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27 Nov 2002 : Column 429—continued

10.21 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise an issue of growing concern in my constituency, and I expect in the constituencies of many other hon. Members.

I was slightly surprised to be told that the Minister responding to the debate on behalf of the Government would be the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I mean no disrespect to her, as I know that she is diligent and effective—and I am looking forward to hearing her response. However, I am raising the problem of the huge bureaucratic burdens faced by pre-schools, many of which are imposed by the Department for Education and Skills. How can a Minister who does not sit in that Department really help to put that right?

I am talking about children under five, and some of them are as young as two. Even in this Prime Minister's Britain, none of them works and certainly none of them has a pension. There are five Education Ministers in the House of Commons. One of them, the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), is meant to have a brain the size of a football pitch. Surely he could dedicate just one part of it to pre-schools. However, although I look forward to the answer, I suspect that it will be that this is Xpartnership working between Departments" or even, heaven help us, Xjoined-up Government". If it is, I am not sure yet that I am in favour of it.

Pre-schools and nurseries in my west Oxfordshire constituency provide a magnificent service for children, parents and the wider community. The Government often talk about the need for diversity and choice. This is the one area in education where we already have it. There are, as it were, a thousand points of light—some provided by the state, some are private and some voluntary, and many are collaborations between parents and supervisors.

As Sue Harrison, of the fabulously named Blackditch Bunnies pre-school in Stanton Harcourt, explained:

I have been hugely impressed by what I have seen in Witney, North Leigh and elsewhere in my constituency—dedicated staff, contented parents and children getting a first-class foundation to their education.

So why the need for this short debate? I want to raise two important concerns. First, it is quite clear that the pre-school sector is suffering from over-regulation. Some of the best providers are in danger of being strangled by the red tape. Angela Buckingham of North Leigh nursery told me that she comes close to

Linda Trigg of Cherubs in the Wychwoods says that she is too often

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Sue Moore, from the Farm House nursery in Witney, told me that eight and half years ago, when she set up her nursery, she spent two hours a week on paperwork. Now it is every day, and sometimes all day. As she put it:

There are a number of specific areas that are causing this problem. Ofsted inspections have replaced social service inspections. They are much more paper based and they take place, in most cases, every year. Primary schools, by contrast, are not inspected so frequently. The response can take months. One pre-school inspected this January has still not received a written response.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I wonder whether it will surprise my hon. Friend to learn what happened to my constituent Anne Beckwith, proprietor of the Discovery nursery in Diss, when she was trying to set up the nursery. Several months after she had completed all the paperwork that Ofsted had asked her to complete, several months after she had answered all the questions and, indeed, several months after being told by Ofsted that she had fulfilled all its requirements, she still could not get the go-ahead. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging the Government to look seriously at Ofsted's procedures, which are clearly too bureaucratic?

Mr. Cameron: I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend say that, because it accords with the thrust of what I am saying. It is all taking too long, the burden is too heavy, and as a result we are in danger of losing some very good pre-school facilities.

Pre-schools have to draw up dozens of policies and procedures. Although some may have only 20 or so children, they are required to have—at the last count—20 policies and four procedures, including policies on record keeping, equal opportunities, behaviour management and much else.

Another subject that arises time and again in conversation with supervisors and staff at pre-schools is child profiles. I know that they are necessary, but they currently run to 16 pages per child, and some pre-schools do not find them particularly useful. The pre-school in Stanton Harcourt that I mentioned runs its own system alongside the official one. Every supervisor to whom I have spoken agrees that all the profiles could be slimmed down without child safety or protection being affected. Of course pre-schools must be equal opportunities employers, and of course they must have regard to such things as safety, but would not a single brief statement outlining the position be sufficient, rather than a myriad? I ask the Minister to tell the Department to consider its own role in creating much of all that paper.

There is also a degree of doubling up. Much of the form filling is so that pre-schools can become accredited. Many of the smaller pre-schools want that status because they do not want to be seen as second class; but they ask whether, if they are inspected by Ofsted, that is not enough. I would be grateful if the Minister could look at that specifically.

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Sue Harrison wrote a very good letter to The Independent. I do not always read The Independent, so I do not know whether it was published, but this is what she said:

The supervisors to whom I spoke singled out Ofsted for its habit of using four pages when just one would do. Adrienne Willsdon, the supervisor of Kiddiwinks nursery in Charlbury, said that the registration forms from Ofsted were like booklets, when in fact the name, address, contact details and basic information about the child were all that was really required. The paperwork is not just a burden on staff; it has a knock-on effect on funding and on governing bodies or parents' committees.

Many pre-schools have no funds for a computer, but how can they be expected to draw up policies, operational plans and the like without one? What happens is that that is done by the supervisor or the committee secretary on his or her own computer at home. If, by some unhappy chance, they leave, much of the information may be lost for good. All that is deterring parents from taking part. One supervisor told me:

The types of paperwork, the forms and the bureaucracy keep changing. The principal teacher of St Hugh of Lincoln nursery school in Curbridge told me:

The second issue I want to raise is the concern that has been expressed about a proposal that all four-year-olds should go to primary school at a single point of entry. Although the proposal comes from the Oxfordshire local education authority, I understand that it is in line with Government thinking on the foundation stage. The LEA, which has, as ever, been helpful in answering my questions, listed a number of advantages, including the belief that the approach would

Having listened to the views of many pre-schools, I fear that it could have harmful effects, particularly for provision in my very rural constituency.

Many of the pre-schools in west Oxfordshire are small. Without the four-year-olds, the pre-schools in some villages may not survive. If that happens, valuable provision for children of two and a half and three would be lost altogether. One pre-school representative was quite frank, saying that if four-year-olds were absorbed

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into the school, the loss of funding would kill the pre-school without any doubt. Another pointed out that had the policy been in place last year, 20 out of the 30 children would have left in one go, threatening the viability of the pre-school. The Farm House nursery in Witney said that it might lose half of its 28 children. It said that there simply are not enough children of two and a half and three to go round. Pre-schools and nurseries could close. That could have knock-on effects on other provision in our villages.

A letter from the Finstock village hall committee makes the point about the Woodpecker pre-school, which shares its facilities:

I accept that pre-schools are not unanimous about this. Some that I have spoken to, particularly in one or two of the larger villages, believe that they will be able to cope with the change. There is also the question of whether the smaller village primary schools will be able to manage with the change once it has taken place.

As a briefing note sent to me by David Smith, the private sector representative on Oxfordshire's early years development and child care partnership puts it, these schools

He concludes that

The LEA is clear that

I fear that in rural areas the exact opposite might happen and that there will be less choice and less capacity. The LEA says that such a change will

Arguments in favour of tidiness are never the strongest.

I know that it will be argued that parents have a choice. Yes, they do—no child has to go to school before the age of five. However, in the case of popular village schools, parents will always be nervous that if they do not take what is on offer when their child is four, they will miss the boat altogether. That point was made by one of the governors of the ACE centre at Chipping Norton during the public consultation.

I urge caution in this area and look forward to what the Minister has to say about the Government's view on the difficult issue of the age at which it is right for children to go to school. The proposal for the single point of entry for four-year-olds opens up the debate on what sort of provision is right for children. I tread carefully here—I am no expert. I have just the one child, and he is only seven months old. However, the points that have been made to me about whether the quality of provision in primary schools will be as good as what is on offer in dedicated pre-schools are worth making.

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Sue Gibson from the Daffodil nursery in Long Hanborough, among others, expressed some concerns. The first is over staffing levels. In pre-schools, the supervisor-to-child ratio tends to be 8:1; in primary schools it is more like 13:1, with classes of 26 run by a teacher with a learning support assistant.

The second concern is over content. Pre-schools are experts in learning through play. Of course, primary schools that do not have early years provision will be able to develop it. However, there is a danger of reinventing the wheel or—to mix my metaphors and find a more appropriate one—throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The third concern is whether primary schools can cope with all the needs of four-year-olds. As many supervisors have told me, some four-year-olds are ready for school, while others still need nurturing more than teaching. Maggie McClay, from St. Peter's nursery in Filkins in my constituency, made this point with real concern. In small schools, will they have to share classes with older children? How will that work? Will children be moved too quickly into years one, two and three?

Another need that most pre-schools and nurseries can provide, but not all primary schools do, is access to outside space. A meeting was held in Witney on 8 October by the LEA to consult about this. I have a copy of the minutes. One pre-school supervisor who was there told me that, interestingly, none of the primary school representatives from west Oxfordshire who attended the meeting welcomed the change, and the minutes seem to bear that out. I know that this is a difficult issue and the LEA is still thinking about it. From what I have heard—and I have spoken to as many pre-schools and nurseries as possible in the past two days—the case for change is still to be made.

I would like to end with one further plea. Although pre-schools and nurseries do a wonderful job, as I hope I have demonstrated, they are often short of money for buildings. The LEA has told me that Oxfordshire received £220,000, this year and next, to increase capacity for the whole county. That is only likely to be enough for one project in each area. Clearly, if we are to embark on the huge change of providing a single point of access for all four-year-olds, there will be an enormous need for new facilities. That is why I say that it may be better not to change.

Many pre-schools still have to move heaven and earth to raise funds. One project with which I have been helping, the Little Oak pre-school in Witney, has a temporary classroom that is rotting away. We have had no help from anybody, but we have managed to find a construction company, Persimmon, which has given us another second-hand building. I thank it for its generosity; it is great that a company is doing something for a community like that.

The building is just the start, however. It must be transported, made ready and kitted out. The parents and teachers working on this project have shown incredible dedication. Their reward, and the reward of all who work in this vital sector, should be congratulation and support from both central Government and the LEA. I fear that, at present, those involved in pre-schools are instead suffering from over-regulation and change that may not only be unnecessary but damaging.

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I want to end by quoting again from Sue Harrison's letter about her experience in the Blackditch Bunnies pre-school in Stanton Harcourt:

I beg the Minister to recognise that when we have a sector that demonstrates such diversity, such inventiveness and such a high standard of care, we should do what we can to nurture it rather than damage it.

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