Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness said "the two Members who turned up" in such a manner as to imply considerable criticism of my noble friend Lady Young. I assure the noble Baroness that my noble friend Lady Young sent me a note to say that she deeply apologises for the fact that she was unable to be here this afternoon. She was expecting to be here but other commitments went on longer than she was expecting and she was originally expecting, as many of us were, that this debate would take place considerably later--probably at an hour not dissimilar to this. For that reason she put down her name to speak but unforeseen circumstances--the shortness of the proceedings on the Education (Scotland) Bill--prevented her coming.

Baroness David: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that explanation. I have no doubt that he missed the noble Baroness, Lady Young, a great deal.

Like most noble Lords, I have been overwhelmed by the number of letters I have received on the Bill, all strongly opposed to it. But still we hear Ministers declaring that they are extending choice, that parents are the prime consideration and that it is their requirements that must be met.

20 May 1996 : Column 702

In a response in another place to a proposal that an expansion of places should build on the good practice developed in many local authorities in partnership with voluntary and private sectors, Robin Squire replied,

    "These proposals were at odds with our desire to put parents in the driving seat. It is parents who, through their demand for the type of places that they want for their children, will be the driving force behind the expansion of services in any given area. Parents may or may not want that expansion to occur in the maintained sector".--[Official Report, Commons, 13/2/96; col. 256.]

In the light of that, I propose to quote from a recently received letter from a parent:

    "I am a parent of young children and am extremely concerned about the proposed voucher scheme. John Major said in 1994 that parents and practitioners should be consulted. I have seen little evidence of this. I live in Solihull--and we presented a petition with 11,500 names expressing our concern ... I have not heard one practitioner speak in favour of this scheme.

    "How can the Government speak of 'high quality education' for four year olds when it proposes having such a mixture of 'providers' (from qualified teachers with appropriate support in maintained nurseries and reception classes and nursery schools to playgroups--the DFEE in its 'Next Steps' document even suggests that childminders can get together to open a nursery!)...research points to qualified teachers with appropriate support being able to provide an appropriate curriculum (High Scope--and the Newcastle research)".
That was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Walton.

The letter continues:

    "Quality is meant to come under the control of OFSTED. The requirements for the new Inspectors are again as variable as the proposed providers. There is the possibility that a person with an NVQ in childcare could be assessing a teacher of degree level. And 'Desirable Outcomes' are not the same as educational processes...

    "The parents in Solihull do not want these vouchers. The 'Solihull Amendment' was voted against at the Third Reading. If parents are to have 'choice' I see no reason why parents cannot vote on this issue--similar to that of Grant Maintained status--allowing the LEA to 'opt out' if that is the majority wish."

This letter puts the arguments I would wish to put against the Bill better than I could, and I endorse them all. She goes on to say,

    "There is to be no extra resources for Special Educational Needs".

It is on that subject that I would like to address my remarks. The Special Education Consortium was set up at the time of the Education Act 1993. It is a group of 140 organisations that came together to protect and promote the interests of children with special educational needs. It has been a most effective body. But it is very critical of the Bill. It welcomes the injection of £185 million of new money into the system. However, it believes that proposals will not lead to the development of good quality provision for children with special needs. Indeed, it fears significant harm may be done to the provision for them. They are particularly concerned for those children who do not have a statement (perhaps 18 per cent.). Many of these children now receive additional support through home-teaching schemes, early access to nursery education (often at three years of age), and informal access to the additional expertise in support services.

This support is threatened, first, by the reduced ability of LEAs to plan services, with a predictable budget made available to them at the beginning of the financial year; secondly, the focus on four year-olds which will

20 May 1996 : Column 703

mean that, in areas where the provision for four year-olds is not universal, places for three year-olds with special needs will go to four year-olds.

The effect of this is likely to be that more parents of children under five will seek a statutory assessment and a statement, to make sure to gain access to appropriate resources. Any increase in early statements will have some undesirable consequences: first, a higher percentage of LEA budgets will be tied up in fixed commitments to individual children; secondly, a reduction in the ability of LEAs to deploy resources for preventive work; and, thirdly, the likelihood of increased use of appeals to the SEN tribunal.

Most of your Lordships here today will remember the care and hard work of Ministers (particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch) and of noble Lords (particularly Lady Faithfull, whom we so sadly miss today--she did not approve of this Bill) in creating in 1993 the code of practice for coping with children with special needs.

The code of practice has been working well and is seen to be effective because of the requirement in the Act to

    "have regard to the code"
as a condition of grant. Much was made in another place of the fact that the code was developed on the basis of existing good practice in the maintained sector. The Government have argued that it is not necessarily possible to apply the code, as it stands, to the voluntary and private sectors. The special consortium believes that it is possible for all providers of early years education to work with the code from the start of this scheme and it is important that they should. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, made that point.

In the current proposals, all providers will be required to publish their policy. This will cover the admissions policy, the facilities that exist for children with special needs, knowledge and skills in special needs and the links with agencies. However, the consortium argues that unless policies are developed in the light of the code, they may merely become a description of inappropriate or unacceptable practices.

There is anxiety about what will happen in reception classes. There will be incentives to increase the number of four year-olds in them. The consortium is concerned that an enlarged reception class may not be the best setting for four year-olds with special needs, particularly for the youngest of them. In a nursery class or school, class size has been limited in two ways: by the pupil/adult ratio, by a recommendation that half the adults should be teachers; and by the 1981 regulations on teaching accommodation and recreational space. Reception classes, however, are not limited in these ways. There is cause for anxiety here, particularly as the 1981 regulations are to be replaced in September. Anxiety is also expressed on the inspection arrangements. But we shall follow up all these points in Committee. With the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I hope very much that we shall get the provisions for children with these special needs made much clearer in the Bill.

I want to turn to one other matter in which I have had an interest for a very long time, and that is corporal punishment. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and

20 May 1996 : Column 704

I have been in correspondence with the Department for Education and Employment over the question of corporal punishment in early years care and education and in private education generally. We are very concerned at what we understand to be the Government's position.

It is our understanding that instead of making a clear requirement that institutions providing early years care and education, including those involved in the voucher scheme, must not use corporal punishment, the current proposal is only to require that institutions in the scheme do not use corporal punishment on "voucher-bearing" children. This would leave a range of institutions free if they wish to use corporal punishment on other young children. This flies in the face of two formal recommendations which the Government have received from the highest relevant authorities on human rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January last year and the UN Human Rights Committee in July, formally recommended that the Government should extend prohibition of corporal punishment to cover all pupils in the private sector. We tell other countries they must respect international human rights and the decisions of monitoring bodies. Surely this demands that we should respect them ourselves.

The Government's approach to the issue represents a depressing U-turn from their own policy expressed so clearly last year in the initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which states,

    "The Government's policy on the physical punishment of children is that it has no place in the child care environment, and this has been implemented in England and Wales through the Children Act Regulations and Guidance".
If it has no place in the child care environment, why are the Government not legislating to prohibit it? It is true that the guidance issued under the Children Act on "Family Support, Day Care and Educational Provision for Young Children" does state that corporal punishment should not be used in Children Act institutions, but, as the Government say, that is merely guidance.

We do not want to hear any more bogus arguments about parents' rights to pay to have their children beaten in private institutions. The rights that parents have derive from their responsibilities for their child's welfare. As the Minister will know, all the organisations concerned with early years care and education are strongly against all corporal punishment. The NSPCC is most concerned about this issue. And in the private schools sector, both the HMC and the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools favour extending abolition to cover all pupils.

We would like an assurance from the Minister that this matter will be urgently reconsidered; that the Government will accept their international obligations and take this opportunity to at least protect all children in early years care and education wherever there may be institutional corporal punishment.

My final word is to remind your Lordships that the home is also a nursery for young children and that training and support should be available to parents as a child's first and most important educator. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, referred to that. Although good professional nursery education provides many

20 May 1996 : Column 705

benefits that children cannot get at home, we also need to support parents as educators in their own right. There is considerable evidence that parental support and encouragement at home have more influence on educational attainment than school factors, regardless of social class. The other side of the equation is the evidence that lack of parental support and poor parenting are major factors in criminal behaviour, mental illness, child abuse and family breakdown. We also have to remember that there are over 30,000 children on the child protection register.

The message that I want to give to the House is that parents are educators and they are entitled to training and support. We intend to bring forward amendments in Committee to make grants available for parenting education programmes. I hope that they will have your Lordships' support.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken have supported the Government's enthusiasm for nursery education for four year-olds. I endorse that enthusiasm, but with the qualifications which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, made. The advantages of nursery education are very much more marked in the case of children who are deprived of the support that they need from their families and are very much more marked when the quality of the nursery education is very high.

I am afraid that I shall infuriate my friends on the Opposition Benches by saying that I strongly welcome and support the voucher experiment--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page