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Baroness David: My Lords, I should like to support this amendment very strongly. The noble Baroness mentioned children with special educational needs. I would like to emphasise this point: the Special Educational Consortium, which is made up of 140 organisations that have special interests in those children, is particularly anxious about what would happen if this initial inspection does not take place.

Those who have not previously provided educational inspection by Ofsted may not be able to make available an educational programme capable of identifying and meeting the needs of young children with special needs. The consortium recognises that there are two types of new provider. Some have been offering care and/or play facilities and are already subject to inspection under the Children Act, though not to educational inspection under

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Ofsted. Others are entirely new providers with no previous track record. The greatest concern the special consortium has is about this second group of new providers. Among them may be some who are entering the market to make a fast buck and will be able to set up and draw money from the scheme with impunity. It is most important that young children should be safeguarded against such providers. Registration and initial inspection, as proposed in the amendment, should provide such a safeguard.

The consortium argues that providers should return the completed self-assessment schedule as part of the initial validation process, and the arguments are strong. The schedule is largely wasted if it is not returned. There is nothing in the current proposals to ensure that providers complete it, discuss it or even read it. It has potential as a useful tool for self-improvement where it is used to identify areas for development. It could be a useful baseline for inspection. It asks some very important questions about special educational provision and it will be taken more seriously by providers if it has to be completed and returned. It seems to me quite wrong that it should not be completed and returned.

In addition, the assumption underlying the original consultation on quality assurance was that the self-assessment schedule would be completed and returned. SEC understands that Ofsted may be sympathetic to the use of the schedule in this way. A range of providers support its use in this way, not wishing to see standards lowered by those who are unable or unwilling to reflect on the quality of their own practice.

The consortium is encouraged by the fact that many of the features identified will be incorporated into the voucher scheme in Scotland. So if they can do it in Scotland it seems to me quite ridiculous that we should not follow that excellent example in England.

I support this amendment very strongly and I hope the Government can look favourably on it. It seems to me of the utmost importance.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I should like to add my voice briefly to those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Warnock and Lady David. I support the arguments they have put forward and would like to ask what has been the experience during the pilot study of this self-assessment programme. My information is that checks have not been made and that the forms are still with the providers. We should like reassurance that at the present moment at least what is supposed to be happening is happening. But basically we support the proposal that we should have inspection before registration, as in these amendments.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in rising to support these amendments I would point out the need to recognise the public perception of the situation. Because we are all here going through the detail and we have the benefit of government explanation of how things will work and how things will change, we are in a very privileged position. But the vast majority of the population are not in that situation. The parents of very young children will be presented with nursery vouchers

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which they will be able to present to providers of nursery education in exchange for provision for their young children. The expectation of those parents is that the nursery provision to be obtained on the basis of the nursery vouchers will be validated, tested and ensured to be of a certain quality.

The only two other examples, in our experience, that I can think of are milk tokens and luncheon vouchers. If one exchanges milk tokens for milk, one knows--the culture of our experience is--that you will get tuberculin-tested milk. It will be quality assured; it will be to a high standard. If one receives luncheon vouchers and takes them to the local cafe, restaurant or sandwich bar, one knows that the food will be prepared under fairly stringent trading standards regulations, hygiene regulations and so on. If a new sandwich bar opens in the neighbourhood and we take our luncheon vouchers to the sandwich bar, we know that the food we will receive in exchange will be to a standard determined by government inspection and control to a large extent. That is the cultural expectation that parents will have of this new nursery voucher scheme. They will presume that the new providers of nursery schooling for their young children will be tested and inspected to a high quality standard because that is the culture of our British experience. If we do not enshrine that in the legislation and ensure that that careful inspection--and control to a certain extent--is undertaken, we will be mis-selling a product to the British people and that would be wrong.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I have listened with great care to what noble Lords opposite have said about this amendment and the linked amendments. I am bound to say that it is difficult to see that this is not another attempt to delay the implementation of the Bill. That is a matter of deep regret, certainly on my part, because I believe in nursery education and I saw this Bill as a way of increasing the provision of it, which is what I think it will do. I find it strange that all those who for so long have argued in favour of nursery education look continuously for ways of slowing up the procedures under this scheme.

There is no doubt that a lot of parents have been made anxious about the scheme. A lot of parents to my certain knowledge have been made anxious about grant-maintained schools, with strong campaigning against them and, I suspect from some of the literature that I have been sent, that a lot of parents have been made anxious about this scheme. That is very unfortunate indeed. We have four pilot schemes, and if ever there was a success story it is those four pilot schemes. There has been a tremendous take-up. I believe in Norfolk it is now over 90 per cent. That is quite extraordinary, in my political experience, for any kind of scheme at all.

What has happened? Are they full of anxious parents, poor schools, children suffering? We have no evidence of that at all. I am sure there are plenty of people going round looking for it, and if there was the evidence, they would find it.

What is the position under the Bill? Those people setting out to provide this nursery education--I leave aside the maintained system--or any school wishing to

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register needs to demonstrate that it is fully conversant with the DfEE paper, The Next Steps, and to give an undertaking that it will be in a position to make provision in accordance with the criteria that have been laid down. All the schools which register and accept pupils with vouchers will be inspected during the first year of the scheme--between April 1997 and March 1998. Already, many children are involved in pre-school education and are not inspected at all, and never have been inspected. So for the first time we shall have systematic inspection throughout the nursery world. I cannot think, now that we are going to get it, why everybody should want once again to delay the implementation of the scheme, which will obviously be of benefit to a lot of children.

As I understand the position, inspections cannot begin until the Bill has been enacted. However, it is the intention that all private and voluntary sectors participating in Phase 1 will be inspected in the autumn term. For Phase 2, if resources permit, the Government intend to inspect some private and voluntary institutions before they enter the scheme. The intention is that the rest will be inspected during the first year in which they join the scheme. Clearly, that is dependent upon a number of factors. As the voucher company will maintain a register of providers, we will have a list of the providers and know which organisations need to be inspected.

Given that the pilot schemes are proving to be so popular, it would be extremely unfortunate if the amendment were to be carried, leading to further delay in the implementation of the nursery voucher scheme. Furthermore, we must remember that it is the parents who hold the voucher and, at the end of the day, they can withdraw the child if they are dissatisfied with the provider. They will have a power which they do not have at the present time. It is important to recognise that that will put great pressure on the provider to provide a scheme of high quality, and that is what we shall see. I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, from these Benches we welcome the amendment. We are concerned about the inspection regime; we are concerned about the Bill and would rather get it right than get it quick. The self-assessment process is wholly inadequate. The Next Steps document makes clear that the self-assessment schedule is simply intended to help applicant providers decide whether they can work towards the desirable learning outcomes, as stated in paragraph 4.11 on page 10. It goes on to state quite baldly in paragraph 4.13 on page 11 that the self-assessment schedule,

    "does not need to be completed or returned to the voucher agency".

While the self-assessment schedule of itself may be handy to applicant providers to work out whether they consider that they are up to providing nursery education for the first time, in our view self-assessment alone is clearly not a certain or safe enough basis on which to

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entrust the vitally important responsibility of providing high quality nursery education for young children. That is why we support the amendment.

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