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Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): I support new clause 1, which is important because, throughout the Bill's consideration, the Opposition have tried to table amendments that would raise the quality of the education offered to children in this so-called expansion of nursery education provision. Throughout our proceedings, Ministers have said that they support that intent, but every time we have put a practical proposal to the vote, Ministers have failed to support it. If they do not accept new clause 1 and other amendments, people will realise that the nursery voucher scheme has nothing to do with providing quality nursery education for our young children.

At present, a new establishment that wishes to be eligible to accept nursery vouchers, and therefore to educate our four-year-olds, has to go through a system of validation, to get which it has to fill in a form. It is sent to Capita management consultancy, which has been employed by the Government in the first phase of the scheme. Capita has, by the Minister's own admission,no staff with educational qualifications.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), wrote to me to say:

    I can now confirm that they are not".

The organisation responsible for validating the new settings, which will miraculously emerge as the result of the demand-led voucher schemes, has no education specialists on its staff. If we are to raise the quality of what is on offer to our young children, it is simply not good enough to allow such settings to be validated without an inspection.

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I fear that Ministers will not accept the new clause, because they know that they probably could not implement it. It is important for the House to know the inspectorate's capacity for dealing with the so-called expansion of nursery provision. Ministers have never denied that there are only three qualified inspectors of nursery provision on the staff of Ofsted. A further 200 inspectors are contracted by Ofsted to carry out the inspection of nursery education settings in nursery schools and nursery classes in primary schools.

Everyone, including Ofsted, recognises that 4,000 inspectors will be needed to meet the new inspection requirements of this important early educational provision for our young children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, that will probably mean a lowering in the standard of those employed to carry out the crucial task of inspecting the quality on offer to our young children. Is it true that it is considered appropriate for people with NVQ2 qualifications to carry out the inspection? Perhaps, when the Minister replies to the debate, we shall be given the answer.

I am keen that we should welcome people with all sorts of qualifications and backgrounds to work with children under five, but it is inappropriate for people with NVQ2 qualifications to undertake crucial inspections to ensure that settings for under-fives are of the correct standard. The Government should come clean about how they intend to find 4,000 inspectors. There are also serious questions to be asked about how the policy is progressing.

We know very little about what training the Government intend for those they recruit as inspectors. As I understand it, Ofsted is considering four half-days' training for those who carry out inspections. The lack of staff with relevant qualifications employed by the Department means that training will be carried out by the people who should be conducting the inspections. That is simply not good enough, and is a matter of great concern to us.

We need to know whether that is why the Government will not ensure that a proper inspection of settings takes place before they are validated as appropriate for use for the nursery voucher scheme. I also want to know what action the Government intend to take to improve the situation.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): Nursery schools and classes were formerly inspected by Her Majesty's inspectors of education. In Committee, it was my understanding that, while nursery schools and nursery classes are now inspected by Ofsted, under the Government's proposals--to which we are objecting in the form of new clause l--it would be possible for the inspectors whom my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) describes to have lower qualifications than the nursery teachers they inspect. If that is so, should not the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), address that problem when he replies to the debate?

Ms Hodge: I agree entirely with the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), and I hope that the Minister addresses it during his reply to the debate. Inspection is crucial to quality, as was said last night in the debate on the space

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standards in our schools and the deregulation of those standards. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment stated that it was not the space standards that mattered but the quality of the teaching in ensuring that an appropriate offer was being made to our children.

The Labour party argues that both count, but we agree with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that quality of teaching counts, and that it is a crucial factor in how good an offer there is for young children. If the quality of teaching matters, someone has to inspect it. As the Labour party says in the new clause, it is appropriate and important that inspections be carried out before we allow these settings to teach a whole generation of four-year-olds.

I shall tell hon. Members why that is so important. Approximately 400,000 people are currently working with children aged under five--of those people, 10 per cent. have no qualifications at all; of those people working with children in the nursery class or nursery school setting, in the maintained setting, over half do not have qualifications to teach; and the remainder have a range of qualifications.In that context, where there has not been an enormous investment in the training of those who are working with children at this crucial age, it is absolutely imperative--it is totally vital--that there should be an inspection prior to the validation of a setting to ensure that those who are working with young children have appropriate skills and experience, if not qualifications, to carry out their tasks.

There is a lack of provision for training. In fact, Ministers in this Government were responsible for cutting the very little training that existed in the grant for education support and training budget for those working in the nursery education sector. Between 1990 and 1993, just under £10 million was available for training this group of staff, and that funding has been cut.

The Government's commitment to a quality offer for four-year-olds is very much up in the air: there is a group of people working with children who have a variety of qualifications, if any at all; the Government have cut the part of the training budget that could assist in raising quality; and in the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme, the Government have not set aside any money for training--which is something that the Labour party has asked for time and time again.

There is not much evidence in the Bill--which has been debated for many hours in Committee--that the Government are concerned about quality, although there are currently concerns in that respect. The best evidence we have--which we used extensively in the discussions in Committee--is a survey carried out by Her Majesty's inspectors entitled "A Survey of Provision for Under-Fives in the Play Group and Maintained Sectors in Wales: Inspected During Academic Year 1994-95".

The survey looked at playgroups--the new settings which will be eligible for vouchers--and at the maintained sector. I shall quote briefly from the document, because I believe that hon. Members should be aware of it. I refer to the playgroups sector. On page 19, the inspector, talking about the quality of what was on offer to our children in the playgroup sector, said:

20 per cent.--

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Four fifths of those playgroups that were inspected in Wales by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools in Wales fell down on the key aspect of preparing children to read.

The report says:

On page 22, in its conclusions about the maintained sector, the report says:

In its conclusion about the playgroup sector, the report says:

That all shows that, in part of the United Kingdom where a proper inspection did take place, standards were sorely lacking. Despite that, Ministers are seriously suggesting that we should introduce a new range of settings--which may require the validation of as many as 12,000 new settings once the scheme is running nationwide--without having that early check on whether the quality of what is on offer is appropriate.

Sixty per cent. of what a child learns is learned in the first five years of life; 60 per cent. of his or her intellectual development takes place in those first five years. It is a crucial phase of life. We have got it wrong for far too long. Are we yet again to miss an opportunity of starting to put things right? I fear so, if the Government's proposals are implemented.

In Government amendment No. 33 on inspection, the Government suggest that the inspector should submit a report, but we all know that currently, when an inspection report on a private nursery is completed, it is submitted to those who own and run the nursery, and is not published generally. If our children are to attend private nurseries, and if public money is to be invested in children attending those private nurseries, do the Government intend inspection reports to be published? I hope they do, and I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on that.

Currently, non-educational institutions--playgroups or nurseries run by the voluntary sector, or private nurseries--must be inspected before they are registered and opened to the public. All we are asking in the new clause and amendment No. 14 is that the rigour that goes into ensuring that the care is of a certain quality should be applied to ensuring that the education is of a certain quality. That is the key to ensuring that children develop their potential. Government resistance to this important new clause would show the world that they do not really care about the quality of nursery education.

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