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Lord Northbourne: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 40, which also concerns staffing ratios but which varies significantly from the amendment of the noble Baroness, to which she has just spoken.

If one relies on market forces to provide satisfactory outcomes, then a level playing field must be provided. The key factor in the economic operation of an educational establishment is the staff to pupil ratio. If a situation is allowed in which one set of providers is submitted to fairly stringent, though probably very right, conditions in relation to staff-pupil ratios and other providers are allowed complete freedom, the natural economic tendency will be to fill up reception classes and provide the minimum of staffing to give a general impression that the establishment is doing its job. With a reception class of 25 or 30 children and perhaps one teacher and one assistant, as the noble Baroness said, the children will not receive the education they need. With the present economic pressures on schools and local authorities there will be a serious temptation to do that. It is not in the best interests of children, and it is not fair to the institutions which are providing quality education, to throw them into the marketplace and not provide a level playing field.

Lord Henley: I am afraid that I do not see a justification for either Amendment No. 39 or Amendment No. 40. The touchstone of quality in all settings will be whether the desirable learning outcomes are likely to be achieved. Defining any particular staff:child ratio will not guarantee the achievement of the outcomes. I am not sure why we should need to.

Where is the evidence to suggest that there is no good work going on, no good provision, in any reception class? Indeed, an Ofsted report on the standards and quality of education in reception classes published in 1993 found that the overall standards of work were satisfactory or better in nearly 80 per cent. of the reception classes seen. The HMCI report on provision for under-fives in Wales, published last December, reached similar conclusions.

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As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made clear, a teacher in a reception class is often supported by a classroom assistant. I hope therefore that we need not take that amendment any further. Perhaps I can deal with a further suggestion that was made.

Lord Northbourne: Before the Minister moves on--it is simpler to do it in this way--if he says that it is not important to specify staff:pupil ratios, why are they specified in nursery schools and similar establishments?

Lord Henley: I was coming on to the suggestion that reception classes would "unlevel" the playing field by cramming in pupils. I hope that that will respond to the point raised by the noble Lord.

I have no doubt that the LEAs and the governors will keep the number of children in reception, and indeed in all classes, to a reasonable, manageable and safe level, as they do at present. The revised School Premises Regulations strengthen the detailed health and safety standards to which schools must adhere, and we discussed that earlier.

We need also to recognise that once children have gained admittance to a school's reception class, they have a secure place until the age of seven, eight or ll, depending on the type of school and the area they are in. So if a school were to cram children into its reception class--the unfairness the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, sees--that school would need to continue to provide for all those children throughout their time in the school. I cannot believe that any governing body or an LEA would think such a situation desirable.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The Minister has misunderstood. There are two aspects to the question of the number of children in a class. One is the physical constraints. In response to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the Minister seemed to imply that any constraint would involve teachers. Can the Minister confirm that the nursery staffing ratios recommended by the department are adult:child staff ratios? They are not solely teacher:pupil ratios. Part of the justification is the safety of very young children where there are insufficient adults. I speak from memory; I believe it is something like 13:1 for children in that age-group, but I may be wrong.

Lord Henley: I suspect the noble Baroness's memory is better than mine. I shall have to come back to her on the detail of that.

The point I was hoping to make reasonably clearly, though it is difficult at five minutes to midnight when we have much more to get on to, is that, first, it would not be in the interests of the school itself, in the case of reception classes, to cram in more children because they have to provide for those children later on, up to whatever may be the appropriate age. For nursery classes and other such institutions the case is different and that is why I set it out as I did. That is why I made it clear to the Committee when I started my response that the teacher in a reception class is often supported by a classroom assistant--the very point the noble Baroness was trying to make.

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Ultimately, though, these should be matters for parental choice. If, for whatever reason, schools do not offer the type of nursery provision that parents want, they will take their children elsewhere. So that the governors are totally clear about what is expected, we shall publish some fairly detailed guidance on school accommodation later this summer. I hope that that deals with the point made by the noble Lord and I trust that, at this hour of night, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Given the lateness of the hour and the need to read in detail the points raised by the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Northbourne had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 40:


Page 2, line 12, at end insert--
("( ) shall prescribe the minimum staffing ratios in respect of four-year-old children in reception classes which shall not be less favourable than the minimum staffing ratios that apply to four-year-old children in other nursery classes,").

The noble Lord said: I shall not move the amendment because of the lateness of the hour. However, I am profoundly unhappy about what the Minister has said. I do not think that he has at all answered the questions which were raised in the debate.

[Amendment No. 40 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 41 to 45 not moved.]

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 46:


Page 2, line 16, at end insert ("not").

The noble Lord said: I should welcome some clarification from the Minister. Clause 3(3) gives the Secretary of State power to reclaim grant from providers in certain circumstances. The circumstances in which this power might arise are expressed as where, "specific conditions are satisfied".

The amendment argues that a better formulation would be that the powers bite where the conditions are "not" satisfied. Perhaps I may give an example to illustrate my point. A condition of grant might be that the recipient should not abscond with the money. The recipient does not abscond. The condition has actually been satisfied and the grant could be reclaimed even though the recipient has done absolutely nothing wrong. Conversely, if he did abscond and went to Rio with the proceeds, there might be some doubt as to whether steps could be taken to recover it. Presumably, the drafting is intended to allow for both negative and positive requirements; that is, obligations, respectively, not to do and to do certain things. But the phraseology seems to me impenetrably intricate. I invite the Minister either to put me out of my misery or to take this amendment away and see whether he can help in some other way. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: I shall try. If my explanation fails to work, I shall take away the amendment and have a look

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at it. We were not quite clear what the noble Lord intended to achieve with the amendment and I am now even less clear.

We propose that the requirement of grant may specify circumstances in which a provider would be required to repay grant. These might include, for example, where a provider has not used the grant for the purpose of nursery education. What the noble Lord's amendment suggests is that the provider should be required to repay grant when circumstances specified for the repayment of grant are not met. I would suggest that that is the wrong way round. But, as I said, if I have still misunderstood what the noble Lord is getting at, I shall certainly have another look at what he had to say in moving the amendment.

Midnight

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: I am grateful to the noble Lord. This is no hour of the night to be bending our minds to this kind of thing. Let us see what we have both said tomorrow morning and come back to this matter at a later stage if we cannot satisfy ourselves between times. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Baroness David had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 47:


After Clause 3, insert the following new clause--

Statements of special needs policies

(" It shall be the duty of every authority or other person to whom a grant is made under arrangements under section 1 to make and keep up to date a separate written statement of their policy for making provision for special educational needs, within the meaning of section 156 of the Education Act 1993, with regard to children in receipt of nursery education.").

The noble Baroness said: I spoke to this amendment earlier. The Minister was good enough to say that he would write to me in response to it. I am very pleased to accept that from him and look forward to his letter.

[Amendment No. 47 not moved.]


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