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Lord Morris of Castle Morris: Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps she can say whether or not she agrees with me that parents have taken up the nursery vouchers because they have no choice. If they do not take up the vouchers, their children will not in future obtain the nursery education they are currently receiving. The whole scheme is simply a means of recycling money. If the parents do not take up the offer of the voucher, their children will not receive the education. What else can they do?
Baroness Young: The short answer is that it is not a scheme of recycling; a lot of new money is going into it. By using the voucher parents can choose to which type of nursery school to send their child. It is freedom of choice. I happen to believe that that is important and we would like to see it extended. I thought New Labour wanted to see that also, but I am mistaken. We are back at old Labour, which believes in telling everyone where they should send their children to school.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: I am reluctant to prolong this debate, but I am astonished by the noble Baroness's astonishment. Surely she is able to distinguish between nursery education per se, which is what we are all in favour of, and this scheme, which has a lot of question marks over it and which we think needs to be evaluated.
Baroness Young: Curious as it may seem to some Members of the Committee, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing between nursery education per se, with which we are all agreed, and this scheme. This is a way of getting more money into nursery education, getting
Baroness Warnock: I support Amendment No. 2 to which I have put my name. I do so because the pilot scheme needs to be properly evaluated. I say that because the areas where the scheme is now working have their own characteristics which are not shared by most of the country. We are all in favour of more nursery education--I certainly am strongly in favour of it--but, given a shortage of resources overall, we very much want nursery education to be targeted or to be able to be targeted at those areas where it is most crucial that there should be nursery education; namely, where there are deprived children, not necessarily with special educational needs, who suffer from disability through lack of care and attention to education at home.
The present scheme is working in areas where it is difficult to tell whether that will happen. In the case of rural areas, especially in counties like Norfolk, which is enormous, there is no doubt that the use of vouchers will suppress certain small playgroups which work very well in isolated villages and where the resources simply do not exist, even with the use of vouchers, to upgrade those playgroups into nursery schools with trained nursery teachers. In any case, there will not be a large use of vouchers for these playgroups because they are too isolated. The whole idea of what is happening, on the one hand, to small village-based playgroups or even schools and, on the other hand, to what is happening with the LEA and its funding needs to be rethought before we try to introduce this scheme over the whole country.
At the other end of the scale I know from my contacts with the Girls Public Day School Trust that parents who had already decided to send their children to nursery school--the trust's schools are opening nursery schools quite frequently at the moment--and to spend money on doing so are eagerly running forward now to take up their vouchers. Those are the people who for the large part are thinking, "Oh good, we can save some money". That is admirable, and I do not begrudge it, but I do not think those are the children for whom nursery education is most valuable. It may be, but those are children who would have had it anyway. It is the children who would not have had it and whom we want to target about whom we want far more evidence to tell whether they are taking up their vouchers and, if so, whether they are getting the education they actually deserve.
Finally, we want to know whether the local education authorities, which in many places provide adequate and good nursery education, are finding that they are unable to do so because of the cost to them of the vouchers. Those are my reasons for wanting a proper evaluation and not the surreptitious turning of the pilot into a phase-one scheme.
The headteacher of the first school said that she has had the same concern as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, about the difficulties concerning playgroups and how they will be affected by the provision of nursery education. She said:
If that is what is happening on the ground with headteachers of first schools in the provision of the first level of education, I should have thought that it does not necessarily need a whole board of people at the end of the pilot period to sit back, stop the schemes and spend a year or more evaluating them. The momentum will have gone into the ground and the system will have to start from scratch all over again. We should give the people in the education sector the benefit of the doubt. They are not nine-to-three o'clockers and they are working very hard to ensure that any problems in the scheme for nursery education are ironed out during the operation of pilots so that lessons can be learnt.
To mirror what my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, flexibility is the issue. We are talking about intelligent teachers who are flexible and who will be able to talk to the education departments and say, "These are really not working", or, "Perhaps we should do it in a different way". We do not want people becoming enthusiastic--a lot of people have become enthusiastic about this nursery schooling--and then have to say to them, "Stop, the pilots are over, you must now wait". That would be disastrous for the long-term future of nursery education.
Lord Monkswell: We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, who pointed out the breadth of Clause 1, which effectively gives the Minister enormous powers to disburse grants for nursery education in whatever manner he sees fit to whoever he sees fit. One of the difficulties we have is in terms of how the Secretary of State will use those powers. I think I heard my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris right when he said in opening the debate that, if the Government could give us assurances, then in the spirit of this House we would accept those assurances and we would not have to go ahead with the amendments in this grouping.
Part of my reason for speaking in the debate is that I have been a little concerned about what I detect is a partisan positioning of people on different sides of the Committee. I come to the debate as a parent. When our children were young we were initially living in an area where there was no local education authority nursery provision and we then moved into an area where there
Perhaps I may explain. One of the difficulties that we had was that consultation papers tended to be issued about July with responses required by September or October. Bearing in mind that most people in education have a long summer break during that period, those most involved in the subject were away on holiday and were therefore unable to talk among themselves in order to provide fully thought-out responses.
The other matter is that we tended to get what I may describe as "national schemes" without any pilot programme to evaluate the effect of such changes. These national changes were laid on us with very little time to make the changes.
It is worth pointing out that when the change to comprehensive education came about that was taking "best practice" by a Conservative local education authority in Leicester. The Labour Government said that it was a good idea and advocated a best practice approach across the country. But the Government did not require every local education authority to implement reorganisation into comprehensive education within one or two years. Each LEA was asked to come forward with a plan to show how it was going to be brought about in its area. Over a period of time, just about the whole country went comprehensive, but there were a few areas that held out. The Labour Government did not force them into it.
Baroness Young: I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord when he is advancing his argument so closely. Those of us who follow educational debate remember very clearly the circular put out by Mr. Crosland. I believe it was numbered 10/65--I know that it had a very familiar ring. I was in a local education authority when great pressure was put on it to introduce comprehensive education.
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