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4.30 pm

The Under-Secretary also said in Committee:


I do not think that we need to wait for those definitive outcomes to expand nursery education. We could do that through the state sector and local education authorities.It is unreasonable for the Under-Secretary to ask us to wait for two or three years before we find out whether taxpayers' honest money has been spent efficiently and effectively. That is my difference with the Under-Secretary on that issue.

Whereas in new clause 1 we call for inspections to take place before public money is used, the Government are quite prepared to wait. The Government are not even prepared to set down a target for the number of private sector institutions that will be inspected in the first12 months. It is clear that many inspections will be needed and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said, an extra 4,000 inspectors would probably be needed to complete the job in those 12 months. The Government are not even prepared to fix a target for the number of inspections in the first 12 months, and the reason given--it is totally unacceptable--is that those inspections cannot start until the Bill has received Royal Assent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Rod Richards) indicated assent.

Mr. Hall: The Under-Secretary agrees, but there would be nothing wrong with delaying the implementation of the Bill until those inspections had taken place. If the Bill receives Royal Assent in its current form, the inclusion of new clause 1 would give us some reassurance that the Government were committed to inspection to provide high-quality nursery education. The pamphlet "Information for Parents: The Nursery Education Scheme" states:


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If parents are to make choices about good-quality nursery education, on what will they base their decisions?What will inform their decisions about good-quality nursery education? A step in the right direction would be an Ofsted report that stated that a nursery has the accommodation to provide good-quality education; has designed its curriculum to match the needs of four-year-olds; has well-qualified staff; and has proper assessment plans. That would be the type of qualitative report that new clause 1 would require.

We have seen that the Government have committed themselves to a voucher scheme to provide nursery education. If we are to believe what the Government have said, the voucher, to the value of £1,100, will do a great deal. It will provide two and a half sessions a week of nursery education. It will provide for capital investment in the private sector to supply the 150,000 places that are missing at the moment. That has been recognised in the Government literature on the subject of nursery vouchers. The voucher will also pay for the inspection of the private sector schools. Those £1,100 vouchers will have to go a long way. I am not confident that they will provide nursery places for every four-year-old in the country. I am certain that they will undermine existing provision--and I am confident that, if the Government have the interests of education at heart, they will accept new clause 1. It is a step in the right direction, and would improve what I consider to be a very poor piece of legislation.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall), who made some excellent comments in support of new clause 1. I shall not repeat what he said, but try to complement it.

We now have some cross-party accord on at least one feature of the Bill: the parties now agree that nursery education is valuable to children. Less than two years ago, Ministers were telling us that there was no proven connection between nursery education and the quality of a child's learning. Have we not heard the same words in connection with class sizes? Of course, that applies only to local education authority schools, not to the schools to which many Conservative Members send their children.

I also remember a Minister saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was "obsessed" with nursery education. I am happy to say that Ministers are now equally obsessed with it--as are Opposition Members, who are following my hon. Friend's excellent lead. We welcome Conservative Members' conversion to nursery education; but that is where my agreement with the Government ends. We have the right policy, but,alas, the wrong solution.

Let me say a little about the quality and value of inspection. The Government have rightly stressed the need for inspection of all schools. Opposition Members agree: we want to be absolutely sure that nursery school inspectors are meeting the standards that we want for our children, and also meeting the demands of taxpayers whose money is being spent to the tune of nearly three quarters of a billion pounds.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I do not expect the nursery voucher scheme to create many local education

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authority places. I think that the vouchers will be used in the private sector. If a huge amount of capital and revenue is to go into that sector, we must ensure that the conditions are right before children begin their education. Nursery education is, after all, education, not child minding. If the conditions are wrong, children will suffer. The conditions must be tried and tested.

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend's comments are, as usual, well placed. The Bill could penalise authorities that are currently offering a high level of nursery education, and have done so for many years. A point that I hope will arise later in the debate--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order.I was tolerant in regard to the intervention, but can we now return to the new clause?

Mr. Jamieson: I shall, of course, be guided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Later, however, we may hear from the Minister how some of the revenue provided by the vouchers could be used for buildings rather than providing nursery education places.

It is vital that people of quality carry out the inspections. We need experienced inspectors with a proper understanding of young children and the way in which they learn; I do not think that the Minister will disagree with that. The inspectors must know what to look for.

Before inspectors carry out inspections, as mentioned in new clause 1, we need people to train them. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that, when looking for people to train nursery school inspectors, only the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the Montessori organisation were asked to provide the names of people who could train inspectors. Has the Pre-School Learning Alliance--excellent though it may be--people with sufficient experience to train? Many teachers in the Montessori organisation obtained their qualification through correspondence courses and have done very little follow-up to that qualification, which is not recognised in state schools. They cannot teach in state schools. Yet they have been asked to train the people who will inspect nursery schools.

I believe that a letter was sent out a short while ago to those two organisations and that the trainers have been offered a whole two days' training to train the inspectors. If they pass the training in April and May, they will be offered a further session in July just to ensure that they are competent to do the job. I understand that the people who will train the inspectors have only the equivalent of national vocational qualification level 2 in child care, which is just above GCSE grade 4. Yet they will train inspectors to inspect nursery schools to see whether they are appropriate. I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point, because I notice that, last week,The Guardian and The Times Educational Supplement--an excellent choice by the Department for Education and Employment and Ofsted--advertised for inspectors. Before the inspectors are in place, we need to know whether the people training them have the competence and quality to do so.

New clause 1 has been cobbled together in a hurry and it has many deficiencies, not least those that I have just pointed out.

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Mr. Richards: It will come as no surprise to Conservative Members that what we have heard so far has been nothing more than a rerun of what we heard in Standing Committee--

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth): And a boring rerun, at that.

Mr. Richards: As my hon. Friend says, it has been a boring rerun, with Opposition Members seeking to find ways and means of tripping up the private and voluntary sector.

We are introducing a number of important safeguards to ensure the quality of provision at participating institutions before inspection, which means that there is no need for the provision sought in new clause 1. First,we are accepting applications only from certain categories, or types, of institutions that we are confident will be able to provide good-quality education. These include maintained schools, finally registered independent schools, local authority day nurseries and institutions registered under the Children Act 1989.

Providers registered under the Children Act have their premises inspected annually by social services departments, and maintained schools are covered by the school premises regulations.


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