|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, I hope the House will bear with me if I start by saying, as the first education Minister to come to the Dispatch Box since the horrifying events of yesterday at St. Luke's Church of England School, Wolverhampton, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and the whole House, how appalled we all were by the incident at the school yesterday afternoon. It is always particularly upsetting when young children are involved in incidents of that sort and we have seen too many of them this year. I express the sympathy of the Government and I hope of the whole House to all those involved and their families. We commend the courageous and professional reaction of all the staff at the school and those involved and we wish a speedy recovery to all those injured.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the effect of these amendments would be to prevent grant being paid to providers under Clause 1 of the Bill until they have been inspected for registration purposes. Schedule 1 will provide for the first time for the inspection of private and voluntary nursery education providers to a newly established national standard, should they wish to be voucher-redeeming institutions. The inspections, as I made clear, will be rigorous and will focus on the essentials of good quality education. However, I must make clear--I shall return to this later in my remarks--that those institutions are already covered by the provisions of the Children Act which means that inspections are undertaken by the local social services department.
Under the Bill providers will need to demonstrate at the inspection that they are providing education appropriate to the SCAA outcomes. The inspections will not impose unnecessary burdens on providers; nor will they involve large amounts of bureaucracy. They will ensure that all providers offer education of a consistently high standard. I am sure that there will be no disagreement that such inspection is essential. Given the large number of providers involved, it would simply be impracticable for the chief inspector to inspect all of them before the scheme begins in Phase 2. We must be realistic.
The inspections cannot begin in any case, as my noble friend Lady Young made clear, until the Bill has been enacted and brought into force. But we intend to inspect all private and voluntary sector providers participating in Phase 1 before the end of March 1997. For Phase 2, if resources permit, we now plan to inspect some private and voluntary institutions before they enter the scheme, and we plan to inspect the remainder during the first year in which they join. Achieving that goal will of course depend upon how many potential inspectors are recruited, how many pass the training and assessment course, and the number of inspections per year that each inspector can undertake.
To delay the expansion of nursery education until all private and voluntary providers have been inspected for the purposes of registration--as the amendment suggests--would stifle parental demand just at the time when parental demand is growing as we know from the vast amount of briefing we have received from, for example, the Pre-School Learning Alliance. And it would deprive many parents and children of the opportunity to benefit from a state-funded nursery education place, especially those who currently find it hard to afford even the relatively modest fees that some pre-school institutions demand.
Consider also the situation at present. A significant number of four year-olds are already in those settings. At the moment there are no requirements related to the education on offer, such as the SCAA desirable outcomes. The sooner voucher funding through the scheme begins the sooner those institutions can begin investment in improving what they offer. That must be of benefit to those four year-olds who are already there.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, suggested that there will be those out to make a quick buck whose sole aim will be the making of money without regard to the provision on offer. There is concern that such people will not be inspected before joining the voucher scheme. As I made clear earlier, we have always insisted that all non-school providers will be registered and are registered under the Children Act. That means any institution joining the scheme must have passed a social services department inspection in which the inspectors satisfy themselves that staff are fit persons to work with children and that the premises are suitable. The provider must pay a registration fee and demonstrate a considerable outlay on staff and premises. It is extremely unlikely that a provider would commit to that if, after gaining an idea of what inspection entails, he thought there was a good chance of initial validation being removed shortly afterwards. That would not be a recipe for making a quick buck. For those reasons I am confident that brand-new providers do not require an Ofsted inspection before beginning to operate within the scheme.
There has been comment about the part played by the self-assessment schedule within the scheme. A draft of that schedule formed part of our Next Steps document. There has been general support for the idea of self-assessment as a way of helping providers identify their strengths and weaknesses. We want to maximise the potential benefits of the self-assessment schedule and as such, and in the light of the comments made to us, we will be considering with interested outsiders and experts whether providers should be required to complete and submit the schedule rather than work through it without subsequent submission. One possible outcome of this consideration could be to require providers to complete and submit the schedule and for that self-assessment schedule to be passed to an inspector in advance of inspection. But we are still considering that. In the meantime I still expect providers to use the self-assessment schedule as a figure for staff development and as a tool to improve the nature of the provision on offer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked what has happened to the self-assessment schedule in Phase 1 LEAs. Providers in Phase 1 are using the schedule to assess their own performance. It is proving a very useful tool. Although in Committee I outlined our plans for evaluation of the operation of Phase 1 of the scheme, it will be helpful to flesh it out a little more at this stage. We have in hand a full and thorough programme of monitoring and assessment. As I have said in the past, we shall make the resulting information available in the Library of each House as we proceed. Some very interesting early information from a survey of parents has been received and noble Lords may be aware of it. It will be placed in the Library tomorrow. I hope that all noble Lords will take an opportunity to consult it.
Finally, as to the register of providers, the voucher company will maintain such a register. It will make it available to the chief inspector for inspection purposes. I can also give an assurance that the company will make the register available on request and free of charge. It will be made available to all. With those words I hope that the noble Baroness will not feel that it is necessary to press her amendment to a Division, but should she wish to do so, I urge the House to reject it.
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for some of the things that he has said. I am somewhat reassured by the undertaking that the self-assessment schedule can be handed on and not used just to check up on how a school and the providers thought they were doing and then be thrown in the wastepaper basket.
The suggestion that some nursery settings will be subject to early inspection is perhaps in a way a justification for the anxiety that these amendments gave voice to; namely, that there will be many new providers who will not be subject to this kind of inspection. I also believe that it is necessary to have a little more reassurance--it may be that the Minister can satisfy me on this straightaway--as regards the timing of the first inspections in providing nursery schools and playgroups. It is not clear from the information that we have so far that there can possibly be an inspection of the new provision within the first year let alone within the first term of that provision.
I reiterate what I said before. Sometimes for us aged persons it may well seem that a year is not very long, but when one talks about a four year-old child an enormous amount can happen to that child within one, two or three terms. A great part of their early life is taken up by a year. Therefore, I ask the Minister to clarify my mind about the time within which the new providers are likely to be inspected.
Lord Henley: My Lords, with the leave of the House and, bearing in mind that it is Report stage, I do not believe that I can go much further than I did in my initial response. As I said, we plan to complete the scheme for the Phase 1 providers by the end of March 1997. Phase 2 is subject to resources and to the training which the inspectors undergo and such matters. We aim to get a number completed before they become voucher
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I am grateful for that. There is sufficient ground for belief that the new providers will be subject to scrutiny and there is hope that their self-assessment may be more rigorously carried out than was suggested in the first instance. There is sufficient hope to persuade me to withdraw the amendment.