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Lord Northbourne: I was speaking only to Amendments Nos. 241A and 241F. I had intended to make a few remarks about the other amendments, although I shall try to be brief. Perhaps the noble Baroness is answering all my amendments.

Baroness Blackstone: I was not moving on to the later amendments. I am aware that the noble Lord has tabled other amendments but if he thinks that I am anticipating them in some way, I shall not continue.

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I hope that I have given the noble Lord some reassurance. I do not believe that there is a need for these amendments because the Government are absolutely committed to the provision of nursery education that meets the needs of all children. The statutory definition which the noble Lord suggests does not seem to us to be necessary.

Lord Northbourne: I accept what the noble Baroness says and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 241F not moved.]

Clause 110 agreed to.

Clause 111 [Duty of local education authority as respects availability of nursery education]:

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 241B:


Page 84, line 17, after ("education;") insert--
("( ) shall have regard to any facilities for providing education not supplied by the local education authority but which are or may become available within their area;
( ) shall ensure that in the provision of such education the ratio of children to adults does not exceed the maximum ratio set out in guidance to the Children Act 1989 or any subsequent guidance issued by the Secretary of State, and shall ensure that any requirements as to qualifications which are required by that guidance are complied with;
( ) shall have regard to the social and emotional needs of children in respect of class or group size and learning environment;
( ) shall have regard to the role of parent participation and involvement in such education;").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 241C to 241E. These amendments express my concern on three issues. The first is that there seems to be too little provision in the Bill for what the Children Act describes as children in need. I am not talking about children with special educational needs, although some children in need may well have special educational needs. Children in need often come from families which have not been able to give them the parental support they need in the pre-school years. Very often, they have poorly developed emotional maturity and social skills. They need special care. They need a high ratio of caring adults to children. They need small classes with freedom from bullying by other children. I do not find anything in the Bill which provides for that category of children.

My second concern is about partnership. The Government have expressed their desire to have a partnership with the independent and voluntary sector. It is not possible to have a partnership if the partnership is too unequal. There is already some evidence to suggest that local authorities are what I can only describe as "bullying" the independent and voluntary sector by not keeping them fully informed.

There are three risks involved. The first is that the rules and regulations which the Government provide for the private and independent sector as opposed to the state sector will produce a level playing field. There is a particular problem in that respect as regards

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inspection. In many areas today--for example, in old people's homes--the local authority is both the judge and the plaintiff in its own cause. Such authorities inspect their own homes, but they do not do so with the same rigour as applies when they inspect homes which are run by the voluntary and independent sector.

Secondly, there is what is called in business the "waste paper basket principle"; that is to say, you fill your own accommodation first and then, if you have any left over, you make it available to your clients. In some cases, I believe that local authorities are doing precisely that in regard to old people's homes. They keep their own homes full and they let the voluntary and independent sector take up the overflow. Those are areas where the Government need to be concerned.

Finally, there is the question of the involvement of parents. We all agree that the most important single factor in a child's success at school is the involvement and support of parents. That is particularly important in the pre-school years. Without that kind of support from parents, the Government's new and admirable strategies will fail some children. I argue that teachers should not operate in an ivory tower; indeed, they should be concerned to build on the love and trust of children for their parents and to secure the kind of educational outcomes which we all want to see. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford: I rise to express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We have reached an important part of the Bill which deals with the very formative years of children. Having three grandchildren aged five, three and nearly three, I well appreciate that needs vary between children. Therefore, I should like to go through some of what the noble Lord said.

There is one matter which worries me about the Bill at present. In her previous reply, the Minister indicated that the Government are giving thought to pupil-teacher relationships. If my understanding of the provision is correct--and the noble Baroness will no doubt correct me if I am wrong--if children go to a starter class in a mainstream school the ratio is not the same as that required for nursery education provided elsewhere. I believe that the ratio in respect of private nursery education or playgroups is one to eight, whereas it is one to 15 in state schools. Therefore, straight away one does not have a level playing field.

One of the concerns that has been expressed to me is that there is a much greater squeeze on the voluntary and smaller groups and, indeed, on private nursery education which is already being provided because more of the maintained schools now accept children at the age of four. Surely that is not right. When the matter was debated in the other place the Minister, Miss Morris, stated again that she really wished to see wide provision. I am sure that that is a view which is shared by all Members of the Committee. Indeed, we want to see a variety of provision because the needs of one four year-old are not the same as those of another four year-old. Yet, by the very nature of the current situation, I understand that a ratio of one to eight compared with one to 15 does not enable those concerned to provide the same kind of education provision.

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When the Minister replies, I should be most obliged if either he or she--I do not know which one it will be--could tell us a little more about the thinking behind this provision. It is most important that such provision should be diverse. The present provision should not be squeezed; and, indeed, we should be able to have playgroups and private nursery schools as well as entrance at the age of four to the maintained primary schools.

The noble Lord mentioned an interesting point. When I worked with WRVS we worked with old people and I had dealings with old people's homes. Perhaps it is not fair to the Minister to mention this matter as she is not briefed on it, but she may be able to comment on it. I was acutely aware of the strictures that were laid down with regard to the way in which private old people's homes were run and were inspected. I understand that in many cases local authority old people's homes were inspected by the local authority's own councillors. I am anxious to establish a level playing field in this regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned parental involvement. As a grandparent I believe that is extremely important. Involvement in a playgroup can comprise one of the child's parents not simply taking the child to the playgroup but becoming involved in its organisation. That makes a great contribution to the group. I fear that that kind of provision will be squeezed. I shall not lose that fear unless I receive some good reassurances from the Minister. I believe that in many cases the variety of provision that currently exists will be squeezed out of existence. I shall stop at this point but I reiterate my support for the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance on the issues that the noble Lord and I feel strongly about.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his efforts to persuade the Government to sort out the muddle of early years provision. I do not wish to be contentious at this time of night but I do not believe that the introduction of vouchers helped the situation. That was followed by a change of government. I support the Government as regards early years provision. They have said that they will make early years provision available for all four year-olds, and eventually for three year-olds. The Minister indicated that the Government are still undertaking consultation on that. For that reason it will probably be difficult to pursue this in any great depth tonight. However, we as a party support the provision of early years education for all three and four year-olds whose parents want them to take part in it.

I hope that the Minister can give us an inkling of the Government's proposals on this matter. However, I envisage problems for local education authorities in this regard. We have a large Bill before us and sometimes I wonder whether what we shall get out of it will correlate to the amount of discussion we have had on it. Schools and local education authorities want to know what will happen in this sector. When are the

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Government thinking of including three year-olds in this provision? Local education authorities and schools need to know that to be able to plan for the future.

Ministers in another place have clearly stated that they do not consider education for four year-olds to comprise merely accepting them into reception classes. However, that has happened. That may not be entirely this Government's fault, but it has happened. In the past year, that has resulted in some 800 community based pre-schools closing. People believe that another 1,500 may close in the future. Recently the pre-school alliance conducted a survey which showed a huge drop in the number of four year-olds attending pre-school groups. I hope that the Government will take those matters into account because I feel there is a real problem here. I believe that all of us have the same intention.

I hope that if nothing else comes out of the Bill we can try to sort this matter out. At an earlier stage I expressed sympathy with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the ratio of children to teachers in different early years education establishments. It is an awful muddle. When we consider that a child can one week attend what is termed a playgroup with a small ratio of children to staff and the very next week can attend an establishment where there is a much higher number of children per members of staff, it is crazy, and something ought to be done about it.

I appreciate that it is not easy. I shall be interested to know how the Minister sees the future, and whether we are likely to receive any indication before the next stage of the Bill. I can see the noble Baroness looking rather disappointed. This matter is important. The Minister may be able to give us some indication tonight. When I think of all the bits of schooling that we have at present, this is a mess. Everyone has now come to agree the importance of education in a child's early years, and the importance, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, of involving parents. That is where we set up the sort of relationships between schools, parents and children that can be fruitful in the future. It is not so easy with older children; this is where it starts. If we can engage parents at this stage, we shall do more for the future of our children than by any other provision.


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