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Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and the assurances that he has given. I wish him well with that. I remain to be convinced, particularly with regard to new providers, which by definition must have an untested record. Existing providers have at least some record. Parents have something against which to judge their performance, standards and quality. That cannot of course be the case with new providers. On the basis of the assurances that the Minister has given, at which we shall look with interest, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 7:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Partnership in development plans

(".--(1) Arrangements made under section 1 above shall be made in accordance with a strategy for nursery education published or revised in accordance with this section.
(2) A local education authority shall publish, and from time to time revise, a strategy for the provision of nursery education within its area.
(3) In drawing up or revising a strategy under this section, a local education authority shall have regard to--
(a) the needs of children aged three and four in its area;
(b) the quality and range of educational provision for such children;
(c) the desirability of involving parents of such children in the provision of nursery education;
(d) the efficiency and effectiveness of different types of educational provision for such children and the desirability in relation to the needs of the area of securing the most effective distribution of resources among those types.
(4) Before publishing or revising a strategy under this section a local education authority shall consult persons within its area who appear to it to be concerned, including persons representative of parents, voluntary organisations and such persons as may have been prescribed under section 1(4)(b) above.
(5) In drawing up, revising or implementing a strategy under this section, a local education authority shall have regard to any guidance which the Secretary of State may issue.").

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment is important as it provides a framework for a partnership at local level to ensure that the needs of all children in the locality are met. In drawing up its strategy, an LEA is to have regard to a number of factors designed to underpin the commitment to partnership working and the creation of a mixed economy of nursery education within a development plan. Thus, under subsection (3) of the new clause, the LEA is to have regard to the needs of children aged three and four in its area and to secure the best quality and range of nursery education for such children.

With regard to the needs of three year-olds, I refer to the need to ensure that the needs of three year-olds with special educational needs, including behavioural and social difficulties and moderate learning difficulties, are recognised as important. The LEA is required to look also at the effectiveness of different types of provision to meet the needs of all children in the area. So a LEA may well find that high quality, good value education may be provided through the encouragement of pre-school education in a particular area.

During the passage of the Bill, many speakers referred to the unique circumstances that exist in some rural communities. I think of my county of Lancashire where in some small villages there is a small Anglican primary school and a small Catholic primary school to serve the needs of a small scattered community. In those circumstances, leaving the matter to the marketplace will not necessarily guarantee that the needs of those children are met. Before publishing or revising its development plan, an LEA would be required to consult people in the area who appear to be representative of parents, the voluntary sector and private providers, and to pay due regard to any guidance which the Secretary of State may wish to issue as to how a development plan should be drawn up.

The new clause aims to set out a coherent framework within which the power of the Secretary of State to make grants could be used in relation to some or all of the sectors involved so as to secure the best possible expansion of nursery education within the resources available. It could be tailored to suit local circumstances. That is important, because circumstances in different parts of England and Wales vary enormously. There needs to be more than just a reference to the haphazard nature of the market system through the use of vouchers.

The important issue here is to ensure that all sections of the community, in particular parents, are given an opportunity to contribute to debating the needs of the community. I spent part of my childhood in a small rural community with few children of school age. There was a child who had a withdrawn mother who did not develop contacts with the rest of the community. Her husband was an agricultural worker and they lived a long way from the village. When that child started school at the age of five he could not speak. That was a fairly affluent area of Leicestershire. Those needs could have been overlooked. That child would not have been actively sought by any of the providers because to meet the needs of children with special needs may take people more time than is envisaged.

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Why cannot we have a commitment to encourage good local planning? That is part of building community respect, and community respect is one of the things which is increasingly missed. I listened carefully to the Minister's response to my views on Wales. It would be churlish of me not to admit that there were concessions with regard to special educational needs and the code of practice. I hope that that was the beginning of a further concession in this area. I beg to move.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I support the amendment. Perhaps I may emphasise its importance in terms of the quality and range of educational provision for three and four year-olds and of ensuring that it is done in a way which reflects the needs of the local community. Those points were eloquently made by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington.

In case the Minister is tempted to respond by saying that this is another example of people wanting big brother to do everything and that the market will provide, perhaps I may make one further point. In local government, irrespective of which party or parties are in control, partnership is the name of the game. That is what we seek, as do the institutions which are not part of local government. They expect to co-operate with local government, which expects to co-operate with them. The private and voluntary sectors and local government find that there is added synergy when that operation takes place.

The new clause seeks to put on the face of the Bill a description of what is happening in many local authorities. We wish to see that in the Bill, which covers an unusual way of funding a publicly provided service. I hope that the Minister will listen to our arguments.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, perhaps I may underline the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, in relation to rural areas. Parts of my diocese in Yorkshire are remote; I suspect as remote as any in England. The difficulty of seeing how a market system will respond to the demands in those areas is enormous. Some years ago I visited a county-maintained school, not a church school, in which there were five children at the primary stage. That is the kind of number of children that there are in such remote areas. Without planning and working together, I find it difficult to understand how provision will be made for those children. I hope that the Minister will take that into account.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I can trump the right reverend Prelate's school of only five pupils at the primary stage. When I was a county councillor, in my county council division was a school with only three children. I tried manfully to save it but I have to say that my heart was not in it. Indeed, I doubt whether a school of that size can provide an appropriate education.

We debated the need for an early years strategy during Report stage of the Bill. The noble Baroness made the point during that debate that in her view there is a need for planning and for organisations to work together.

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I have no difficulty with the notion of planning and certainly applaud organisations working together in a common aim. But I do not consider that those factors necessitate local authorities preparing development plans or putting together a strategy. There is little that I can add to what I said before. A key theme of our nursery education voucher initiative is parental choice, as I have made clear on numerous occasions. We want to put power into parents' hands and give them the means to choose a nursery place for their child that best suits their own circumstances and the child's situation. We do not want the expression of that choice limited by the fact that arrangements to pay grant can be made only in accordance with a local authority strategy. That could deny choice to parents. Subsection (1) of the new clause would certainly do so.

We are putting power into parents' hands because we believe that it is parents who understand best the needs of their child and who know what kind of nursery setting is best for their child. We do not believe that either central government or local government should make that choice.

However, as I have said before, none of this prevents a local authority putting together its early years strategy for expansion of nursery education. None of this prevents local authorities working closely with the private and voluntary sectors. None of this prevents local authorities consulting interested parties before expanding their own provision. Any local education authority can put together a development plan, or a strategy, for a particular element of its provision.

I should like to make clear that there is no need for such provision in the Bill. Furthermore, the amendment would limit and undermine the choice of parents. Therefore, I cannot accept it.

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