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Baroness David: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask one question. Was capital funding made available to Norfolk for any nursery schools during the pilot phase?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am not aware that it was. I shall check up and write to the noble Baroness.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, may I also probe one matter? I accept what he said about ring-fencing, but will his department look with sympathy on applications which are made for the funding that we have been talking about?

Lord Henley: My Lords, as I made clear, we always have to consider all applications in the light of the finite nature of resources. It is a matter of prioritising what are the most important of them.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, I am grateful for this brief exchange. Perhaps I may say that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, would admirably fulfil the qualities needed to be a right reverend Prelate in your Lordships' House, but I am relieved that that is a matter which we are not discussing at the moment. We do not propose to pre-empt such discussions as may be held elsewhere.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving such a careful reply to my question. I shall read with great care what he has said, and in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Clause 3 [Requirements]:

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 8:


Page 2, line 37, at end insert (", and
(c) shall prescribe the minimum staffing ratios required in respect of four-year-olds in reception classes").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment requires the Secretary of State to specify staffing ratios in reception classes. Many people do not realise how much of the voucher scheme will be happening in reception classes. For some time now the age of admission to a reception class has been reducing and many of the nation's four year-olds are placed in reception classes long before their fifth birthday. Because of this gradual change in the age of admission to reception classes, many people have lost sight of the fact that statutory education does not start until the beginning of the term after the child's fifth birthday. That means that if an authority moved to admitting all

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children to reception classes at the beginning of the year in which they became five, one-third of the children (the summer-born children) would spend all three terms of their voucher-bearing career in the reception class; one-third (the spring-born children) would spend two out of three terms of their voucher-bearing career in the reception class; and one third (the autumn-born children) would spend one out of three terms of their voucher-bearing career in the reception class.

If that pattern became widespread, the majority of vouchers would be redeemed for the education of four year-olds in reception classes. The Special Educational Consortium does not believe that it was the Government's intention that that should happen; rather, it understood that the Government intended that all sectors--maintained, private and voluntary--should play a full part in the nursery voucher scheme.

However, the conditions are not the same for all providers. Let us consider the staffing ratios in different settings. Staffing ratios vary according to the setting--according to whether it is a primary, infant or nursery school or a nursery class. They are as follows: for children at registered settings, an adult:child ratio of 1:8 for children between the ages of three and five; for nursery schools and classes, the DfEE's circular 2/73 recommends a ratio of 2:26--that is 1:13--where half the staff are teachers or 2:20--that is 1:10--where the head teacher teaches. There is no guidance on staffing levels for reception classes.

The Audit Commission study, Counting to Five, found that the highest proportion of total costs in all settings is staff costs at an average of 81 per cent. Playgroups come out cheapest because their staff receive low pay. The other main determinant of staff costs, besides pay, is the child:adult ratio. In most settings the recommended maximum ratios are set out in statutory guidance. Reception classes have no laid down ratios although the work of each class must be led by a qualified teacher. That makes it possible for them to operate with much larger ratios than are found in other settings and explains why they are the next cheapest after playgroups.

In a nursery class or school, class size has until now been limited in two ways--by pupil:adult ratio and by the recommendation that half the adults should be teachers, and by the 1981 Education (School Premises) Regulations on teaching recommendations and recreational space. However, there is no limit to reception class size. Reception classes (originally planned for children who are rising five) are not limited by pupil:teacher ratios. In addition, from September 1996, the 1981 regulations will be replaced. There will then be no limit on the number of children who can be placed in a reception class--not even a health and safety limit. That is the situation in spite of the fact that those classes may now contain some of our youngest four year-olds.

A survey by HMI in Wales last year looked at provision for under-fives in playgroups and in the maintained sector, and found that,

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    "The good adult:child ratio in nursery schools, and nursery classes in primary schools, ensures that the children receive ample individual attention, and helps them to feel secure, valued and confident. The adult:child ratio in reception and infant classes in primary schools is generally not as good. In some schools, the large size of the classes and the lack of ancillary support make it difficult for teachers to respond flexibly to the children's developing needs and abilities".

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in the report on class size, also produced last year, drew attention to the fact that for younger children smaller class size is a significant factor in better pupil performance and a higher quality of education. In that study, the particular features which inspectors identified as contributing to the higher ratings that they gave to smaller classes were good levels of involvement in tasks by pupils; plenty of opportunities for pupils to develop and to practise oral and written skills; effective interaction in which teachers could diagnose and remedy specific weaknesses; a lack of restless and ill attentive behaviour; and close matching of tasks to pupils' needs. Those points about quality highlight the very aspects of smaller classes that can benefit young children with special educational needs and give cause for concern about the fate of young children with those needs placed in large reception classes. With increasing class size, the first categories are the very features that can enable teachers to identify and respond to the learning needs of our most vulnerable children.

There are incentives for LEAs and schools to admit more four year-olds to reception classes. Local education authorities will have money deducted from their standard spending assessment to fund the voucher scheme. They can be more confident of retrieving that money if they admit four year-olds a bit younger and collect a few extra vouchers. For most primary schools there will also be significant incentives to increase the number of four year-olds in their reception class. That may be achieved by admitting four year-olds earlier or by simply admitting more.

In Committee the Minister argued that if parents did not like what was on offer in a reception class, they could take their children elsewhere. However, although in theory there may be a choice for parents, in practice there may not be, particularly in rural areas. There is insufficient provision to provide choice for parents until there are spare places in the system. It is estimated that an excess of 10 per cent. of places is needed to allow for choice, whereas there is quite the opposite: there is currently a shortage of places for four year-olds.

Parents are anxious to secure a place for their child in the school of their choice, and admission to a reception class will secure a place in the school later. The Pre-School Learning Alliance reported just last month that nearly half of all pre-schools report that pressure has been exerted on parents to send their child to the school nursery rather than to pre-school. It is impossible to assess accurately whether that pressure is real, but it is a fear which is being expressed by pre-schools in many other areas 10 months before the scheme comes into operation. It remains a concern that parents will be pressurised into taking a reception class place which will secure their child's place in that school for the remainder of his or her primary school career.

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As I have said, there is already a trend towards younger admission in the reception year. The same Pre-School Learning Alliance report records planned changes to admissions policies in a significant number of schools in Norfolk so that they can admit younger children into the reception class. The Special Educational Consortium is concerned that large reception classes do not provide the best setting for four year-olds with special needs, particularly for the youngest. The particular aspects of quality lost in larger classes militate significantly against such children receiving provision which is appropriate to their needs.

There is a need for this amendment. There is a clear intention on the part of the Government that the voucher scheme should promote high quality nursery education--we all support that--and such a provision is crucial in identifying and making an early start to meeting the special educational needs of young children. It seems equally clear that the lack of guidelines on the size of reception classes will militate against the high quality that is sought by everyone. The amendment seeks regulations to limit the size of reception classes. I beg to move.


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