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Column 419of whom have died at the hands of inadequate parents, have often not had the opportunity of a pre-school education, or been caught up in any organised form of education. If the facilities had been available to offer them that, it would have helped us to spot the children who are suffering and in need.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : It is difficult to disagree with much that was said by the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). Her record with under-fives is distinguished, but I want to pick up one point that she made, which links in with the report, which I wholly support.
I refer to the position of three and four-year-olds in primary schools. It is absolutely right, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) and the hon. Member for Eccles said, that such children should not be absorbed into primary schools and into the main stream of five-plus education. However, I hope to carry all hon. Members with me when I say that it must be possible in a time of falling rolls in primary schools, when there is plenty of room for expansion in the number of places for children, for many three and four-year-olds to go into primary schools because the space is not taken up by five-plus-year-olds. But each nursery unit in a primary school must be separate. It should have a separate head and be separately run. That is where we have been going wrong. Our report would have been better if we had stressed the need for heads of nursery units, both in primary schools and in separate units. That would be valuable for the teaching profession because it would increase the opportunity of senior posts for people looking after the under-fives.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury mentioned those who told the Select Committee that children who do not receive education below the age of five are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. I agree with that, although it is not necessary for such children to be educated in nursery units or pre-school playgroups. If children have not received an education from their mothers, or in some other way when under five, they are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. That is why the report is so important. We say that the state should provide a back-up for all children whose mothers cannot perform, or do not want, this role, or whose parents do not have the resources to make provision for them. That must be part of the state's role, and that is why I am a keen supporter of the report. I have known the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for over 20 years and I am sorry that he did not make the case on education and social grounds. I understand his need to put the political case, but I urge him to stress the education and social needs of the under-fives. I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider what the Select Committee saw in the United States. There, we learnt that 57 per cent. of all mothers with a child below the age of a year are out at work--a huge figure. In this country, the equivalent figure is 27 per cent. In the United States we saw children from the age of a fortnight in nurseries or some form of pre-school provision. That is horrendous but one day we shall have to face it.
Column 420In some areas of the United States the provision for the under-fives is not ambitious enough. The fresh start programme, which has been commended throughout the world, sought, as its basic aim, to give all under-sixes self esteem. That is tremendously important because so much grows from it, but much more than that could be done. For example, the way that children learn to socialise, have good conversations with one another and with adults, and learn to read and write, all depend on their ability and drive. I commend self esteem as a good start, but we must do more.
For the report, the motion and the amendment to say that all parents of three and four-year-olds should have the opportunity of nursery education if they want it suggests to parents that they should want education for children below the age of five and that if they do not they are failing them. That is not to say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said, that they would be failing them if they did not place them in nursery schools or pre-school playgroups. The diversity of provisions that we have means that there are so many valuable provisions for the under-fives that parents who do not place their children in some form of pre-school facility or who do not look after them and educate them in their own homes will be failing them for life.
It would be wrong to advocate compulsion. It has been suggested in this debate that perhaps there should be compulsory education for children of three years upwards. That would be wrong. The existing system is most likely to lead to well-motivated education for children below the age of five and well-motivated parental interest. The motivation of parents and children throughout education is of the highest importance.
The report, which has been so fully debated, brings out the fact that we need to look much more for an even education provision for the under-fives because there is no broad acceptance of what society is seeking to do with children of that age. In some places they play about with water and sand-- and there is nothing wrong with that--while in other areas they are pressed to learn to read and write, and that can be stressful to little children. In other areas none of those things is provided. As I have said, in the United States they are content to go simply for self-esteem and ignore some of the other learning skills that could be developed.
The most important education aspect of the report presses for each local authority to be asked to produce a report on what is best practice in its area. That would be done as a means of seeking to influence people in its own area, and in other areas, to do well for everyone that which is best done in some places. That is of the highest importance and great stress should be placed upon it. As the hon. Member for Eccles and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we need to underline again and again the urgent social need for education for the under-fives. Many of us have experience in our constituency surgeries of mothers, girls of 16 to 19 and sometimes outside that age range, coming to see us. They are girls whose partner has left them or who are unmarried and struggling to bring up children on their own. Those young women are not able to give their children the education background that they need and often they are not able to give them the right sort of social background. Many of them certainly have financial difficulties. Society must step in to help children whose mothers are so hard pressed.
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Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : When nursery education is discussed there is always an abundance of good will about the idea of increasing the number of nursery places. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is little evidence of financial commitment by the Government to enable that expansion to take place. The idea of expanding nursery education has been talked about for years without any appropriate action being taken, and the meagre Government provision is under threat from further cuts in spending and must be protected.
We must always understand that the provision that exists is no thanks to the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, the Education Act 1980 required local education authorities to provide nursery education, but that requirement was removed to allow Oxfordshire to savage its nursery provision. So much for the Prime Minister's so-called commitment. The top 20 providers of nursery education are all Labour-controlled local education authorities. If it had not been for such authorities nursery provision would be negligible.
I have great respect for the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Raison), and admire the way in which he handled the Committee and the report. However, despite what he says, every local education authority gets some recognition in its grant-related expenditure assessment of the need to spend money on nursery education. That need is defined by reference to the numbers of children under five and the social conditions. While Labour authorities spend that money on nursery provision, Conservative authorities spend it in other ways. It is audacious for the Government to claim any credit for increased provision or for education spending in general. The Government's audacity takes some beating.
Government spending on education has been cut by about 18 per cent. since 1979. The national increase is due to the efforts of Labour local authorities, who have funded it by increasing rates to compensate for Government cuts. The Government's downright dishonesty is disgraceful. They claim credit for increased expenditure, but have penalised many education authorities for spending more. That must be the height of hypocrisy.
Putting financial considerations aside, why has nursery education been relegated to the bottom of the league table? I believe that it is because parents, and the public in general, are not sufficiently aware of the importance of nursery provision and have no long-term commitment to it, even though it is special and more urgently needed than ever before. Nursery education is not a child minding service ; it plays a crucial role in a child's ability to benefit fully from later educational opportunities. It helps form a positive attitude towards the child's future education. Plowden, Bullock and Warnock are among those who stress their conviction that nursery education is important and desirable, yet the hoped-for expansion has yet to be realised.
There is now the Select Committee's report to consider. Will we hear the same old story about lack of resources? Before the age of five, children experience their most rapid period of
development--physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. Nurseries provide carefully planned and structured environments for stimulating the child's curiosity, helping to make sense of the world around him.
Column 422Qualified nursery teachers and nurses provide a total learning environment, comprising a whole range and variety of stimulating activities, incorporating pre-number and pre-reading skills that extend the child's comprehension and capacity for learning. The nursery sets the foundation for his future.
Unfortunately, only a small proportion of children benefit from nursery education. It depends where they live. If parents live in an area whose local authority is not Labour controlled, or they are unable to meet the cost of private nurseries, an important and crucial stage in the child's young life will be missed. The skills and expertise of a trained nursery teacher and nursery nurse can also help diagnose potential handicaps or special needs. Nursery education is of undoubted benefit to the disadvantaged child. It is not a luxury but an investment in the future. Our children deserve the best possible provision in their vital early and formative years. That means making available many more pre-school places.
If the Government recognise the value of nursery education, as they claim, they must accept and adopt the Select Committee's report in its entirety. There are no substitutes for nursery education. Early admission to schools also varies considerably from one local education authority to another, but if LEAs are obliged to provide nursery education for all pre-school children, the discrepancies between admission policies will disappear.
Sufficient expansion of nursery places will ensure that the need for early school admission will be negligible. It is deplorable that we have to admit children to schools early simply because there is inadequate nursery provision. That should never arise. More nursery school and nursery unit places are needed. The lack of them is damaging our children's prospects. Admitting children to school early is no substitute for the stimulating environment of a nursery school or unit.
For young children, play is the principal means of learning, and they ought not to be deprived of that important element in their development. Infant schools do not have the facilities or scope to provide the opportunities that nurseries can offer. They are often handicapped because of the large numbers they have to accomodate, which can be high, even in reception classes.
The Government have not capitalised on falling rolls to provide a lower teacher-pupil ratio. The reverse is true : teacher-pupil ratios have increased alarmingly in some schools. Reception classes, in which in my opinion the teacher-pupils ratio should be 1 : 20 at the maximum, have a ratio as high as 1 : 30 in many schools, and sometimes more. That is damning for the education of young children, but then the Government have shown scant regard for our education system as a whole. If we addressed ourselves to providing free nursery education--nursery schools as well as units--for every child who wanted it, the problems of rising-fives and early admission to schools would no longer exist.
In speaking about nursery provision we must not forget the handicapped child, who deserves the same opportunities. The Warnock committee recommended that provision be made for such children if they were to be integrated into normal schools later. Unfortunately, the recommendations have yet to be implemented, which is hardly surprising, given that there is inadequate provision of nursery places for the normal child.
For too long we have merely talked about increasing nursery provision. We must take a more positive attitude.
Column 423Most hon. Members seem to realise the value of such provision, yet nothing seems to be done. Is that because pre-school attendance is not compulsory and we therefore do not attach the same importance to it? If so, we are making a big mistake. We should be answerable to our children and their prospects. We owe them the opportunity to reach their full educational potential.
The Select Committee has made some important recommendations on pre-school provision. The Government should accept those recommendations as a basic starting point and provide the necessary resources.
Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate as a "free-standing" Member, to quote the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), as I am not a member of the Select Committee. However, I read the Committee's report with great interest.
I found it difficult to equate the account given by the hon. Member for Blackburn of the record of the past 16 years with what I believe to be the case. The Plowden report was produced in 1967, three years before the end of a Labour Government, and it was not until the Conservatives came to power that the White Paper that has been referred to so many times was published, to be implemented subsequently by a Government circular.
I looked in vain for evidence of what the Labour Government had done in the way of White Papers, memos, circulars and so on. All that I found was a Green Paper, which has not been referred to, called "Education in Schools". It contained a telling paragraph. Having paid lip service to the Labour Government's record in nursery education, it qualified that with the words
"even though limitations on resources will confine further expansion of provision in the immediate future to the areas of greatest social deprivation."
That does not quite tally with the massive expansion that we were expected to believe in.
Another important development was the Education Act 1981, which laid a duty on local authorities to identify and assess cases of special need among children aged over two, and, if making a statement on such a child, to make the provision indicated. That is an important step forward, and I am sorry that not every local education authority has proceeded with it.
The Opposition make great play of the need to understand and support local democracy. It is a result of that that, unfortunately, they have not all made the provision that we would wish. [Hon. Members :-- "They had no money."] We have already heard the argument about money, and the clear case that many authorities have not the allocation to enable them to act.
I strongly support the Government's policy of a variety of provision, but I was a little disappointed by the implication about pre-school playgroups that I read into the report. I am comforted by the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) that we may have misunderstood it, but I shared the pre-school playgroups views of the association. Playgroups have an important role to play.
Column 424The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) mentioned rural areas, one of which I represent. In such areas nursery schools are almost a non-starter from the financial point of view.
We have great difficulty in maintaining some of our primary schools that cater for five or six age groups. It is impossible to justify special schools for one or two age groups. Pre-school playgroups have a major role to play in catering for them. They have a number of advantages. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) referred disparagingly to the fact that pre-school playgroups are cheaper to run, but that is very important. I am the first to accept that the standards of some playgroups need to be improved, as does the quality of the training of the people who run them. However, we should capitalise on the great wealth of opportunity that the pre-school playgroups provide. The children will benefit if their parents and other adults are involved in running them. It is most important to involve parents in the education of their children while they are very young. I support the Government's policy to try to involve parents throughout the whole of their children's education. The provision of pre- school playgroups means that parents are involved in their children's education from the very beginning. If parents are involved at that stage, they will continue to be involved in their children's education.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a good report. I welcome the Government's policy and I look forward to the substantive reply to the report.
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : This has been an important debate, called for by the Opposition because of their commitment to improve the opportunities for all children under the age of five and to enable their parents to take advantage of pre-school education and child care. The Select Committee's report has provided a timely and apposite basis for many hon. Members' speeches.
The motion is based on the Select Committee's report but the debate has not centred solely on the report. We called for the debate because the Government have signally failed to fulfil even their manifesto commitment. Therefore, they have failed the children and the people of this country.
The Secretary of State admitted that he had not previously made a speech on nursery education. I was glad that he referred to the importance of choice for parents. Parents say that they want choice, but for most of them there is no choice. If there is no provision, how can they have choice?
I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He has had to leave the debate early, for personal reasons. I hope that he will have words with the leader of his party, who said, when he last spoke in the House, that it was ludicrous to ask for nursery provision to be made available for all children over the age of three if their parents wanted it. I hope that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) will learn something from the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. If we are to fulfil the commitments contained in the Select Committee report and in the motion, we have a lot of work to do. People are sick of words. They are looking for action. We have heard much about the Government's
Column 425commitment and how well they have done. That is a travesty of the reality, which is that Labour authorities have increased spending on education while the Government have been in office, although the Government have reduced the overall amount that is spent on education.
Education in a child's early years is very important. Its value has been spelt out over the years by many hon. Members, and it was confirmed by the 1972 White Paper and by recent research. Its value was reaffirmed by the Select Committee. Nursery education and child care have become increasingly important in our changing society. Young children are vulnerable. We are just beginning to recognise how vulnerable they are as we come to terms with child abuse. They are not as safe on the streets as they used to be. They are much more likely now to be members of small families. All those developments increase the need for group care and education.
Nursery education and child care is of growing importance to parents. Many more adults, particularly women, are required to become members of the work force, and I have been interested to see the way in which some hon. Members think that women decide to work as a whim. While many women have to work through economic necessity, many of them wish to contribute their skills, experience and knowledge to society and to achieve personal fulfilment. If the Government are serious about achieving equal opportunities, they must ensure that women have a real choice when they wish to go out to work. They can make that choice only if there are adequate child care and education facilities for their children.
Nursery education in the 1990s will be important economically for the nation. As many more women are encouraged to go to work and into post- school training and education, the break to have children must no longer result in their often returning to jobs with less skill and a lower rate of pay. What a waste, and how frustrating and demoralising that is for women. They should have confidence that they can make real choices about when they return to work after the birth of their babies, and those choices must not leave them feeling anxious all day long.
All that involves the availability of affordable and accessible quality child care. Today, provision for the under-fives is sparse, unco-ordinated and of variable quality. We in Britain are isolated in our failure to recognise the urgency of these demands and the damaging effects on families when their needs for child care are neither acknowledged nor met.
Labour Members are determined that there will be a co-ordinated strategy which will integrate facilities and offer parents a real choice of quality provision. At present the chance of one's child having some form of pre- school provision is a lottery. It depends on where one lives. If one lives in Labour Salford or north Tyneside, one has an opportunity to send one's child to school or playgroup. I talked to parents in North Tyneside on Friday. They expressed enthusiasm for what was on offer there and talked about its value for their children. One mother spoke of the difference she had perceived between her son's first year at school--the boy had not previously had access to a nursery place--and the first year of her daughter, who had attended nursery.
Parents also talked about what pre-school provision meant for them. It had made them more confident in
Column 426asking questions about their children's education, about what books to choose, about what play equipment was good for their children and about the confidence they themselves had to return to education. Several spoke about the value of being involved in the parent and toddler group which was accommodated in and supported by the local school but run and managed by the parents. Their children were able to move into nursery school, and they could continue to play a part in their children's schooling, if they wished.
The tragedy of much of the current debate is that, as a diversion from the objective of giving more choice and opportunity nationwide, the Government are trying to set the value of one provision against that of another. To argue for more nursery school places is not to devalue the contribution, for example, of pre-school playgroups. There must be a variety of provision, but it must be within an area as a whole, with parents being assured of quality wherever their children are placed. At present, many parents must put together a package that is convoluted and includes too many carers, leading them to feel that their children could be unhappy.
We desperately need a co-ordinated and integrated national strategy. Leaving it to chance, as the Government have been happy to do, is simply not good enough. The Government have a responsibility to monitor, to regulate for minimum standards and to provide a structure for training and support of all workers in child care. Commitments made in 1972 about supplying teachers have yet to be met. The nursery element in teacher training is still wholly inadequate and the status of nursery teachers is frequently low with little opportunity for career development.
Nursery nurses feel undervalued and have little opportunity for career progression. Nursery staff have told me over and over again that they try to work as a team, but the provision for in-service training offered by the Government divides them and undermines the team spirit.
I visited Sheffield recently, as did the members of the Select Committee. Sheffield has made great progress in trying to tackle those problems. It has also moved towards the integration of education and social services to great effect. But at what cost? Sheffield knows where it wants to go, but it has suffered from Government cuts and has had to hold up its programme of expansion. North Tyneside is also not complacent, but it is aware that further demands must be met. Newcastle has been rate-capped. I was told that in Newcastle three nursery units attached to schools are already open or due to open this year, but there is no money to furnish or staff them. Will the Government take responsibility for that? Petitions have been prepared on those matters and the demand is obvious. Workplace nurseries also have a role to play in the overall provision. Employers increasingly recognise the importance of their contribution. However, particularly for mid-range income earners, tax is a major disincentive. We welcome the prolonged campaign by the Sunday Mirror to abolish the workplace nursery tax. We remind the Government that the Sunday Mirror has received many representations from parents about the importance and centrality of workplace nursery provision.
Labour-controlled authorities have tried to fulfil the aims and objectives of the 1972 White Paper, and they have been punished for that. From the Dispatch Box the Prime Minister frequently lectures us and bombards us with statistics to try to prove through a smokescreen that
Column 427we have misunderstood her commitment to the Health Service or to social security. However, she has been strangely silent on her commitment in 1973 that within 10 years nursery education should be available without charge to three or four-year-olds whose parents wanted them to have it.
We have seen no effort from the Government to meet the obligations inherent in the Education Act 1981 to meet the requirements of children with special needs. How can a child with special needs be integrated into mainstream nursery provision when there is no nursery?
The Government have shown that they are so obsessed with short-term economic profit that they are prepared to sacrifice the opportunity of millions of children for a good start in life. The Government's lack of care has cost our children dear. The nation's future is their future. The Government have failed children and parents. They have failed to fulfil their promise to the nation and they have failed the nation's future opportunities.
The House has an opportunity to remind the Government of their promises, commitments and responsibility and a chance to show that we are prepared to secure the best opportunity for children, their families and their future. I invite hon. Members to do that. 9.45 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Angela Rumbold) : I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box. While I do not agree with all that she said, I think it right to welcome her to her new position. I also add my warm welcome to the Select Committee's report. Like many other hon. Members, I have read it carefully. I certainly hope to make the Government's response to it most worth while.
Because the report was issued only last week, many of its recommendations have formed the basis for the debate, which has included some valuable contributions and important thoughts on the pre-school experience for children. However, it is important to establish the major issues that have emerged from the debate. I thought that I would be disappointed when the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) almost gave the game away. While some Opposition Members are prepared to bob and curtsey to that most valuable organisation the Pre-School Playgroups Association, when it comes to the nub of the matter they would like total state provision of nursery education, which the Government are not so anxious to provide. We have always been convinced of the importance of diversity of provision to meet the varying and different requirements of parents.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough, rather ungraciously, called into question my right hon. Friend's figures on expenditure. I should point out--perhaps the figures will help--that in 1988-89 the expenditure was £495 million and in 1989-90 the figure is expected to be £536 million, an increase of 8 per cent., while there has been a 2 per cent. increase in the number of three and four-year-olds in the system. There were 1.206 million three and four-year-olds in 1988-89, and in 1989-90 there
Column 428will be 1.230 million. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will see that there is some disparity in the figures and therefore, of necessity, we are planning some increase in provision.
The hon. Gentleman also called into question the number of people who are interested in becoming early-years teachers. It is important to point out that between last year and this year there will be an increase of 6.4 per cent. in the number of people interested in taking bachelor of education degrees in early child education.
Mr. Flannery : Is the hon. Lady counting the children who, due to empty spaces in primary schools, are entering reception classes and therefore receiving a different type of education from that which they would have received in nursery schools?
I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) that it is a pity that Opposition Members should be so ungracious about the disparity of provision between concentrated urban areas and country areas where it is undoubtedly more difficult to make consistent provision. I was delighted to hear from him. Mr. Win Griffiths rose --
Mrs. Rumbold : No, I shall not give way. I must get on. I was delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend believes that the quality of provision has become better targeted. That gave me considerable pleasure. I have always felt that there needed to be an improvement in what was happening within pre-school experience for children. My right hon. Friend's views on the quality of education content in both the state provision and playgroups will be taken most seriously in the Government's review. He was anxious about the experiences of children aged four years in reception classes not being taken into account as much as they should by some teachers, simply because they lack experience of the relevant teaching and curriculum development that four-year-olds should have. That is another matter that the Government understand and will take into consideration. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point.
I understand why the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is unable to be in his place. He talked about the importance of first assessments for children in compulsory schools taking place at the age of seven. He hoped that the early experiences of children and their social and cultural backgrounds will be taken into account when assessments are made. Perhaps a further study of the report of the task group on assessment and testing will reassure the hon. Gentleman. It is something that we are concerned to ensure. Children who are tested or assessed at the age of seven will not necessarily be disadvantaged if they have less pre-school experience than others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) was absolutely right to reiterate that local authorities, and particularly local education authorities, have the right, given and upheld by all hon. Members, to make choices about the perceived priorities for education expenditure. I am grateful to him for reiterating the amounts of money that are always in the expenditure levels. I strongly support his view that care for the under-fives is a most demanding job. Therefore, training must be carefully looked at.
Column 429I greatly admire the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) for taking her stand on the principle of nursery education. I am sad to say that I can give her no hope that her example is likely to be followed in the near future. Her analysis of the importance of early education experience bears some study. It seemed to encapsulate the views of several people who have studied the development of children and the importance of early development and experiences. She pointed out that the success of compulsory schooling at the age of five depends on some sort of pre-school experience.
I take the opportunity of reminding Opposition Members that, when they make comparisons between this country and others, they frequently manage to forget that, with the possible exception of the Netherlands, Britain is the only country with compulsory education beginning at the age of five. In most other countries, full-time compulsory education paid for by the state starts at the age of six. In some countries it begins at the age of seven. Therefore, we can rightly claim that by the age of five, 100 per cent. of our children are in full-time education provided by the state.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) said that it is wrong to opt for compulsion. I agree that any form of compulsion would be wrong. One of the things that worry me about blanket state nursery provision or nursery schools being attached to schools as of right for all children is that we shall immediately have the possibility of mothers having to queue to get their children into nursery schools, and later having to send them straight on to the primary school. Parents do not always want their children to go to the nursery class that is attached to a specific primary school. They want to choose the pre-school experience that they consider to be best for their children. I defend that to the end as I believe that it is of critical importance. [Interruption.] The Opposition yell at me and try to cover up the fact that, really they are asking the Government to provide blanket state education. That was the message that came loud and clear through every speech made by Opposition Members.
The hon. Member for the City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) made it plain that that was his view. I am sad that he is not in the House at present. [Interruption.] I apologise to him ; I had not seen him. I shall consider his views and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) about special educational needs. I must point out to them that the Education Act 1981 embodies our policy on the education of children under five with special educational needs. Clearly, it is important that if children have special needs, they should be identified as early as possible. That is why parents have the right to ask local education authorities to assess from the age of two whether a child has special educational needs.
I want to make one or two general observations. We have scarcely heard a word about mothers, who generally want their babies to develop into normal young children, physically, emotionally and intellectually. [Hon. Members :-- "What about fathers?"] Fathers want that as well. Mothers who want to work--we have talked about the difficulties of such mothers-- also want to reassure themselves about the quality of the care they provide. Perhaps we should realise that there are some important points for mothers and fathers to understand fully. The best education for young children in their pre-school years--emotionally and developmentally-- undoubtedly comes
Column 430from their parents. However, the stage is always reached in a young child's development when some structured experience with the peer group helps to extend its intellectual and physical growth. That is not always understood by young parents, or by those who come from different cultures or from deprived areas. From an educational point of view, that experience has to be limited and part time simply because young children cannot cope with lengthy experiences in education. It is equally important, as hon. Members from both sides of the House have said, to realise that parental involvement may not always be possible, but is highly desirable and should not be discouraged.
Much has been said about financial help to mothers to offset the costs of such care. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West talked about offsetting the costs of child care. We can argue about how that money should be provided and who should provide it--the state or the employer--but the point is that employers could look to the needs of children to have the opportunity to be with their parents--either their mothers or fathers--and could develop more flexible hours of work and more flexible work places for mothers.
Our amendment rests on the Government's record. It is a record of which we can be proud, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. We have pledged to improve the quality of our provisions while maintaining diversity. I have no hesitation in commending the amendment to the House.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :--
The House divided : Ayes 228, Noes 281.
Division No. 39] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)