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Baroness Young: I too want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for writing to me about the purpose of his amendments. I read his letter with great interest. However, I must tell him that I cannot support these amendments. In effect, he and his colleagues are saying that they want to delay the introduction of the scheme for a year. They have adduced a number of arguments for doing so. But, although my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said that this amendment is not a wrecking amendment, anybody reading the amendments and those which follow from them subsequently will recognise that that is exactly what it is.
I find it absolutely astonishing. I believe I can honestly say that I have taken part in every single education Bill that has come before this Chamber, certainly since 1979, if not since 1971 when I first entered this Chamber. There has hardly been a time when there has not been a plea for nursery education. from all parts of the Chamber. There has been no need--as the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, said--for all kinds of evidence to tell us that it is a good thing. Everybody has agreed that it is a good thing. What prevented it being done, by either my own party or the Labour Party when the Labour Government were in office in the 1970s, was the cost of the scheme. That is what prevented it. Nobody disagreed with the principle.
Now there is a scheme before us which will provide nursery education. But, instead of an acceptance that it is something which will help thousands of children from one end of the country to another, there is a proposal to delay it. We are told that we should find out more information about what is going on, as though somehow there were not any nursery schools in the country at large either in the maintained or the independent sector. But of course they have been in existence in most education authorities for years and operating very successfully.
Lord Morris of Castle Morris: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I should perhaps state that I did not say precisely what she said I said. I said that, in the event of a Labour Government coming to power, we would honour the existing issued vouchers, but we would issue no more. That does not mean that in the four pilot boroughs the scheme would go on for ever; we would simply issue no more vouchers.
Baroness Young: I apologise to the noble Lord if I misunderstood him and of course I withdraw my remarks. The fact remains that, even though the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, says that today, we all know that the Labour Party--I believe he is speaking for New Labour--has changed its mind on virtually every single educational issue and it will only be a matter of time before it changes its mind on this.
I never thought that I would live to see the day when the Leader of the Labour Party would support streaming and setting in schools. I find that an astonishing statement, as someone who served on a local education authority and has been an education Minister. It has changed its mind on many other matters and it will change its mind on this one.
Lord Morris of Castle Morris: I must once again correct the noble Baroness. The Labour Party has not supported streaming; it has supported setting. They are entirely different things, as anyone who has either experienced them or taught in schools will know. The difference between them is distinct. What is more, the noble Baroness is right in saying that a lot of this has gone on for some time. Setting is something which my children went through between the ages of seven and 11, and that was a very long time ago.
Baroness Young: I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I had not finished speaking. Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I am delighted that his children were in classes that were set. I have no doubt that they did extremely well in school and they will be grateful for something of which he can be justly proud.
However, the noble Lord knows as well as I do--I know the difference between streaming and setting--that the problem arises when one has to decide in a school who is to be set and what are the criteria. Like so many things said by New Labour, all the small print is left unsaid and people are left with a vague idea that the kind of things they have wanted for a long time will come to pass.
To return to the Bill, it is extraordinary that all those who for so long supported nursery education should be against this Bill. Nursery vouchers give responsibility to the parents. That is something I thought we all wanted to see--people taking a greater interest in their children's education; parents taking part in the decision-making. What is so immensely encouraging about the four schemes in operation is that 80 per cent. of the parents in the four areas have now applied for vouchers. That is a tremendous proportion of parents seeking vouchers. We all accept that not every parent wants their child to go to a nursery, and that is their free choice. It shows that the scheme is immensely popular.
We also heard from the Pre-School Learning Alliance that over 94 per cent. of pre-schools have registered for vouchers and 80 per cent. believe that parents value the vouchers. I am sure that those facts are right. It is an opportunity, as a parent, to choose with the voucher where one will send one's child for nursery education. It is an opportunity for there to be an expansion of nursery education, which we all want to see and which I should have thought would be widely welcomed.
I received a letter, as I am sure did many other noble Lords, from the leader of Wandsworth council making it quite clear that this particular scheme is extremely popular with parents. It has been widely accepted, with a great many schools, including voluntary-aided Church schools, now considering adding nursery departments to their schools. I should have thought that all that was to be welcomed. What would be gained by putting the scheme off for a year? We have the information. It is not as though we are deciding to introduce nursery schools for the first time.
Lord Ogmore: Perhaps I can interrupt the noble Baroness and make a point about universal acclamation for nursery vouchers. I received correspondence through the post from various constituents throughout the country and from Wales who are adamant about the nursery voucher scheme. They want at least to delay it or want a pilot scheme before going into it. They are concerned at the detrimental effect it will have on very young children.
Baroness Young: The noble Lord is raising a point which comes up on a subsequent amendment in relation to elections for those schools. I will give the noble Lord an opportunity to come back if he would like to, but I should like to answer his question.
The whole point is that, as we discovered with grant-maintained schools, which are immensely popular with parents, many people--I regret to say within the educational establishment and educational authorities--have moved heaven and earth to prevent parents voting for their schools to go grant-maintained. I could quote
I received a great deal of briefing and it is easy to see from where it all came. We must recognise that where the schemes are in operation, 80 per cent. of parents are taking up the offer of vouchers. That should make everybody think. I have been a long time in politics. If I thought that every policy had the support of 80 per cent. of the people, I would be extremely pleased, as would anybody in politics. That is a very good measure.
With this series of amendments we put at risk--I do not doubt the sincerity of those supporting them--delaying the scheme for a year for no measurable value. We shall find out something from the way in which the scheme is operating and in the course of time, as my noble friend Lord Campbell pointed out, changes will be made to make it more effective and more responsive. Nothing is perfect first time round. I have no doubt that we shall learn from the four pilot schemes. The idea of waiting for another year for something of which we have a great deal of experience seems to me to be a terrible waste of time.
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