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Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. What he has said makes very good sense and I found it helpful, especially with regard to Ofsted following up a report of an unsatisfactory provider, and what he said about the word "suspension", which suggests hanging rather than the decapitation of which I was in favour. I am relieved by what the Minister has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 9, line 3, at end insert--

("Action Plans

.--(1) Where an inspection of funded nursery education has been conducted under paragraph 6 and a report has been made under paragraph 13, the authority or other person responsible for providing the funded nursery education shall, within such a period as may be prescribed but not exceeding 3 months, prepare a written statement of action which they propose to take in the light of the report.
(2) Where a statement has been prepared under sub-paragraph (1), the authority or other person responsible shall without delay send copies of it to--
(a) the Chief Inspector,
(b) the Secretary of State, and
(c) the local authority in which the funded nursery education is situated.").

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 26, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 27 and 28. Amendment No. 26 deals with the requirement for action plans to be drawn up by grant-receiving institutions following inspections. The best argument for this amendment was made by the Minister in another place during Committee stage there. Mr. Squire said:

    "I agree that it is important that all providers prepare action plans, in the same way as schools do under the 1992 Act to deal with key issues highlighted by the inspector. That should apply even where standards are high, so as to ensure that those high standards are maintained".--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee F, 20/2/96; col. 361.]
However, this Bill contains no such requirement.

It is clearly evident that where an inspection has taken place, it should be the responsibility of any nursery education provider to devise and write an action plan. That would be a response in writing to the main findings and the key issues for action, derived from the inspection report. That process is recognised good practice, but it also provides levels of accountability for the use of public funds. It would inform parents and carers of how seriously the nursery education provider intends to address any weaknesses and to build on any strengths that emerge from the inspection.

The production of an action plan within a set time period, stating what will be done, will, if managed carefully, become an important process by which the nursery education provider can improve the quality of the provision. It will enable the provider to gain assistance from specialists and advisers as to the most effective means of addressing any weaknesses and improving performance. The action plan, if prepared in a responsible and efficient way, will also serve to instil a sense of achievement as issues are addressed and resolved over a period of time.

In forming a general picture of both individual providers and what is happening in the system, subsequent inspections by social services inspectors and registration officers can draw on and form a benchmark for the way in which such action plans can be developed and judged. The Government need to explain why, as with other amendments to this part of the Bill, they rely on the Opposition Benches to hold up to them the precedents contained in their own legislation and why a light touch inspection regime is preferable to one containing proper provision for follow-up for our very youngest children.

Amendment No. 27 replicates the provisions of the 1992 Act. Under this provision inspectors would benefit from meetings with parents prior to inspections in order to gain valuable information. This is in keeping with the practice in Sections 9 and 13 inspections provided in accordance with the Education (Schools) Act 1992. It would be helpful for inspectors to hold such meetings, report their findings and for parents to understand the result of the process of inspection. We believe that this is part of the essential strategy of encouraging a partnership with parents to support the child's learning. Often nurseries already have a strong partnership. We would like to see that good practice extended.

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Amendment No. 28 clarifies the offence of obstructing an inspector. It is important that nursery education inspectors have the same powers as registered inspectors of schools. The need for the amendment underlines the poorly structured way in which the inspections schedule has been drawn up. This is surprising in view of the precedent provided by the 1992 Act. Further credence is given to the need for this amendment by virtue of the fact that the Children Act 1989 gives the person carrying out the inspection power to examine the premises, the children being looked at, the arrangements for their welfare and so on.

The managers of new private nursery voucher provision are likely to be less familiar with systems of public accountability and the need for transparent and scrupulous probity than those who have had longer experience in dealing with public sector funding. Therefore, it is possible that occasionally there will be a greater risk that they will react in adverse ways to visits from nursery-registered inspectors. There is a risk of fraud and the illegal use of vouchers. If those circumstances arise they may give rise to obstructive behaviour.

At the end of the day, to guard the interests of the children is our prime concern, but we must also ensure that there is the greatest possible likelihood of dealing with actions that hinder and impede lawful inspections and access to premises by registered inspectors. For that reason, I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we support the amendments. As regards Amendment No. 26, as a school governor for many years I can confirm the extremely beneficial effect of having to respond with a plan to any criticisms or commendations which an Ofsted inspection has left in its wake. That exercise not only improves the education provided for the children in the school but also brings together governors and teachers in planning for the school's further progress.

Amendment No. 27 deals with the concerns expressed at an earlier sitting about the need to involve parents in the education of their children, in particular of their young children, and it is the only place where those concerns appear. It would be of enormous benefit if parents and teachers together could meet the inspector so that each could understand the other better and so that parents could understand the process which is going on in the nursery schools to which they send their children.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I hope that yet again I can demonstrate why the amendments are unnecessary.

In publishing our proposals for inspection in The Next-Steps document we made clear that all providers covered by the grant arrangements would need to prepare an action plan following the first inspection or any subsequent inspections. We shall give this effect by making it a requirement of grant. Perhaps I may explain why we have chosen that method rather than to put the requirement on the face of the Bill. In the case of

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maintained schools, securing compliance with such a requirement has to be by means of statute; there is no other way. For the private and voluntary sectors, however, the grant mechanism provides a highly effective way of ensuring that action plans (or any other requirement) are fulfilled.

Bearing that in mind, it will also be a requirement of grant that participating institutions submit to the inspections provided for in the Bill. That will obviously include giving inspectors access to the premises and any documents they require and not obstructing inspectors. It is unnecessary to replicate the offence which applies to school inspections under the 1992 Act.

Sub-paragraph (a) of Amendment No. 27 would require managers and governing bodies to inform parents when an inspection is due to take place. I agree that it is very important to involve parents in their children's education. Ofsted will therefore arrange for inspectors to send providers a notice to display informing parents of the date of an inspection. However, I do not believe that this type of detail needs to be prescribed on the face of the Bill.

Furthermore, I am not attracted to sub-paragraph (b) of Amendment No. 27. The 1992 Act requires inspectors of schools to meet parents before the inspection. But a nursery education inspector will typically spend one day at a nursery education provider, compared to three days for a proper school inspection. For practical reasons, it would therefore be difficult to schedule a meeting with parents. Moreover, I believe that the amendment would be far too heavy handed for many small nursery education providers. We do not want to cause undue disruption.

I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the simple question is: why not replicate the 1992 Act? The Minister is merely arguing that grant is the sanction of the private sector and that therefore the provision does not need to be on the face of the Bill. That leaves a whole lot of variable pre-five and post-five systems in place. In the majority of cases we are dealing with the same institution, which is the local school. It does not make sense to legislate in this way in respect of those institutions.

I believe that the Government made our case for us in earlier debates. The Minister replied that because the time given to inspection is short, it is not possible to meet the parents. I should have thought that if the time is short, by the Minister's own admission in replying to the debate on this matter, then the question is whether it is more important to have an opportunity to have a meeting with the parents. However, at this stage I shall read most carefully the Minister's words in Hansard. With your Lordships' leave, I seek to withdraw Amendment No. 26.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 27 to 29 not moved.]

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Schedule 2 [Nursery education grants: disclosure of information]:

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