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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab) rose—

Helen Goodman rose—

Mrs. May: I am going to make some progress.

Babies develop at their own pace and learn to walk, talk and understand their surroundings at their own pace. That is what nature dictates. Children grow at their own pace and it is wrong to tell parents that anything other than that is expected. As Deborah Lawson, chairman of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, has said:

Mrs. Humble: Clause 41 introduces the learning and development requirements, and I note that it specifically points out that young children have "different abilities and maturities". It also lists simple developmental goals. We are not here talking about educational attainment, but about the development of a young child, which is what health visitors and the like already look into now.

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady says that she has looked at clause 41, but I suggest that she look at clause 41(2)(b) more carefully. The educational background to the provision is clear, because it refers to

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Mrs. Humble rose—

Michael Connarty rose—

Helen Goodman rose—

Mrs. May: No, I am going to make some more progress. I am going to return to the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses and I suggest that it would be good if the Secretary of State listened to the professionals out there, whose concerns about the Bill are evident. Deborah Lawson, chairman of the PANN section committee has said:

Similarly, Peter Moss, professor of early childhood provision at the Institute of Education in London—not known, I have to say, as a hotbed of conservatism—has said that we risk creating

That is yet another example of the Government's mechanistic, target-driven approach to development.

It is time, I believe, that the Government stood back and allowed children to enjoy their childhood and grow up at their own pace rather than forcing them into formalised learning. It is simply ridiculous to impose a national curriculum for children from birth. I wonder what is next on the Minister's agenda—testing for two-year-olds? It is not only the experts at the Institute of Education or those who are working professionally with children who take this viewpoint. Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations has also said:

Another example comes from June O'Sullivan, chief executive of the Westminster Children's Society, who said:

Michael Connarty: I do not really want to interrupt the right hon. Lady's fantasy, but she really must look north. There has been a zero to eight curriculum in Scotland for a decade, which has proved beneficial to the educational process and the life chances of children in Scotland. The right hon. Lady should not disparage what she does not understand.

Mrs. May: I was going to make a reference to the hon. Gentleman—who has of course himself gone through education in Scotland, I assume—but perhaps I had better not.
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I hope that the Government will work with us in Committee to ensure that it is parents and children themselves who set the pace at which children develop, not the DFES.

Michael Connarty: Could the right hon. Lady please explain her earlier remark? I do not understand what she was trying to get at.

Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman is unable to take a light-hearted and off-the-cuff remark relating to education—[Interruption.] Sadly, this House does not have responsibility for what happens in education in Scotland. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman: do not listen just to me; listen to the professionals here in England who are working with children; listen to those who are saying clearly that they are concerned about the Bill's proposals. I also suggest that he look at the experience of continental countries, where formal education starts much later than, and where results are often far better than, in the UK.

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I do not want Members to feel that they are being misled. Has the right hon. Lady read the framework document, "Birth to three matters", which will be incorporated in the new foundation stage? It states that the framework

It is entirely play-based and focused on what young children like to do.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Minister for her intervention. When she winds up, perhaps she could explain how that document ties in with what the Government have included in this Bill—the legislative framework within which everybody will operate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said earlier, we are very conscious of the number of occasions on which what the Government say they will do, and what they do in the Bill in question, are very different. Our interest is the future of children. When the Minister winds up, I hope that she will address the issue of children being allowed their childhood in which to develop at their own pace, and not according to a developmental framework set by Ministers in this Government.

Helen Goodman: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No. As I said, I hope that in Committee, the Government will work with us to ensure that it is parents and children themselves who set the pace of development, and not the DFES.

I want briefly to mention a final issue relating to this Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) will doubtless want to discuss when he winds up, given that he has done so much excellent work on it: children in the care of the state, or looked-after children, as they are known.

Mr. Hurd: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success of this Government's strategy depends on the
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quality and motivation of those providing care, and does she share my concern about the Government's silence this afternoon on the investment required to upgrade skills in a sector where pay rates are low and, apparently, 40 per cent. of nursery assistants have no GCSEs?

Mrs. May: I entirely agree with the extremely valid point that my hon. Friend makes. Quality is a key issue that is raised consistently by child care sector professionals. They are concerned that the drive for numbers could lead to a reduction in quality, rather than providing the quality necessary.

On the question of quality, I am afraid that, frankly, the state's record in caring for looked-after children is shameful. This Bill talks about the well-being of children. It gives specific duties to local authorities relating not only to child care provision, but to the overall concern of the well-being of children. It also makes specific reference to local authorities' social services responsibilities. Today, more than 60,000 children are in the care of the state—the highest number for 20 years—but to call these children "looked-after" is verging on an offence under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. One in 10 children in care misses 25 days of school or more a year. Six in 10 children leave care without a single GCSE to their name and only 1 per cent. of children in care go on to university. The Government have set a target for 75 per cent. of children leaving care to achieve a single GCSE, but the Government have failed miserably to achieve even that target. In a sense, that the Government have failed to achieve that target is not what should lead us into action. What should force us to take action is the acceptance by the Government that a single GCSE, just one qualification, in any way equips those young and vulnerable people for a life in the real world.

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