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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the importance of children's first experience of school. If that is an unfortunate or negative experience it can be very damaging in the long term. It is very important that when young children start school they are in an environment which is supportive and meets their needs. I assure the noble Lord that the Government are firmly committed to raising standards in all types of early year settings. The Government will undertake consultation early next year on the establishment of a new uniform regulatory and inspection regime for all early years settings that offer nursery education and day care services.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I should like to repeat part of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which was not dealt with in the reply of the noble Baroness. Is it the intention of the Government to level up to the more generous teacher/pupil ratio that is required of private nursery schools or to level down to that required in state provision, or neither? Can the noble Baroness inform the House whether the Government have any intention of controlling the fees charged by private nursery schools as a condition of entering into planned nursery provision in local authority areas?
Baroness David: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most of us are happy with her Answer, but that we would like to know how soon that will happen? What is the pupil/teacher ratio in local authority reception classes at the moment? How soon will it come down to a level which most of us, I am sure, would like to see?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I think that your Lordships will agree that the Government have got on immediately with trying to reduce class sizes for primary schools and infant schools with children aged five, six and seven. That will happen as soon as possible. We made a manifesto commitment, and we will meet it.
The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the contribution made by playschools in recent years in filling the gap where nursery provision is not available? Is she aware that the reception classes have taken away valuable resources from playgroups, which is causing them to close in their hundreds? What future plans does her party have for playgroups?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we greatly value the work of playgroups. We deeply regret the fact that, as a result of the divisive voucher scheme introduced by the previous government, some 800 playgroups have had to close. In the new programme for the expansion of provision for all four year-olds we have asked local education authorities to work with the playgroup movement. I do not believe that reception classes have taken resources away from playgroups. What is needed is sensible, planned collaboration between the voluntary and the maintained sectors. That indeed is what we intend.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, are local authorities entitled to refuse children with learning disabilities, either in this age group or among the five and six year-olds to whom she referred, just because they say that they are unable to provide the special care required?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting children with special needs, whatever their age. Under the previous government, some local authorities were unable to provide places for children under five who had special needs, but the new Government's proposals will ensure that all four year-olds, whatever their needs, will have a place in a maintained, voluntary or private school of some kind.
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does the project director whom he mentioned have full authority, without reference to committees or anything like that, to take all decisions necessary to complete this great project to time and estimated cost?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall answer the noble Baroness's second question first. Mr. Trench was appointed two years ago to--I suppose the phrase is--clean up the problems in the British Library. He has done so successfully and to the great satisfaction of Her Majesty's Government. As to the interim accounts, the New Millennium Experience Company was only formed on 12th March this year. Its audited accounts, which are what make sense, will become available only after its first full year, which will end on 31st March next year. However, the Minister without Portfolio, in his evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, undertook to ensure that management figures would be made available as soon as is practicable.
The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, is there any news yet about a Lambeth working party, which was mentioned a week or two ago, which is studying the idea that the Millennium Dome should have some Christian aspect, as the millennium is supposed to commemorate the founding of Christianity?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the total cost of the Millennium Dome has been well publicised. The full budget, including inflation, is £758 million. That will be met by a combination of contributions from the National Lottery, visitors, and, to a more modest extent, the taxpayers. That balance of income and expenditure has not changed.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If money is to be saved exclusively at the expense of higher education students and their families, and spent elsewhere, even if it is in further education or elsewhere in the budget, then it is a tax on those students and those families.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the previous government left the further education sector severely underfunded. It was in an even worse situation than the higher education sector. The increase in funding of £83 million for the further education sector, which includes a £20 million increase in employer contributions to employer-led provision in further education, will provide for a resumption of growth in student numbers, geared particularly to widening participation on a financially sound basis. The Dearing Committee recommended that the cap put on the expansion of higher education by the previous
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