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Lord Monkswell: I support my noble friend Lady Farrington of Ribbleton on this amendment. I shall speak to Amendment No. 19 which deals with a local education authority making development plans in conjunction with the Funding Agency for Schools, which is the government national arm for funding the grant-maintained sector, and with other providers.

According to the Government's plans, there will be a precipitate injection of demand into the system by the issuing of vouchers next April. There will not necessarily be an equal and balancing provision of supply. There will be a need for staff and premises and for entrepreneurial activity by the local authority or private providers. There will also be a requirement to obtain planning permission for the physical provision of the facilities that will hopefully emerge as a result of that demand.

The provision of supply to balance that demand will not be available at once everywhere. There will be a patchiness. Where there is a lack of entrepreneurial culture in the local community, private sector providers will not spring up overnight. Even if they did, there would be a requirement for those providers to obtain planning permission for premises that complied with the planning laws and relevant regulations.

Given that scenario, rather than a range of people trying to meet the precipitate demand there should be a sense of co-ordination and bringing together of people.

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The local authority planning department and planning committee should recognise the likely pattern of demand in its area. That is what will happen next April, according to the Government's plans. Perhaps I may go beyond that and look at the way in which the scheme will develop over time. I am sure that the Government will not argue that the whole Bill is aimed merely at putting £1,000 in the pockets of the relevant parents next April. There will be a longer term perspective on the arrangement for nursery provision which will change as communities and the number of three and four year-olds in a geographical area change. Inevitably, in some localities there will be a decline in the demand for nursery provision and an emerging demand in others. Therefore, we must consider how the private sector and public sector provision will develop over time.

It is sensible to ensure that that changing provision is accommodated and recognised and that there is a mechanism by which people can come together and say that a nursery school in a particular area may have to close because of lack of demand but that it is necessary to open one in another area as a result of increasing demand. I believe that Amendment No. 19 provides a mechanism under which sensible co-ordination and planning can be established. I am not speaking in the rigid sense of centralised planning but, in terms of co-ordination and provision, of ensuring that a gap in one area is filled perhaps by asking a private provider to make provision or for the local authority to expand a local school in order to make provision available.

I hope that, in the spirit of non-partisanship and with a view to providing long-term continuity and a sense of progression, the Government will look sympathetically at Amendment No. 19.

Lord Skidelsky: I wish to tease out the meaning of the curious new nursery education duty, which is the subject of Amendment No. 28. It provides:

    "A local authority shall secure the provision of nursery education within the meaning of section 1(2) above for children within its area".

Which children are they? Are they children whose parents want such education for them; children who are deemed to need such education; or all children, whether their parents want it for them or whether they need it? If the duty of the LEA is to provide education for all children in its area, that is simply a way of extending compulsory education.

I am asking some questions and trying to tease out the answers. If it referred all children, that would be compulsory education under a different guise. If the provision related to children who need education in its area, who is to determine their needs? If it relates to children whose parents want education for them, that is already an entitlement of the Bill and therefore the provision is completely irrelevant.

Am I wrong in detecting the cloven hoof of compulsion; that the object of this group of amendments is to force children into pre-school education, whether

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they need it or whether their parents want it? If not, what is the new nursery education duty which is not already contained in the Bill?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I hoped that I had made it clear when I said that it was not the position of those supporting the amendments to change statutory schooling. However, nursery education should be available to all parents who wish it for children of three and four. That is the aim of this group of amendments.

Within the legislation as proposed by the Government, while there is an availability of nursery vouchers, the planning or the provision to meet the needs of parents--a freely exercised choice by parents--does not fall on anyone. Therefore, this group of amendments seeks to put in place a planning framework in which the more difficult or intractable problems of provision can be met. I draw on my experience of Lancashire where there are tiny village schools. As a result of the nature of the Lancashire communities and because of parental preference over decades, if not centuries, we have tiny Catholic and Anglican village schools. There is a need to make provision in those circumstances.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that none of the amendments is about forcing parents to accept anything. It is my experience that at a meeting about nursery education I have yet to hear an angry parent say, "You are trying to make me have something I do not want". People know that they are not forced to have something they do not want. The amendment is tabled in order to ensure that parents have a range of choices, whatever the circumstances.

Lord Skidelsky: In that case, why does not the amendment provide that the duty relates to children whose parents want education? The duty is to provide education for children and the noble Baroness and others constantly talked about needs. They started talking about wants and preferences only when I asked the question.

Lord Henley: I can explain to my noble friend Lord Skidelsky that I suspect that the thrust behind a number of these amendments is about putting local authorities back in the driving seat in the provision of nursery education. That is why the noble Baroness talked about a "planning framework" and used other such expressions long loved by socialists. The amendments clearly set out two different ways of achieving that but, in essence, both approaches are about preserving the place of local authorities and denying the chance for a real diversity of provision to grow up in response to parents' needs. I cannot say often enough how much the issue of parental choice is our theme. I believe that by introducing parental choice and nursery vouchers we will, over time, stimulate new places to come on stream. Those places will need to respond to parental advance as, under our voucher arrangements, parents will be in the driving seat.

Perhaps I may take the two approaches in turn. First, Amendments Nos. 7 and 28, linked to Amendment No. 92, would place a new duty on LEAs to secure the provision of nursery education for those children within the age range defined by the Bill in their area. In

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pursuance of that duty, the Secretary of State would be required to make grants in respect of nursery education under the provisions of the Bill. As I said, those amendments would put local authorities in the driving seat; in other words, the duty to provide places would rest with local authorities. While the amendment gives the Secretary of State the scope to issue guidance about how this duty might be fulfilled, it would be local authorities which determine precisely how to fulfil their duty.

Amendment No. 19 places an unnecessary additional requirement on local authorities but does not give them any new powers. Any local education authority can put together a development plan for a particular element of its provision and in doing so can consult interested parties. As there is already legislation ensuring that the provision within an area is being looked at and nothing to prevent an LEA putting together a development plan of any description to inform its own actions and to help parents understand its plans more clearly, the amendment is not necessary.

There is no need for the Bill to require LEAs to draw up a development plan and, indeed, in many ways that would be undesirable. We would not want parents to be discouraged from choosing a provider which satisfied the relevant quality assurance requirements and met their needs and those of their children simply because the LEA had not happened to mention that provider in a development plan. As I said, Her Majesty's Government believe that the manner of the expansion of nursery education should be determined by parental choice and not by the LEAs.

I should now like to say a few words about Amendment No. 53, to which the noble Baroness, Lady David, spoke. As I understand it, the amendment seeks to place on the chief inspector a requirement to report on the number of places that are available for three year-olds. That is how the amendment is worded on the Marshalled List, but I assume it to be a misprint. I see that the noble Baroness shakes her head. I imagine that the noble Baroness meant it to refer to three and four year-olds. However, the point is immaterial and I merely make it for the sake of the record.

I believe that it would be inappropriate to ask Her Majesty's chief inspector to report on the availability of places for just three year-olds or, indeed, three and four year-olds. It goes very much beyond his remit as a guardian of education standards. Rather, we should look at the effect of the scheme on the number and type of places available for both three and four year-olds as part of the evaluation. We have in mind a special survey of parents to take that forward, but I would expect any such effect to be discernable over a longer time-scale than Phase 1.

As we are now on the subject of Her Majesty's chief inspector and as there are official spokesmen for the Opposition sitting opposite me, one of whom will no doubt reply to the debate, perhaps I may take this opportunity to invite them to deny the allegations that were reported in the Mail on Sunday yesterday; namely, that the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Mr. Chris Woodhead, would be sacked by an incoming

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Labour Government. I believe that to be a quite reprehensible suggestion, especially as it applies to a public servant who has provided the most excellent leadership in the world of education and who is doing much to see that standards are raised. When the noble Baroness winds up the debate, I hope that she will be able to deny the report that such allegations have been made. I also hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

7 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I should like to begin by reminding the Minister that I have been in local government for too long, first, to believe everything that I read in newspapers. Secondly, I believe slightly less of anything that I read in The Mail on Sunday.

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