Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments: she makes an important point. Government should not be expected to contribute large amounts of money to the early years sector without a say in how it is spent in the management of pre-schools. That would be an absurd extreme. I am concerned that the Government have moved to the other extreme: placing curriculum and regulatory requirements that are too onerous on those groups. We are considering an environment such as a church hall where groups of kids play with plasticine or train sets, and do painting. I have seen manuals that suggest that if children go outside and play in the leaves it will give them a sense of momentum and direction. Those thick manuals that contain detailed analysis of individual child behaviour put into fine detail what belongs to common sense.

It is impossible for staff to devote time in their paid working hours to absorbing and managing information. I have seen detailed curriculum plans and day-by-day lesson plans for individual pupils, which push voluntary organisations in informal environments too far towards formality. The proprietors of the groups tell me that that is making it more difficult to attract staff, and more difficult to do the job, which is ultimately putting their groups in jeopardy. That will not be universally true, but we cannot afford to lose pre-school groups. We are making their lives too difficult.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I was a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment and the Education Sub-Committee during the last session. The Committee produced an early years report. Among a host of issues, with which I am sure that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will be familiar, was the question of

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whether those responsible for supervising and managing such groups should be qualified. Could someone unqualified be trusted?

Difficulties have arisen in my constituency because a number of gifted amateurs are part of the provision. Although I recognise that qualifications may be desirable, the demands of the timetable—the ability and the inclination to carry it out—are such that one playschool has closed in my constituency, and two others are under threat. It is an increasing concern, and that is why I support my hon. Friend's new clause.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for that example. The framework and inspection should establish whether the children are well looked after and happy. Small children are spending time away from their parents in a strange environment. Are they happy in that environment? Are they receiving guidance, and a range of activities that help them to develop their skills? Those are the questions that I would want an Ofsted inspector examining a pre-school group to ask. Ofsted inspectors should not have to go through detailed study plans for three-year-olds line by line.

The new clause would not remove the Government's right to inspect, or its right to say how things should be done, whether a particular playgroup is functioning appropriately and whether the children are getting the attention they need, deserve and must have. In keeping with the principles that the Minister has set out for other parts of our education system, particularly for secondary schools and the opt-out rights that the Bill provides for them, if Ofsted is satisfied that a pre-school group is performing effectively we should be providing guidelines, not imposing requirements.

Caroline Flint: That is different to what is being proposed in the new clause. There is an argument about what Ofsted inspection criteria should apply. I have some sympathy with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about the buildings in which different groups operate. We have made Ofsted inspections of primary and secondary schools more light touch, although that is more of an issue for Ofsted inspections of early-years education and the criteria used. That is better than having a clause in the Bill that allows an opt-out.

Although I have some sympathy with the main point about what inspection regime should apply to nursery education, I do not think we should have a clause in the Bill whereby we could end up with a fairly erratic procedure that does not deal with the main issue.

Chris Grayling: The reason for highlighting Ofsted is that it is the tool that the Government use to monitor whether a nursery is performing well and whether its standards are acceptable. They are inextricably linked, although I would want to have the same debate about the exact nature of the inspections that are provided.

If it is accepted by the relevant authorities—which in this case would be Ofsted because that is who would carry out inspections on the ground—that a pre-school group or nursery is well run, and that the children are being looked after and developed effectively, it should

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be able to say, ''We don't need to adapt what we are doing or to spend huge amounts of time going through detailed lesson plans, because the inspectors have come in and seen what we are doing, and have said that the school is great and is working well.''

That is what I am seeking to achieve through the new clause. I believe that the Government are imposing unnecessary paperwork even when a pre-school group is well run. This is a classic case of lesson plans being drawn up for inspection even though the inspector may never look at them, except to have a quick glance through them. They are often an unnecessary additional work load for people who are already hard pressed. That is particularly so in areas where it is not easy to find staff, and where groups often depend on mothers helping out as volunteers. It is simply not necessary to regulate those groups unless there is evidence that they are under-performing.

I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to allowing less constraints as opposed to the rigidity of the foundation stage curriculum. Manuals several inches thick are required even if Ofsted says that a pre-school group is doing fine, and is looking after and developing its children well. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has just used the key phrase ''the rigidity of the pre-school age curriculum''. That is the point that we are all concerned about. It is because of the increasing rigidity of that curriculum that new clause 3 is necessary.

I have become increasingly concerned that the dividing line between compulsory and non-compulsory schooling is becoming very unclear. It used to be clear that schooling began at five, and we quite rightly talked about rising fives, but now we are entrenching in the Bill the need for pre-school education. In the remarks I made and the questions I asked about 10 minutes ago I was trying to pin the Minister down on this point, which for clarity I shall repeat. I am certainly in favour of including pre-school measures in the Bill, and am pleased at the Government's commitment to pre-school provision, which the Minister reiterated a few moments ago. However, the problem is that if we are too rigid, we will end up with a system that tries to fit the child—even a very small child—into the system, rather than the system fitting around the child.

5.45 pm

I have been looking into this matter, and one of the groups from which I have taken advice is the Pre-school Learning Alliance. It says that:

    ''Moves such as extending the National Curriculum to include the foundation stage taught to children aged between 2 years and 5 years could undermine further the already growing perception that compulsory schooling begins before 5.''

That may be a reasonable thing to do, but the alliance goes on to explain the difficulties. I am sure that the Minister will understand my worry, and why I support my hon. Friend's new clause, which would bring more flexibility into the system. The Pre-school Learning Alliance said:

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''Currently, the foundation stage is defined as starting at 3 and finishing at the end of the reception year. The Bill proposes defining the start and end of the foundation year entirely by reference to the school year rather than the age of the child. For some children, the start of the foundation stage will be when they are 2. Many parents will view this with concern.''

I echo that feeling. Many parents would view with concern the idea that the foundation stage could start when their child was two years old. For children born in August and entering reception classes when they are just four years old, the foundation stage will end the following July when they are not yet five. We should admit that that is a problem. Children are born at different times of the year. There are 365 days in a year, but only three or four days when a child can start a term. That has always been a problem. We are setting down rules for very small children. I welcome a semi-compulsory education provision for pre-school children. However, if we make the system too rigid, it will not benefit the children who should be taking advantage of it. That is why my hon. Friend's new clause is necessary.

If pre-school nurseries and other groups have the freedom to modify curriculum provisions, the problem will be solved. The provider will be able to ascertain that a certain group of children who officially fall into such-and-such a category are, for example, three or four months younger. To use the phrase that we used earlier, their maturities would not fit with what is laid down in part of the curriculum. Therefore, we need to have the freedom to modify the curriculum for them.

I hope that the Minister recognises that I am trying to be helpful. I support the new clause, because it would introduce flexibility and enable providers, most of whom are responsible and know what they are doing, to modify the provision to suit the children in their care.

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