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Lord Jones: My noble friend the Minister spoke persuasively but I ask her to describe in some little detail what the Government have done, in the two Labour administrations since 1997, for the youngest children. There may be a good story to tell in response to these important amendments.
What investment, in terms of finance and professional staffing provision, has been made? Does my noble friend have any figures? I have in mind the livelihood of children from deprived areas in the great cities and some rural areas who have only one parent in their householdtogether with children from estates and streets where there is widespread drug abuse.
I am sure that my noble friend the Minister listens hard to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. When he last spoke several days ago, he referred to the developing science of the circuitry of the mind and predicted advancements. Within days, a science programme on Radio 4 discoursed at length on that subject. The current edition of the prestigious magazine the Economist devotes more than a page to the same topic. I imagine that my noble friend the Minister is listening most sympathetically and that her reply will be helpful.
Baroness Blatch: I hope that the Minister agrees that some of the most caring provision in services to very young people is that of playgroups, which have been extremely vulnerable in recent years. Playgroups work well with social services and mainstream schools, and they involve parents daily in a practical way. Playgroups are subject to inspection and co-operate with the local community. Nevertheless, by 2004well intentioned though this may bethe Government plan that for every 10 children, including in playgroups, there will be a fully qualified teacher.
One of the glories of playgroups, particularly in rural areas, is that parents can afford to send their children to them. Come 2004, there is no way that those same parents will be able to afford a fully qualified teacher for every 10 children. At a time when playgroups provide such a good service to young children, particularly in rural areas, they will be made even more vulnerable by a well-intentioned policy.
Baroness Walmsley: I give my general support to this batch of amendments. Childcare experts emphasise the importance of identifying in early years appropriate activities for children at different stages of developmentparticularly the stage that a child has reached. That can be done only by experts. The designation of the different stages in a child's development is helpful in that regard.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I obviously responded too quickly. Nothing that I have said suggests other than that we recognise the importance of child development from nought to three years. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about the role of playgroups.
The question posed by the amendments is whether or not we should formalise the role of playgroups as part of education. In our view, that would not be appropriate. Equally, we do not believe that the department should regulate education in the home.
Perhaps I can put the specific amendments to one side for a moment. As part of the Sure Start programme, it is crucial in the early years to reach children who are disadvantaged and to support them. Sure Start is about supporting parents in parenting. It is about helping them to become more able to support their children, to introduce their children to books and to educate and to support parents, before and after a child is born.
We believe that it is a good programme. It is also a cross-cutting programme, which is probably why there was confusion about the funding. It is the responsibility of my honourable friend the Minister responsible for public health, who reports to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. She is the Cabinet Minister responsible. The group of Ministers, of whom I am currently one, who sit on the Sure Start group are trying to ensure that the Sure Start programmes address the full range of issues, including the fact that some of our deprived children live in rural communities as well as in the inner cities. Indeed, there is the over-arching issue of how to reach the maximum number of children, which leads us to consider how we make the programme appropriate in the mainstream.
There are 263 programmes. A further £948 million was announced in the July 2000 spending review and the plan is to reach a third of all under four year-olds living in poverty by 2004. I know that that means we shall not reach two-thirds of those children, but we recognise that the programme will grow.
On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in relation to playgroups, I was fortunate to be at the Pre-School Learning Alliance's annual meeting on Friday where 900 people gathered to talk about the future. I am delighted that we have worked constructively and creatively with them to develop playgroups so that some can become neighbourhood nurseries if they so wish and further develop their role.
We want to ensure that the quality that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, are seeking in relation to experience is recognised by all organisations and by all groups. That is why we are aiming to develop a qualification and to ensure that people working with those children are qualified to do so. We are keen to ensure that people train at the same time as working. We want to recognise the skills of some people who do not have a formal qualification and provide them with experience. We are working in conjunction with those organisations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, makes an important point about ensuring that we proceed in a way that does not prevent children and families participating. I shall ensure that that is the way we approach the matter. The Soho family centre is affected by an amendment which follows shortly, but there is no doubt that we want the Soho family centre to register with Ofsted. There is an issue as to the description of a child minder. On 11th June the head of early years at Ofsted, Maggie Smith, will visit the centre. In no way would we allow the centre not to continue. It is simply a matter of registration. I can perhaps deal with that matter under the appropriate amendment. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Baroness for the moment.
Baroness Blatch: On the playgroups issue, at the moment the parents raise enough money to pay the playgroup leader who is trained and the helpers. Often the helpers give their time freely because they are the parents of the children in the playgroup. A playgroup that serves, say, 40 children, would have to find between £80,000 and £100,000 year on year. How on earth will that bill be met?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: In relation to the work with the Pre-School Learning Alliance, we are seeking to develop playgroups so that they can access funding from the Government and develop themselves. They tell us that that is what they want. We want people to work towards qualifications, not so that they become too highly paid for the market, but so that there is recognition of the qualifications that many have but which are not formalised. Our intention is not to make costs prohibitive. I am happy to write to the noble Baroness to give her more detail, but that is the intention.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I am unable to give the noble Baroness that figure for two reasons. I do not have the brief that gives me the specific figures on playgroups and, more importantly, many playgroups have not disappeared but have changed. They have altered because they want to transform themselves, under the funding we have made available, into a
Lord Northbourne: Before I withdraw the amendment, I want to make two points. First, I wish it were true that parents are best placed to judge what their children need. Most parents are, but there are teenage parents, single parents who are struggling and unable to cope, and parents who do not know how to cope with their children's sleeplessness or disobedience. Those parents need help. I do not suggest that we should interfere or intrude, but they need help.
Secondly, the noble Baroness mentioned Sure Start. She has kindly said that I may talk to the officials about that; I am sure that I shall learn much more before Report stage. Although Sure Start is excellent, I am interested that the Department for Education and Skills should take on board the problem. In fact it is a problem for three different departments: the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office. If youngsters are excluded from school they end up on the streets. Although the problem is much more important in terms of education than health, the Department of Health is putting up the money. I would like that to be undertaken by the Department for Education and Skills. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.