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4.15 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I cannot think of the Bill without thinking of it in the context of the changes to the Education (School Premises) Regulations

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1981 that were debated yesterday. The Bill andthose changes seem to amount, among other things, to an attempt to push early years education towards the private sector, cheapness and, potentially, overcrowded and overstressed conditions. Those dangers should be monitored and checked by proper inspection procedures, as laid out in new clause 1.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was quite right to say that we cannot inspect something that is not already there; however, the new clause places stress on "the premises" subject to the inspection. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) was quite right to say that a very early check is needed. That is a sensible way in which to think of the new clause.

To my mind, it is quite improper, and possibly risky, for young children to be gathered in units that, for at least one year, are self-assessed by people who have a strong financial interest in ensuring that the self-assessment is positive. The assessment would then be sent to Capita, but numerous recent early-day motions have already cast considerable doubt on that organisation. Of course, the need for inspection applies not only to premises but to the quality of the activity and the personnel involved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said.

The voucher system will inevitably drive the centre of gravity in early years education away from comprehensive nursery schools and classes, which are financed and organised by local authorities, towards a provision that has been hurriedly scrambled together by individuals and companies. Some of the people involved in that provision will no doubt be excellent, but others will be out to grab and cash as many vouchers as possible before the inspector arrives and possibly closes their nurseries down.

The expansion of early years education, which all parties in the House seek, clearly should not be governed by a system that takes large amounts of public money and pumps it into the provision of what might be no more than child minding, in places that could not accommodate activities other than basic child minding--although the facilities might pass muster in the social services' inspection under the Children Act 1989.

The inspectorate must be mindful of the quality of learning experience for all the four-year-olds who will be placed in schools by vouchers. It must especially take into account all the recent research, which has demonstrated beyond peradventure the crucial educational and social benefits that accrue from high-quality early years education.

It is, of course, also important that the quality of the inspectorate is of the highest standard. My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Barking have already commented on inspectors' qualifications--NVQ2 is perhaps not what we would seek as an ideal qualification for an inspector.

The Bill also contains nothing about training, either for the new nursery teachers--no planned expansion is envisaged in that respect--or for the new inspectors. Parents who live in areas that have never offered early years education provision before will no doubt be relieved that it will be available, but they may plump for whatever is offered. The new clause offers them at least a basic assurance about standards, in a sphere of education with which, by definition, they cannot be familiar. As the

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unit--I can think of no better word; it may be a class--is already in place, they will trust that it is totally acceptable, and they may find out otherwise rather too late. That is why early inspection is tremendously important.

In contemplating new clause 1, the Government have to bear in mind how brief but vital nursery education is. It is all over in 12 months--or 18 months if the child is fortunate--and by then a child may already have formed educational patterns. A bad or insufficient nursery experience may produce individual or collective tragedy. Early inspection would attempt to avoid that, so I hope that the Government will look favourably on what I consider to be a sensible and moderate new clause.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South): By way of introduction to my support for this essential new clause, let me draw the attention of the House to the principle on which the nursery voucher scheme is based. Under the nursery voucher scheme, public money will be used to subsidise private sector play schemes. It may even subsidise private sector child minding and other schemes that may or may not provide nursery education as there is nothing in the framework of the Bill to prevent that.

New clause 1 is straightforward and simple. It will demand an inspection of existing provision to ensure that it measures up to what we expect of nursery education before any public money is put into a service. That is a great strength of new clause 1.

I am concerned about the design of the voucher scheme and that it may harm the excellent provision of nursery education in the state sector. I am sure that the wording of the Bill and the way in which the voucher scheme will work--in the absence of an inspection before the private sector will be able to benefit from public money--will lead to a dilution or undermining of existing LEA provision. I am also confident that the way in which the scheme is currently set up means that it will undermine severely the provision of nursery education for three-year-olds. Therefore, new clause 1 commends itself to the House.

I am clear in my own mind that the voucher scheme is nothing more than a political gimmick. It offers no real prospect of providing high-quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. I say that confidently as someone who has read "Education:A Framework for Expansion", which was published in 1972 by the then Secretary of State for Education.It committed the Conservative Government of the day to providing high-quality nursery education. The fact that it was never delivered does not deter from the aims and objectives of "Education: A Framework for Expansion", which recognised the benefits that a good nursery education would bring to pupils' prospects and to levering up standards in the state system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) has already said, 60 per cent. of learning takes place in those early years. It is therefore essential that we get nursery education right and plan for it properly. What the Government appear to be doing is designed more to please the Conservative party conference than to improve the quality of our state education.

Had the Secretary of State for Education and Employment had her own way, I am certain that she would have not chosen such an approach. She knows full well that the voucher scheme is unwieldy and a bureaucratic

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nightmare. We are debating the Bill only because last October the Prime Minister promised the Conservative party conference that we would have a voucher scheme.I am sure that that is not the way to plan the best education for primary school children, who need first-class nursery education.

The Secretary of State was right to say on 19 October 1994 that, despite some people's opinions, voucher schemes were unwieldy. She also said in The Times Educational Supplement of 7 April 1995 that vouchers were not the favoured option. In fact, it was only because of the Prime Minister's commitment at the Tory party conference that she had to change her mind. He said:

Mr. Spearing: The Prime Minister certainly did commit the party to a voucher scheme, but he also said that he would provide nursery education for all four-year-olds. The Government seem to intend to make it available to some, but it will not be nursery education as we know it today.

Madam Speaker: Order. That question invites the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor to go even wider, and he was already making what seemed like a Second Reading speech. I hope that he will not pursue the intervention.

Mr. Hall: You are of course right, Madam Speaker.I was coming to the point that we need inspections of nursery education before handing over taxpayers' money to private sector institutions. Certainly, high-quality nursery education should be available to all four-year-olds, as the Prime Minister said it would be.But it was clear from the debates in Standing Committee that it is not going to happen.

This is a very poor Bill; we make no bones about the fact that we do not like its contents. New clause 1 in no way substitutes for poor legislation: it just tries to make the best of a bad job. One way of ensuring that the money voted by Parliament is spent for the intended purpose is to carry out inspections of private sector premises to ensure that they truly provide what we would expect to be done in the name of nursery education.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked that

My hon. Friend wanted to be quite sure that all premises were right for nursery education, and that the resources provided would go towards quality education. These establishments and institutions must be committed to curriculum and planning control.

The teachers in these nursery schools must be up to the task of providing high-quality nursery education. New clause 1 seeks reassurances about assessment and record keeping, and about the literacy and numeracy that teachers would hope to instil in the children in their care. We hope that the Government will commit themselves to ensuring that taxpayers' money delivers the goods. New clause 1

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calls on Ofsted to go into the private sector institutions providing nursery education and to give us the information that we require.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State said:

I do not want to look back in a year's time and find out that the Government may have been able to do that.I want some reassurances now that taxpayers' money will be spent on providing good-quality nursery education. That is the difference between the Opposition and the Government on the issue. The Government are prepared to allow the private sector to be involved in nursery provision, to allow public money to be spent on that provision and to inspect the outcome some time in the future. That is not an appropriate approach, and new clause 1 would change it.

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