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The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 326A has been suggested by the charity, the Pre-school Learning Alliance, which is concerned about the implications of the Bill as it stands for very young children in pre-school settings. The solution proposed by this amendment is to remove from the definitions of "primary education" the section that refers to,
Officials at the DfES have suggested that the purpose of the clause is to tidy up an anomaly to reflect current practice and to raise the status of early years education. Those who are concerned about the quality of early years education are more concerned about its appropriateness than its status and this clause calls that into question.
This is because the clause raises the possibility of an inappropriate formalisation of early years education. All the experts in early years agree that children will benefit most from the commencement of formal education, first, when they are ready for it and, secondly, when it is built on secure foundation skills, abilities and attitudes. When a child has developed good language skills, he or she will be able to learn to read and write readily. When he or she has learnt social skills, he or she will be able to work and play happily as part of a group in a classroom. When children have developed their physical co-ordination, they will be
Already there is widespread concern about the age at which children start primary schooling. Doing so at four years of age is much younger than in similar developed countries. There are considerable anomalies within the system. A four year-old in a play group or nursery setting will benefit from a much lower adult/pupil ratio than a similar four year-old in the reception class of a primary school. There are concerns among early years educators that this may be positively harmful. The environment of the reception class, according to Tomorrow's Children, an independent report on pre-schools commissioned by the department in 1999, may not be able to reflect the broader needs of young children. Indeed, very young childrenfour year-oldsmay well be intimidated by an earlier start to their schooling and may experience distress.
Ministers are rightly concerned about family poverty and raising school standards. This imperative makes it all the more important that the experience that children have in pre-school settings is appropriate and lays the right foundation so that they will be able to benefit fully from their formal education when the time comes.
We are concerned also that, by deeming primary education to start at two, the clause would devalue the Government's own early learning goals, which emphasise the acquisition of literacy and numeracy through structured play and within the context of the child's overall development. The goals are linked to the concept of the foundation stage, which is useful in that it distinguishes nursery education from compulsory schooling. However, the inclusion of this clause blurs the boundaries again.
There are other confusions about the foundation stage, since it is defined at starting at three and finishing at the end of the reception year, which may be at any age from almost five to almost sixa disparity of a whole year, which is a long time in the life of a small child. The clause compounds that confusion.
Will the Minister please clarify the Government's intentions? Does the foundation stage now begin at two? Should two year-olds be working towards the early learning goals? Is there a plan to introduce a curriculum for the under-threes? I beg to move.
Lord Northbourne: I should like to add, in the light of my earlier amendments, that we seem to be in a terrible muddle. The foundation stage starts at three and runs from three to five. I have suggested that learning in the years before that is quite a different kind of learning; namely, family learning. Here, we now suddenly have primary education starting at two. Surely we ought to try to have some sort of co-ordination and recognise the need for learning before school, learning in school supported by family, and
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: The paragraph that the amendment seeks to delete from the Bill helps to develop and to refine the existing definition of primary education in the Education Act 1996. It updates that definition to reflect current practice, as we move towards universal provision of nursery education for all three year-olds, which we have already achieved for four year-olds. The new definition recognises the distinctiveness of nursery education in a way that the previous definition did not.
I should like to offer my reassurances that this clause is not designed to change the way in which nursery education is provided. I know that many noble Lords are concerned about the potential for very young children to be pushed into an overly formal approach to learning when they are too young, particularly if they are in a primary school environment. This clause is simply about definitions, and not about the institutions in which children learn. Nor does it change the curriculum, where the guidance on the foundation stage has been so well received by practitioners in the early years field.
Nursery education has always been a sub-set of the definition of primary education. This clause makes the distinctive nature of that stage much clearerparticularly that it is normally provided part time. The existing definition refers only to full-time education for pupils below the age of 10 and a half. The Bill introduces a more distinct definition of nursery education which: recognises the practice in nursery schools of offering children either a morning or an afternoon session; and that the nursery phase of primary education is intended for children between the ages of two and compulsory school age.
We are seeking to develop legislation to reflect practice. It is also our intention to introduce greater clarity and distinctiveness to legislation which bears on this important phase of children's education and development.
Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for her response. Those in early years education will read her remarks in Hansard with great care. I shall take advice, and we may possibly return to the matter on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
There are ways of publishing information to make it accessible and ways of publishing it to make it inaccessible. Ofsted is the guiding light in this matter. Ofsted publishes in full all its inspection reports on the Internet. It also employs a URL address which makes schools instantly identifiable if one knows the identification number. Consequently, in my role as the person who runs the Good Schools Guide, I canlike many other websitesdirectly access Ofsted reports. Furthermore, anyone running anything resembling a website concerned with education can offer visitors instant access to the Ofsted reports on schools. I do not think that the Government could find a better example of good practice in making information as widely available as possible.
Conversely, independent schools have for a long time not published their inspection reports on the Internet. One had to apply to the school for a report, but, if it so wished, it might provide only a summary. One could sometimes get the full report out of an independent school, but the report would only be in printed form. One certainly had no right to publish the report or make it available to others on the Internet. Some independent schools have recently adopted the practice of publishing reports on the Internet. However, they do so in a manner that makes access difficult. As far as I can see, they use random URLs so that there is no way of telling at which URL the report on a given school is located. They also do not allow third parties to link directly to reports. So although the reports are available on the Internet, they are not, unlike Ofsted reports, easily accessible to the general public. That is inconvenient to me, but it is also an inconvenience for the general public.
What I would really like is for the Government to require that these reports are as easily and publicly accessible as Ofsted reports. If the Minister can tell me that that is what the provision is intended to do, I shall be content.
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