed. We are told that £1,100 will not be enough to cover the extra training for teachers, helpers, advisers, inspectors and start-up costs. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred to that.

We hear in all this the loud drip of special interest pleading. It is amazing to me that so many noble Lords take these briefings at face value and do not apply an appropriate discount to them. The special pleading cannot be ignored. The Government are creating a predictable and formidable new source of upward pressure on public spending--and that is before three year-olds enter the picture. How does that square with their policy of driving down public spending in the long run--a policy I support?

Nor does the damage end there. It is true that parents will be able to spend their vouchers in private schools. But instead of relying on market competition to force up standards, the Government have decided instead to extend their regulatory powers to all providers of pre-schooling.

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We are told that it is meant to be a "light touch" system. It does not seem that way to me. Schools will be expected to work towards desirable learning outcomes, specified by the SCAA. They will be expected to adopt good practice--whatever that means. They will be regularly inspected by Ofsted; will be required to publish annual reports covering a large range of topics; will have to satisfy rules about staff qualifications and class sizes; will be subject to health and safety regulations; and will have to teach for a specified number of hours each year. Is that a light regulatory regime? No, I do not think so.

But all the special interests say that it is not enough regulation; we must have much more. It is not parental choice that emerges victorious, but bureaucratic politics. At the first instance of an accident in a private nursery school, all of them will be yelling for more regulation. Is that what the Government want?

It must be wrong in principle to create a universal entitlement to deal with a limited problem. If I wanted to spend the money, I should deliberately direct scarce resources towards deprived children--they are the ones who may need them, both pre-school and at school age--through well-funded, High Scope-type experiments; perhaps by reducing primary school class sizes since there is evidence that smaller classes help learning; and perhaps by extra reading practice in school holidays. Those are the kinds of areas to which this money should go.

There are some good points in the Bill. It allows private money into the system; it extends the important principle of parental choice; it introduces the language of the voucher into our education system. However, I find it unfair in one part and misguided in the other. And I am far from sure what useful amendments can be made without wrecking the Bill.

I conclude, with regret, that I cannot give more support to my noble friend.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I intend to argue on the basis of my own personal regard for nursery education. I wanted it for my own children and tried to get it for those whom I represented in the North of England. This Bill is not the way to set about improving the situation.

I have long believed in the value of nursery education. I started school, 70-plus years ago, in a pit village at an early age. That led me later to understand the great value accorded to education in the Welsh mining areas. It is far superior to the attitude I came across in the leafy suburbs--and for good reasons. I saw the value of pre-school education for my children, who now have children of their own. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Skildelsky, thinks as to the value of nursery education, they will want it for their children. Whatever the researchers say, I stand by my children. They pay for it; they want it; and I want it for a wider group of children. I also saw the value of pre-school education in my north of England constituency, south Leeds. The right reverend Prelate will know that very well. It falls within his area. The Government are not setting about the matter in the right way.

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I had wanted to say a word about the value of pre-school education, but it was dealt with far better than I could deal with it by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, who explained why he had to leave. I therefore take that as read. In his remarks, the noble Lord made the distinction between childcare, playgroups and nursery education. This Bill relates to nursery education, not playgroups. I am glad that playgroups exist. My daughters-in-law have played a part in setting up playgroups. Such groups are excellent. I refer, however, to nursery education. The research referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, showed the great advantage of nursery education for young children.

Among the many letters that we have all received, I cite one addressed to me from the headmaster, Mr. Jones, of Croeserw primary school in Port Talbot, South Wales. The point he raises is relevant to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. His letter states:

    "Some of the children in our school enter with no oral skills at all".
These are not children who are mentally ill; they are children who have never been spoken to and are unable to speak.

    "They can only make noises and a great deal of time and energy is devoted to remedy this situation".
It is no good leaving it to primary schools. The sooner we have access to such children, the better. Mr. Jones continues:

    "Our parents do not have the articulation and influence that more prosperous areas enjoy and so we ask you to defend the defenceless".
I have come across that syndrome myself.

I say to the Minister that it is no good thinking that someone who comes along and says that he is going to set up a private institution can invite such parents down for tea and scones in the afternoon, or for cocktails and olives later in the evening. The parents are a problem. I do not say that in any snooty way; I grew up among, and represented, such people. They need the state to step in and do something about the situation. The private institutions will not do it because it costs extra money. I am not against private institutions setting up if that is what they want to do. But I believe that the concept and approach of the Bill are wrong.

To turn to existing provision, the Bill presently relates to four areas. The Audit Commission points out that the provision of pre-school places for three and four year-olds depends on where the family lives. Education has always been better organised in the great northern cities and the Welsh mining areas, and by the old LCC at the turn of the century, long before the Labour Party came into prominence. The education authority in my city, Leeds, started higher grade schools which pre-dated the setting up of secondary education. Indeed, it broke the law, which forced the Government of the day, in 1902, to set up secondary schools on a basis of higher education. Sheffield is another city in point which had higher grade schools. Those cities have a proud record. They do not lag behind the southern counties or the rural areas. Metropolitan authorities have the highest levels of all in terms of nursery education.

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As for the existing provision, the different types of schools and the different types of classes depend on where one lives. But the provisions in the Bill will cost money. I believe that the Government would do better to top up the existing provision rather than provide vouchers. My sons are very grateful for what the Government are doing. They already pay for their children to have nursery school education. The Government will now give them a voucher. But vouchers will not help the people whom I tried to represent for 35 years.

I have obtained some evidence from a part of the city of Leeds which I represented. As I said, it has always been a leader. By their nature, the metropolitan boroughs--the old county boroughs--were superior. That is spelt out in a number of letters that I have received from parents. Let me quote from a letter written to me by a school that I did not know as a primary school. I knew it as a secondary school and a Catholic school and after reorganisation the school became vacant. The letter says that in South Leeds, which is the poorer part of Leeds that I represented:

    "The total amount being deducted from the Education Budget in Leeds is £10,508m representing 72% of the under 5's SSA allocation. The remaining £3.254m will be insufficient to fund the nursery education of 3 year olds and supplement funding of 4 year olds to the current level".
I put to the Minister that it is believed in Leeds that the scheme will reduce the provision that is already there. We need answers to that. Are those people wrong? Is it wrong that Leeds has nothing to fear and this scheme will maintain the excellent provision that is already there? Leeds is being penalised because of the excellent provision that it currently makes for three and four year-olds.

I have similar letters from up and down the country--for example from Solihull, all parts of south Wales, Neath and Port Talbot. I have quoted from one letter. Let me quote from another letter from Ystalyfera, which is one of the new local authority areas. The lady points out:

    "Wales has a long history of providing excellent nursery provision for its three and four year-olds".
What are the Government worrying about? They are doing it for three and four year-olds. If there is a gap at the top, let us do something about it. She points out that Neath, Port Talbot and the city and County of Swansea provide part-time nursery education for all their three year-olds. It is superior and good. The Government ought to cheer, not try to make the situation worse for them. The letter goes on to say:

    "The Nursery Voucher scheme may be of benefit to some areas of England"--
where the provision is low--

    "but it is totally inappropriate for the children of Wales".

There are a number of questions to put. I had a delightful letter today from a lady from Shropshire, who writes:

    "We have a daughter who is currently in a Nursery Class ... and a son ... We have opted to send our children to school in Wales".
She says that what they do in Wales is superior to what they do in that part of Shropshire. So that lady has parental choice and has chosen to go into an area where

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the nursery education is superior. As regards Wales--I was born there but have no representational interest there--when one sees what is being done there, let alone in the City of Leeds, why not praise it and not look at it through the rosy eyes of the south of England?

Nevertheless, a number of questions must be put. There is the question asked earlier by my noble friend about Durham and the quality of the existing provision. The value of vouchers covers half the cost. Where is the rest of the money to come from? All the letters that I received raised that point. What shall I tell the parents at Sharp Lane Primary School, the one to which I have just referred. I have had many letters from there. There is good provision. They are afraid that the situation in that school will get worse. What can we offer to assure them that it will not get worse? How should the City of Leeds operate in general to maintain the fine education that it provides at nursery level?

What about the quality of teachers? I fully understand that it is good to put a clever chap who gets a first at university into the sixth form in a good school, without any educational training. It helps the sixth form and works perfectly. But at a lower level that is not the case. I started teaching years ago in an attempt to get into university, which I did. I needed money and there were no grants. I was advised to go into Norfolk, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. "They'll take anybody there," I was told, "all you need is matriculation. You need no qualifications of any sort. It is run by the squarsons." I beg pardon of the right reverend Prelate, whom I called in aid.

One needs qualified teachers in nursery education. I understand that that is not the case for playgroups. But in nursery education someone is needed who has thought a little about the psychology of what they are doing, for example. Nursery education is not childcare.

Then there is the quality of the buildings. I wonder, from my own experience in Leeds, where the buildings are to come from. Heaven only knows! The schools about which I am talking have been slum cleared and rebuilt as very good corporation housing. But where are the school buildings to come from? Where will they build them? Where will the money for them be found, let alone anything else? I do not see private institutions coming into my old area. For family reasons, the area that concerns me most is that of special needs. The point was put to me by the head teacher of the Gnoll Primary School in Neath, which is right alongside the rugby ground. He writes:

    "Children with special educational needs have not been properly catered for in this scheme. This school provides places for partially sighted and blind children from four counties from the age of three".
Will the new scheme provide places for partially sighted and blind children? The letter continues:

    "The staffing costs would not be catered for by the voucher scheme".

There are other questions to ask as well with regard to special needs. The Special Educational Consortium notes that currently there are:

    "home teaching schemes; early access to nursery education; informal access to the additional expertise in support services".

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Will the voucher scheme provide those things? I doubt it. The voucher scheme is south of England stuff. It has been devised by people who know only one form of education. It is not the overall scheme for dealing with the problems of nursery education.

There is a problem in nursery education and, unlike other noble Lords who have spoken, I believe that it is vitally important to solve. In the kind of area that I know, it is not sufficient to say, "Pick it up in the primary school and do some reading classes in the holidays." It is much more serious than that. The problem goes much deeper and is more ingrained. This Bill shows the weakness of dogma in policy. It is dominated educationally by those who do not understand the problem areas. It will help my own grandchildren. But all we can do is try to improve the Bill. Time and the general election might do it for us.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Rix: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, I must apologise for not being in my place when the Minister made his opening statement or indeed at the beginning of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I can only plead that I was delayed receiving treatment for a frozen shoulder, which seems highly appropriate as I listened to a number of your Lordships' remarks on this Bill this afternoon.

As chairman of MENCAP, my concern--it is not my concern alone--is that children with learning disabilities should get the best possible start in their educational life and continue to learn throughout their life. The House's Library staff has done its usual excellent job in helping me (and others too, I am sure) to explore the basis for believing, or not believing, that the Bill does indeed ensure that such children do get the best possible start.

The Bill itself does not give me a great deal of information. Thanks to a government amendment at Report stage in another place, LEA's will be able to give some help to providers catering for children with special needs. Providers will have to explain what they are doing for children with special needs, though there is no general requirement on them to do anything. That means that their policy for such children might be, legally, not to admit them.

For further information, I have to turn to government statements. Speaking on the parallel Education (Scotland) Bill last week (Official Report, 13/5/96; col. 356), the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, said that it was the Government's intention that the introduction of the voucher scheme should in no way disadvantage children with special needs; and, specifically, that they should not be financially disadvantaged. The Minister, Mr. Squire, said much the same thing in another place some three months earlier, during the Committee stage of this Bill on 30th February, which can be found in the Official Report, at col. 243.

In the Next Steps document the Government said explicitly that they expected children with special needs, whether statemented or not, to receive appropriate provision. However, just as the high-wire artist remarked that he would have had more faith in what lay

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ahead had he been able to see that the end of the wire was fixed to something, so I have to remark that I would have more faith in nursery vouchers as a means of securing the educational interests of children with severe learning disabilities if I saw their interests specifically protected in this legislation.

The concerns of those who seek to speak for the interests of disabled children will be familiar to the Minister, and will be reiterated by many of your Lordships at this Second Reading. They are, in brief, that resources will be lost to children under four with special needs; that the essential co-ordination between education, health and social services will become more difficult; that potential providers will be put off by vouchers which fall short of special needs costs and will lack the skills necessary to teach disabled children; that larger reception classes will mean a poorer service for that group; and that LEAs may find themselves with less special needs resources to allocate because of the diversion of resources to the generality of four year-olds. I hope the Minister will be able to say that my fears are groundless and, on the other hand, that the situation will be carefully monitored. If monitoring shows that my fears were less groundless than the Minister believed, I hope that steps will be taken urgently to make good the loss.

I have two other requests. The first concerns the code of practice on special educational needs. I invite the Minister, in replying, to be a little more forthcoming about introducing a firm requirement on all providers to have regard to the code. I accept that some of it may not be relevant to some providers, but the phrase "have regard to" is deliberately designed to secure the application of only those parts of the code which are, in a specific setting, relevant.

Secondly, if I correctly understood the Government's proposals regarding the Disability Discrimination Act, they are that the services provisions of the Act should not bite on places which provide voucher services, but should bite on similar places which do not take vouchers. That seems to me to lack a certain logic and I welcome the assurance that young children will have such protection as the discrimination Act affords.

In conclusion, as the Minister will recognise, I am at present a little like the Israelites in the wilderness when they first encountered manna--anxious to believe that good is intended, but not yet convinced of the value of what is on offer.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, in speaking in today's debate I should declare an interest as a governor over many years of a primary school which provides nursery education for three and four year-olds, both full and part-time, with around 50 per cent. of its reception class children as four year-olds. I view with some trepidation the bureaucracy and the administrative implications of what will happen following the passage of this Bill.

Earlier in the debate, in a rash moment, I began to feel a degree of sympathy with the Minister. He seemed extremely exposed and unsupported. When I joined

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these Benches I was told that at least until the election our work would be about winning the argument and losing the vote--or, as today, not even having a vote. But that seemed to be taking the issue to extremes. Then I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, was to speak and in my innocence thought that at least there would be some support for the Minister. The criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, were different in some respects from the criticisms from this side of the House. But I cannot say that they were an overwhelming endorsement of the Government's policy.

It must be said that it takes this administration's unerring ability to misunderstand what is needed in the public sector to turn the provision and the allocation of £390 million of new money in nursery education into the chorus of criticism that we have heard from all the organisations which ought to be praising the Secretary of State. But perhaps the Minister will not be surprised not to have received support in the Chamber today. Reading the debates in another place, I should have thought that they would understand that, if Solihull is in revolt, they really are in trouble.

My concerns about the Bill and its proposals are concentrated in two areas. The first is that mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, when he was talking about targeting. My experience in the public sector in housing, social services, in education and in health was in looking at limited resources and agonising where best to direct them. When one looks at the way in which it is proposed to spend this new money, one realises that it is a shameful disgrace. There are areas of great need in nursery education. We know that provision is patchy across the country. We know that some areas are well provided for and some are not. We know that circumstances vary in different areas. One has to look at the right sort of development and not be doctrinaire about the only development being in local authority schools. We must look at grant aiding of playgroups and voluntary nursery schools; we must look at the specific circumstances and how we can address the deficits.

We know too that many three year-olds are in desperate need of support. My support for the value of nursery education comes not only from the evidence adduced by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, but also from experience and observation; from seeing how often the children who cause difficulties in the reception class for their fellow pupils as well as for themselves are the very children who missed out on nursery education. That is an experience which those involved in the primary sector see time and again.

Faced with those kinds of priorities and the need for developing nursery education, what do we get in terms of priorities of expenditure from the Government? We get the dead weight of subsidising those who already pay for nursery education rather than providing a single extra place. One would need to be something of an old-style "tax and spend" socialist to consider that that is the best use of public money in straitened circumstances.

The other waste of money is in the bureaucracy involved in the system. I come to the aspect relating to the introduction of the pseudo-market into a public

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service battle-scarred from five years' experience in the National Health Service and seeing exactly what market mechanisms have done to both planning and provision. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said that it was easier for choice to be implemented in a deficit situation, if I heard him correctly. But that has not been our experience in the National Health Service. Money following patients or money following children is a mechanism that works only if there is enough money and enough provision in the system to start with.

Looking at what the Minister called a "mere device", we see a hugely expensive paperchase--as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, mentioned in his contribution--which is based on the belief that the only way to improve public services is by bringing into play purchasing power. I knew that there was something wrong with the system when I went into the local supermarket in Norfolk and saw big posters up advertising the nursery voucher scheme. I knew that somehow we were back into the supermarket mentality where education is a commodity to be traded, where somehow a market would provide the answers--they are answers we have to find--to deciding priorities with limited public spending. The market provides none of those answers. The next thing we shall be doing is calling the four year-olds customers of the pre-school education service as if somehow we had given them power.

The challenges in public services are about improving quality, improving access and targeting on need. The challenges in public services are for us to run efficient and effective public services. I believe that the Bill will be no help whatever in meeting those challenges.

5.51 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, as so eloquently expounded by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, there is a very considerable body of evidence to support the premise that pre-school provision confers great benefits, both to the individuals concerned and to society as a whole. However--and in this I come close to echoing the "appropriate" scepticism of my noble friend Lord Skidelsky--our enthusiasm for this presumption may serve to disguise some of its subsidiary complexities.

Whatever the scheme's other failings may or may not be, I have two primary areas of concern with respect to the nursery voucher proposals as so far advanced; namely, the level of proactive parental involvement that will or will not be engendered by the scheme, and the effect of the application of the concept of "desirable learning outcomes" upon it.

In discussing the subject of pre-school provision, we should not lose sight of the fact that there is a growing body of evidence, over and above that which already exists to demonstrate the merits of nursery education, to support the contention that its value and benefit are considerably enhanced if parents are actively involved in the process. This is not their empowerment to choose the provision to which to send their children or the ability to contribute to its administration. Rather, it is a case of them being involved on a daily basis within the curriculum, actually playing with and teaching their

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children. By inference, it is principles of self help that should guide much of our thinking on this matter. My worry about the proposals as they stand is that, while I appreciate that there is no element of compulsion within them, they could act as an unwitting but positive incentive to parents to "dump and run", to take advantage of the availability of the provision as a substitute rather than a crutch for their own parental responsibilities.

I concede--of course I concede--that many parents of under-fives are in the invidious position of having to choose between going out to work to sustain their children or staying at home to look after them. That is a stark choice. We can reasonably expect that the proposals will afford such families some relief from this dilemma. But, notwithstanding this worthy objective, do we not also run the risk of devaluing the role to be played by parents in the upbringing of their children at the most formative stage of their development?

I am bound to say that I find it ironic that, in a Session where we have agonised long and hard about the family in the context of divorce, it may be that this comparatively small Bill has within it the capacity to do much more to undermine that institution than the Family Law Bill of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. Why? Because it has the potential of further promoting a culture of dependency in respect of a range of duties which, if they are not more properly those of parents, should be undertaken by them in tandem with whatever pre-school establishment they choose to send their children to. Needless to say, it would be highly regrettable if the nett effect of the Bill's good intentions were further to erode and undermine the principle of parental responsibility and the concept of the family.

I am sure my noble friend the Minister will give me every assurance that this is not an intended effect of the Bill. However, I very much hope that he will perhaps be able to go a little further than this. Certainly, I should be most grateful if, when he comes to wind up, he could advise me of current policy towards proactive parental involvement within pre-school provision and the impact that the voucher system is expected to have upon it.

My concern with respect to the concept of "desirable learning outcomes" follows on from this. My own feeling is that, in every respect, pre-school provision should be precisely that; a halfway house between the informal and relatively unstructured environment of play at home and the much more formal and structured environment of education at school. The "learning" element within pre-school provision should be developmental rather than educational.

Set targets of attainment as so far proposed--be they for reading skills, for numeracy or for whatever--fly in the face of this because they weight our expectations for the child too far towards the purely educational at the expense of the developmental and, it has to be said, the familial.

More than this, children should be permitted adequate time to develop their own identities. However worthy they may be, "desirable learning outcomes" imply a form of syllabus which would have to be adhered to if the relevant targets were to be attained. And this could

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have the effect of stifling the development of the individual within our children during the most formative period of their lives.

Naturally, I concur with the desire of the Government to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to ensure that each and every pre-school establishment is of high quality. As I understand it, the criteria to be applied as a measure of sustained and sustainable quality are these "desirable learning outcomes". In a sense, they are as good as any and probably better than some. However, bearing in mind the concerns that I have expressed, I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister might feel that some other criteria may be more appropriate for this purpose--something based more intimately upon actual parental involvement perhaps.

There are a number of other issues--pre-school provision for three year-olds, the teaching of parenting skills, the starting age for compulsory schooling, and so on--that the Bill could have been drafted to address. I therefore have it in mind that it is but a small step down a long road and, despite the caveats that I have advanced today, I welcome that small step.

5.57 p.m.

Baroness David: My Lords, this debate has seen a damning indictment of the Bill. Even the two Members who turned up to speak from the Conservative Benches have been much less than enthusiastic about it. I thought that we probably would all agree that the expansion of nursery education is a good thing. But the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, even threw some doubts on that. I think the rest of us do believe at least that an expansion is what we want. What we are not at all sure about is that this Bill will provide it. In fact, I think we are pretty sure that it will not.

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