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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, will the noble Baroness confirm that the only way in which school governors can get back the money stopped from the local education authority budget is by parents filling in the vouchers? The vouchers leave no choice; the schools are left short of money.
Baroness Young: My Lords, we are not simply recycling money, as the noble Baroness has said. A great deal more money is going into the scheme generally. Therefore, many children will benefit from the scheme who do not benefit at present.
One of the many things said about the scheme to frighten parents is, "There will be no extra money; you will be told where you have to go; money will be withdrawn". There has been this extraordinary analogy with GPs. The truth of the matter is that the health Acts lay down that everyone shall have the opportunity to go to a GP. That situation is completely different from the provisions of education Acts which have never required that pre-school children have to have an education. We are not talking about similar situations. It is said to frighten parents. It is a very serious situation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, shakes her head. I have been in local government. I know a lot about what goes on in local government today. I can tell the noble Baroness that many Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities set out to frighten parents about grant-maintained schools. I do not have the slightest doubt that they set out to frighten parents about this scheme. It is rather patronising for the Front Benches opposite to tell parents that they are unable to make up their own minds. Most parents are quite capable of making their own decisions.
It would be a great mistake for the Government to accept the amendment. It would introduce, I believe for the first time, a provision which is quite separate from other education Acts which have applied equally to England and Wales. Four year-olds living in Wales would not have the same opportunities that would be enjoyed by four year-olds in England. For that reason, among the many that I have given, I hope that the Government will not accept the amendment.
Lord Hooson: My Lords, will the noble Baroness, Lady Young, deal with this point? I believe that the argument may be slightly misleading. If she were speaking generally of England and Wales, it may well be that more money is available. However, 92 per cent. of children between four and five years in Wales receive so-called nursery education. Of those, 79 per cent. are in full-time education. The provision for vouchers is for only part-time education. Many of the schools in Wales are in rural areas with small numbers. Therefore vouchers even for part-time education may not provide the money. That is the fear in Wales.
The theory may be all right in England where one has a much greater leeway to make up. But in Wales where 92 per cent. of those children already receive such education the genuine fear of parents is that the money will simply not be available.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I am sure that this point will be dealt with by my noble friend the Minister. However, there is no question that the education currently provided would be removed from children. I should have to have that confirmed but it is not my understanding of the way the scheme would operate.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, before my noble friend on the Front Bench replies, will the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, take on board this fact: until the Government started taking parental choice seriously there were up to one million spare places in the state system of education. The noble Baroness talks about the comparatively small sum of money which she claims will be wasted in administration of the scheme. From the evidence I have so far heard, I doubt it. Perhaps the Benches opposite should consider the colossal savings that are starting to be made by giving parents the choice that this scheme provides. I urge my noble friend not to accept the amendment.
Lord Henley: My Lords, as we made clear at an earlier stage, there have been no pilot schemes in Wales because, quite simply, no local authorities in Wales applied for the benefits of that pilot scheme and thus denied their children the possibilities of bringing choice and benefit to Wales.
Perhaps I may put the figures straight. Some 90 per cent. of parents have applied for vouchers, with an impressive 97 per cent. in Norfolk and 95 per cent. in Wandsworth. So far some 83 per cent. of those vouchers have been returned and more continue to come in. We do not expect them all to be redeemed. In some areas, in London in particular, parents may take their children to school outside the phase 1 areas, in which case they will be unable to use their vouchers during phase 1. The value of the as yet unredeemed vouchers is nowhere near £2.75 million. The party opposite simply cannot get its sums right.
Let us turn our attention to the amendment. First, it is almost a re-run of the debate at Committee stage when the noble Lord and others sought to delay the introduction of the voucher scheme in Wales until there had been a pilot phase. I accept that the noble Lord has slightly amended his proposals by suggesting that the experimental schemes, as they are called, should be restricted to high providing authorities. However, I believe that the arguments remain the same as those on which the Committee made a clear decision some three weeks ago.
Of course I recognise the concerns of noble Lords opposite and of others in Wales that the quality of provision for all should not be prejudiced; and that certain aspects of provision in Wales differ from those in England. Noble Lords opposite know that the Welsh Office has already taken steps to ensure that the Welsh dimension is being taken fully into account and has made specific arrangements to meet the particular circumstances and needs of Wales--such as the method of transferring resources from local authorities which was previously commended by certain noble Lords. The Welsh Office has sought advice from the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales--the equivalent of SCAA--on what should be the desirable outcomes of provision for four year-olds under the voucher scheme. The advice of the authority has been accepted by the Secretary of State for Wales.
The Welsh Office has done much in recent years to promote and protect the development of the Welsh language and of Welsh medium education. Only yesterday my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Welsh Office announced funding for the expansion of a Welsh medium secondary school in Cardiff under the popular schools initiative. I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, referred to the meeting he had with my honourable friends in the Welsh Office. I am sure that if my honourable friends have offered further meetings, the noble Lord will take them up.
The Welsh Office is committed to monitoring the implementation of the voucher scheme in Wales. It will do so in consultation with local authorities, the voluntary sector, the independent sector and, of course, the inspectorate. It will happily involve the Welsh Joint Education Committee in the consultation. It will have particular regard to the maintenance of quality of education for four year-olds across the whole of Wales and to the position of the Welsh language. It will be concerned to ensure that any aspect of the voucher scheme which is not working as it should will be reviewed and possibly modified. I can give an assurance to the House that the Bill provides for the detailed operation of the scheme to be governed by both regulations and arrangements. The regulations and arrangements are made by the relevant Secretary of State. If need be, therefore, separate regulations and arrangements can be made for England and Wales. It is always possible that the detail of the scheme in Wales could be amended by modifications to the regulations or arrangements setting out detailed implementation of the scheme made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales as opposed to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I can also give an assurance that implementation of the scheme in Wales will be kept under continual review by colleagues in the Welsh Office.
In Wales, as in England, we want to ensure that all four year-olds whose parents want them to receive education will have access to a place for the full three terms. I know that noble Lords mentioned the much higher percentage of nursery provision in Wales, but it is not happening in all areas of Wales at the moment. The Government believe that the provision of education for four year-olds should not be the sole preserve of the local authority sector. It is not their sole preserve in the education of compulsory school age pupils. There is a thriving independent sector and grant-maintained schools have broken away from local authority control. They too are thriving. We in the Government believe that parents should be given the choice. We are prepared to let them decide what they want for their children, rather than the local authority. The proposed
I believe that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord would mean yet further delay. I trust that noble Lords will not seek to deny that choice to parents in Wales. In the light of my assurances about the intention of the Welsh Office to keep the implementation of the scheme under close review, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
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