Education Bill

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The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief.

4.45 pm

Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I appreciate that it is a fine dividing line, but children should be aware of the spiritual dimension in their education. The absence of that is regrettable in too many places in our society. I support the aspiration behind the amendment, but it is unnecessary to impose additional curriculum requirements in this case. To prove the diversity of opinion in my party, I beg to differ from my hon. Friend.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): This is the first opportunity I have had to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike.

I understand the point of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I note that he said that the amendments were probing. My job is to assuage both his fears and those of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which is the judgment of Solomon after what they have said.

Early years providers need some flexibility so that they can deliver their own curriculum in response to the needs of children, families and their communities. In that way, they will create an effective early learning

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environment and plan an appropriate curriculum. The curriculum guidance for foundation stage, which was published in May 2000, helps practitioners to provide such a curriculum, including support for education about religion, cultural beliefs and ceremonies. The early learning goals in England and the desirable outcomes in Wales set out those elements. The Bill will require all funded early years providers to support children to achieve early learning goals or desirable outcomes. That is central to our proposals for the foundation stage. I hope that that assuages the concerns of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

However, an essential part of our approach to the foundation stage is that it includes a strong element of flexibility. It is right that all early years settings should have the flexibility to respond to the needs of the different children in their care. To accept the amendments would put that flexibility at risk, by explicitly requiring local providers to use the locally agreed RE syllabus for schools.

Mr. Turner: Does the Minister agree that the Bill does not require them to use the locally agreed syllabus in settings? It does in schools, but it allows settings to provide such education as the provider considers appropriate.

Mr. Touhig: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. However, if we were to agree to the amendments, several providers would use the local RE syllabus as a basis on which they could deliver what the amendments require.

It is right that all early years settings should have flexibility to respond to the needs of the children. My position makes further prescription unnecessary, and is supported by the Liberal Democrats and some official Opposition Members. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will feel sufficiently content to withdraw the amendments.

Mr. Turner: I congratulate the Minister on his bravery in trying to bridge the gap between myself and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I would like to take a few points further.

Clause 75 makes it clear that the Secretary of State must secure that certain functions of the national curriculum, including religious education and worship, are provided in nursery classes. With the exception of nursery schools and funded nursery education, it makes it clear that those requirements apply to nursery classes in primary schools. If the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough felt so strongly about religious indoctrination, as he put it, in early years education, I am surprised that he did not table an amendment to delete the requirement.

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman described what I was saying as requiring the promotion of faith, because it does not. The promotion of faith may be one intention with which, for example, the Roman Catholic Church establishes a playgroup in association with a Roman Catholic primary school, but the point is about religious education. There is no gap between us on that. I do not see any danger of indoctrination in the valleys or other parts of the United Kingdom, but I worry that he does

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not seem to appreciate that, although the early learning goals and desirable outcomes do not specify a curriculum in detail, they specify some points about what the Secretary of State is putting a considerable amount of money into and the reasons why she is doing that.

I noted carefully the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, but I am concerned that he is once again showing a certain hostility to religious education. The amendment would do no more than requiring all nursery schools and early years settings to do what the best do—that is not an unreasonable aspiration—and give a basic understanding of, for example, the Christmas story, if they are in association with a Christian school or if there is no prevalent faith in that setting, or other stories where the provision is by another faith group.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Grayling), I accept that there is a danger of over-regulation of the early years system. Indeed, I said as much in a debate in Westminster Hall. However, the spiritual development of youngsters is one of the most important functions with which we can assist, and I am concerned about the conflict between an all-embracing, a la carte view of religious education, which is far more than youngsters of that age are usually capable of accepting, and a clear understanding of the faith in which they have been brought up or, if they have not been brought up in any faith, the prevalent faith in this country. That said, the Minister has succeeded, at least, in bridging the gap between him and me, although the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is still perhaps a little way off. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Laing: I should simply like to ask the Minister one swift question. The clause is concerned with interpretation and definition, and I have noted that the word ''maturities'' is used repeatedly throughout part 6. For example, one of the definitions in clause 72 reads:

    '''attainment targets', in relation to a key stage, means the knowledge, skills and understanding which pupils of different abilities and maturities are expected to have by the end of that stage''.

I am sure that that is meant to mean something specific. That is why it is described as such in the Bill. I hope that it is, because if not it should not be there. I also assume that ''maturities'', does not mean the same as ''ages''. If it did, even in the jargon-bound world of the Department for Education and Skills, surely it would say ''ages''.

The Under-Secretary scoffs, but the one thing on which we must agree is that the world and the DFES are full of jargon. We should not work in jargon but in phrases that people can understand. Those who have to interpret a Bill such as this, including those who teach or run education establishments, should be able to do so just by looking at it. I am willing to accept that the word ''ages'' would not necessarily fit into this

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description in place of ''maturities''. I do not suggest that it should, because I certainly accept that one child aged two years, five months and three weeks will not necessarily be at the same stage of development as another child of exactly the same age. I assume that to be the reason for the word ''maturities''. It is used not only in line 25 but repeatedly throughout part 6. I cannot tell from the Bill what it means. If others can, I should like to know. We deserve an explanation from the Minister about its exact meaning and why it is being used.

Mr. Touhig: In a previous incarnation as a councillor in Gwent, I once saw a report that described a pelican crossing as a pedestrian-assisted access way. We need to be careful about jargon and the words that we use. I take on board the point that the hon. Lady makes. The word ''maturities'' can cover a range of things, including age, ability and behaviour. As a father of four, I know that my children matured at different rates. It is quite a broad term. It is clear that children mature, by whatever target we set, at different times and at different ages. We are seeking to take account of that.

We are all on a steep learning curve in relation to early years learning. We place great importance on it, which is why we have the foundation stage. I have twin granddaughters who are eight. They are like little sponges. They take on board the most extraordinary things. We all find that as parents and grandparents, and see it in children in our schools. That is the broadest explanation that I can give the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that the Minister has attempted to answer my question in a genuine way. I agree with everything he said. But how is that word, which is used again and again, to be interpreted? I did not table an amendment suggesting an alternative because I genuinely did not know what the Government meant by the term. Is the Bill to be read in conjunction with the Minister's words in Committee, or will the Government take steps to clarify to those who have to interpret the Bill what this word means?

Mr. Turner: I am intrigued by my hon. Friend's argument and by the Minister's answer. The word ''maturities'' in a physical context is relatively easy to understand, but in a developmental context, the word will be of great interest when we are considering the definition in clause 72 because we are looking at attainment targets. The definition as it applies in clause 72 suggests to me that different attainment targets will be set for pupils of different abilities and different developmental stages. Perhaps ''maturities'' means developmental stages in the psychological context?

I am very glad to see the word ''maturities'' if it means what my hon. Friend has suggested as it would give greater scope to the providers of education to take account of the different developmental ages of different pupils. Like my hon. Friend, however, I am still intrigued to hear further from the Minister.

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