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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, will the funding by and to local authorities be on a sufficiently long-term basis to attract staff to this job as a career—to offer them a sufficiently long contract to make it interesting for them to settle in, learn the job properly, and have
 
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a spirit and atmosphere of teamwork within the group? If not, we shall get short-term staff who will not be the best people.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I support my noble friend on Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 to Clause 43. I simply want to ask a question that the Minister may or may not be able to answer at the moment. When discussing such training, people often say, "Will it mean that there are fewer hours available for staff to interact with children? There are not enough staff already to cover the hours with children". That was said of teachers some time ago in the education system. We are now in the same system and, as we look for closer relationships, I wonder whether the Minister has made any comparison between teachers and early years staff, and how Baker days, training budgets and staff supervision programmes in education for teachers might be some example for early years workers.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, noble Lords have been concerned that the duty in Clause 6 could somehow lead to a dilution of quality in childcare provision. There is no intention whatever to dilute quality. Indeed, all the measures that we have in place on childcare seek to improve the quality of provision generally. On the sustainability of funding, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I cannot give a commitment on the precise levels of funding that we or a future government would provide in spending reviews. However, we will certainly not be reducing the baseline outlays that have already been made available for the core under-fives provision. I think that that gives local authorities and providers for the under-fives capacity to recruit on a long-term basis. That course is essential to underpinning quality.

As I explained in Committee, provisions and levers are in place to ensure that the quality of childcare is not compromised. These include the early years foundation stage which will set out a single framework for high-quality childcare from birth up to age five. The consultation on EYFS, which was published after the Grand Committee and which I have made available to noble Lords, sets out clearly the quality standards that we expect providers to meet and against which Ofsted will inspect. For provision for children over the age of five, the Ofsted childcare register will also require providers to meet specific quality standards, including staff qualification levels and adult-to-child ratio requirements.

Putting such a requirement in Clause 6 would not only duplicate the existing role of Ofsted—a duplication which would be undesirable—but return us to the position before Ofsted took on the role of childcare inspection in 2001, when each local authority made its own judgments on quality and standards were not consistent across the country. We have taken this approach precisely to ensure uniform national standards through the early years foundation stage and through Ofsted—the national inspectorates' duty to inspect—rather than leaving it to the discretion of 150 separate local authorities nationwide.
 
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In addition, the assessment of sufficiency of childcare that local authorities will be required to carry out under Clause 11 will not only assess parents' requirements regarding the quantity of childcare but also look at the quality of that childcare. The regulations and guidance underpinning the duty in Clause 11 will make clear that local authorities must consider the types and features of the childcare that parents require. The link in Clause 6 to parents' need for childcare that is eligible for tax credits also reinforces the local authority's responsibility to secure sufficient availability of quality childcare, because only childcare that adheres to the standards for registration by Ofsted will be eligible for tax credits.

Amendment No. 15 seeks to require local authorities to have regard to quality when undertaking the assessment process. Some weeks ago I circulated to the House a policy paper on the duty to assess the childcare market which makes clear that local authorities will have to assess parents' requirements for childcare and compare that to the current availability and suitability of childcare in order to identify the gaps that need to be filled.

On the subject of quality, I entirely accept all that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said about the vital importance of high-quality and continuous training of those in the under-fives workforce. His Amendment No. 31 seeks to give the Secretary of State power to require all childcare settings to close on a regular basis for protected time for staff development. His second amendment would give the Secretary of State power to require that all staff in childcare settings have staff development opportunities. We are extremely sympathetic to the objectives of both amendments. In particular, we would seek to ensure through all that we are doing that the second objective is met—that staff in childcare settings have development opportunities. Staff are the key factor to ensuring that children's experience is of the highest quality. I therefore entirely share the noble Earl's ambition to secure clear opportunities and time for staff development and adequate supervision.

We share the amendment's objective of having professionals working together and being able to develop their practice together—the amendment's aim in providing for the closure of settings. We strongly share that objective, which is set out in The Early Years Foundation Stage. For example, one of the requirements, on page 13 of the document, is that:

Elsewhere, the document states:

So it will not be possible to deliver EYFS effectively without practitioners spending time together to reflect on both the progress being made and the needs of individual children. Good settings make time for this routinely, including the Thomas Coram Centre—the noble Earl brought its director to see me—and all settings will have to meet these requirements. As
 
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I explained to the noble Earl when we met, we intend that the guidance that we put out, including a CD-ROM that we are developing for the benefit of leavers from under-fives settings, will set out the best practice available in this area so that all settings can learn from it.

When Ofsted inspects, it also has to make an assessment of the quality of the leadership and management of a setting and how that contributes to outcomes for children. Clause 50(1)(d) explicitly states that this will be carried forward into the new system, requiring reports to include information on,

When Ofsted inspects provision, it talks extensively to the practitioners present and the manager, and these conversations include the subjects of supervision and support—for instance, what the manager does in order to help staff to improve. That will be part of the Ofsted process as well.

When we come to develop the EYFS materials that we put out to early years settings, we will want to make references to the supervision of staff and training, and we will seek to ensure that they are in place. However, it may not be appropriate to use a simple measure of non-contact times. As I believe the noble Earl recognises, that could be one of several good-practice ways of meeting the needs of staff. He knows, because we discussed this in the context of the Thomas Coram Centre, that a very long process of preparation and consultation took place in that centre before it established its arrangements for staff training, including—I thought that this was telling—the provision of crèche facilities so that parents of children were not left with no provision whatever when the main professional staff were engaged in professional development. The noble Earl accepted that it is important that those arrangements are in place so that the provision of development opportunities for staff is not at the expense of parents, who, of course, these settings exist to serve.

I mentioned the transformation fund in our earlier debates but this is the first time that it has been mentioned on Report; it appeared continuously in Grand Committee and I am sure that it will make many more appearances in future discussions. From that fund, the £250 million that is available between 2006 and 2008 is a key part of our policy to raise the quality of provision. Elements of the fund may—I stress this in response to the noble Earl—certainly be used to support development time. The quality premium of £5,000 per setting per year is to be awarded to full daycare settings employing or recruiting graduate level professional leaders. At least half of this is to be spent on continuous professional development for all staff in such settings, with a particular focus on preparing for the early years foundation stage. That fund, too, will help to support professional development.

I should stress that settings will be free to use that funding as they wish so long as it meets overall staff development aims. That may well include, for example, paying staff who attend meetings set aside for
 
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staff development after normal working hours. We are clear that decisions on how to spend the quality premium must be left to local discretion.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 8 and 12. Clause 13 gives local authorities duties and powers to provide information, advice and training to childcare businesses, to help them to be of high quality and sustainable. The statutory guidance that we publish under that clause will reinforce those points and will remind local authorities that it will often be more cost-effective to sustain existing provision than to launch a new provider, and it will also help quality standards to be reached.

5 pm

On the subject of accessibility, in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, raised some specific concerns on the issue of transport. I understand that for many families, particularly those in rural communities, transport and accessibility are crucial factors in deciding whether to use childcare. In meeting their duties under Clauses 6 and 11, local authorities will have to consider, and put in place, the most effective ways of securing childcare. They will have the flexibility to provide transport—for example, a village bus to take families to providers—if they feel that that is the most appropriate way of meeting local needs. I make it absolutely clear that if childcare is not accessible, that is not sufficient under the terms of the Bill and, as such, local authorities will not be fulfilling their legal duties.

I turn, finally, to the issue of affordability, which I know has been a key concern of noble Lords on all sides of the House. Putting the word "affordable" into the Bill could be interpreted in a number of different ways and would mean different things to different families. Many factors need to be taken into account when assessing affordability. These can include family income levels, the age of the child, different work patterns and personal preferences, as well as the costs to providers of running sustainable childcare businesses, and those factors will vary according to local circumstances.

I am sure that the way we have set out the duty in Clause 6, requiring local authorities to secure sufficient childcare which is eligible under the childcare element of the working tax credit, addresses the issue of affordability consistently across the country. In 2005–06, the level of investment in the childcare element of the working tax credit was more than £2.4 million a day, benefiting 356,000 families. Tax credit levels increased again this year, which means that the maximum proportion of childcare costs that parents can claim back has risen from 70 per cent to 80 per cent.

In addition to subsidising the cost of childcare through tax credits, this Government also provide 12.5 hours a week of free early education and care for all three and four year-olds, irrespective of the employment or financial status of their parents. There are, of course, areas such as London where the cost of childcare is particularly high. That is why we are
 
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undertaking a pilot programme with the London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority to deliver an additional 10,000 childcare places for families on lower incomes.

Amendment No. 10 would require local authorities to have specific regard to workless households when considering the sufficiency of childcare provision within their area—a concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. As my noble friend Lady Crawley made clear during Grand Committee, high-quality childcare can make an important and valuable contribution to improving the outcomes for all children, including those in workless households. Although we entirely sympathise with the intentions behind this amendment, we believe that we are already doing a great deal to improve the outcomes of children in workless households. Given all the pressures of costs and the other duties that we are placing on local authorities, we do not believe that this would be an appropriate new duty to impose on them.

Perhaps I may quickly summarise the steps we have taken that will benefit workless households. First, there is the existing duty to secure sufficient free nursery provision, to which I have already referred. All three and four years-olds are entitled to that provision, regardless of whether their parents are employed. Secondly, the introduction of the early years foundation stage will deliver high-quality integrated education and care in early years provision for all young children.

Thirdly, the childcare duty already includes the need to secure sufficient childcare to enable parents to "take up work"; it does not relate only to those who are employed. For many workless households—particularly those headed by lone parents—the availability of suitable affordable childcare makes a key difference in the decision on whether to return to work, but this is covered in the current wording of the Bill.

Fourthly, in assessing demand for childcare, local authorities will need to look at the complete picture. In order to identify gaps in childcare that are obstacles to employment, authorities will be under a duty to consult parents as part of their assessment of the market in their area—a duty which will be set out in regulations under Clause 11. Statutory guidance will make it clear that it will be vital to include unemployed parents as part of the consultation on how local authorities will meet their duties under Clause 11.

Where there are gaps in provision that local authorities believe they should seek to fill, including gaps in provision of childcare for workless households, Clause 8 provides local authorities with all the powers necessary to support childcare provision in any way that may be needed to fill those gaps regardless of whether they relate to workless families or other families. I hope I have provided sufficient reassurance to the noble Baroness and that she may feel able to withdraw her amendment.


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