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Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 241L:


Page 83, line 16, leave out ("meals") and insert ("school lunches").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 109, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 110 [Definition of nursery education]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241LA:


Page 84, line 5, leave out ("suitable for") and insert ("appropriate to the developmental stage of").

The noble Baroness said: We move on to some important aspects of the Bill relating to nursery education. I believe that nursery education means full-time or part-time education not that is "suitable for" but is "appropriate to the developmental stage of" children who have not attained compulsory school age. I have tabled the amendment largely to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that at all stages of education, particularly at pre-school age, the stage of development will differ. There are many examples of children being inappropriately placed either in a large infant class or in a reception class. It is important that, if a major part of the Bill is to be dedicated to nursery education, the words "appropriate to the developmental stage of" a child are included. Some children are more advanced and some will lag behind and need a great deal more attention. The most traditional forms of child

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education cater for that either through the personal care of mothers, through specialised nursery education where, under guidance, children are able to select their learning tools and learn by imitation and action, or in small groups with the support of mothers and volunteers.

All those approaches allow for flexibility and, where possible, a personal response to each individual child. It is not sensible or satisfactory for local authorities, still less the Government, to second guess the opinions and knowledge of parents and nursery teachers. Setting out rigid programmes of work or syllabuses of curricula for children of this age is not right because the needs of each child differ radically. Therefore, prescribing methods in such a rigid fashion would be difficult.

I am worried about the word "suitable". The provision can be suitable for the LEA and it can be suitable for the wrong reasons. A paramount consideration should be the developmental, educational and social needs of the child at that age. The words that I wish to put on to the face of the Bill will allow the Government to show their determination not to allow unsuitable provision in large local authority reception classes. I can point to many examples of that. No one who has the interests of individual children at heart could object to the wording. In that vein, I hope that the noble Baroness is able to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. I entirely agree that the nursery education which each child receives must be appropriate to his or her needs. Those needs will vary between children and there should be no question of forcing teaching and learning beyond that which is appropriate for the individual child. Equally, the most able children should not be held back.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to review what is known in the jargon as desirable learning outcomes which children in nursery education work towards. In doing so, it will cover specifically the concerns which the noble Baroness is expressing--they have recently been expressed by a number of others--about over-formalising early education. During my early career, I spent some time working on nursery education and I strongly believe that it should not be over-formalised.

When planning the provision of nursery eduction for four year-olds in an area, early years development partnerships must ensure that there is sufficient diversity of provision to meet the differing needs of the children in their area. Parents are best placed to choose the provision that is right for their child. Once a child is attending a particular provider, parents and staff ought to work together to ensure that the child's needs are met. Part of the role of the inspectors is to check that that is happening. Through our consultation on the regulation of early education and day care, and through the review which is being carried out by the QCA as well as through a review of qualifications and training, we will make sure that the education provided for four year-olds in all settings is of good quality and appropriate to the needs of the children concerned. That must include provision in reception classes. I should remind the noble

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Baroness, however, that it was the nursery education voucher scheme which led to an unfortunate and uncontrolled increase in the number of children admitted to reception classes as both schools and LEAs tried to maximise their income from vouchers. But we are trying to stop this.

We have already made it clear to LEAs in our guidance on drawing up early years development plans that we did not expect plans to provide a free place for all four year-olds simply by expanding reception classes. We have asked all partnerships to set out in their plans a strategy for raising quality and, in particular, to monitor how well provision in reception classes meets the needs of the youngest four year-olds. However, it would, I think, be wrong to assume that it is always bad for a child to be in a reception class. Ofsted's evidence, including the latest report, which will be published on Friday--but which I think the noble Baroness may have seen because at my request a pre-publication copy was sent by Ofsted to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Tope--suggests that most reception classes provide satisfactory or better education for four year-olds. I think that in the best reception classes teachers are often ably assisted by additional staff. Some pupils benefit from the flexibility that is offered to move beyond the desirable learning outcomes when they are ready.

Our firm intention is to ensure that every child receives good quality nursery education that meets his or her individual needs in whatever setting the parent may choose. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that the way to do this is not through amendments such as these, which seek to change a definition of nursery education which we believe is already quite broad enough for the purpose they envisage, but by actually influencing what happens on the ground. We have already made good progress on this and we shall go on pursuing it vigorously. So I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw these amendments.

10 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I simply find it impossible to understand how I am changing the definition of education. If the noble Baroness is saying that to provide "appropriate to the developmental stage" of a child is changing the definition of education and is not consistent with what the Government want, I am really at a loss. I should have thought that the Government would at least sign up to the notion that any provision should be appropriate to their developmental stage, certainly for children who are in the most formative years of their lives. The accusation that my amendments change the definition of nursery education is perplexing. But I shall withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 241A:


Page 84, line 6, at end insert ("whether or not such education is provided in classes which include older children").

The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 241 and I shall speak also to Amendment No. 241F.

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These two amendments are about definitions. It is not clear in the definition of "nursery education" in the Bill whether that would include education of children under compulsory school age in mixed classes with children of compulsory school age. My Amendment 241A would clarify that issue.

Amendment No. 241F addresses a rather different problem. I am advised that the phrase "nursery classes" is nowhere defined in statute. Nursery schools and reception classes are defined in the Education Act 1996. Nursery education and infant classes are defined in this Bill, but nursery classes are not defined. I suggest that it is important they should be. They are referred to not only in the Children Act but also in the recent consultation paper published by the department concerning Early Education and Day Care. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in both of his amendments.

Baroness Blackstone: The noble Lord is quite right to say that there is no statutory definition of a nursery class. Equally, there is no statutory definition of the difference between pre-school, a private nursery school and a day nursery. But what is important is not what a certain classroom or institution is called or how it is defined but what children experience when they are in that setting.

In fact, by defining any setting too closely, we should run the risk of removing the flexibility of provision to evolve alongside children's needs. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on the previous amendment, I agree that it is important that nursery provision meets the child's social, physical, emotional and educational needs.

Although we welcome the diversity of provision which comes from a mix of types of provider, I sympathise entirely with the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about such matters as staffing ratios, a concern which he has expressed previously, and the regulatory differences between the different types of early-years providers. The noble Lord will know also that I share his view that the current arrangements do not make very much sense. I have sympathy with those who call for a rather more level playing field. That is why we are consulting on the regulation of early education and day care, including the issue of adult-child ratios, which is mentioned specifically in one of the noble Lord's amendments.

Through that consultation and through the review of the desirable learning outcomes--


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