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Representation of the People (Amendment)

Mrs. Ann Winterton accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Acts; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 22 March and to be printed. [Bill 85.]

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Orders of the Day

Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. [Relevant document: First report of the Welsh Affairs Committee of Session 1995-96 on the nursery voucher scheme in Wales (House of Commons Paper No. 186).]

New clause 1

Visits to assess suitability of establishments

'No grant may be made to a person providing nursery education under this Act in respect of any premises in which the nursery education is provided unless--
(a) the premises have been visited by an inspector registered in accordance with paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to this Act; and
(b) the inspector is satisfied that the premises comply, or can be expected to comply, with such requirements as to suitability for the provision of nursery education in respect of which grants may be payable as may from time to time be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.'.--[Mr. Kilfoyle.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

3.44 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 14, in schedule 1, page 5, leave out lines 14 to 16.

Government amendment No. 33.

Mr. Kilfoyle: In Committee, there were protracted discussions on all the issues before us today. Unfortunately, despite the well-expressed and cogent arguments of Labour Members, the Government have not seen fit to incorporate our constructive amendments.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 14 deal with safeguards, and provide for a preliminary inspection of institutions wishing to provide nursery education under the scheme, before they start to do so. The document "Nursery Education Scheme: The Next Steps", published by the Department for Education and Employment in January, proposed an application procedure for potential providers of nursery education based on self-assessment of their ability to meet the standards expected of them by the Department. Self-assessment is wholly inadequate.

The next steps document reveals that the self-assessment schedule is

It then states quite baldly that the schedule

While the self-assessment schedule may be of use to applicant providers, especially those considering providing nursery education for the first time, self-assessment alone is clearly not a safe basis on which to entrust the vital responsibility of providing high-quality nursery education for young children.

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The purpose of new clause 1 is simple--to plug the yawning gap in the inadequate arrangements proposed by the Secretary of State between the initial validation and the final validation of providers, which is quite properly dependent on providers being assessed and inspected.The next steps document says that inspection for final validation

The new clause would impose a preliminary visit by a properly qualified and registered inspector. That would improve the scheme, and would offer a necessary safeguard to assure parents that a provider had been able to satisfy a registered inspector that he met the required standards, or, in the professional judgment of the inspector, could be expected to meet them within a reasonable time.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree, based on his experience, that a scheme must be up and running before it can be thoroughly inspected? Has he had experience in his constituency, as I have in mine, of people who are anticipating becoming providers taking enormous trouble to ensure that they have the proper qualifications and premises? That is the stage at which they get the necessary advice.

Mr. Kilfoyle: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment, I will touch on the vital people in this process--the inspectors. He knows from his experience as a teacher, as I do from mine, the value that qualified, capable inspectors can bring to the whole educational process in our schools. He referred to schemes having to be up and running. Maintained and private nurseries are up and running, as are playgroups, and they will be incorporated in the scheme.

We are trying to achieve a comprehensive framework to govern all providers and ensure that they provide the necessary standards of nursery education that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree are desirable. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to specify in regulations the arrangements for such visits by a registered inspector.

Amendment No. 14 is about the registration visits themselves. Local education authority-maintained nursery schools and classes now have to be inspected under section 9 of the Education (Schools) Act 1992, which means that once every four years an inspection is carried out by a team of Ofsted-accredited inspectors led by a registered inspector, according to Ofsted's framework for inspection, as is required for all primary and secondary schools.

The amendment would delete the exemption of the maintained sector, thus requiring existing maintained nursery education facilities to be inspected under the arrangements being set up by the Bill. Technically, that would require double inspection--but in practice, as Ofsted is responsible for both systems, it would be foolish for it to do anything other than carry out a single process that met both sets of criteria. In effect, that would mean using the more rigorous framework currently in place for all mainstream schooling. It would therefore be necessary to adopt the same framework for private and voluntary provision too.

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The Government are likely to argue that it would be pointless to require two inspections, and to try to suggest that the Opposition amendment is really about applying the less rigorous requirements to maintained schools. That is a seductive but false argument.

As for the inspection framework, there is no doubt that the requirements under the 1992 Act for the maintained sector are significantly more rigorous than those envisaged for the new voucher providers. The difference between the Ofsted framework and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's document on desirable outcomes for nursery education can be illustrated by two quotations.

The guidance on the inspection of nursery and primary schools published by Ofsted late last year says:

On the other hand, the SCAA, in its publication, "Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning On Entering Compulsory Education", says something qualitatively different:

If we are concerned to achieve the desirable and laudable objectives, we must consider inspectors' qualifications. There is concern among educators about the level of qualification of the inspectors who carry out the work. Currently, to be a member of an inspection team undertaking an Ofsted contract, inspectors must be qualified teachers with significant relevant experience. They are also expected to demonstrate the professional skills associated with education inspection and advice during a week's course run by Her Majesty's inspectorate.

The course is designed to accredit prior skills rather than to train beginners from scratch, and most Ofsted-accredited inspectors were already HMI or local authority inspectors and advisers before the introduction of the new system. That means, as we would expect,that they are widely experienced and capable people.To become a registered inspector--the person qualified to lead a team--it is necessary to take a further, more rigorous course.

There is already a shortage of qualified inspectors with nursery experience, and there have been problems in maintaining the timetable for inspecting such provision within Ofsted's current four-year timetable.

Early consultation by Ofsted revealed that suitable "initial selection criteria" for individuals wishing to become inspectors for private or voluntary sector providers of nursery education do not specify qualified teacher status, but include national vocational qualification level 2 in child care, the City and Guilds caring for children certificate, the Business and Technician Education Council nursing diploma, and Nursery Nurses Education Board qualifications. Those qualifications are not sufficient to secure a job as an ordinary teacher in a local education authority nursery school. To suggest that they might be adequate for inspectors is astonishing. That is turning the whole logic of inspection as understood in the maintained sector on its head.

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The Association of Advisers for the Under-Eights and their Families wrote to Ofsted to register its "dismay, disappointment and frustration" at the "totally inappropriate" qualifications specified. Its letter concluded:

The Opposition say amen to that.

Government amendment No. 33 improves the wording of paragraph 13 of schedule 1 and allows the chief inspector to set a time limit for the production of a report by the person conducting the inspection. It allows the limit to be extended by a maximum of three months. It provides for regulations to prescribe that copies are sent "without delay", whatever that may mean, to authorities and other persons--again, I wonder what that means.

That seems to meet a requirement that we attempted to introduce in Committee in amendment No. 87. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will bear me out, because he tabled amendments Nos. 21 and 90 to effect such a change. I hope that the Government are at last beginning to respond to the constructive arguments that were put in Committee and that will continue to be made in this debate.

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