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Baroness Byford: Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may come back on a couple of points. I am grateful to her for her response and I do not intend to get into a political debate. She implied that the previous government had done nothing over the past 18 years. However, the new intake of the reception classes is a very recent development and has implications for the other varieties of provision. This did not happen 18 years ago; it evolved only recently. The ratio equation is of immense importance because it affects those who provide private nursery places. They are in competition with maintained primary schools.

While I am not making a political point, I wish to stress that this problem is accentuated now because more parents realise that there is a place for children in reception classes at primary schools which was not there before. This is having a direct effect, and a very immediate direct effect, on the other providers. That is why I wished to come back before the Minister sat down.

Baroness Blackstone: I did not imply that nothing was done over the past 18 years; I said that nothing was done. That, in fact, is the case. I also do not entirely accept that, because of the Government's decision to make a pledge that all four-year olds should have a place in adequate nursery provision, somehow or other these differences have become magnified. They have always been there. They have been there for many years. They were there when I first started to study this subject nearly 30 years ago.

I have already said that we will be looking at this issue. We are going to take it on board. We are consulting about it and we shall come up with a solution.

Lord Northbourne: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for all she has been able to say. When I spoke previously I omitted to thank her for arranging for a preview of the draft Ofsted report on the quality of education to be sent to me, which, unfortunately, I received only this morning and which caused me slightly to change what I was planning to say this evening in respect of these amendments. It is encouraging that the report will be published on 12th June and that this will perhaps inform the next stages of the Bill, or will be useful in discussion of the next stages of the Bill.

I should like to thank the noble Baroness for giving the assurance that representatives of the non-maintained providers will be included in the consultations about local provision. The consultation will not be completed until 31st July, so we shall not know the answers until the autumn. That makes it much more difficult to frame amendments in this context. However, I have done my best. I shall look at what the noble Baroness has said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241BA:

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Page 84, line 17, after ("education;") insert--
("( ) shall have due regard to the importance of diversity of provision and philosophy of education and, in particular, to the right of the parents or guardians of children who have not attained compulsory school age to make private arrangements with non-maintained providers of nursery education for the education of their children in such manner as may seem satisfactory to them, whether or not such providers conform in every respect to any guidance on nursery education which may be given by the Secretary of State or by local education authorities;").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 241DA, 241DB and 241EJ. I agree most strongly with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has just made. This part of the Bill ought to have been in the next Education Bill. It is bizarre to try to discuss amendments and to get all evening from the noble Baroness only the answer, understandably, that everything is in the melting pot and that the Government are consulting. By the time the consultation is over the opportunity to do something about it in terms of what does or does not appear on the face of the Bill will have passed by. That is very unfortunate indeed.

My first amendment is an important one. It goes directly to the core of two issues which are at the forefront of the worries among nursery providers about current government policies. First, there is the importance of diversity and conformist regulation and bureaucracy. There is a plethora of that. Secondly, there is the importance of parental choice.

The worry is that the state will squeeze the private sector and voluntary sector by stealth out of pre-school education. Although there is a great deal of exhortation, the truth is that the LEAs will want the money and be close to the provision. The Committee may or may not appreciate the immense burden of regulation, inspection and form-filling that nursery schools now face. On top of that there is the new bureaucracy and the arm twisting with LEA development plans. I believe that most of this bureaucracy is unnecessary. It is something of an imposition on experienced and dedicated nursery teachers. Many of them have said to me that it is removing much of the pleasure that they once took in teaching.

There are self-appraisal documents; forms with box after box to be filled in; un-numbered pages of regulations and the vexatious and frequently duplicated inspections. All that is very hard to bear for these schools. There is more than a suspicion among private and voluntary educators that it is about crushing diversity. I know that is not the Government's intention, but they will need to keep an eagle eye on what is going on to see that those kinds of things do not happen.

There is another fear that the Government are using their regulatory powers and taking more powers in this Bill in order to do what Parliament has never willed--and, I believe, never would will--the creeping nationalisation of nursery education.

The amendment does two important things. It safeguards freedoms which I hope this House and Parliament should hold high. It also enjoins the state

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sector, which has the whip hand now that the Government have abolished the parental choice of the voucher, to preserve maximum diversity. It enshrines the principle, with which surely everyone must agree, that the regulations and guidelines of the Government and local authorities do not interfere with private contracts between parents and private and voluntary providers.

I believe that the principle should be on the face of the Bill so that those in local authorities and inspectors' offices throughout the land are in no doubt that the Government and the courts will not allow private arrangements to be overriden by such rules. Are the Ministers and her colleagues prepared to give clear directions to those involved in inspecting and registering private and voluntary bodies that they may not use those responsibilities to enforce change which parents have not sought and do not need?

The first amendment is mainly about diversity. Amendment No. 241DA covers a very important point. There are some local authorities who are now asking almost gratuitously private nurseries to open up their accounts. If they have good reason for checking whether the money that has been given by a local authority has been properly used, there are proper procedures for that. But the worry is that they may require, or seek to require, the production of copies of extracts from unpublished accounts or from confidential tax documents prepared by, or on behalf of, a non-maintained provider. That is a worry. There should be some very real parameters within which the local authorities have to work.

Amendment No. 241DB says that where one has, for example, Montessori schools, Steiner schools and the like, providing good quality education which does not always conform absolutely to the edicts that come from local education authorities, if they are to be part of the tapestry of the provision for under-fives they will not have a style of education imposed on them.

Finally, there is the effect of paperwork. That is now reaching almost impossible levels for these schools. My Amendment No. 241EJ asks that the effects of national education policy and the regulations or guidance on the non-maintained private or voluntary providers, the burden and volume of paperwork and the costs to them in time and money of compliance are taken properly into account. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: I hope that I have already made it clear how greatly we value diversity of provision, and the contribution that providers outside the maintained sector can make to good quality nursery education. I absolutely refute what the noble Baroness has just said about the likelihood of the Government crushing diversity in this area. I also refute the suggestion that the Government are involved in an arm-twisting exercise here. That is entirely untrue.

While we acknowledge the need for provision to differ in the same way as children's needs differ, there is a clear distinction between diversity and quality. Diversity does not mean that anything goes. Good

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quality provision can be found in all sectors, but so can bad provision, I am afraid. Nothing is more important than the support we provide to young children. If something goes wrong at this age, children can be damaged fundamentally and for the rest of their lives.

We do not want to stifle individuality or blur the distinctions between different types of provision, but we do want to be sure that parents taking up an early education place for their child which is funded by public money (although it may be private provision), can be assured of a certain minimum standard of quality. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will agree on the importance of that.

We want to be sure that all those involved in early years are consistently working together to raise that minimum standard while ensuring that it remains inclusive rather than exclusive. All providers receiving government funding under the early years development plans must agree to work towards the desirable learning outcomes and to be inspected by inspectors recruited, trained and registered by Ofsted. From September 1999, all providers will have to have the involvement of a qualified teacher.

I do not think that any of those requirements are unduly prescriptive. They are what any child in that age group deserves. The desirable learning outcomes do not define what a child should be doing each day. They are a set of goals for children to reach at the end of his or her pre-compulsory education. It is not "undue paperwork" to make sure that those goals are clearly set out and available to the providers. Individual providers can, of course, design their own programmes as long as they promote the agreed outcomes.

We have said that all settings have to have the involvement of a qualified teacher but we have left it up to individual partnerships and settings to decide exactly how that system should work. We are thus allowing initiative, flexibility and imagination. It is true that we are prepared to allow partnerships to set quality requirements over and above those set by the department and to make delegated conditions of grant in areas such as provision of information to parents. That goes back to what we were saying on the previous group of amendments. It is part of our strategy for raising standards across the board in a way which meets the needs and starting point of each local area. But LEAs will not be able to impose additional requirements willy-nilly. Any additional requirements must be a decision for the partnership and the partnership must consult on them as part of the early years development plan.

I turn now to the issue of the opening up of accounts, to which the noble Baroness referred. If there are cases where there are improper requests for accounts to be opened up, I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could write to me about them. It is not something of which the department has been aware. We have not heard of any such examples, but it would be helpful to know of any. In general, let me begin by making it clear that no money flows between the provider and the parent in respect of a free place. Nursery education grant is claimed by the provider from the LEA, which in turn

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claims it from the department. This is public money. We expect LEAs to take whatever steps are necessary to satisfy themselves and their district auditors that the grant is being spent on the purpose for which it is paid--that is, on nursery education. I am sure that the noble Baroness accepts that that is a proper way of regulating the use of public money.

We also expect LEAs to ensure that parents and children rather than providers benefit from nursery education grant. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that an audit process does not need to be some kind of Spanish inquisition. Although we expect LEAs to be rigorous in this area we also expect them to act reasonably. We do not want to place any artificial restraints on what LEAs can and cannot do.

In the light of what I have said I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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