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"Rights to require paperwork

In paragraph 18 of Schedule 26 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31) (rights of entry), in sub-paragraph (2)(b) for "which he requires" there is substituted "which he reasonably requires"."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, among the other features of the Bill, there are two running themes: first, a massive extension of powers to regulate and control almost every aspect of school life, from the appointment of clerks to governing bodies to the setting of attendance targets for individual schools; and secondly, effective nationalisation of the nursery sector and its subjection to regulation by the department and by other public agencies. Is it any wonder that, with such a mentality running free in the department, regulators, inspectors and local authorities bombard nursery schools with demands for record-keeping and paperwork which are driving many good people to leave the profession?

I welcomed what the Minister said on Report about efforts being made by Ofsted to restrict demands for paperwork on nursery schools. We shall await the practical outcome of that. But it simply does not tally with experience in schools, where there are almost daily reports of unreasonable demands for paper inspection. Only today, I had lunch with the deputy head of a nursery school who was in the throes of preparing for an inspection. She not only applauded the amendment; she went so far as to say that unless the burden is reduced nursery education will start to lose very good people.

The Minister said that the amendment is unnecessary. Nursery schools are telling me a different story. They are crying out for some hint of

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understanding from the Government for their predicament. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will reconsider their resistance to the amendment. There can surely be no reason for resisting a specific reasonable test on paperwork, which, combined with incoherent, intrusive, and constantly changing departmental guidelines, is the major cause of complaint by nursery schools.

I echo the comments made by my noble friend Lord Lucas on an earlier amendment. The amendment would provide an assurance of certainty to those who currently veer between fear and despair about the weight of paperwork required. In the name of nursery school teachers up and down the land, I ask the Minister to remember that every hour spent on unreasonable paperwork—and that is what I am talking about—is an hour lost to lighting the spark of learning in a young child. Please accept the reasonable test by accepting the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, during our previous debate on Amendment No. 38 the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, placed great emphasis on the views of nursery schools and the world of nursery education on the burden of paperwork that they feel threatened by. As the noble Baroness knows, as Minister with responsibility for nursery schools, I am always in conversation with them to ensure that I get those messages. I am hearing loud and clear the messages that the noble Baroness is putting forward.

I have taken comfort from what Ofsted has reported to me on the reductions in its demands for paperwork. However, we should not assume that more cannot be done to ease the burden of inspection. I shall continue to have a dialogue with Ofsted, as will other ministerial colleagues, on that issue.

I acknowledge the danger that each new initiative to improve quality for young people can carry with it increased demands for paperwork that perversely might detract from the improvements that were intended. I assure the House that those are matters of great concern to me. Until recently I was the chair of governors at a school and I know well how schools perceive Ofsted and its demands. That small nurseries and playgroups offering nursery education feel threatened is entirely understandable. Some of the correspondence that I receive from nurseries highlights those issues.

I reiterate that adding the word "reasonably" in this part of the legislation does not address this problem. The way forward—and this is what I am committed to in the early years and childcare part of my brief—is not to produce a law of dubious effect, but rather to engage in a dialogue that we need with the various stakeholders.

I hope that it will be helpful to repeat the explanations I have given already as to why the amendment does not make good law. As a public body, Ofsted is already under a public law duty to act reasonably in all its dealings with schools, nursery settings and childcare providers. A specific requirement to act reasonably in one aspect of its

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dealings with the customers is unnecessary and, more importantly, could cast doubt on a general duty to act reasonably. That is why we believe the law should be left as it is. The duty of reasonableness is a public law duty applying to public bodies. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would be right that others might be given specific duties of reasonableness. The general duty already applies to Ofsted.

Paragraph 8(2)(b) of Schedule 26 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 already makes it clear that a nursery education inspector or a member of the inspectorate conducting or monitoring inspections should copy only documents that are required for the purpose of conducting or monitoring the inspection. I oppose the amendment not because I do not entirely support what the noble Baroness is seeking to do, but because we have tested the issue and found that it would be counterproductive because the duty of reasonableness already exists. The amendment would place that public duty in some doubt.

For that reason and that reason alone, while accepting entirely the sentiments behind the amendment, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw it.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have done my best by the nursery schools that have contacted me. The Government have made this pledge. Unless there is a practical outcome, I am afraid this grave mistrust will continue. I take what the Minister has said. I believe her. I trust that something practical will now happen. We expect Ofsted to behave reasonably. Indeed, we shall be watching carefully that it does. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 17 [Amendments of Part 5 of Education Act 1977]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 39:

    Page 180, line 15, at end insert—

"(2B) In the case of maintained nursery schools or of funded nursery schools which are designated as Montessori schools, and where the principal or at least two senior teachers are holders of recognised qualifications from Montessori awarding bodies, the authority, in carrying out its functions under this section, shall do nothing that will require or advise schools or teachers to depart from principles and teaching methods that are appropriate to Montessori education and shall not insist on anything that is inappropriate to Montessori education."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 39, 40 and 41 are aimed at protecting the integrity of Montessori qualifications, Montessori schools and the Montessori system, against direction, or pressure to re-qualify or to modify qualifications and Montessori teaching practice in ways that are inappropriate to them.

I have studied carefully the Minister's reply on Report, which I found more positive than the response from the noble Lord, Lord Davies, at an earlier stage. Perhaps that reflects a heightened degree of personal interest and, dare I say, sympathy on the Minister's behalf. I hope so, because I am convinced that a sensible solution can be found, but fear it will happen only if the Minister gives it her personal attention.

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There have been too many instances where small bodies—though the Montessori movement, making up 6 per cent of nursery education, is not so small—were seen as inconvenient by officials and told that they must fit a departmental model. Equally, I found a crisp "just sort it out" from the Minister could work wonders and would translate all the good intentions expressed at the Dispatch Box into reality. I hope that the Minister can assure your Lordships' House that that will be done.

While I do not want to be party to negotiation across the Dispatch Box, I have five brief observations on our exchanges on Report, and ask the Minister to clarify points in those areas. First, the implication that only Montessori education in the United Kingdom is raising those matters with me is simply not true. Since I first agreed to raise those important issues I have been encouraged by support from a wide range of Montessori institutions—from national training providers to individual teachers. The Minister is being misled if she believes that concerns are confined to one body.

Certainly Montessori Education UK has made some powerful and practical suggestions. It is the national standards body for Montessori education—a membership organisation which also has on its council the national co-ordinator of the Montessori Early Years Forum. Montessori UK has also acted as co-ordinator of meetings held by Montessori awarding bodies to agree a way forward on the qualifications issue. All those bodies were represented. A consensus view has been achieved. That has reflected both the concerns I set out at earlier stages, and the possible solution proposed.

It is unacceptable to take the Montessori movement to task for saying that there have been too many awarding bodies, then, when those bodies come together with a co-ordinator, to say that Montessori UK is only one body of many. That is not the best way to engage the Montessori movement. I hope the Minister will put a stop to that prejudice from those who hold that view.

Secondly, can the Minister give the assurance I sought on Report that information on Montessori qualifications and services will be included in future official lists and publications sponsored by the DfES? That would help to allay current suspicions that the movement is being marginalised by the department and the QCA.

Thirdly, will the Minister respond specifically and unequivocally to the point that lies behind Amendment No. 40 and give an assurance that she failed to give on Report; namely, to state on the record that no Montessori qualified principal, teacher or manager, who is the holder of a Montessori diploma, will be required to re-qualify or get an additional qualification to continue their work in Montessori education? Will the Minister also confirm that in the view of the department a Montessori diploma is, and will be, full and sufficient qualification to serve as a principal, manager or teacher, in a Montessori nursery school?

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On Amendment No. 41 the Minister said on Report that there was no question of a direction to a Montessori body unless it was failing to comply with a condition of accreditation it had already agreed to. The Minister also said that,

    "no Montessori organisation has submitted any qualifications for accreditation".—[Official Report, 26/6/02; col. 1473.]

With respect, that is putting the cart before the horse. The whole point of the present discussions is to explore whether a means can be found of grafting Montessori qualifications—robust, hard-won, long tried and tested as they are—to the Government's bureaucratic model without compromising their integrity and without sacrificing their principles.

It is unreasonable to expect Montessori bodies to submit a model or to agree to a direction unless they can be satisfied on that point. That is why, unless the Minister can assure your Lordships' House that she will intervene to facilitate a solution, Amendment No. 41 is both relevant and important, although it may be that the matter could be addressed outside the Bill by direction from the Minister to the QCA.

Finally in this context, on Report I referred to a possible solution in which the Montessori diploma might be linked to the Council for Awards in Children's Care and Education certificate of professional development in a way that neither compromised Montessori principles nor required the otiose study of a lower level of qualification. The Minister seemed sympathetic but said that it had to be pursued with the QCA and Ofsted. I understand that since then Ofsted has informally told the Montessori bodies that it is not within its remit to recognise individual courses or qualifications. It has passed the buck back to the department and the QCA.

With respect, this sounds a right old bureaucratic merry-go-round. Perhaps that is inherent in the unnecessarily complex bureaucracy being set up by the Government and worsened under the Bill—or perhaps not.

I return to the point at which I began. The tenor of our debates has been that the House sympathises with and respects Montessori schools, Montessori teachers and Montessori qualifications. They have gone on providing good early years teaching for generations despite the dead hand of nationalisation stepping in. When something works well, why cannot the department let it be? Can the Minister not issue a crisp, "Sort it out soon and positively", as I have suggested previously, and let these fine nursery schools and dedicated awarding bodies get on with their lives? An assurance to that effect would go a long way to easing worries in the House and outside. I beg to move.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I repeat that nothing that the department or any agency is doing threatens Montessori education in any way. The foundation stage curriculum, which, as the noble Baroness said, has been widely welcomed, is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of approaches to early learning, including Montessori.

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I am confident that a fully satisfactory way through will be found on the inclusion of the Montessori qualification in the national qualifications framework. As the noble Baroness said, we cannot do that across the Dispatch Box. It must be secured through constructive dialogue, which I understand as of today is under way between the QCA and the relevant Montessori bodies. A promising way forward has been proposed. Whether it succeeds depends on the detail, but whether in this way or another way I am confident that a solution will be found. I shall ensure that I keep a watch over what is happening.

I repeat, we shall not do anything to endanger Montessori. A wide range of existing Montessori qualifications are acceptable to Ofsted for the regulation of day care.

The aim of Amendment No. 39 is to ensure that Montessori schools are not prevented from teaching in a way that is consistent with Montessori principles and practices. I stress that the Bill ensures that providers of early years education such as Montessori schools will retain the flexibility, built into the foundation stage curriculum guidance, to plan learning experiences that are appropriate to the needs of the children, families and communities with whom they work.

Amendment No. 40, which is the same as one tabled in Committee and on Report, is about whether Ofsted and the QCA are prepared to recognise existing Montessori qualifications from any of the Montessori awarding bodies in the UK. I recognise that some people in the Montessori world believe that the essence of their training might be lost if they had to shoehorn their provisions into the requirements of the national framework. Those fears are misplaced.

First, I reiterate my support for Montessori education in this country. It has provided a distinctive ethos that has benefited thousands if not millions of children who have passed through Montessori nurseries over the years. We welcome the contribution that Montessori nurseries bring to the early years sector. We do not want them to be excluded in any way.

Secondly, a range of Montessori qualifications have been endorsed by the Early Years National Training Organisation and are currently acceptable to Ofsted as meeting the requirements of the national standards for day care. The regulation of childcare by Ofsted is essential to ensure that parents can trust the safety and quality of provision. That regulation needs to respect the unique qualities of Montessori education. However, it is not appropriate for Montessori or any other approach to stand outside these frameworks. We have struck the right balance and by working with the Montessori sector we can continue to do so.

I have a list of 37 Montessori qualifications that have been mapped at various levels for the purpose of guiding Ofsted inspectors and day care providers on what is needed to comply with the national standards. That should reassure those who fear that their Montessori qualifications somehow do not count.

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I have said that we shall review the national standards next year when we look again at the criteria that will guide Ofsted's decisions on day care registration. We have no intention of revising the national standards in a way that would disregard the valuable experience that Montessori professionals bring to the early years sector or endanger the ethos or viability of the Montessori sector.

We are involved in a dialogue with the QCA, Ofsted and other organisations about the longer term—in particular about how to encourage a situation in which the national qualifications framework contains the comprehensive and inclusive range of early years and childcare qualifications. We are pleased that Montessori has been exploring with the QCA how best to ensure that people with its qualifications might be covered by the framework and that discussions are continuing. We want to encourage participation to achieve the outcome of a national qualifications framework that rationalises the plethora of qualifications and is acceptable to the sector as a whole. I welcome the way in which the various Montessori organisations have come together to work with the QCA. There is great value to the Montessori movement and to the early years and childcare sector in general in working together to develop qualifications that are part of a recognised framework.

In summary, I reiterate that we applaud the work of the many Montessori nurseries across the country. We welcome the work that the various Montessori groups are doing with the QCA and others to bring their qualifications into the framework. More than that, I emphasise again that under the current national standards that Ofsted applies in its early years function a range of Montessori qualifications are acceptable to meet the qualifications requirement.

Amendment No. 41 was also tabled on Report. I understand the noble Baroness's wish to ensure that the special characteristics of Montessori education are respected. The amendment is not necessary and it is not appropriate to limit QCA's power in relation to a specific awarding body in that way.

The amendment primarily addresses the new power to direct, although it also touches on the conditions under which the QCA accredits qualifications. The power to direct is concerned only with accredited qualifications. It is designed to ensure the effective delivery of qualifications and the interests of learners expecting to take them if there has been a failure or a serious risk of failure by the awarding body. The power can be exercised only if an awarding body is failing to comply with a condition of accreditation. If a qualification has been accredited, clearly the awarding body must have agreed to conditions on accreditation. The power to direct was designed simply to ensure compliance with those conditions.

It is not appropriate to tie the QCA's hands in the eventuality that at some point one or more Montessori organisations successfully seek accreditation and then fail to comply with the conditions that they have agreed to meet. For those reasons, it is important that the QCA is able to use its power. We should trust its professional and impartial judgment.

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I understand that some people in the Montessori world have worries, but they are misplaced. I am confident that the QCA will act professionally and with due regard to the unique attributes of Montessori provision in exercising its power. There is an open and constructive dialogue between the QCA, Ofsted and the Montessori awarding body, which will continue until a mutually acceptable way forward has been found. These discussions are promising. I shall write to the noble Baroness if she wants to know how they are progressing. I also commit to keep close to the issue and to keep the noble Baroness firmly in touch as we move towards what I am sure will be a satisfactory conclusion. On that basis, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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