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Baroness Blatch: I also support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. The sector of under-fives provision where parents are most involved and inextricably linked is the playgroup sector. Playgroup provision has traditionally worked with the family. I have seen nothing in the early years documents from the DfEE which defines playgroup provision as appropriate for a four year-old. The promise for four year-olds does not appear to include, as a formal part of the provision, a place in a playgroup. The blame for the difficulty playgroups have had has been laid at the door of the voucher system. I am afraid that playgroup provision still appears to be on the decline under the Government's proposals.

There is a difficulty with the idea of a level playing field. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said it is all a bit of a mess, the sadness is that the generous ratios in terms of money--those that are most cost-effective--are in LEA provision. Those that are, by

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the strictures of law, more expensive but very often of a high quality are, of course, private. That works against private provision.

Much has been said about how destructive the voucher scheme was. Interestingly, I was talking the other day to a nursery teacher in the LEA-controlled public sector who said that the new system is not very different. As the money follows the child, then the school that has the child gets the money, whether it is in the private or public sector. Therefore the only difference between the voucher system and the system advocated by the Government is that, instead of the parent positively making the choice, the LEA is contracting on behalf of the parent. So there is not a great deal of difference--the money is going where the child is. LEAs will inevitably want to keep the money and keep the children. That presents all sorts of tensions for those who provide education outside the LEA.

The Government have done quite a lot to try to persuade local authorities to work in co-operation and partnership with local authorities. I want to reinforce the points made on partnership by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Some of my amendments seek to establish a formal partnership committee bringing together all the providers, the LEA and other nursery providers, to make sure that changes are made with the agreement of the partnership. It will be interesting to hear the noble Baroness's comments when we debate those amendments.

This is a very interesting area. Choice and diversity must be as appropriate for under five year-olds as it is for all other children. There is a tapestry of provision, much of it very good, some of it different. The needs of these children differ, and I therefore go back to my first amendment. We want a system that is flexible enough to provide for the different needs of different children, making the best of, and exploiting, what the private sector and the public sector have to offer in partnership.

Baroness Blackstone: I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for reminding us once again of the primary importance of the needs of the child. Indeed, I think everyone who has spoken in this debate has made that point. It is one that the Government entirely accept and agree with. It is so important with children of this age group.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made some important points about involving non-maintained providers in planning nursery education, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Maddock. This is an area where we are all genuinely in agreement.

The Bill makes clear that the duty on an LEA is to "secure" places. That does not mean that the LEA provides all the places itself, nor should it. As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, we expect LEAs to have regard to the available non-maintained places in the area, and we have been working hard to persuade them of the importance of this.

Different children and different parents have different needs, and we want to ensure that those needs can all be met. Some children will be fine in a nursery or

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reception class; others will need something slightly different, maybe something a little more homely. Parents should be able to choose the type of provision that they think is most suitable for their child at his or her particular stage of development.

Several speakers, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned parents--the noble Lord always does so when we debate these matters. To help parents become more involved in making these choices, we want them to have access to a range of information about the types of provision available. LEAs and early years development partnerships must produce this information without bias to any sector. We also want to involve parents in planning local provision. Our guidance requires a parental representative to be included on the early years development partnership and requires the partnership to consult parents with young children on the content of the plan.

The noble Lord specifically mentioned children in need. Although the main focus of plans is to set out how a free, good quality place will be provided for all four year-olds, we have also asked partnerships to consider provision for three year-olds. They have been asked to set out in their plans what provision is available for three year-olds at present and their policies for increasing and improving this provision in future. The announcement of the national childcare strategy and the incorporation of elements of this into early years development plans will further help with the planning of integrated and appropriate provision for children of all ages, including children in need.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of partnerships. In drawing up early years development plans, partnerships are asked to take into account children's services plans and reviews carried out under the Children Act and also to consider how best they could identify and address the particular requirements of children in need.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Maddock, mentioned the issue of a more level playing field between different kinds of provision, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said that it was a bit of a mess at the moment. I entirely sympathise with the concerns of both noble Baronesses. There is a problem in relation to the staffing ratios and other regulatory differences between the different types of early years providers.

Members of the Committee will be aware that the Government share the view that the current arrangements do not make much sense, and we must do something about them. We are looking at these issues closely through our consultation on the regulation of early education and daycare. But it is a complex issue and it would be unwise to rush into it. We must not forget that in 18 years the previous government did nothing to address inequalities in the different regimes. We want to be sure that the changes we make are right, and right at the first time of asking. We do not want a second consultation on the same issues a few years down the line because we make hasty decisions now. We have therefore deliberately allowed a lengthy

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consultation period--over four months--to allow all those who want to respond to make detailed and well-considered contributions. We will then look in detail at what the changes will require in terms of cost and legislation, and any other practical difficulties that may arise.

I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on the importance of including private and voluntary sector providers on early years development partnerships. Again, that is something raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

I am sure that all those who have taken part in this debate will be pleased to hear that this amendment on representation and partnerships is unnecessary. The current guidance on early years development partnerships and plans makes it clear that non-maintained providers should be represented on early years development partnerships, along with all the other interested parties. Officials paid close attention to partnership membership when scrutinising this year's plans, and the guidance will be given statutory force by this Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked how soon we would be able to include three year-olds. I cannot give her the answer today. Again, this is one of those issues on which we await the results of the comprehensive spending review. The noble Baroness also asked whether I would be able to give any indication before the next stage as to how we would respond to some of these issues, including this issue of the level playing field. Because we have a long consultation on these complex matters--it does not close until 31st July--it would be premature to try to answer these questions before that time.

Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Byford, asked about playgroups. We do not want to squeeze out playgroups; that is the last thing we want to do. Indeed, we provided £500,000 to help support good quality playgroups, some of which have been partly threatened by what happened under the voucher scheme.

Baroness Blatch: On that point, can the Minister say whether a place in a playgroup is an acceptable way of meeting the pledge for a nursery place for all four year-olds?

Baroness Blackstone: The answer to that question must be no. We have given a pledge that all four year-olds can have a nursery place in a variety of different kinds of provision. Perhaps I should correct myself. I believe I am right in saying that, if it is a playgroup that has been accepted as of high quality, it will be acceptable. If it is part of an early years development plan that is put forward by a local education authority where playgroups are going to be included, the answer is that it will be possible.

The noble Baroness suggested that playgroups are not mentioned in the guidance. That is not quite correct. There is a reference to them on page 13. They are listed as an example of an acceptable form of provision.

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I have tried to cover all the questions that have been raised. I think that I have. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will accept that we are already taking action on the points that he raised and that, in the light of that, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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