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Column 406report. Will the Committee be set up and will funds be forthcoming? If funds are not forthcoming, the report has been a waste of time. 8.13 pm
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) who is a very active long -standing member of the Select Committee. I am grateful for his kind words about me and for the way in which he referred to the fact that the Select Committee was able to produce a unanimous report. Some hon. Members may wonder how we achieved that, but we managed it and I hope that that gives the report an authority which it would not otherwise have had.
I shall return to the hon. Gentleman's point about why there should be variations in the provision of education across the country. However, it is splendid for a Select Committee report to be debated within seven days of publication. Normally we wait for months, and then the report is not debated at all. Therefore, we should thank the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for tabling today's motion. It is admirable and encouraging that both sides of the House have welcomed the report. That is the correct response to the public mood, and I am delighted by it. The Opposition motion summarises the report and the Government amendment states their
"intention to secure the continuing growth of provision for the under fives in all its varied forms, and its commitment to improve quality."
The motion and the amendment are gratifying responses.
It is a pity that the hon. Members for Blackburn and for Hillsborough spoke as they did about which authorities provide most nursery education. At the very least they should have considered paragraphs 4.8, 4.9 and 4.10 of the report, which contain some very carefully written passages discussing why that should be so. The report makes the point that, over the years, it has generally been the case that the needs element in the rate support grant has provided additional funds for areas of greater need, as one would expect. That has been reinforced by the urban development programme. It was the stated intention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in her 1972 White Paper, that in the expansion which that White Paper planned, those areas with the greatest need should take priority. I consider that it was absolutely right that extra resources should go to the parts of the country where there are extreme needs, and it is absolutely logical that those areas should be able to achieve greater provision of nursery education. It is a bit rough on the shire counties which get very small amounts of rate support grant because there is more overall prosperity, but we have poor people as well as rich people and we do not get the central Government support that has enabled apparently poorer areas to provide more nursery education. Rather than condemning the shire counties for our forbearance, people should occasionally thank us for accepting that we should receive less rate support grant so that areas with greater need receive more. I hope that the hon. Member for Blackburn, who I know is quite serious about such matters, will have the goodness to read the report and acknowledge the force of what it says.
Column 407expenditure assessment for each local authority, there is a needs element for nursery provision. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that Labour local authorities use the money that is made available specifically for nursery provision, while Conservative authorities use it for something else?
Mr. Raison : I think that it varies. Very often, Conservative authorities have particular problems--for example, the population may be more dispersed. It is easier to provide nursery education in a concentrated urban area than in a scattered rural area. However, it remains the case that if an area receives extra money specifically to meet certain needs, it should be able to provide more to meet those needs than if it did not receive that money. I do not believe that anyone can dispute that. I am not suggesting that the pattern is consistent, because, as the report makes clear, policy choices are also involved, and some areas are more enthusiastic than others. But to ignore altogether the significance of what comes from central Government, as the hon. Member for Blackburn did, is to present a very misleading picture.
Mr. Straw : I have read the whole report. The right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) ignores the fact that, while it is true that social needs are recognised in the calculation of the rate support grant, certainly between 1983 and 1987 the target and penalty system had the impact of removing most, if not all, the rate support grant from those authorities which had the best record in nursery education. So the mechanism that the right hon. Gentleman describes, of money being targeted to local authorities, did not operate. Despite that, and despite real cuts in central funding for local authorities, particularly those authorities in social need, the amount spent on nursery education was increased as a result of local decisions.
Mr. Raison : It is also the case that the target system applied right across the board. My county of Buckinghamshire was affected by the target system. I accept that it had an impact. It was designed to have an impact on total local authority spending. I cannot deny that. As I have said, there has been a perfectly correct priority for needs. It is not surprising that the priority should have achieved the results that it was intended to achieve. I only wish that Opposition Members would not gripe about it. I wish that they would say thank you, to put it crudely.
That the Committee produced a unanimous report reflects its ecumenical approach. It is important that we have the kind of expansion that we called for in our report. It is necessary to state that social factors are a major part of that.
I was on the Plowden committee back in the 1960s when we looked at this matter. Except in terms of my own children growing up, I did not have a close professional interest in what was going on over the years, but when I looked carefully at the subject with the Select Committee, I was struck by the impact of several perfectly familiar
Column 408social changes. One inescapable fact is the increase in family breakdowns. We cannot get away from it. Illegitimacy figures, one-parent family figures and divorce figures have gone up. Those matters, which must worry all of us, constitute a significant argument for an increase in pre-school provision.
There is also greater isolation for many children. Nowadays, families are almost always smaller. Whereas, in days gone by, one might have had three, four or five brothers and sisters, statistically speaking one now has seven tenths of a brother or sister. In other words, there are fewer children around, particularly in a tower block on a housing estate or in a remote rural area. Let us not forget that side of the equation.
Coupled with that is another important problem, which is the way in which children, like everybody else, are becoming increasingly dependent on television for their experiences of life. It was pointed out to us in one local authority that the Committee visited that constant television watching can lead to a kind of cultural impoverishment, which some form of pre-school education is valuable in offsetting.
Another factor must be the enormous increase in the number of women at work and the number of women who would like to be at work. I can refer to one figure to illustrate that. According to the 1988 edition of "Social Trends",
"In Great Britain, the civilian labour force rose by 1.8 million people between 1971 and 1986 entirely because of an increase in the number of women in the labour force."
That is a dramatic social fact. It must make us think carefully about how to meet the perfectly legitimate needs of women at work. It covers not only what we were concerned with in the report, which is education, but wider matters concerning day care which we did not go into deeply.
We must respond by providing good under-five education. I do not say that all children under five should receive some form of institutional education ; some are not ready for it. It is a great mistake to push them into it if they are not ready. Nor--I emphasise this--should we make mothers feel inferior if they stay at home to look after their children. There is a real problem. Many mothers stay at home to look after their children, from choice or whatever reason, but they are so bombarded with propaganda about the importance of going to work and the fact that there should be more provision for those at work and so on that they are beginning to wonder whether they are occupying a legitimate role in society. We should not condemn a mother who chooses to stay at home and look after her children.
I have reservations about giving tax concessions to families in which the mothers and fathers are out at work because, by definition, they are getting two incomes, whereas, by definition, mothers who stay at home are not getting two incomes. It seems unjust that those with larger sums of money coming in should get tax concessions and that those with lesser sums coming in should not get them. Tax concessions may not be all that valuable for many poorer people, because they are not earning at the level at which they must pay tax. We should think carefully before we make any decisions.
I emphasise that I strongly support the availability and possibility of all three and four-year-olds to have nursery education, if their parents so wish.
Column 409That leads me to another overwhelming reason for an expanded programme. I refer to the ever-increasing quality and value of what can be provided at that age, leaving aside social factors, which are not the only consideration. I again refer to my own experience, going back to the Plowden days of the 1960s and what I have seen recently. Over the years there has developed an increase in the sheer professionalism and skill in education at its best. That is encouraging. I have been struck by a greater sense of rigour and direction in nursery classes. They have always been pleasant places and they have always been staffed by dedicated people. But, at their best today, they are capable of doing something of enormous value. That value is important to the child as it lives its life. The ages of three and four are just as important as any other ages. It is worth extracting as much as we can from them. Nursery education has a long- term impact on the development of the child through the years. It is difficult to prove that statistically. There are attempts to do so, and they are well worth studying, and, although we cannot state categorically that there is a proven, long-term case for it, there is a strong case for it. We talk about nursery classes, nursery schools and playgroups.
The Pre-school Playgroups Association has exaggerated its view of what was stated in the Select Committee report. Paragraph 7.31 states :
"We strongly support the place of the playgroup movement as part of this diversity."
I repeat, we strongly support it. We are not in any sense trying to denigrate what playgroups are doing. We are right to say that, in some cases, they could do with greater educational back-up. I hope that local authorities will be more willing to make available to playgroups the services of their under-five advisers. We were right also to say that, although we do not call for a general transfer of responsibility, it would make sense to transfer responsibility for playgroups from social services to education.
Mr. Harry Greenway : My right hon. Friend is making a most important point about the educational content of playgroups. Will he mention also the fact that the Select Committee was concerned about the need to produce a more even educational content in nursery provision?
Playgroups have characteristics of real value. They need more help, but it is eternally to their credit that, in particular, they have involved parents to a greater degree than was the case in years gone by. The statutory sector has learnt from the voluntary sector. Let not the PPA think that we are trying to run it down or do it out of existence. That is not the case.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, there is concern about the teaching of children aged four in primary school reception classes. I do not say that it is all bad or that teachers do not know what they are doing--it would be ridiculous to adopt that position. Nevertheless, there is anxiety about the extent to which teachers are trained or experienced in handling children of that age group as opposed to the higher age group. Sometimes there is anxiety about the child-staff ratio. Children who are just four require a ratio of 1 : 13, but often they do not find that in reception classes.
The ambience in primary school reception classes may be different from that in a good nursery class or good nursery school. There is general agreement about that. In the report, the Committee says that that is not an area in
Column 410which it wants to see expansion and it hopes that local authorities will be able, if they are expanding their provision, as we hope they will, to do so through nursery schools or ordinary nursery classes. The special problem is that parents are often so anxious that their children should--as they see it--get on with the three Rs that they want them to start at the earliest possible opportunity.
Sometimes, there has been a doctrinaire resistance to allowing three and four-year-olds to read at all. That is, obviously, ridiculous, but we do not want to ram into children of three and four knowledge and skills that are more appropriately picked up at five, six or seven. There is agreement about that in the educational world. One must occasionally be firm with parents although, in general, we respect the parents' importance generally in these matters. I now wish to deal with the crucial question of funding. What the report says is, in a sense, widely accepted. The argument now becomes one of how rapidly we can see it implemented. The Government have made it clear that they intend to expand the provision of nursery education and that they plan for a 5 per cent. increase in real terms between now and 1991. However, there is a problem--one always talks in terms of problems-- in that the numbers of children of nursery age are beginning to pick up.
The question is, therefore, how far the additional provision will have simply to deal with the additional children. The Government's position seems to be that they believe that, within the level of expansion that they talk about, it should be possible to accommodate the growth in the relevant age group and to have some improvement in the quality of provision as well, especially in reception classes. That is fine, but it is obviously the case that our report is asking for more than that. An essential part of the report is that we want to see an increase in planned public expenditure to allow the steady expansion that we have in mind. I understand--as the House does--the great pressures on the budget of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I believe, for example, that there is a powerful case for funding for science and research in our universities. The introduction of the curriculum will make substantial demands and we cannot duck those real and important needs in education. However, there is great difficulty.
That leads to the fact that we must obtain more for the educational budget as a whole from the Treasury. One can at least put it to the Treasury that, among the social services, education is almost uniquely an investment. People used to think that the Health Service was an investment, but one cannot look at it in those terms. Housing is a service and social security is a service, but a good education system will clearly lead to an ever stronger economy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should be in a strong position to obtain more over the years for the education budget.
If we consider the public expenditure cycle, we have already had the Autumn Statement and we shall have the White Paper in a few days' time. To expect the White Paper to be rewritten as a rapid response would be a bit optimistic. However, I hope emphatically that, when we come to the next public expenditure round and the next White Paper is published, we shall see not merely the maintenance of the level of improvement that the Government have promised, but a real surge forward. That is important, and public opinion as a whole is
Column 411strongly in favour of that, for the reasons I have mentioned. As I said when I introduced the report a few days ago, this is a need whose hour has come. We look forward to the Government ensuring that that need can be properly and realistically recognised.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Order. I know that the Front Bench hopes to catch my eye at 9.30 pm, so time is short. I hope that hon. Members will help each other by making short speeches. 8.25 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I am grateful to have the chance to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee. He and his colleagues have done an excellent piece of work, which carries the authority of having unanimous agreement in the Committee. I imagine that, as the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) commented, it is a unique event that we should be debating a Select Committee report so soon after its publication.
The motion and the amendment are especially interesting. The Labour party's motion, which I and my colleagues will support, makes it clear that it wants the Select Committee's recommendations to be implemented. The Committee does not mince its words and it makes it clear that it is important for our nation and for young people that there is an expansion in nursery education. It also says that such nursery provision requires considerably more money to be spent. It is an investment in the future which needs to be initiated soon. The Government amendment is entirely hollow. It merely comments that the report is good and recognises that the Government have done something--as they inevitably would and should. But it does not say that they will do anything to implement the Select Committee's recommendations.
There are further worrying signs, because, as the statistics in the report make clear, the expansion that was considered to be necessary in 1972-73 has not happened. Paragraph 4.3 says :
"the objectives laid down in the 1972 White Paper have not been achieved."
The announcement by the Secretary of State that a Committee will be set up is, on the face of it, welcome, but it may be dangerous. It is a well-known Government trick to respond to a Select Committee and to other proposals by setting up a committee that will deliberate for sufficiently long that no decisions can be taken for a long time because the Government will say that everything is being considered. If we are to have increased spending commitments in 1990, which is the first realistically achievable opportunity, any committee must come to conclusions quickly. Otherwise, just at the time when local authorities are feeling the strain because of the implementation of the poll tax in England and Wales, they will not be able to do their part to ensure the expansion of the budget that is necessary for pre-school education and child care. We need to sound a warning about that and to point out the need for a strong and urgent commitment from the Government.
The right hon. Member for Aylesbury has, I hope, allayed the fears of those who are professionally interested in playgroups. He has made well the point that the Select Committee envisages the continuance of diversity. The
Column 412statistics in the report make it clear that up to now playgroups have formed the largest group of provision. Table 1 shows that 409, 000 children attended playgroups in 1985. The next most sizeable group, in nursery classes and schools, was 267,000. There are no foreseeable circumstances in which playgroups will not continue to play a major part. The liaison between the voluntary and statutory sectors and the extended sector that nursery education should form seems to be fundamental. Playgroups must be supported and increasingly supplied with trained people to work in them. Qualified nursery nurses are one category of professional that should be expanded.
The points made by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury about expenditure must be listened to. Over the years, certain local authorities have been funded specifically to meet the need. Avon, for example, where power is shared between Labour and my colleagues, spent on under-fives about £8 million over the grant-related expenditure assessment figure of £3.6 million. It spent a lot more than it was given to spend, but it is still in the lower half of the list of provision. How much local authorities have as the base from which they start depends on the allocation by central Government. Simply looking at the provision and attributing fault or credit to the local authorities is insufficient analysis. We must look at such matters accurately and then consider the commitments of local and central Government.
Another issue that has been alluded to but not developed is that, as we know, one of the Government's expenditure commitments will be the national curriculum and one of the implications of the national curriculum is that schools will assess youngsters aged seven, of whom some will have been at school earlier than others and some will have received nursery provision. I hope that the way in which those children are assessed will take into account the unevenness of the present education provisions. The Select Committee report makes it clear that there is a range of provision from almost nothing in some areas of the country to substantial provision in other areas. Of course, one must select priorities and the Secretary of State and his colleagues will have to do that as they consider the report. However, I hope that they will not only make it a priority that they argue for and, I hope, achieve more funding but that they will then decide where that money should go. I would argue first that there should be funding for local authorities to enable them to co-ordinate public and voluntary efforts and so that they can secure the availability of part-time care provision for all three-year-olds and full-time provision for all four-year -olds within, say, three years. Secondly, I suggest that we build on the present public and voluntary provisions for three and four-year-olds and commit the money to secure the educational content of that provision--a point made by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury--with the aim of securing nursery provision with properly trained staff for all three and four-year- olds by the late 1990s. We must keep up the momentum, and the statistics, which are well set out in the report, show that we have slipped.
I should like to refer to just one more issue and shall do so by way of example. The right hon. Member for Aylesbury rightly quoted the reasons why nursery education is especially important, and referred specifically to the social reasons. It is true and significant that there is an increasing number of isolated children and isolated
Column 413families, including isolated one-parent families, and that fact contributes to the greater need of those families for the sort of provision that the report recommends.
The social context now is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Those of us who represent areas such as inner London are forced to observe that things are not only getting worse but that children are substantially at risk. The Inner London education authority has done relatively well as an education authority, yet it is in the lower half of the Labour party's table of nursery education provision, even though it has always been under Labour control. It is to be abolished in 1990 and its education functions are to be transferred to boroughs, such as my own of Southwark and others.
The report makes the point that the co-ordination of functions between authorities needs to be substantially improved. At the end of December two parents, a mother and a stepfather, were convicted at the Old Bailey of the manslaughter of their 16-month-old child. That case was widely reported. The child was Doreen Mason Aston who came from Southwark. She had been the responsibility of various agencies, authorities and departments and of different borough and district councils for all of her 16 months. Those bodies had wilfully neglected to come to her rescue. Her life came to an end because there was no proper co-ordination between the agencies caring for children.
The Labour motion calls on the Government
"to improve coordination between government and local authority departments."
One way to do that is by knowing what is happening. Like all institutions of the House, the Select Committee is commendable because it is a public body which reports in public and makes sure that we all know what it thinks. However, there is a worrying trend that in central and local government things are kept quiet. The only way we shall be able to judge what Government Departments do and what local authorities do is if, when they are inspected, monitored and assessed, the results become public information.
I am restrained tonight from commenting on the documents in the Doreen Mason Aston case, although I have read them because the local council went to court and took out an injunction based on the "Spycatcher" principle preventing the press from publishing details of the case. That is a restriction on the right of the public and those in both central and local government to be able to judge what goes wrong when agencies caring for children do not co-ordinate their services.
In London, which I know better than other places, the social services departments and the other agencies, including education authorities, that work with and for children are in crisis. They are underfunded and are not co-ordinating their work properly. Unless we correct that trend and unless we can deal with social pressures in the inner city through substantial funding and substantially better monitoring and co-ordination, we will not be caring for our under-fives because they will not be entering the compulsory education system able to develop properly as rounded children. The Select Committee report gives us the launch pad for the debate. Our objectives should be that children are cared for, first by their family, but by their community if their family cannot do it. Education provision should be provided for them as early as possible. We lag behind other European countries in this and, sad to say, have made little
Column 414progress in recent years. I hope that today will mark a change in that tradition and that we shall expose those things that are hidden at present which prevent us from knowing how severe a problem we have.
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will forgive me if I do not pursue his arguments too closely. I suppose that Conservative Members should see the Opposition motion as something of a backhanded compliment about the way in which the Government are managing the economy. Clearly, the Opposition have much higher expectations of this Government than they had of theirs between 1974 and 1979. My reason for saying that is that real term spending on the under-fives has increased by some 35 per cent. since 1979-80 and is planned to increase by a further 15 per cent. between 1986- 87 and 1989-90. I have to repeat the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) asked Opposition Members earlier : if they felt so strongly about pre-school education, why did they not do more about it when they were in government? The answer, I suspect, is that they allowed the economy to get into such a complete shambles that they were unable to fund any expansion anywhere, let alone for the under-fives.
Fortunately, the present Government through their careful management of the economy have funds and I am pleased that, as my right hon. Friend said, there has been a substantial increase of about 100,000 pupils under five in nursery and primary schools--an increase of about 25 per cent. in eight years. The lectures to which we have listened from Opposition Members would be rather more acceptable if their record was not so appalling in this, as in so many other areas of education.
The House will recall that it is not a statutory requirement on local education authorities to provide education for children under five. The view taken by this side of the House is that local education authorities should be able to decide for themselves the degree of priority which they should give to that part of the education scene.
Again, it is important to remember that in this country we seek to provide as wide a choice as possible to parents, and some parents will undoubtedly decide that playgroups are the best answer for their children, and I find it significant that they provide a facility for about 40 per cent. of four- year-olds.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : On the basis of the provision tables, it would appear that the Conservative authorities give least priority to nursery provision for the under-fives. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that in the county of Gloucester there is not a nursery school place for any child under five?
Mr. Pawsey : With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he clearly did not listen to the answers which were given to similar questions by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. However, I must say to the hon. Gentleman that those authorities must respond to the democratic principle, just as we must in this House. They must reply to their electorate through the ballot box. If the electorate do not like the way in which those authorities run the education scene, the answer is clear.
Column 415I acknowledge, however, that, as the economy continues to improve and as unemployment continues to fall, so more mothers are being encouraged to take up and, indeed, are taking up employment. The corollary of that is that they require their child to be cared for and looked after when they are at work. That is why I welcome--it would be good to hear Opposition Members also welcoming it--the further cash increase this year of £139 million, which brings the total spending on the under-fives to well over half a billion pounds--some £536 million.
However, I should like to strike a gentle note of caution. While I understand the pressures on mothers to go out to work, they will be aware of their unique importance to young children. I acknowledge the point made on this matter by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. It appears to me that the family still remains the best nursery for children. Children can learn so much from caring parents. One of the matters which causes me special concern is the fact that when I visit schools I discover that some children must be taught--even in primary school reception classes--certain basic matters, such as simple and elementary conversation. I would therefore like to see more head teachers advising parents of the standards which are expected when a child actually starts school.
No one expects any great knowledge or ability from a rising five-year-old, but I hear too often from teachers that parents are increasingly prepared to pass more and more responsibility for their children's education on to the school and on to the classroom teacher. I hear too often that parents are prepared to leave their child in front of the television set. Indeed, television appears to be becoming some form of electric childminder to the great disadvantage of young children, which is a further point that was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. One cannot stress enough the importance of encouraging parents to talk with their children, to answer their questions and to encourage the growth and development of their young minds.
I referred earlier to working mothers, and I must say that there appears to be a substantial element of responsibility on an employer--rather than just on the local education authority and the state--to make adequate provision for children. Clearly, the employer is deriving some form of commercial advantage from mothers working and I can see no reason therefore why an employer should not shoulder a greater burden of the involvement in caring for the child of a working mother.
Mr. Malcolm Thornton (Crosby) : We would all agree with my hon. Friend's comments, especially those of us who were able to study the American system of employer provision. Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that there is a problem in this respect because, if employers provide facilities for their employees' children, those facilities are taxed as benefits in kind, which is in fact a disincentive?
Mr. Pawsey : I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend is driving at. Perhaps it is a matter to which we should give further consideration. As I said earlier, the employer should carry a little more of the burden than he does presently. The giving of certain tax incentives may be a way of achieving my hon. Friend's objective.
Column 416The report of the Select Committee is most comprehensive. I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and the other members of the Select Committee, because they have clearly produced a painstaking report. They examined witnesses in depth. Undoubtedly, the report will be considered by the Government during the months ahead.
I noted what the Select Committee said under the heading "Conclusions and Recommendations". It said :
"There are many good playgroups and day nurseries, but in many there is scope for giving greater emphasis to education objectives." I must say to my right hon. Friend and other members of the Select Committee that, with the introduction of the national curriculum, one hopes that there will be a little less emphasis on play and rather more emphasis on learning.
I am not entirely certain that I agree with the Select Committee when it says in its report :
"It should be the objective of both central and local Government to ensure the steady expansion of provision of nursery education until it is available for all three and four year old children whose parents desire it for them."
I feel that three is a little early. I know that my right hon. Friend might quote the example of John Stuart Mill, who at the age of three was, in fact, being brought up on classical Greek. However, I put it to him that there are not many in that position. I am a little doubtful, therefore, about the effectiveness of anything resembling a structured education for three-year-olds. It is significant that in France only 14 per cent. of the three to five-year-olds have full-time education. By comparison, in this country, it is 47 per cent., with, I suspect, the majority of them falling into the four rather than the three-year-old category.
Mr. Pawsey : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying that point. None the less, I am apprehensive about three-year-olds even enjoying part-time education to the degree to which perhaps my right hon. Friend has implied in the report.
Elsewhere in the report the Select Committee says that
"the number of places specifically for the initial training of early years teachers should be further increased."
I am entirely in agreement with that laudable objective. For too long education of the very young has been regarded as a not especially important job. I happen to believe the reverse and that to cater for young children in nursery or reception classes is a demanding job, calling for enormous patience. I certainly support the Select Committee in its encouragement to the training colleges to ensure that students cover the entire age range of the course. In taking note of the Opposition's appalling record in this sector, I believe that this motion is completely mischievous and deserves to be soundly defeated.
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for following my career with such profound attention. I cannot for the life of me remember what he was doing 13 years ago, and if anybody in 13 years' time can look back and remind us what he was doing tonight I shall be surprised.
Column 417I am grateful to the Secretary of State for reminding me that I resigned from the Labour Government over their failure to expand nursery education. I am also grateful to one or two newer hon. Members who have come up to me this evening and said, "My God, did you actually resign?" That may have elevated me a little in the annals of Parliament and in my own party. But I am not the slightest bit embarrassed. My resignation may have been the catalyst a year or two later which encouraged the Labour Government to expand nursery education, as they did, before the 1979 election. One has to take a stand. If someone in the DES were to take it upon himself to resign now we may see an expansion in nursery education.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its report. I agree with most of what the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said, so I shall not repeat it except to remind him that he and I go back a long way in the battle for pre-school education. My regret is that so much of what is in the report has been said repeatedly over the years, yet a large number of our pre-school children still do not receive the stimulation or the facilities that they should receive. Education is basically about curiosity, as every good educationist knows. A good educationist has the technique to harness that curiosity, to stimulate it and to apply it in a learning situation. Children are at their most curious between the ages of two and five. Those are the golden years of learning and development. How we treat children during that period of their lives, how we develop their attitudes to learning and to the world around them, can and does have a profound effect upon their later progress and what they do when they enter the education system. That is the educational case for the pre-school child. That has always been the education case for the pre-school child.
It is a matter for great concern that in Britain we have a school starting age of five. Many children do not start school even then--many have had no pre-school experience. As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) pointed out, many children arrive in school unable to look after themselves in fundamental ways. However, it is no good saying that the parents should be told to do this or that. That is where we may differ. In my area Salford is top of the pops for nursery education. That is no credit to the Government, but to Salford. Salford has made that provision, not the Government.
Salford has expanded nursery education because of the need for pre-school experience for our children.
The Secretary of State's figures included a variety of provision, much of which is not funded by the Government. Twenty-one years ago almost to the day, I believe in April--we are having a bit of history tonight--there was the first ever lobby of Parliament by the under-fives for more pre-school education.
Before that, in the early 1960s when the Tory Government were in power, the pre-school playgroup
Column 418movement was formed. I have always supported that movement. I did so long before many hon. Members recognised its value. It came into being because of the lack of nursery school provision in Britain. Whatever contribution it has made since then in a variety of provision that we all welcome, it came into being because of the lack of provision under the Tory Government in the early 1960s.
Miss Lestor : Yes. I am not saying that it was not. I am saying that the playgroup movement came into existence because of the lack of nursery education under the Tory Government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. People can look that up for themselves.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on departmental confusion over provision for the under-fives. That has always existed. There has always been confusion between health and education. There is a sort of apartheid, which is worrying, where children who--to use the phrase loosely--may be considered priority cases or deprived tend to go in one section, while children living in different types of area go into another section. Somehow the two must be married. Nursery centre developments in which people from the DES and the National Nursery Examination Board have joined together have resulted in the sort of provision that is necessary for the development of young children.
The report--in this it was supported by the Secretary of State--also criticised taking four-year-old children into primary schools in which there is no proper pre-school equipment or the standard of nursery-school ratio that we want. Too often children are confused and not given the stimulation required for the age group to which they belong. I am glad that this fact has been recognised. Many of us have said for a long time that it should be.
I am apprehensive about the report's ideas that we must start somewhere. Of course, for many years we have been saying that priority should be given to children in high risk categories until more resources are available. But it depends what is meant by priority. There are children at risk, children who fall between two stools, children trapped in high-rise flats and children in bed and breakfast accommodation. Most of them have no pre-school experience and need it desperately. There are bored children, lively children, highly active children, lonely children, isolated children of working mothers. I congratulate the Daily Mirror on the valuable campaign that it is waging in this last respect. All our children need pre-school experience and a variety of pre-school facilities must be made available. It is not right to pick out one category of children and say that they need the experience more than any other. The table clearly shows the lack of provision by local authorities in some of the rural and more isolated areas of the country, which is where the need is often greatest. Children are isolated ; the gaps between houses and areas are wide, and that is where provision is needed. Children there are at risk and isolated.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey spoke of a child who fell between various Departments and was picked up by some. That has happened before. Abused children who have recently been in the news, some