Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Henley: My Lords, I hope that I can provide a degree of reassurance to all three noble Baronesses on Amendments Nos. 23 and 24. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for grouping the amendments together and thereby assisting the process of this evening's debate.

In relation to Amendment No. 23, inspecting provision in the private and voluntary sectors will involve considerable organisation. That is a purely administrative task; no educational judgments are involved. The Bill currently allows the chief inspector to delegate the organisation of inspections if he considers that to be appropriate. The intention is that an agent or agents will arrange for other organisations to act as inspection contractors. The inspection contractors will take responsibility for scheduling groups of inspections in a specific area, including the letting of contracts with individual registered nursery education inspectors.

I must emphasise that these are purely administrative functions which have no link with judgments about educational quality. Those judgments will be made by registered nursery education inspectors alone. I can see no reason why the administrative functions cannot be carried out effectively by others, regardless of whether they are members of the inspectorate. I hope that that deals with the concern expressed in relation to the Pre-School Learning Alliance. Ofsted has experience of running the system of inspecting maintained schools. It will draw on that experience to monitor the work of the agent and inspection contractors. Against that background, Amendment No. 23 adds nothing to what Ofsted is already doing or has planned.

Turning to Amendment No. 24, inspecting provision in the private and voluntary sectors must be undertaken by registered nursery education inspectors. That will be a new group of people who will be recruited, trained, assessed and registered by Ofsted.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 275

We spoke earlier of 4,000 possible new inspectors. However, I made it clear that that figure was based on the idea that one inspector was doing no more than one inspection each term. The figure may be much lower if they could do more inspections than that. Ofsted is already preparing for the inspections in Phases 1 and 2.

I should like to say just a little about the experience of training on which the noble Baroness, Lady David, pressed me regarding the inspectors. They will need to possess a recognised qualification with a significant element of early years education. They must also have recent and relevant experience of nursery education, such as teaching four year-olds, managing nursery education provision for four year-olds and inspecting or advisory work. If the references taken up are fully supportive, they will be invited to attend a course of training and assessment. Taken together, these three factors give a sound assurance that the inspectors will have appropriate backgrounds to enable them to do their job.

But it does not stop there. The courses that we have designed are specifically for potential nursery education inspectors and not just for inspectors generally. Crucially, they include an assessment element which potential inspectors must pass before they are registered. The assessment will involve considering a case study, video material and making judgments about the educational programme and quality of teaching.

Against that background and with those assurances of what Ofsted is planning, I hope that all three noble Baronesses will accept that Amendment No. 24 is--dare I say it because I have used the word overmuch of late--"unnecessary" to put on the face of the Bill. I hope that the assurances that I have given will be sufficient to satisfy the three noble Baronesses.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am tempted to ask him whether there is any truth in the accounts in the press that the sort of umbrella organisation for administering the system of inspection is Group 4. Do the Government genuinely have that in mind? Perhaps I may ask a totally unrelated question. Can the Minister say whether any assessments have been made about any possible drop out rate as regards the number of people recruited at the beginning?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I cannot answer the second question. As regards the first, I do not frequently comment on some of the allegations that we see in the press. We are giving a power to the chief inspector to delegate these matters. They are matters for him. As I have stressed, we are talking about administrative functions. We are not looking at the functions relating to the actual judgments about educational quality. I hope that the assurances I have given on the appropriate recruitment, training and assessment of the inspectors will ensure that we have the right sort of registered nursery education inspectors.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 276

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I stand corrected as to the import of Amendment No. 23 and the clause to which it refers. Nevertheless, I am a little distressed to gather from the Minister's remarks that there might be three separate levels of administration involved. I hope that we can get rid of at least one of them. I have some concerns, but no doubt as time goes by we shall see whether they are well based or not, as to who will be doing all the organising.

As regards Amendment No. 24, I am genuinely grateful for the information which the Minister has given us. Again, it may not satisfy every requirement that we wished to put on the face of the Bill, but I believe that we have learned something useful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 25:

Page 8, line 23, at end insert--
.--(1) A registered nursery inspector may, where he has conducted an inspection in accordance with this Schedule and considers that the education inspected was not of a satisfactory quality and standard, recommend that the payment or grant to the provider concerned should cease or be suspended.
(2) The Secretary of State shall, where he receives a recommendation to which sub-paragraph (1) above applies, as soon as practicable withdraw arrangements for the making of grants in respect of that provider for such period as he considers necessary.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to give a registered nursery inspector a power to recommend that the payment of grant to a provider should cease or be suspended where, after inspecting the provision concerned, the inspector believes that it was not of a satisfactory quality or standard. It pinpoints the difficulty in the Bill under which remarkably little seems to flow from the finding that quality in an institution is below par. Very little seems to flow from that. On the contrary, we believe that heads should roll. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I regret that I shall not be able to respond to the noble Lord in quite as speedy a fashion as he moved his amendment. I believe that Amendment No. 25 goes slightly too far in allowing the mere uncorroborated evidence of one inspector to, as he puts it, roll ahead. I believe that the provisions that we have put in place would be more suitable and I should like briefly to explain what we are intending.

If, after the first inspection, the registered nursery education inspector judges that there are weaknesses in the educational provision, but there is potential for improvement, he will recommend that the provider should be given one to two years for improvement before reinspection. And, if after a second inspection, the inspector judges that improvement is still required, initial validation will normally be withdrawn and the provider will no longer be eligible to redeem vouchers. We envisage that it will only be in exceptional cases,

9 Jul 1996 : Column 277

where the inspector judges that there is no potential for improvement, that the inspector recommends that initial validation should be immediately withdrawn.

I should add that before validation is withdrawn, Ofsted will visit the provider to corroborate the judgment of the registered nursery education inspector. That will take place as speedily as possible. I believe that that corroboration will be very important--I am sure that the noble Lord agrees--as it is an additional safeguard, as the recommendation to withdraw grant should not rest with the inspector alone.

Ofsted will then make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. It is appropriate that the final decision should lie here. The Secretary of State will bear in mind the individual circumstances and the needs of the children in arriving at her decision. She will consider each case on its merits in deciding how quickly to discontinue voucher funding, but funding could be discontinued at the end of a term.

The amendment refers to the payment of grant being "suspended". I do not think the use of the word "suspend" is appropriate. Providers will either be in receipt of grant or they will not. I should explain that we do not normally propose to suspend funding in any circumstances, particularly in the context of doubts about the educational provision on offer. As The Next Steps document explains, however, nursery education providers who have had their validation withdrawn will be free to reapply for validation, but that would be granted only after inspection and if the provider were found to be providing appropriate education. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page