Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: We are committed to early-years education, but not to any old early-years education. It has to be of the highest quality. We do not want to invest in our children's earliest years only to find that that significant extra investment and commitment were not achieving the objective of allowing children, of whatever age and at whatever stage, to achieve their potential. That is what all forms of education should be about.

It would be wrong to say to some providers that they will have access to the same resources and be subject to the same inspection regime but, because they are a small voluntary organisation or a small private-sector provider, they are not required to fulfil the same foundation stage curriculum requirements.

That is insulting to the voluntary sector. I worked in the voluntary sector throughout my working life—when I had a proper job, as some might say. As a result, I understand the voluntary sector reasonably well and believe passionately in its unique contribution to public life. I sometimes get fed up when ''voluntary'' is equated with ''amateur.''

Chris Grayling: I hope that the Minister will forgive me: I am not sure whether the word ''codswallop'' is parliamentary language. We are not discriminating between voluntary, non-voluntary and state

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provision, but are saying that a school that is doing well according to Ofsted will not be subject to the same curriculum requirements as a school that is not doing well. I should be grateful if the Minister would address our comments.

Mr. Lewis: That is not what the new clause says. In his contribution, the hon. Gentleman referred to burdens on the voluntary sector. I agree that there must be an appropriate balance between demanding a quality framework and certain standards, and not over-regulating and over-burdening a public service. I am sure that there is consensus in the Committee about that, and an acceptance that Governments, of whatever persuasion, do not always get the balance right at the first shot.

However, the hon. Gentleman specifically referred to community-based groups, grass roots organisations and voluntary organisations that will have access to the same levels of resource. It is right that such groups are funded, because they provide an innovative, responsive service to their clients. It is right that certain input and output standards should be achieved in return for state funding, which, historically, was not available to many groups. It is perfectly legitimate and reasonable for the Government to put parameters around a significant expansion of support and resources.

We are making extra investment not simply to expand volume but to increase massively the quality of early-years education provision. Even under the Conservative Government there was limited provision. It was not always of the highest quality—possibly because of the very limited state support—but the people who provided that early-years education did their best, often in very difficult circumstances, with limited access to resources. Some were entirely dependent on voluntary contributions.

Mrs. Laing: Once again, I do not disagree with the principle. The Minister is absolutely right, but he seems to have misunderstood the intention of new clause 3. It is not that there should not be guidelines, which must be drawn up if we are spending taxpayers' money, or a curriculum, but that there should be flexibility so that small children, who are not all the same, can be treated as individual people and not just as statistics according to when in the year or half year they were born. If the Minister accepts that each individual child should be treated as such, he must accept that new clause 3 is necessary to provide a degree of flexibility.

Mr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for making me aware of that. I am not confused, but was just coming to that point. We need to distinguish between over-regulation, by which we place excessive burdens on public services, including education, and demanding and expecting certain standards in return for state support and, in effect, state accreditation. By regulating, we are telling parents that they can have confidence in the provider, from whom their child will have a high quality experience.

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Mr. Turner: I am sorry that the Minister introduced that point, as that confuses the issue substantially. Registration is entirely different from regulation and accreditation. Accreditation relates to inspection, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred, and is what guarantees quality. The regulation merely guarantees that the schools can tick certain boxes, but does not guarantee quality.

Mr. Lewis: In most circumstances in which well-motivated and professional teachers and leaders provide those services, the fact that they have access to guidance helps them to deliver a quality service. Therefore, the foundation stage in the curriculum is another part of the commitment to parents that in most cases there will be access to provision that is of a higher quality than when there was no foundation stage in the national curriculum and there were not the resources that are now being invested in early-years education. Inspection will identify where that higher quality provision is missing.

The guidance on delivery of the foundation stage allows teachers and leaders of the providers more flexibility than in any other part of the national curriculum. Most providers welcome that, and that is what new clause 3 seeks to achieve. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell says that he wants a more flexible approach to the capacity to deliver the foundation stage, but he is not advocating the removal of the requirement of that stage.

Mrs. Laing: Yes.

Mr. Lewis: However, the guidance gives leaders of those groups a significant amount of discretion and flexibility to achieve the objectives and outcomes.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest referred to two-year-olds. Clause 72(2) makes it clear that the foundation stage could not begin before the child's third birthday. The hon. Lady quoted from a letter about compulsory schooling, its definition and when it begins. The Government's pledge on three and four-year-olds relates to parents who want their children to benefit from early-years education. I do not think that there is any parent in this country who believes that they have to, by law, send their child into an educational situation at the age of two, three or four. It is a slightly unfair accusation to say that by putting the foundation stage into the curriculum as part of this legislation that we have somehow blurred the edges in terms of parents' perception of when compulsory schooling begins.

Mrs. Laing: A moment ago I was intervening merely to say that it is a welcome difference from our normal proceedings for the Minister to give me a straight answer to the question. Although he has moved on to a second question, I thank him for his straight answer to my first question. In going on to the second point, I would like to clarify and point out the concerns of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which stated:

    ''the intention to extend the definition of primary education downwards to include the foundation stage and children as young as two undermines the distinction between pre and post compulsory education and may further diminish the status of parents as their children's first educators.''

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I see the Minister nodding in disagreement. That is precisely what I want him to do. I am raising this point because I want to have the Minister's assurance properly minuted as part of our deliberations in this Committee. I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government have a clear intention as to when schooling is compulsory and when schooling is not compulsory, because parents ought to know this. What is actually happening in practice is that parents are being forced to send their children to primary school reception classes much earlier than they want to, so that they can secure a place in a primary school of their choice. Therefore, that distinction between compulsory and non-compulsory education is being blurred. I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government know what they are doing there.

Mr. Lewis: I am not sure that nodding in disagreement is something that one can do. I can make it absolutely clear to be minuted, to be put on the record, and to be reported in any publication, that new Labour has no intention of introducing compulsory education for two-year-olds.

We have covered this in the contributions made by the hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell and for Epping Forest, who made a reasonable overall point about the balance between regulation and the requirement to deliver a standard. It is a reasonable point to make, but new clause 3 is not justified by the current situation. There is more flexibility than at any other stage in the national curriculum in terms of the foundation stage. It is not justified at all in terms of what is happening, nor is it desirable in terms of the kind of quality early-years education that the Government seek to deliver. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Epson and Ewell to consider withdrawing new clause 3.

The Chairman: Order. New clause 3 has not been moved, it cannot be moved yet. The only proposal before us at the moment is that clause 85 stand part of the Bill. The other items are grouped for discussion, but have not yet been moved.

Chris Grayling: In that case I shall not attempt to move new clause 3, but I shall seek from the Minister the reassurance for which I was going to ask him in return for withdrawing new clause 3. He rightly made the point that all this discussion is about the balance between over and under-regulation of an important part of our education system. I seek his assurance that over the next few weeks and months he will take the time in his busy schedule to sit down with some providers of those services and listen to the concerns that they have about over-regulation in the curriculum, and that he will act upon those concerns.

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