Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: Wow!

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I base that opinion on experience. I accept that there is an enormously wide variation in the provision by local authorities and that some local authorities are doing an excellent job. However, I have to say that I have had two experiences with my own local authority which make me support the voucher scheme.

I refer first to the enormous energy and enthusiasm among teachers that has been released by Local Management of Schools. There is a whole new spirit in the schools that I visit in our county. I believe that that has resulted from the removal of the dead hand of bureaucracy.

I refer secondly to the care of old people in our county. About half of our old people's homes have been taken over by a voluntary organisation and the provision is now much better and less expensive. That is why I feel that the removal of the dead hand of centralisation and bureaucracy is probably a good thing. Whether or not your Lordships agree with me, I must point out that there are two unavoidable alternatives. Either there must be competition or local authorities will have to accept more central control to ensure that those which are performing badly bring their standard of performance up to that of the best.

20 May 1996 : Column 706

Having said that, of course the Bill needs improvement. I should like guidance and help from the Minister on one or two areas when he replies--or later if necessary. First, I have a simple question: will the Bill offer nursery education for three full terms for every child? If it will not, we should look at why not, and consider whether we cannot change it to ensure that it does.

Secondly, are the ground rules the same for all providers? From the briefings that I have received, I have reason to believe that they are not the same. If that is the case, that is a grave defect in the Bill because, if there is to be competition, there must be the same ground rules for all, otherwise there will be a drift towards the cheap and the nasty. People will cut costs to save money. There must also be a level playing field between different kinds of providers.

The areas in which we must consider whether there is a level playing field relate to the quality of the premises, class sizes, the pupil:teacher ratio, staff qualifications and inspections. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to the problem of reception classes. If local authorities can provide a reception class for 25 pupils and get the same money per head as if they provided a nursery class for 12 pupils, it is easy to see which they will choose.

Although I believe in having vouchers, my third question is: why are there to be vouchers for parents who are willing and able to pay and who do so at present? The Government's general policy seems to be to target money where it is most needed, but here we have a complete contradiction of that policy.

I am not sure whether it is intended that the vouchers should be taxable as a benefit in the hands of wealthy people who pay tax. Free state education is not a taxable benefit, but if we made the vouchers subject to tax, could we do a deal with the Treasury whereby that tax could be fed back into the system to give more help to children with special needs?

A parent is a child's first educator. The noble Baroness, Lady David, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, have drawn attention to the importance of parents in that regard. We must explore that further in Committee to try to ensure that, so far as possible, parents are not excluded from the scheme but are encouraged to be involved. Parents can help in a number of ways. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, parents need help in preparing their children for nursery school. Parents need help in teaching their children to read and so that they can learn with, and join in the enthusiasm of, those children. A parent's involvement in nursery education means that the child takes it seriously, enjoys it more and thinks of it as being worth while. That is tremendously important.

In that context, I cannot stress too much the importance of home-school links. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, rightly drew attention to their importance. The success of the Highscope Project, as the evaluation report states, was due to the fact that a teacher visited every child at home once a week. They

20 May 1996 : Column 707

were very deprived children, but that scheme was very successful. We have to do the job properly if we want to be successful.

Finally, I should like to draw attention to a particular group of children for whom provision is not made under the scheme as at present envisaged. I had expected a number of noble Lords to refer to special educational needs and to physical and mental disabilities, so I have not prepared anything on the subject. My main concern is about children with social and emotional disabilities. That small group of children most desperately needs help in the pre-school years so that they can cope with school when they get there. A child's emotional and behavioural problems often arise from the parents' inability to offer the support, love, security and stimulation that it needs. There must also be some outlining of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. That group of children will need special help in nursery schools and they will not be able to get it on £1,100 a year. In my view, there must be special provision for those children. For that small group in our society, nursery education can fill the socialisation gap left by inexperienced and unhappy families. To fail to take the opportunity of this Bill to ensure that such children are helped to become useful and happy citizens would be an opportunity which it would be disastrous to miss. I very much hope to hear from the Minister that that group of children will not be forgotten.

6.18 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, began his speech with the unique statement that he supported the Bill. However, having listened to his speech, I must say that with friends like that, the Government do not need enemies like us.

The Bill has been debated now for many months in public forums. We debated it initially at the time of the gracious Speech. A pilot scheme has been under way in four local authorities. Like, I should imagine, every noble Lord, I have received a huge amount of mail and briefing material from various interested groups, concerned parents and sceptical teachers.

This Bill starts its passage through our House while the national debate is already well advanced. I believe that it is the role of this House to try to shoehorn a workable system into the voucher framework upon which the Government appear to be set. Nevertheless, it is right to pause to consider the principles and motivations of the party opposite in introducing the Bill. As we have heard from the Minister himself, the word "voucher" does not appear on the face of the Bill. However, that word has a political significance that goes well beyond the provisions of the Bill.

Those who advocate vouchers see two main virtues. The first is that a subsidy is given to those who have already opted out of state provision, thereby blurring the difference between the private and state sectors. Purchasing power is put into the hands of the consumer, and theory predicts that the market will respond to provide the consumer with what he or she requires. The second virtue is that LEAs will be undermined.

20 May 1996 : Column 708

Planning, quality control and inspection are seen as necessary evils to be minimised wherever possible. I believe that the gist of that argument emerged from the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. Those principles provide no basis on which to expand nursery education. In educational terms they are no more than theory. There are many good examples up and down the country of LEA provision that is good in practice, and it is upon that that we should build.

The Government have accepted the need to expand nursery education for four year-olds and have provided some money to initiate that process. Many times the question that is asked is: who will make up the difference? I believe that in the long term the Government intend that parents should pay for the further expansion of this provision. This Bill paves the way for parents like myself, who currently pay nothing for the nursery education of their children, to pay something. I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, one of the four authorities in phase one of the implementation of this scheme. My daughter is in the reception class of the local primary school. She is too old to receive a voucher, but her younger classmates do. There is no guarantee that when my younger son attends the same school I shall not have to pay something towards the difference between the value of the voucher and the costs of his nursery education. In the case of Wandsworth that is a rather strange argument. That authority already had universal nursery education for all four year-olds. Nevertheless, the system will be in place to encourage parents like me to pay something. I believe that that is where the extra funding will come from to expand nursery education, in which we all believe.

The Government should declare whether they see nursery vouchers as a trial for expanding the voucher system up through the education system. Once a cohort of voucher children (as they are already known) is established, the voucher system itself can follow them up through their education. If that is a possibility the Government should come clean, and we should hold a proper debate about the relationship between private and state education.

There are a number of amendments which are key to making the scheme workable. Many of them have been mentioned this evening. I mention just two. First, there should be a thorough and fully disinterested evaluation of the pilot schemes before the main schemes proceed. My understanding of the position in Wandsworth is that the bureaucratic obstacles can be overcome. I understand that 87 per cent. of vouchers have been redeemed in Wandsworth, but only with a great deal of support from senior educational officers, school secretaries, the voucher agency and the local authority working hand in glove with the DfEE. Wandsworth already had universal provision of nursery education for four year-olds. Further, there is the enthusiastic support of the ruling Conservative group. One has to ask how successful a nationwide scheme will be with agnostic or hostile parents, schools and LEAs. I urge the Government to look at the true cost of implementing these dual-funding sources for nursery schools. Some of the preliminary figures that I have seen indicate that the cost is far higher than originally foreseen.

20 May 1996 : Column 709

The second area of amendment, which has already been referred to by my noble friend Lady David and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, relates to special educational needs. The Special Education Consortium has expressed particular concern about young children with special educational needs who do not have a statement. The additional support that many of these children receive is threatened by LEAs' reduced ability to plan services within a predictable budget and with greater focus on four year-olds. This means that in the area where provision for four year-olds is not universal, places for three year-olds with special educational needs will go to the four year-olds. The likely effect is that more parents of children under five will need to seek a statutory assessment and statement to secure access to appropriate resources for their children.

The code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs is rightly seen to be effective, because under the 1993 Act there is a statutory requirement to have regard to it. I believe that nursery education providers outside the maintained sector should also be required to have regard to the code of practice. This is one example where the expression "level playing field"--about which we hear so much in so many different contexts--comes to mind. There are many others in this Bill.

This Bill is an example of doing the right thing the wrong way. With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, there appears to be universal agreement that nursery education is needed and is desirable. But vouchers are no more than a political gimmick and the Bill should be considered with that in mind.

6.26 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, in winding up on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I will not rehash all the arguments against the Bill that have already been made by my noble friend and other speakers. Instead, I propose to make a number of points based on those comments and ask the Minister some questions in the hope that he will be able to provide an accurate response when he comes to speak.

First, it should be noted that I am not Lord Thomas of Walliswood but a Peer of the female sex. Secondly, I declare an interest, in that I am now chairman of a county council, and for many years have been a member of a county council, which is an education authority. About seven years have elapsed since I sat on the education committee, so I hope that noble Lords will accept that I try to speak in a disinterested way.

I start with the part of the Bill which refers to the grant-maintained sector and the possibility of those schools borrowing. Rather to my surprise, I entirely agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said on that subject. It is ridiculous that one set of schools funded publicly can behave differently from another set of schools funded publicly simply because they fall on different sides of an imaginary line laid down by the Treasury some time in the past. I agree that there should be equal opportunities for all. More importantly, I am disturbed that this aspect of the Bill accompanies the

20 May 1996 : Column 710

decision that on disposal of property a grant-maintained school will not have to yield 50 per cent. of the product of that sale to the local authority. That is of concern because the property was not created out of space, but by the input of tax and probably rate or council tax-payers. I do not see why the whole benefit of it should go simply to parents whose children attend the school at that particular time. I should like the Minister to respond to that point.

I turn now to the part of the Bill which has taken the most time and attracted the most interest. With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, there has been a general welcome for the idea of expanding nursery education. My noble friend laid out our party's priorities in that respect. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who gave the debate an academic thrust. What concerns me about this way of approaching increased provision of nursery education is, once again, the waste of money. If we want--I refer again to what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said so compellingly--to increase the amount of nursery education available and ensure that those children who might best benefit from it receive that expanded provision, surely we have to use the £400 million in such a way that the extra services are directed towards those children and that they receive the full benefit of that extended provision instead of scattering money in such a way that the most obvious beneficiaries are those people who are already paying for nursery education.

These provisions have been attacked by a number of speakers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, made a plea for small rural primary schools. Another speaker whose name escapes me made the same plea but from a slightly different point of view. Both speakers suggested that the creation of competition might have an effect which was the reverse of what was intended; namely, it might withdraw children from borderline schools and reduce their viability.

The bureaucracy has been referred to. The scheme's many damaging effects have been referred to. Will the Government assure us that the Bill will not have those undesirable effects? Will they explain how they will ensure that nursery education will be provided where it is most needed? In addition, how will they be able to measure that achievement? How will we know whether the Bill has succeeded or has not succeeded? I have not seen much in the way of standards, measurements or numbers to justify the Bill.

The second matter to which almost everyone has referred is quality. I shall not repeat what was said. We have been talking about inspectors, the requirement for well-educated inspectors, for good provision of buildings, for good and well-qualified teachers, if only to enable the outcomes to be translated into some sort of programme for education. A whole mass of similar points have been raised. The quality of the education provided is crucial to the success of nursery education. Yet the Government appear, if anything, to be relaxing standards. There is a relaxation in the requirement for minimum space and recreation space, for example. There is an apparent relaxation of the teacher-pupil ratios. There is no insistence on a qualified nursery teacher in every institution which provides nursery

20 May 1996 : Column 711

education. How can the Government justify anything which endangers the quality of education when it is clearly that quality, and not just the child's presence in an institution, which creates the added value for the child? It is after all the child's, not the parents', interests that we should have at heart.

The third matter which I wish to raise with regard to this part of the Bill is the whole question of SEN provision. We have heard noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, with experience and expertise in the subject. Again, I shall not repeat the points that they made. It is clearly of the utmost importance that all providers be required to do what LEAs are now obliged to do, which is to seek out and pay particular attention to those children in institutions who require that attention. Again, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said about the importance of unstatemented pupils and pupils with social and behavioural problems.

I know from my own experience that even in leafy Surrey there is an enormous increase in the number of children with such difficulties. As a chairman of governors, I have been in the incredible situation of having to exclude from school a seven year-old because he was striking his teacher so hard that the most experienced teacher in the school refused to teach the child and could not be persuaded to have him in her class. We wept about it. What can we do when we exclude a seven year-old? What are we doing to that child's progress? On the other hand, what benefit can we give if we begin to respond to such children's needs at a very much earlier stage? I hope that the Minister will be able to respond on that matter. I am sure that from these Benches we will support amendments relating to special needs provision.

Finally, I shall refer to the Government's need to learn and to be seen to learn from the pilot or stage one element of the introduction of the voucher scheme. I am not sure whether the take up has been 60 per cent. or 80 per cent. No doubt the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that point. First, what research have the Government undertaken, or will they undertake, in those pilot areas as to the effect of the bureaucratic nature of the scheme, the outputs of the scheme, or all the matters that noble Lords have raised in the debate? How, when and by what means will the Government measure the success of their scheme? If it is done, will it be done by an independent authority?

Even if after such a measurement everything is 100 per cent. right, members of this House and of the other place have a right and a duty to know what has happened; in other words, when can we see, and under what circumstances can we see, whatever information the Government learn from the pilot stage? As I said, it is our right and duty to do that. Will the Minister tell us what he will do with any information yielded by the pilot? When will it be published? If there are deficiencies, how does he propose to remedy them?

In the debate on the Scottish Bill, my noble friend Lord Addington made the point that it seemed idiotic to go ahead with a full scheme until we had learned from

20 May 1996 : Column 712

the pilot. I am merely emphasising that view. We need to learn from what has gone before. If things have not gone well, we need to know during the Bill's progress or at some later stage whether it will be possible to remedy whatever has gone wrong. With that, I conclude.

6.39 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the Bill deals with nursery education and capital-raising powers for GM schools. Contributions to this debate have indicated that there are some key areas to which Members from all sides of the House will wish to return at later stages. There is a strong view that a thorough evaluation of the nursery pilot projects should be reported to Parliament before the main scheme proceeds. That is even more true with regard to the Government's proposals for England and Wales than for Scotland because it is proposed that the scheme for England and Wales should be brought into effect in April, whereas the scheme for Scotland will not be brought into effect until August.

There is also the issue of real parental choice and how costly bureaucratic procedures can be justified when parents wish to continue to benefit from the provision that is available in their local nursery or nursery unit attached to a primary school. Why cannot the Government allow parents the ultimate choice of opting out of the voucher system in order to continue using the current provision? The answer to that question will be eagerly read by those who provide nursery education in units, nursery schools, and classes attached to voluntary-aided schools and local authority-maintained schools throughout the country. There is great anxiety about the need to strengthen the inspection regime and to monitor the quality of nursery education that is paid for under the Government's proposals. There is also a need to improve parliamentary scrutiny of the arrangements.

Questions have been raised about grant-maintained schools, although the issue has concentrated largely on nursery vouchers. Surely it is doubly unfair to the schools which remain in the local authority sector and those in the voluntary-aided sector for which special capital allocations are provided if grant-maintained schools which may have benefited from capital projects are allowed to keep all their resources while local authority schools still have to pay that particular debt. It is important that such provisions in the Bill are scrutinised.

My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris analysed in great detail the way in which we fail our children in terms of the provision of early childhood education as compared with almost all our partners in the EU. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon identified the areas of concern which were highlighted during the pilot schemes in Southwark and Norfolk. He mentioned the important issues relating to rural schools. Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees that I too have come across children attending school who are unable to speak as a result of their isolation. The cases that I have known have been in rural areas where parents did not understand the problem of how to provide an environment for children.

20 May 1996 : Column 713

The issue of cost effectiveness and the problems which face the proposals have been mentioned repeatedly during the debate. Perhaps I may congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on his 10 years and two years. I ask my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington to note that occasionally there are exceptions to the Labour Party's commitment in LEAs towards the provisions of nursery education. "Sutton" seems to be important in that not only the noble Lord's own authority of Sutton but the Conservative administration of Sutton Coldfield made superb provision for nursery education. There is clear evidence that the people in those areas remain unconvinced by the new proposals which will affect their longstanding commitment.

Speaker after speaker has underlined the point made by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris that there is lack of support for the Bill. I too have received a letter from the Manchester Diocesan Board of Education which is critical of and concerned about the proposals. It concludes by stating that the Manchester Diocesan Board of Education is concerned that moving from the pilot scheme to the introduction of the scheme to all areas after one year would not give time to evaluate the pilot scheme adequately. In the light of those concerns, the board would urge the Government to withdraw the proposals and introduce new ones that will achieve the objectives we all desire.

Surely the Government have learnt that there are many cases in which they do not know best. The voices of parents and teachers and the providers in the public and private sectors are being raised in unison to express anxiety about the Government's proposals. Evaluation time is of particular importance. The problem which voluntary-aided schools have in raising capital was highlighted by the right reverend Prelate. I well remember when during the 1980s the Government wrote to diocesan authorities asking them not to seek capital allocation for nursery unit projects. We do not want to see a situation in which the primary school that a child attends is determined by commercial bartering. That matter must be dealt with during the course of the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies referred to the avalanche of letters that he received about the problems of people in Wales. It is critically important that we heed his words of wisdom about the danger of disturbing and spoiling a system which is universally accepted in Wales to be excellent in many areas. More than 95 years ago my grandfather attended school in Wales from the age of three-and-a-half. It would be a tragedy if after all that time one of the Government's legacies was to damage that provision for three year-old children in Wales. I await with interest the answers to the detailed questions asked by my noble friend.

In introducing the debate, the Minister said that the vouchers are not named in the Bill; that they have no face value and that they are a convenience and an administrative tool. What kind of administrative tool can be justified when it achieves the following? In order to continue in a nursery unit attached to a primary school which has a reception class, and in addition to what I have heard your Lordships describe as the complicated system of standard spending assessments,

20 May 1996 : Column 714

of the amount of grant allowed by central government, of capping levels and of total standard spending we are now inserting a paperchase. I refer to a costly bureaucratic procedure to reclaim part of the money in order to continue to provide what parents are accepting, paying for, using and supporting. How, apart from dogma, can the Government justify refusing to allow parents to say, "We will accept the existing provisions. We do not wish to take up a voucher. We do not wish to see millions of pounds of public money being spent on bureaucratic red tape. We merely wish to say that we will register and sign a form stating that we do not wish to be part of the voucher scheme."? The local authority would then be able to continue to provide a service. That would allow for parents' choice.

The issue of bureaucracy has been raised as well as that of the importance of high quality nursery education. The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, made his usual high quality contribution on the issue of nursery education. He referred to research. In response to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, I should point out that it is very difficult with human beings to make a categorical and 100 per cent. proof argument that if you do "a" with a small child then "b" will result, and that if you do "c" then "d" will result. Indeed, it is almost impossible to achieve those aims.

However, as other noble Lords have said, I should draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, to the fact that there is clear evidence to show that a greater proportion of children from broken homes, or living in poverty, in bad housing or in situations of alcohol or substance abuse and, indeed, those experiencing all-round difficulties, end up with particular needs. I see that the noble Lord wishes to intervene. I give way.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page