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Lord Tope: My Lords, I also speak to the amendment which stands in my name. I am saddened that the noble Baroness opposes it. I suspect that if we were able to discuss this in a less formal setting we would achieve a rather greater measure of agreement than might be apparent from the debate which must take place in this Chamber. I support all that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, in moving the amendment. I would have said very much the same. I emphasise a number of points that the noble Lord has already made. I do not object to outcomes. I am married to a teacher and I agree with her that, on the whole, teachers support the idea. The difficulty is one of judging outcomes at this age on the basis of a one-day inspection. All of this must be subjective and subject to the judgment of inspectors. However, I believe that it is easier for them to answer the question whether the activity or education is appropriate for the age of the child here and now than to judge whether it is an appropriate outcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to possible confusion with education in a reception class. Traditionally, nursery education has been understood to be that which is often provided for children from the age of three until the time they enter reception classes in primary school. In many, not all, LEAs nowadays that means before the fifth birthday. In my maiden speech
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to concern about the scheme that had already been expressed in the pilot areas by some play groups who were losing four year-olds because of early admission to reception classes. I suspect that I am not the only noble Lord who has received a letter from the Kensington and Chelsea Pre-School Learning Alliance which is located in one of the pilot areas. The alliance states in its letter:
That is a danger which is already apparent in the pilot areas. That is another reason why there is a need for the evaluation to which your Lordships agreed at Committee stage. The letter from Kensington and Chelsea Pre-School Learning Alliance says exactly that:
This is an important amendment and one which I hope the Minister will be able to accept. I suspect that my hopes will shortly be dashed. However, I believe that it is an amendment which will greatly strengthen and improve the Bill. I hope it is one which your Lordships will feel able to support.
Lord Monson: My Lords, the noble Lord has not answered the cogent point made by the noble Baroness. She said that different four year-olds had different skills and abilities which depended largely upon home background.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am not sure that that is a question necessarily addressed to me. What has just been said is true of children of every age. It is a consideration at every point throughout life, including school life. The scheme is specifically designed for four year-olds, and therefore it is necessary for the amendment to refer specifically to four year-olds.
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I support the amendment, largely because I believe that the Bill as it stands suffers from lack of clarity as to what is meant by "nursery education". This is not an idle philosopher's desire to discover the meaning of words. This is very important in the context of a Bill which is to expend money on a voucher scheme. It should be made absolutely clear to what purpose the money is being put.
I believe that there is a shift in the Bill towards the idea of play group provision. It is suggested at one end of the spectrum that play groups may come together to provide something. At the other end of the spectrum it is suggested that nursery education may just as well be provided in reception classes in primary schools.
Perhaps I may draw an analogy with the 1981 Act in respect of special education. From the very beginning, that Bill was clear that the education was being provided for very severely handicapped children. The education was to be provided in the same sense that it was provided to all other children. But here there is lack of clarity about the nature of nursery education. This must be central to the Bill as it is before us. We must know what nursery education is supposed to be. I am sure that some noble Lords will suggest that parents ought to be allowed to choose provision for four year-olds. I believe that very often that is a delusory choice. A large number of parents do not know what they want, or what ought to be provided, for their very young children. Some of them--but only some--will use their vouchers on whatever is to hand. The notion that in one day an inspectorate can determine whether the ultimate outcome of the education will be good or bad is somewhat farcical. For example, all noble Lords have read submissions from the United States which indicate that the outcomes of nursery education are still visible when an individual is married, not divorced or whatever. Long-term outcomes are very difficult to assess in one day. Short-term outcomes may be a little easier, except perhaps as to whether the child appears to be happy or occupied. A test must be available to the inspectorate and to parents which concerns itself with whether the activity provided is genuinely education and is suitable for the child and the child for it so that steady progress may be made. There is a deep flaw in the Bill because it shows no real concept of nursery education as opposed to what is provided in the play groups and reception classes. I believe that the few words in the amendment would help to clarify that and I support it.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, spoke for some 11 minutes on his 11-word amendment. I hope that he will not use that as an example to follow as regards his somewhat longer amendments. I dare say that I tempt the noble Lord.
The noble Lord accused me of clinical rupture. That is a new one on me; I have not had that thrown at me before. I hope that he will not throw it at me again when I say that I cannot accept the amendments as they stand. I shall give a brief explanation as to why. No doubt the noble Lord is aware that there is another stage and if before then he wishes to talk to me outside the Chamber, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, put it, that may be possible.
The purpose of the definition of nursery education in the Bill is to specify the education for which grant may be paid. That issue is separate from the quality of education, which is addressed by requirements of grant under Clause 3. I believe that the noble Lord has confused the two issues. The amendment confuses the purpose of the definition of grant-aided education with the discretion that the Secretary of State will have as to when to pay grant. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that explanation. That is why on a previous occasion I said that I made no bones about the fact that I saw no value in prescribing such detail on the face of the Bill, and that is why I certainly would not wish to see such an amendment to the Bill.
The noble Lord asked, why link activity to age. As my noble friend Lady Perry clearly stated, it is not always appropriate to provide education appropriate to the age. There can be children who are particularly bright, those who are less bright than others of their age and those with special educational needs. It is important that we cater for them.
As I made clear on a previous occasion, all providers will need to agree to provide education appropriate to a set of desirable outcomes on entering compulsory education. Those have been developed by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) as a requirement of grant. Despite the criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Morris--and I welcome what was said by my noble friend Lady Perry--those outcomes are the framework and there is a wide variety of curricula which might be appropriate. We do not wish to override any of that. The inspections will cover that issue. SCAA is working on exemplifications which will illustrate exactly what the outcomes look like and Ofsted will collaborate in that work. The inspector must then make judgments about the appropriateness in deciding whether the outcomes are likely to be achieved. I believe that that will ensure that all providers are offering education appropriate to the age of the child and of a consistently high standard.
The noble Lord spoke at some length and perhaps moved away from the subject of the amendment. He appeared to imply that standards, were being lowered in order to let in the private sector. I believe that that is absolute nonsense. As we have made clear, all providers will be inspected to the same standard, with the outcomes defined by SCAA, on which there was expensive consultation last autumn.
I hope that with those explanations of why I do not like the words proposed by the noble Lord, and in the hope that it is a mere probing amendment--he described it as being creative and helpful after he had accused me of a clinical rupture--he will feel able to withdraw it.
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