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Page 1, line 8, after second ("education") insert ("that is appropriate to the age of the child and is").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I spoke about this amendment at Committee stage. The Minister responded at cols. 100-1 of the Official Report on 17th June to the effect that the amendment was "unnecessary" because the job of determining whether or not any particular provider was,


was,


    "developed by SCAA as a requirement of grant".
Because that requirement was already in place he saw,


    "no particular value in prescribing such detail on the face of the Bill".
The definition of "nursery education" is to us utterly fundamental to the entire purpose of the Bill. It is stretching credulity to the point of clinical rupture to suggest that it is mere "detail". The Bill as it stands--and I invite your Lordships to glance at it--defines "nursery education" as "education"--that is utterly circular--and makes reference to the age at which it is received. There is nothing about what it is; what is in it; how it happens and what it is meant to do--just who it applies to.

This amendment seeks only to make the declaratory point in 11 words that nursery education must be appropriate to the child. It is not simply anything that might loosely be thought of as--more or less; by and large; taking one thing with another--"education", which happens to be provided for a child of nursery age.

To clarify all this would greatly assist the PSLA which needs to know what manner of provision Her Majesty's Government have in mind. To reject this helpful addition to the Bill of, as I say, fewer than a dozen words--and words which will enormously improve it--is to admit that the Government care not if provision funded by vouchers is inappropriate to the needs of its beneficiaries.

The noble Lord would have us believe that inspection, together with the SCAA "outcomes" document, is quite sufficient to ensure that the quality and appropriateness of voucher-funded provision will be secured. Would that it were. It is precisely because

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of the professional anxiety that has been expressed on these points that we are pursuing this amendment today. We have heard from teachers, head teachers and education officers throughout LEAs across the country that they are not happy about it.

The proposition that an activity may contribute to an "outcome" at some unspecified future date is almost impossible to establish or to falsify without, if I may be technical, a longitudinal research project which is totally beyond the scope of the inspection regime or, as far as I can see, the imagination of the Government. In fact, inspectors will normally have one day only, if that, in which to arrive at this difficult, hypothetical judgment. Inspectors, whose conclusions may be challenged, must be mindful of the need to produce observational evidence to justify their decisions.

Is it not much easier and infinitely preferable for them honestly to answer the question, "Is this activity education that is appropriate to the age of the children here and now?", rather than to speculate as to whether they might have learnt something by the time they have reached five years of age? This amendment will require inspectors to adopt that approach. If the Minister believes that that will be a bad or an inferior thing, let him explain his reasons to the House. There will be a few minutes for him to think about that while I go on to develop this amendment at somewhat greater length.

I said in Committee--I make no apology for repeating it--by definition, anything that is properly "education" will be conducted according to a curriculum which is the sum total of experiences that contribute to the learning of the individual. It includes planned intervention by educators, as well as the outcome of self-directed or guided activity on the part of the learner. If the Minister wants an example of an appropriate curriculum for the nursery phase of education, let him do no more than consult the report Starting with Quality published in 1990 by the committee chaired by Angela Rumbold, the then Minister of State at the Home Office. That is a good example of education which is "appropriate". It could be used by inspectors as a reference point or a benchmark. As things stand, they will have no guidance--and they are going to need all the help they can get.

Similarly, we have heard from teachers, head teachers and education officers that their view is that the statement Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education, published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, falls sadly short of an adequate nursery curriculum. That document has been prepared to define the conditions for validation of a nursery provider who wishes to receive vouchers. We cannot avoid suspecting that that quality benchmark has been defined in that way to lower the threshold of quality for eligibility for the scheme in a panic attempt to increase the number of private providers in the scheme--and there has been no unseemly rush of private providers so far.

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That is confirmed in the Next Steps document published by the DfEE on which I commented in Committee and on which I was not at all reassured. It states:


    "The Government would not normally expect to validate individual child minders for the scheme. It should be possible, however, for child minders to form a group with other child minders and develop a structured programme of activities".
Are we then to believe that "appropriate education" is no more than a "structured programme of activities"? It is clear that a few potentially unqualified child minders, with the best will in the world and the highest intentions, banding together to put together a "structured programme of activities" amounts to a lot less than an institution offering a high quality nursery curriculum delivered by skilled and qualified professional teachers. Can the Government really be satisfied that at the bottom end of that range we shall have something which is acceptable and safe for the teaching of children?

Unless the Bill is strengthened in that respect, it is likely that the opportunity to expand high quality nursery education will be lost and public money voted by Parliament ostensibly for the purpose will be diverted to subsidise child care under the cloak of some vaguely education-related activity which is never defined, never even described, and for which no model is indicated at all. That is not to say that child care, nurture, and opportunities to engage in free and self-directed play are not important for young children--they are, and other amendments will show us attempting to introduce a requirement that nursery education is planned alongside, and integrated with, provisions directed at those objectives. However, the public interest is not served if the definition of "nursery education" is evaded so that appropriate funding for it can be diverted elsewhere.

A second problem which the amendment seeks to address is the danger that nursery education will be confused with an early start to primary school. The two are different. The date on which it becomes a legal requirement for parents to ensure that their children are in receipt of full-time education is the start of the term following the fifth birthday. However, a majority of schools admit children to the reception class at the start of the term in which they become five--and many do it earlier than that. The reception class provides an important bridge between the pre-school phase and the start of compulsory education in year one of primary school. Reception class teachers need to take account of the differing prior experiences of their pupils who might have had any kind of structured pre-school experience or none whatever. Some will probably get their first feel of what it is like to be in any kind of educational establishment in that reception class.

It is also necessary for the reception class to try to take account of the variation in chronological age of a group of children who will subsequently receive education on the basis of the year group into which they fall. They will continue their education in year groups. Obviously, a few months' difference in chronological age is extremely significant for very young children. It gets progressively less important as they get older. Indeed, the older we get, the less age differences seem to matter. We can tolerate even the difference between

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the ages of the Minister and myself with a modest degree of equanimity, but if we were four and five things would feel and look very different. The fact that the noble Lord is much bigger than I am does not particularly bother me at the moment, but if we were four and five it would bother me quite a lot.

The reception class is there to provide a transition between the individual approach at nursery level and the group approach thereafter. Anxiety has already been expressed in pilot areas that some play groups are losing four year-olds because of their early admission to reception class. That seriously threatens the PSLA provision which we consider to be an undesirable and deleterious move. Currently, "nursery education", as that phrase is properly understood, covers the period from the third birthday to entry to reception class at rising five. The proposed nursery voucher scheme cuts across those arrangements by neglecting the three year-olds, but invading the funding of the older children who are really moving well beyond the true nursery phase.

The aim of this modest amendment, in conjunction with others directed at the eligible age group, is to relocate the application of the Bill towards activity which can properly be understood to be "nursery education" and to give a bit of legislative protection to the quality of the provision to which that term applies. In my view, the amendment elicited a wholly inadequate response from the Government at the Committee stage in another place. It went on for a long time and got nowhere--and so far the amendment has not fared very much better in your Lordships' House. We believe it is essential that the Government give serious consideration to the "appropriateness" of the education to be funded through vouchers. I beg the Minister to take the amendment away and to consider it with his colleagues in the DfEE and bring us back something a little more acceptable. We do not ask for very much. We would be content with almost anything that improved upon the sad and sorry state in which we find the Bill at present. This is intended to be a creative and helpful amendment. It is not intended to wreck anything. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I cannot support the amendment. In fact, I think that in many ways it could be quite a dangerous amendment if passed. I respect entirely the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, with regard to the amendment which he has advocated so passionately because I understand that he, like the rest of us, wishes to see the best possible provision for young children which this nation can provide.

Nevertheless, the noble Lord has restricted the "appropriateness" of nursery education to the age of the child. That is wholly inappropriate. Children of four come from a variety of very different backgrounds. Some come from homes in which they have already been given a great deal of pre-school help; quite often they will have been taught to read and are used to books and sophisticated play. Others come from homes where, as a colleague of mine once described it, there were so few objects in the home that the child had not even had

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the opportunity to discriminate by colour or shape because there was only one glass, one cup and one mug in the cupboard that she saw.

There is a very great variety of four year-olds. To provide an education which is appropriate to a notional four year-old may restrict matters very greatly. The noble Lord appears to have an objection to education which is defined by outcomes. Your Lordships may not be surprised that I passionately believe in education which is defined by outcomes. When the noble Lord says that teachers dislike that concept, I am not sure to which particular teachers he refers. Teachers and educationalists with whom I have had discussions welcome the concept of an outcome from nursery education which provides a common starting point for reception class teachers.

It is important that inspectors who look at nursery education ensure that the provision is geared to providing the kinds of outcome which SCAA has professionally and carefully defined and we all want as a starting point for the statutory period of education at five. I believe that most teachers welcome that approach. I have never known an inspector to be inhibited by the fact that there is no particular wording in an Act that provides a basis on which to form a professional judgment. I have a great deal of confidence in the professional judgment of inspectors. They look at nursery education to see whether it is helping children to achieve the desired outcomes and make professional judgments on that basis. I believe that the current wording of the Act allows them to do that. It provides a broad definition of nursery education which will enable a variety of providers, including child minders--many of whom are deeply caring, educated people who know exactly how to go about their task--to provide nursery education wholly to the benefit of the four year-olds concerned.


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